The Dramatists Guild of America held the SoCal Symposium on Saturday, Feb. 16,2013, at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, California. The overall themes of the day were collaboration and community. At this event, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to sit down with Garry Garrison, the Executive Director of Creative Affairs for the Dramatists Guild of America.
First and foremost the Dramatist Guild of America protects the rights of dramatists in rehearsal, out of rehearsal, on the stage, out in the world. How little dramatists, or all artists for that matter, know about their rights doesn’t surprise Garrison. As he sees it “there is something that all artists go thru… that there’s our art and there’s our business, and those two things rarely mix because that doesn’t feel like art. That feels like a business.” This only works if you have an accountant, a lawyer, an agent, and a plethora of others around you. How many of us have that?
As theatre people our currency is our intuition. It’s what we mold our craft with. If you’re being told something that doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. The first step is to know your rights. Example: Playwrights have the right to attend the rehearsal of their play in any rehearsal space in this country. If some director is telling you they don’t allow the playwright in the room, it’s up to you to say “that’s my right… you may not want me in the room, but that’s my right.” As the playwright you may not want to be in rehearsal, however that is your decision and no one else’s.
Thru events like the SoCal Symposium, the Dramatists Guild of America seeks to, as Garry Garrison puts it, establish a dramatist community. “Writing is an isolated activity,” and events like this are intended to help dramatists find their tribe. The people who understand why we get up at 2am and wail away at our computers when our significant other’s just can’t wrap their brains around it. He estimates that 90-95% of the people attending did not know each other previously, and encourages them to get coffee and chat, to break bread together.
In our conversation, Mr. Garrison, offered up wise words on the art of collaboration: “Listen to one another, and talk. Don’t leave anything unspoken.” Make sure that you ask all the questions. For starters, “this is what I’m trying to say, do you see that?” Another valuable conversation: “I don’t see what you see. Help me understand what you see.”
In the early afternoon session “The Big D: Development”, Tony Award nominees Kevin Chamberlin and Charlayne Woodard expanded upon this idea of collaboration in terms of the art of developing characters and new works. There was much discussion on the process of work shopping. The consensus was that simplicity and truth are king. Do it with nothing but an empty space and music stands so the playwright can hear the words and rhythm of the piece. Everyone present has an agenda, but always come from a point of truth. Charlayne Woodard relayed Athol Fugard’s sentiment that there should be no notes, no changes until the actors know the characters as well as the playwright does. Give it about three weeks, and they’ll know what the truth is for their character. Kevin Chamberlin notes that as the actor, “you’re the one living in it. If that’s the truth (for the character), you’re right.” If we as playwrights allow the actors to do their characters from their heart, not their mind, the character will be found. Then, and only then can the actor do the technical things the playwright wants. Charlayne Woodard recalled that in early rehearsals for In the Blood, playwright Susan Lori Parks vocalized much frustration over Charlayne’s characterization of Hester’s speech patter. Charlayne finally had to tell Susan Lori Parks that “[Hester] hasn’t spoken yet. I’m telling you she’ll speak in about 8 days.” Guess what happened when Susan Lori Parks returned to rehearsal 8 days later?
For young director’s who have come up on Hollywood, take note: “the best director is an editor.” Learn the play and tell the playwright where it doesn’t work and why. Then discuss where to make the cut. Playwrights always remember that you are the playwright. The work belongs to you.
As Theresa Rebeck bluntly pointed out in the final session of the day, it’s time for playwrights to rise up and claim their identities as authors. The theatre is nothing without a beautiful story. There is an inherent quality about theatre in which ideas move back and forth among the creative team. The director, writer, and stage manager work as a team, where very good trust and communication are a necessity. “The fact is the writer and director are both paid by the producer. If we pay each other for collaboration it all falls apart. We stop being present to each other.”
To paraphrase Theresa Rebeck, the purpose of art is to create community, “where the gift is meant to go is out into the community.” As artists it is imperative that we establish whom theatre is for. The current politics of aesthetics would lead us to believe that “[i]t’s either clubby or Disney. That’s not a healthy understanding of theatre.”
Mr. Garrison’s advice to emerging playwrights: “Tell the stories about things you’re really curious about.” Also, get to know your rights. Then it is your decision to act upon them. Theresa Rebeck’s words of wisdom: “Be as truthful as you can about the world as you see it”.
The Dramatists Guild of America was established for the purpose of aiding dramatists in protecting both the artistic and economic integrity of their work. Through a variety of activities, the Dramatists Guild of America works to ensure that theater in America will continue to flourish and that the voices, which give it life, will continue to reflect and celebrate the richness and diversity of the American experience.