Whenever I hear playwrights tell me they worked (for example) all weekend long and wrote the first draft of a new play, I get mad. I know I should be more patient, but in this regard (as in, sadly, too many others) patience doesn’t come easily to me. All weekend long? I can barely turn an incoherent idea for a play into a modestly coherent first few lines in a weekend. A first draft usually takes me at least six months. And that’s just a first draft: nothing I’d consider ready for production.
In a similar vein, I’ve also heard playwrights claim to be able to finish two, three, or even four plays in a single year—not on one miraculous occasion, mind you, but year after year after year. I find this unfathomable. When I hear artistic directors and literary managers complain that the plays they read aren’t really finished, I think: some playwrights may not be exerting enough pressure on their work.
Now… I may be a bit slower than most playwrights, but I want to offer one counter-example to the culture of quick creation I’ve been seeing: the six-and-a-half-year path my play THE BUTCHER has taken… so far. I say “so far” because the play has not yet been produced… and I expect to keep developing it a while longer before it is.
The life of THE BUTCHER began with a grant application filed in January of 2007. (Which means, now that I think about it, that I must have started considering the play in 2006… so let’s make this a seven-year path.) My collaborator and I, Merry Alderman, labored over that application, meeting to review and redraft it several times as the idea for what we then called The Butcher Project began to take shape.
THE BUTCHER’s good fortune began when Merry and I learned that Cultural DC approved our somewhat unique request to participate in its Mead Theatre Lab program. Our proposed project—which they later kindly extended, at our request, into a second year—gave us (among other great things) space in which to do some serious long-form devising work. Merry and I worked with six actors and a dramaturg every Monday night for about 18 months, starting in the fall of 2007, improvising and reading rough drafts of scenes and working beats over and over and over again. In the spring of 2009, when we were “done” with our first draft, we did two public readings to conclude our the project… but not, of course, the development of the play.
In fact, the script we had at the end of our devising process promptly went into a folder on my hard drive and, well, rested for a while. I think I knew, subconsciously, that I needed time away from the story… which I also knew, subconsciously, still wasn’t there yet.
About a year later, I started noodling around with it again… and then in early 2011, I began a new draft in earnest, having finally separated myself thoroughly enough from the voices in the devising room, helpful though they had been. These were major re-writes: I restructured the entire play, cut a character, and added a raft of new material. But still, I knew: the play wasn’t there. Yet. Another rest.
In late 2011, knowing I needed help to take THE BUTCHER farther, I submitted the script to the Great Plains Theatre Conference. When I found out I was accepted, I did yet another draft in advance of my trip to Omaha in the summer of 2012… and while I was there I did further revisions, working over the course of a few hours of rehearsal with a new crop of actors. After a public reading at the end of the conference, I was energized: the reaction of the audience made it clear I was finally getting somewhere. Getting, however, not gotten. I still had work to do.
And work I did. I came out of that conference and did a new draft with some significant revisions before submitting the play to yet another development program: The Theatre Project in NY. When the play was accepted, as with Great Plans, I started to poke at it a bit… and then after an initial reading in February of 2013—as well as a reading at Theater J in DC shortly thereafter—I made yet more significant changes. In April of 2013, The Theatre Project did a three-day workshop production of the new script… and, yes, I learned yet more about what I’d written.
Enough to create yet ANOTHER draft and submit it to the Gulfshore Playhouse New Works Festival, where I’m taking the play for a week-long workshop and reading this coming August. Yes, I plan to make revisions again before that workshop; I’ve had a great conversation with my director that I think might really help me address one intractable problem I’ve been dealing with, and I’ve also been doing additional research to address yet another question. My hope—sincerely—is that by the time I finish that workshop, THE BUTCHER will at long last be ready for a production… during which process, I can assure you, I’ll expect to make further revisions, because that’s how I generally roll.
In sum, five institutions have (so far) supported the development of THE BUTCHER:
- Cultural DC
- Great Plains Theatre Conference
- The Theatre Project
- Theater J
- Gulfshore Playhouse
And the history of that development, roughly speaking, looks like this:
- 2006-2007: research and grant application prep
- 2007-2009: devising, drafting, revision, readings
- 2010-2011: revisions
- 2012: workshop, reading, revisions
- 2013: readings, revisions, workshop production, revisions, workshop, reading, revisions
And when that’s all said and done, not before, I’ll start sharing it in earnest with a few people who might like to produce it.
Do I think this is an ideal path to production? Honestly, I don’t know for sure, but I think (given the current state of our theatrical ecosystem) that it might be. I mean… if I hadn’t had to cobble together resources from so many different partners (all of whom, I should note, have my gratitude), I might have had more time to write. But playwrights always have to do that, at least until there’s some sort of revolution, so… I did.
Still: I share this one play’s path not to put it out as a model to be followed. I know some (successful) art does take shape more swiftly than THE BUTCHER has. I share it instead to help playwrights understand how much labor one can sometimes expend on the making of art. A new play doesn’t have to come either easily or quickly… though I fear it may seem that way in the hurry-up-get-it-done world in which we all currently live.
And perhaps some plays should take more time to develop. Perhaps if more of our plays were significant, years-long undertakings, they would seem more magnificent and meaningful to the people who review and consider them. Perhaps if our plays arrived in theaters’ in-boxes with epic origin stories behind them, they’d be taken more seriously.
And perhaps we would, too.