Most script-writing workshops in the theater world work pretty much the same way. First you work alone for weeks or months, crafting and revising. Only then can you get feedback to help polish a draft into a final script. The Tennessee Repertory Theater’s version flips that process on its head. The four writers in its New Works Lab have been giving and getting feedback since their ideas were new.
Starting From Scratch
The timing of it all is important: they started giving notes on each other’s plays so early in the writing process that nobody was married to a particular idea or line of dialogue. There was still time to experiment.
Before he’d even completed a full draft, Jeremy Sony found himself challenged by his colleagues: “why does he have to be a man?” Andrew Kramer asked about one key character. “What if she had a different profession?” It took more than a month and several pro and con lists to make up his mind, but Sony seemed energized by the process of playing around with the different ideas spurred on by that simple question.
The four men also picked the brains of the Rep’s staff from a very early stage. Production designers talked them through how a company would approach constructing the set and costumes. With each draft of the script, actors gathered in a room to bring the words to life and ask questions of their own.
Getting The Details Right
Nate Eppler’s play is a good example of how all that input helps. His main character, Frank, is a military veteran and a police officer. As the curtain rises, he’s on leave and awaiting trial for shooting an unarmed teenager who haunts him, quite literally.
Eppler says a lot of the discussion early on was about just what kind of ghost she is. Can she touch things? If he shoots a gun at her, where do the bullets go? Those details might sound small, but as Eppler says, “it’s great to be able to put yourself in a situation where you’re getting asked those questions, so by the time you put it in front of an audience they’re not getting lost in, ‘what are the rules of the ghost?’”
What’s more, developing the play in the group meant he could dig all the more carefully into uncomfortable ideas like death, guilt, and PTSD. He knew he could always rely on the others to let him know how any given scene, any line comes across.
In all, the group put nine months into working together. The end results aren’t necessarily fully polished scripts–although they’re getting close to the point of being ready for shopping around to theater companies in hopes of scheduling a fully-staged production.
Over the next week, the last step, staged readings in front of an audience, will bring yet another round of feedback and possibly more revisions. After all, as Dean Poyner says, “plays are big things and you can’t solve everything at once.”