Thanks, but No Thanks: All This "Help" Is Hurting Playwrights

By Nelson, Richard | American Theatre, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Thanks, but No Thanks: All This "Help" Is Hurting Playwrights


Nelson, Richard, American Theatre


I think this will be the first "speech" I have ever given; 56 years old, and I've managed to escape giving a speech until now. I suppose I never thought it was my "thing." I love hearing what I write spoken by others, not myself. But things change; we change.

I remember when I became a father for the first time. Suddenly I found within me an ability to fight for my child in ways that I could never have fought for myself.

A year and a half ago I began teaching young emerging talented playwrights at the Yale School of Drama. Tonight I want to talk about issues that are important to them--and to me and, I believe, to all American playwrights--but mostly to them. I suppose it is because of them, and because of the hundreds of playwrights whose work I now read each year, that I feel the need, the passion, but more importantly the responsibility to discuss the state of our profession with you tonight.

So much has happened to the profession of playwriting since I had my first professional production in 1975. And so much of what has happened has not been good for play wrights.

The profession of playwright, the role of the playwright in today's American theatre, I believe, is under serious attack. Some who attack are simply greedy; some are ignorant; some can't understand why theatre isn't TV or film. But perhaps the greatest threat to the playwright in today's theatre comes not from the greedy and ignorant, but rather from those who want to "help."

"Playwrights are in need of help." This is now almost a maxim in our theatre today. Unquestioned. A given. But where does this mindset--for that is what it is, a mindset--come from? Of course playwrights need things; money, productions, support, encouragement. So do actors, directors, designers, artistic directors. But this mindset is different, because what is meant here is: Playwrights are in need of help--to write their plays. They are in need of help--to do their work. They can't do their work themselves.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

How strange. What other profession is viewed in this way? What other person in the theatre is viewed this way? Imagine hiring, say, a director, with the assumption that he couldn't do his work himself. Now, I am not saying that a director shouldn't listen to others, receive notes, be open to discussions and so forth. Quite the opposite, for this is all part of what a director does. And I am not saying a playwright shouldn't listen to notes, be open to discussions and so forth--because this is what a playwright does. What I am saying is that the given mindset should not be that the playwright cannot be trusted to lead this process, cannot be trusted to know how to work within the collaboration of theatre.

Nor am I talking about mentoring or educating young playwrights. I'm talking about how our professional theatre looks at playwrights and the playwright's play--about assumptions made, and about the various specific solutions theatres make based on these false assumptions.

What is really being said to the playwright by all the help? From the playwright's perspective it is this: that what a playwright writes, no matter how much he or she works on it, rewrites it at his or her desk, the play will always not be right--will always need "help." In other words, writing a play is too big of a job for just the playwright to achieve. This, I believe, is now a prevalent attitude in the American theatre. And this mindset is devastating.

[Playwright and artistic director] Emily Mann told me the other day that in her 17 years running the McCarter Theatre Center, the greatest change has been that now more and more plays are submitted that are obviously unfinished. Writers today recognize that if they wish to participate in a process that perhaps will lead to the production of their work, this will require rewriting and revision, guided and cajoled by others. So why finish anything? …

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