7 Ways to Workshop

Posted by [email protected] on March 13, 2015 at 1:25 AM

I've recently finished taking advantage of an amazing opportunity given to me through my internship with Northwest Playwrights Alliance. Bryan Willis invited me to sit in on the workshop rehearsal for his new play, Seven Ways to Get There. It is a play about group therapy- an incredibly difficult script to write, as Bryan was juggling seven different very involved stories of quite distinct characters. Making it a cohesive whole was no mean feat. He also had the challenge of creating a female therapist leading an all male group, who had enough, shall we say, balls, to hold her own and not become a device. The actress in that role helped a great deal in its development, Bryan told me. He managed to meet all these challenges and the end result was a beautiful piece of art; stories clashing into each other, overlapping. Characters healing, hurting, changing each other through their own successes and failures. Bryan earned the review that called him a genius.

I got to not only watch Bryan develop this, but see the actors and director shaping and enriching the play as well. What a privilege to watch these seasoned professionals work! The amount of talent in the room was humbling. Not only were the actors brilliant, but the director, John Lang, is one of the hottest directors in town. As a recent student of directing, I couldn't have been more excited to watch him work. The entire experience was beyond what I'd thought I'd be getting to do less than a year out of college. "Do" of course is overstating my role in this process, which was sitting in a chair in the corner trying to stay out of the way. Do you realize how sore you get from spending six hours trying not to move? A minor annoyance that was more than worth it, though. I learned valuable information about the playwright's role in a workshop. It is much more stressful than I'd imagined! I watched Bryan sit behind his computer editing even as the actors played the scene. He spent many days sitting out of rehearsal to write, often spent lunches in front of the computer, and rewrote up to three scenes in one night. As he had about a two hour commute at the end of the day, this must have taken its toll. I hadn't realized playwrights had to be so hardy! All the while, Bryan gave me bits of seasoned playwright wisdom that I gratefully logged away. One was on the importance of standing up for your script. No one will do that for you, and while listening to comments is important, there comes a time when you must be hard-nosed so the script remains your script. I learned that playwrights are the only theatre professionals who don't have a union. Actors, stage managers, even lightboard opperators all have their own unions. But playwrights are on their own. There is the dramatist guild, but this isn't a union like actors equity. What that amounts to is that it's up to the playwright him/herself to ensure the script is treated with respect, not changed without their consent, and that the playwright is treated with respect as well. This is going to be a challenge for me, who enjoys writing partially because you spend quite a bit of time working alone, with no conflicts. It will be an adventure when I start into my own workshop.

Speaking of my workshop, Bryan was kind enough to sit down at lunch with me one day and talk about how that process begins. He gave me practical advice on how to lay the groudwork, namely, what to discuss with the director. There were little things I wouldn't have even thought of until we were into the workshop, like, is the playwright going to be allowed to talk to the actors, or should everything go through the director? I can see how a simple thing like that could easily cause tension in the room. And tension is a great enemy of creativity.

Back to the topic of comments, I learned just how important a thick skin is in playwriting. During table work every bit of the scipt was scrutinized, right down to individual lines, that may be only a few words long. In depth conversations about charcter motivations and needs, and big picture conversations about character arcs and what the scene accomplishes were part of the table work. While actors and director did not pull their punches, the whole atmosphere was constructive. On criticism of your work, Bryan has told me something that will stick with me for years to come: Listen only to the comments that help you tell the story better. Anything that doesn't help is not worth your time. I have experienced both kinds of comments. If you listen to the comments coming from those who want to find something wrong, or want you to tell a different story, you are bound to be discouraged and question your talent. If you listen to the first kind of comments, however, you will be inspired and grow. The trick is telling the difference.

Other various things I learned through this experience:

  • Taco Del Mar makes excellent quesadillas. And they sell brownies. A good place.
  • ACT actually has over seven stories. I didn't know theatres got that tall! 
  • Viewpoints is a bit of a joke in some professional circles. Having just taken directing from a professor who loves viewpoints, and taught me to love it, too, this came as a surprise, and made me a bit sad.
  • Good luck finding parking when there is a convention in town. (ACT is right next to the Seattle Convention Center.)
  • Despite the colored walkways and arrows, the Convention Center parking garage is a fairly easy place in which to get lost. 
  • Professional actors are hard core. They rehearsed six hours a day, six days a week, and came in memorized on scenes they'd just gotten the day before. I thought I was a quick study, but they put me to shame.
  • Finally, the perks of knowing the playwright: To see the play, I paid for the cheap seats (the good seats started at about sixty dollars). I had yet to sit down when Bryan found me, said "these seats won't do," and took me and several other friends of his to about the fourth row at the best angle (the show was in the round). 
The Monday after the show closed, I packed a suitcase and flew off to Colorado for a writer's retreat. Another opportunity I will write about next time!

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