I had a fascinating couple of days this week.  The director of CurvingRoad‘s next production, two actors and I locked ourselves in the Old Red Lion Theatre and workshopped Dig, one of the two plays we will be presenting in June.  As far as I’m concerned, workshopping your play is as crucial as sitting down to write it in the first place.  I wrote about last year’s workshop of my own play here and this was when I really began to appreciate how different writing for the stage is from all the other sorts of writing I do.  It’s absolutely true that the playwright is just one of the people involved in creating the piece.  The initial ideas, characters and words may come from us, but the depth behind what we first write down comes from the director and actors. It really is a sort of alchemy, and it’s fascinating to watch.
   Directors have many different ways of “discovering” a play.  This week with Dig, it was really an exercise in archaeology. Ellie, the director, first had the actors read the script in its entirety.  Then she asked them to go back to the beginning, and every time there seemed to be a change – a shift in tone, in voice, in the relationship between the characters – we would stop.  That section became it’s own individual unit and the following questions were asked: what is each character trying to achieve in this unit? How is he going about it? What active verb can we find to describe what he is doing or how he is feeling?  And then, based on these minutiae, a “title” was given to the unit.  It was amazing to see how interactions change between sections, even between lines.  By the time we had slowly, painstakingly worked our way through most of the script, we had discovered the back story, themes, relationships, motivations.  As a writer it was fascinating to see how the subconscious workings of the playwright could be revealed and how those revelations work to flesh out a play.
  Over the course of this scrutiny, we found one section which hadn’t even been written.  It was there lurking behind the lines waiting to be brought out, but it just hadn’t been put into words yet.  How often as writers do we find that in early drafts we roam around the edges of an idea without coming out and writing it?  I know I  do it all the time.  Ellie asked the actors to improvise that section based on all that we had discovered about the characters thus far.  She didn’t want them to worry about the specific words they used.  She didn’t even want them to act.  She wanted them to interact in character, and like magic, the entire play opened up.  I feel like I’m struggling to describe what it was like.  I used the word “alchemy” before, and I think that is the best word I can find to describe what happened on that stage.  The director is now going back to the playwright, armed with pages of notes and annotations, and a video of what the actors improvised.  We all know that the next draft of the play can now become even richer and more compelling than the first.
  I think you have to be brave (or a bit crazy) to write for the theatre.  You have to be willing to let others reach inside your heart and brain, fish around and see what they can pull out.  And they often get to do it with you standing right there.  It is very personal and close and as far removed from sitting at your desk alone with your computer as you can get.  It’s not for everyone.  But if you allow yourself to be a part of it, I do believe it can reveal more about you and your writing than most anything else you do.  And that experience can’t help but effect you and all your work, for the better.