Michael Kinghorn

Playwrights’ best advantage: pointers for preparing for workshop

In discussing the play development workshop experience, I’m referring to workshops that are not contractually bound to a scheduled production by a professional theater.  Also, I’m talking about work that starts and ends with a script created by a single playwright.  Devised, improvised, or company created work functions under different assumptions about script and process and are outside the purview of this article.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Arrive at the workshop with a complete play.  It may be fun to explore your ideas with actors before you finish the first draft.  You may even think it will help you finish it.  But if you haven’t thought through the basic infrastructure of a complete draft, it’s likely that you aren’t ready to make the decisions your workshop collaborators will expect.  Ideally, you want the actors to demonstrate the choices you’ve already made in the script.  That way you can build on the discoveries you make in workshop.

RE: CONNECT TO YOUR WORK PROCESS

Refresh your familiarity with the play before you arrive.  Workshop collaborators will have many questions, and you will want to be ready to respond—even if you don’t have ready answers.  No one does.  It’s useful to put yourself in the world of the play again, because you are in fact still writing it.  It’s easy to forget your thinking on the play if you go into a workshop cold.  Hearing it aloud for the first time is exciting; it can also be jarring.  The stakes go up.  There’s pressure to perform, to have answers and rewrites.  By reconnecting to the world of the play beforehand, you will be ready to answer questions, share and expand your vision.

BRING YOUR OWN AGENDA

I’ve noticed over the years that successful new play workshops happen when the playwright knows what they want out of the experience.  Come to the table with specific questions you want to answer by engaging with collaborators.  I often hear playwrights say: “I want to see what works.”  This strikes me as a bit passive.  Is the story apparent?  Are through-lines of the primary characters active?  Does the conflict sustain our interest?  Does the on-stage logic work as expected?  These are questions you can pose to collaborators and test in workshop.  In turn, the process can identify areas in the script you may want to change.  If you have rewrites in mind, the workshop can corroborate your assumptions or raise new questions.  Either way, the workshop will better serve you if you already have a plan of inquiry.

TO RE OR NOT TO RE-VISE

Understand that it is your workshop collaborators’ job to give you a sense of how your play may sound /function/look on stage.  To that degree, they have a stake in the process too, and want you to succeed.  When actors ask questions, they are not questioning your talent or taste.  They are engaged in the process of creating their roles, as they normally do, based on your text.  It may seem like cheating to divulge the play’s secrets.  You may think the play’s subtleties are meant to be discovered not discussed.  But the more you can inform your collaborators of your intentions, the more they can help you realize your vision of the play for the stage.

That said, the question of how much to revise in workshop is different for every playwright.  Some can turn over dozens of pages overnight.  Others write very little for the duration of the workshop, preferring to take notes, process their discoveries, and write later.  As a playwright, I lean toward the later.  As a dramaturg, I can appreciate the “striking while the iron is hot” approach.  Getting a quick read on new pages while you’ve got actors to do them can certainly drive your process forward in a productive way.

Sometimes, however, the strategy backfires.  When playwrights rewrite based on the stimulation of a workshop, it can lead them down the rabbit hole.   New scenes can go in new directions, while the rest of the play is still a product of the writer’s prior work process.  How do you reconcile the two?  After all, once the workshop is over you may never see the same team of artists again.  And the next team may respond to your text in a completely different way.  Remember:  no matter what kind of experience you have in workshop, you are in charge of your own writing process.  Whether you revise a little or a lot in workshop, you still have to think through your entire play In light of new ideas, insight—and rewrites.

SOUNDING BOARDS

Generally, directors in workshop are concerned with how to play your text effectively—moment by moment.  Actors want to know as much as they can about their characters to make acting choices appropriate to your vision of the play.  Dramaturgs have the advantage of detachment.  Consequently, as a dramaturg, I add a broader perspective, sometimes serving as a surrogate audience member, sometimes offering practical analysis.  It depends on what the playwright wants and needs.

You can take advantage of your collaborators’ talents by actively engaging them in workshop.  If your director is available to discuss your play with you beforehand, take advantage of it.  Set goals for the workshop.  Be prepared to answer actor’s questions about the characters.  The more you can tell them, the better they can model your text for you.

Granted, it’s a big job to field all the questions that come up in workshop.  Engage your dramaturg in conversation about how s/he can help you sort your feedback.  Most dramaturgs I know are happy to help you keep track of it.  In past workshops, I’ve tracked the dramatic arc of specific characters for the playwright.  I’ve identified opportunities in the text to address particular scene dynamics.  I’ve even prioritized characters in a large cast play with multiple plot continuities.  Ask your dramaturg how s/he can help you manage the flow of workshop information and discoveries.

SUMMING UP

New play workshops are fun, exciting, often surprising, sometimes overwhelming.  At their best, they can be a turning point on a play’s journey toward production.  To prepare, know as much as you can about how your play functions on stage.  Come to the workshop with your own strategy of inquiry.  Understand that to do their job your collaborators in workshop will probably ask questions you haven’t considered—and that’s a good thing.  Typically, your collaborators are more interested in discovering your play than judging it.  You will probably gain more by embracing that spirit of discovery than resisting it.  The more you can share your process with your collaborators, the more they can model your play for you.

About the author
Michael Kinghorn
Michael Kinghorn is a playwright, dramaturg and theater educator. Michael has directed the literary departments of The Guthrie Theater, Arena Stage, and The Alliance Theatre.  He has taught playwriting or acting at AMDA, Connecticut College, the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, Bethesda Writers’ Center, and the Playwrights’ Center. Michael currently serves as a Faculty Mentor in Playwriting for the MFA Writing Program at the University of Nebraska, Omaha and he lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Michael’s plays include: Calling Doctor Kildare, Limited Partnership, Ltd., Personal Surveillance, P.G., The Meanwhile Figure; Adaptations: Intimations for Saxophone, Lizanka, Enemies, Never Give a Lady a Restive Horse; Translations: Black Orpheus, Death on the Mud & In Pieces, Thief of Women.