The Non-Expert

Illustration by Jennifer Daniel

How to Become a Playwright

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we attempt to help a young thespian realize his misinformed dreams.

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.

 

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Question: I’m interested in becoming a playwright; any tips or suggestions? What program would be best for me? Keep up the good work! Alex

Answer: Before you go and do something rash and foolish, ask yourself: Do you really want to be a playwright? Well, obviously you want to be a “playwright,” but do you actually want to write plays? It’s tedious, solitary work with little reward. You will struggle for years in self-imposed isolation on the greatest musical drama about rollerskating cats in the hopes that at least your mother will show up on opening night, and even then she will strain to make a compliment like, “That was nice, but did you have to use so many swears?”

Did she not even notice the heart and soul you poured into this masterpiece? That you insisted on real pig’s blood for the carnal orgy scenes? That you hid references to Hamlet, Henry the Fifth, and Tuesdays with Morrie even the actors missed? Every play you ever mount will be like this, and each one will be worse than the last.

Considering all of that struggle and toil, think to yourself, “Do I still want to bother with the whole tedious business of actually writing the damn thing?” You could easily just show up at ritzy gala balls with a beret and a cigarette holder claiming to be the heir apparent to Tennessee Williams and nobody would be the wiser. If they ask why they’ve never heard of you, it’s because they’re uncultured. Then jam a quill pen in their eye, shout Vive la Révolution!, and urinate in the closest porcelein vase. Trust me, it feels good.

Now if you happen to run into a wealthy dowager looking for a grantmaking opportunity at one of these events and you need a little paper in hand just to seal the deal, here’s a trick I picked up at one of Julien Beck’s happenings. Grab the longest thing you’ve ever written—say, a college essay on post-structuralism—and do a little reformatting. For example, here’s the beginning to a college essay I wrote for a class on deviant sociology:

Societal Norms and Social Evolutionary Strategy
What society has been using to separate out social classes by popularity is essentially a de post facto evolutionary strategy to accomplish its subconscious objective of inverting actualized goals towards more group-based hive mind intentions.

Talk about your tortured logic. Now let’s work in a little theatrical magic:

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

AGNES Female, mid-thirties, virulent, spit-fired temptress who longs to live in a lighthouse on a Norwegian archipelago.

SCENE I

1. A dirty, industrial building on the wrong side of the college housing complex. Three in the morning.

AGNES cowers in a blanket around a typewriter trying to get to the 1000 word requirement for her Social Deviancy class essay. She looks up from the typewriter in agony and turns to the audience to speak.

AGNES

What society has been using to separate out social classes by popularity is essentially a de post facto evolutionary strategy to accomplish its subconscious objective of inverting actualized goals towards more group-based hive mind intentions.


And there you go. Gripping stuff. It’s got character, it’s got struggle. It’s a little short on physicality, but that’s something for the director to work out. Put that script in somebody’s hand and they’ll feel the weight. I usually pad it out with a couple reams of scrap paper I find around the printer at work just to make it that much more intimidating.

But that just gets you entrance into being a playwright, even a paid playwright, while skipping the wrought. You’ll still have to contend with the worst menace to aspiring playwrights: other playwrights. These crusty, lecherous attention whores can really stand in the way of your own crusty, lecherous attention whoring. And some of them may be using the same tricks. If you’re the third person submitting an “Angry Letter to a Collection Agency” soliloquy to a one-act competition, you better hope that yours ends with a threat of violence to all three credit bureaus in iambic pentameter to have any chance of standing out. Really push the creative envelope if you can. I once ended a phone call from a telemarketer with “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” and I’m pretty sure I heard clapping on the other end. I was then able to turn the transcribed argument into an off-off-Broadway production starring Shelly Duvall. In my mind.

Follow this advice and you’re sure to fulfill your dreams of Broadway stardom in no time, without all of the trifling effort and emotional sacrifice.Some people will tell you that the best way to learn about being a pseudo-thespian poet is to see lots of plays. I’m not one of those people. Seeing a play written by somebody else is the last thing you should do. Why support the competition? Maybe if you want to sit in the front row and sarcastically point out minor flaws in the staging, sure, but there are stronger methods of discouragement available. With a little legwork and some gossip, you can get a whisper campaign hinting that the production has been a shambles and half the cast is ready to walk. Mention something about grueling work conditions and a script swimming in racial caricatures and you could have an empty house in no time. Failing that, it’s easy enough to pull the fire alarm during the first act.

Follow this advice and you’re sure to fulfill your dreams of Broadway stardom in no time, without all of the trifling effort and emotional sacrifice. Then maybe down the line you can exchange that cultural currency for a bus ride uptown. As for myself, I horde cheese cubes and carrot sticks from opening night parties. Eventually, I’ll have enough to stage my masterpiece, without the burden of actors, in a theater of crudité. Then we’ll see who the true genius is.