The Under Ground Writing Project

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Watching what someone else did with your baby

Posted by John Ridge on January 18, 2013 at 10:30 AM

Within the last six months or so, I've been able to add "Playwright" to my repertoire. Two different production companies have graciously allowed me to provide short scripts for plays they would put on the boards. The first was a repurposing of a short story I wrote a few years ago about a beverage product that purportedly bestowed spiritual enlightenment. The second I had to write in nine hours using four prompts as inspiration, which resulted in a story about love and the lengths people go to keep it, told with government agents and a werewolf. I didn't direct nor act in either of the productions, and generally had a hands-off involvement once the scripts were handed to their respective directors.


Writers sometimes discuss and noodle around with the idea of having their book made into a movie. They talk about which actor should be cast in which role and which known director would have the best visual style for it. It's a fun thing to do, and it re-energizes the momentum needed to complete a work.


I suspect some elements of the fantasy remain once the reality manifests. Of the five characters I've created between the two plays, I had seen four of the five actors perform in other roles. Some had taken similar roles before, some had not. Thankfully, no one was miscast, and in some cases, the actor I had in mind was the actor cast in the role. Everyone reached and exceeded my expectations for their performances. To say the least, watching them speak my sentences was a surreal experience.


There's an age old sentiment in writing theory that more or less states, "If it's not on the page, it doesn't exist." I first became aware of this while taking Journalism in high school, and I am still learning the depths to which it applies. When it comes to non-fiction writing, it's critical that you include all pertinent pieces of information regarding the subject, or you risk misinforming your reader. Simple enough.


When it comes to writing a work of fiction, things can get a little wonky. The words you don't use are nearly as important as the words you do use. What you're saying isn't as important as how you say it. Your goal is not just the transfer of information, but the evocation of emotional responses. So when you're writing the words you want people to say, you have to be very specific with the words you don't say.


People who have acted and directed for a while are well versed in the art of digging into words, looking for the unsaid information. Once they find the unsaid words, they are better able to say the words they are supposed to say. Where the playwright can get into trouble is when the words the actors are supposed to say don't lead them to the words they're not supposed to say. When that happens, they are left to their own inferential and intuitive powers. Sometimes it works out just fine, but there's a precarious potential for disaster.


I have seen roles performed by different actors, with different takes on the same characters. Identical words, different interpretations. I'm sure entire bottles of wine and cases of beer were consumed while discussing which actor has the most correct performance. Ultimately, if the playwright is dead, it becomes an academic matter over which interpretation most closely approximates the intention behind the words. More succinctly, we'll never really know the truth, so enjoy your drink.


While I'm still alive, I have currently have the luxury of seeing what happens, and I can make adjustments as I see fit. Watching the performances, I made notes in my head over which words on the page were missing, and which words not on the page were missing. Every time something went in an unexpected direction, I had to ask myself, "Hey, was that what you were thinking when you put that on the page? If not, what did you do to make them think this was a correct choice?" Don't get me wrong, some choices were better than what I had in mind, and I wish I knew what made them arrive at that conclusion.


When writing your book, your short story, your play, your poem, don't just think about your end consumer being a reader. Take a moment to consider whether you've provided enough material for the end consumer to be an audience member. Granted, not all written works are destined for such treatment as some things are most effective in written format. But, not everyone understands this, and some people go ahead with it anyway. It's their fault if their interpretation is misunderstood, but only if everyone else understands your original unsaid words.


Now, quit reading this and go write something.

Categories: Writing Process, Revision/Rewriting

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Reply Jenny Maloney
12:08 PM on January 18, 2013 
"Ultimately, if the playwright is dead, it becomes an academic matter over which interpretation most closely approximates the intention behind the words. More succinctly, we'll never really know the truth, so enjoy your drink."

Honestly, I think this is one of the big reason Shakespeare is, well, Shakespeare. In Elizabethan England, I'm sure the interpretations were designed one way, but as language has changed and evolved, the lines in his plays shifted. Also, the distinct lack of stage direction leaves *only* character lines - giving actors and academics a great deal to play with.
Reply John Ridge
12:46 PM on January 18, 2013 
Indeed, it'd be interesting to hear his opinions on how his work is being presented these days, and see if any of it was "what he was trying to do."

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