Playwrighting - A Process / by Travis Baker

Blog –

A Play in Progress

From time to time people ask me if I have a new play or book in the works.  The simple answer, to both, is yes.  Currently working on a play, The Dogs Pond.  Been working on it, at least the idea of it, for about three years now.  Off n on.  From time to time.  Occasional furious engagement mixed with general subconscious contemplation.  First complete draft was typed up about a year ago.  Rewriting ever since.  Books? A few ideas in the formative stages.  50 pages of a YA title, The Sieve, I’ve gotten some feedback from Mrs. White’s 5th grade class which has been great.  So that’s where we’re at.  However…

The much more complicated task is trying to explain just where in the process those works are.  Why rewrite?  Why does it take three-four-five years to get a play up and running?  How come I’m not pounding out 10-20 pages a day like Stephen King?  What am I really doing in my head while ed teching at the middle school?  This blog series will attempt to follow the process of writing, developing and putting up my play, The Dogs Pond, (Why is there no apostrophe in the title?) for whomever might be interested.  I’ll start by explaining where it is now and later go over what it took to get to this point and, as events unfold, where we go from here.

First – the play.  I’ll use the two line slug a recent submission asked for.

In The Dogs Pond, six men gather in the woods of Maine to howl at the moon.  They drink, fish, fight, tell stories around the campfire and confront the ghosts that have followed four of them home from war.

That’s actually a revised slug.  Should have used it.  Still needs work.  John Guare once said to me in passing, “You never finish rewriting.  They just tell you it’s opening night.”

The Character Breakdown:

CHARACTER      BRIEF DESCRIPTION                                         AGE       GENDER

BERGSEY          VET - His left side blown off in Afghanistan.              32           M

STILLS               VET - Recently re-upped.                                            35           M

OWEN               VET- Hasn't spoken since his return                            28           M

CARTER            PORTLAND HIPSTER  (Owen's Brother)                     33           M

UNCLE PETE     SOLITARY VIETNAM VET                                            69           M

GARY ENFIELDPHD in WORMS                                                           58           M

 

So those are the guys.  We’ll get into why they’re all guys, and all straight, white guys at that, at a later date.  The simple version is that most of my ‘up ta camp’ experiences in this state have been with a pack of straight white guys.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It’s the reality of where we live. 

WHERE WE AT - The writing process

                Drafts have been written and rewritten.  Copies have been sent to trusted folks and feedback received. 

                Let us pause here a moment.  Getting someone to read my play and give me feedback on it is both necessary and humbling.  I’m asking for at least three or four hours of a person’s time and more than a bit of effort.  First they have to get a cup of tea going and then find a comfortable sitting position.  Then they have to either call up the play on their computer or settle the 113 pages of paper on their lap, pencil poised to strike.  Then they have to engage in the reading.  I am in debt to my readers more than they can know or I will ever tell them.  They ask questions, correct horrendous spelling (and other) errors and offer pointed advice.  They’re also encouraging, supportive and keep me going during the long dark months of creative winter. 

It took me a long time to learn how to listen to readers, to trust the process and myself.  To know that when they say a section or play needs work, they’re not saying the whole thing sucks or that I suck and should give up this whole crazy theatre thing and just go fold sheets on the night shift at the Motel 6 or that they suck and don’t know a freaking thing about anything.  They’re saying the section needs work. And it does.  So I get back to work and eventually have a reading with some actor type creatures.

About two weeks ago, I had the benefit of a private reading hosted in the same local home that’s hosted early readings of One Blue Tarp and Hair Frenzy.  My kind hosts provided a room, some chairs and a wicked good artichoke dip.  Again, this stage is so important to a play’s development.  Theatre exists in the spaces between people, connecting us through language on invisible but identifiable threads of energy.  I’m lucky and grateful to have a few reliable acting folks help provide that living spark (and they usually get beer and/or donuts out of it.)

Aside from feedback, what I’m looking and listening for in a live reading are lines that don’t sound or feel right, characters that stray off into distant places or simply aren’t present enough in the story or are trying to take over everything.  Sometimes, you can’t see it until you hear it. 

So, changes have been made based on reader feedback, hearing the play and just thinking on it from time to time.  A few of these have been big, a few small.  But, the play’s pretty good.  It made the not-quite-super-short-but-pretty-darn-short list for the O’Neill Playwrights conference and gotten some lovely rejection letters (more on that later).  Why mess with it?  Well, because it’s not opening night.

Here’s an example of a small change made this morning and why-

                The original line read:

STILLS:  Enough of that. Poetry. Tell me something straight. Tell me something about worms. At least they do something good. They make dirt. They catch fish. What do you down there in Guatamala? What’s wrong with Maine worms?

Not a bad line.  Bergsey and Owen have gone off in a canoe after an argument with Stills and Enfield.  We’re transitioning towards an exploration between the way worms inhabit the planet and ourselves.  What needed to go?

STILLS:  Enough of that. Poetry. Tell me something straight. Tell me something about worms. They make dirt. They catch fish. What do you down there in Guatamala? What’s wrong with Maine worms?

I realized that, “At least they do something good.” contradicted much of what Stills had argued for in the previous scene.  Stills is a professional soldier.  He doesn’t view conflict in terms of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ but as a job he is highly skilled at and been highly trained for.  Maybe he possessed some moral imperative when he signed up, maybe he believed in defending freedom and protecting his country but after four tours he’s become something else.  He’s become a person that would not place a moral judgment on either himself, the opposition or worms.  It’s these sort of small changes that currently present themselves.  They begin to stand out almost as if the character took a highlighter too. As I’ve gotten to know the characters better I’ve been able to listen more closely to what they’re saying or should not be saying.

Listening is the most valuable skill in a playwright’s composition.  It’s also the one that’s been the most difficult and time consuming to master.  Listening demands trust and belief.  I had to learn humility while also building confidence.  I had to dedicate myself to the craft because listening leads to change and change takes effort.  I have to get my cup of coffee, fire up the computer, open up the file, find the section and chisel away in the full knowledge that changing one phrase may necessitate a change another phrase and the whole section will probably get rewritten again at a later date.  But that’s the process.  It takes time, it takes patience, and a lot of help.

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Next episode: Submissions, Rejections, and Why the Hell can’t I get an Agent?