Notes from an Author on the Transition from Page to Stage
OnStage Guest Columnist
After a couple of false starts, and a few times when it looked as though it wasn't going to happen at all, a play I wrote made it to the stage for eight performances at TheatreNOW in Wilmington, NC a month or so ago (January). Entitled Billy & The Pope, it's about a fictional meeting between liberal talk show host and comedian Bill Maher and the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. The names were changed to Billy Flanagan and Pope Thomas for a variety of reasons, foremost of which was my desire to not have actors trying to do lengthy impersonations of those two highly public and well-known individuals. It also afforded me the opportunity to create distinct characters with their own back stories.
I was placed in a situation where I became not only the author, but the producer and director of the production, as well. It's not a path I'd recommend for anyone who's written a script and would like to see it up on a stage. Separately, those three things (writing, producing, directing) are supposed to be, and for the most part, are fun to do. On my personal scale of enjoyment, I'd put directing at the top and producing on the bottom, with writing in the middle, fluctuating between fun and hard work.
I went into the production with varying degrees of skill and experience in all three of those theatrical disciplines. Writing would be identified at the top of my personal skill and experience heap (though not play scripts, per se), followed by direction, with producing, not doing so well at the bottom of the heap. Again.
First piece of advice to budding playwrights. If you can, give the script to someone else and let them do it. It's fine to be involved, but if the script is of any value whatsoever, it will eventually have to stand or fall on someone else's vision of it. And as an author, the first thing you should want to know about a (sort of) finished script is whether it will withstand the test of other theatrical minds actually putting the damn thing on the stage, without a word from you. Again, offer the words willingly, if asked, but short of objecting to someone taking your 'American living room' script and deciding to set it on Mars or something like that, you should probably allow others to produce it in any way they see fit.
That said, and assuming you possess the requisite experience with stage work, directing your own material will allow you as a writer to attempt a realization of your own vision about not just what the play says, but what it looks, sounds, feels, and (if you can pull it off) what it smells like. That, being a reference to the opening scene of Billy & The Pope, in which the Pope is discovered in a kitchen, singing along to something from an Italian opera, as he's kneading dough on a counter-top, making his own bread. He's singing along with the opera like he's in the shower. Some words he knows, some he doesn't. So, it occurred to me that since he's making bread, maybe we could start making toast backstage and have the place smell like bread, moving into the second scene. TheatreNOW was small enough to make it feasible. Thought about actually baking bread in my own bread-making appliance.
One of the many things you're likely to discover in your journey to opening night, is that you can't always get what you want. The 'baking bread' thing never happened. We floated it out there as an idea, but we were dealing with so many other minor details; everything from the cross the Pope was going to use (who had one? how do we get it?), down to the number of wine glasses, serving plates and a platter of antipasto for the final scene in which Billy and the Pope play host to a Republican Congressional delegation. My assistant producer and stage manager (Dana Moriarty, by name) ended the 'baking bread' debate with "We're not doing that." Moriarty, it should be noted, proved to be absolutely essential to the production, by keeping me, personally, focused on the whole production when I'd have a tendency to get wrapped up in one or another single aspect of it.
When it's your vision, letting even a little bit of it go is hard. Not melodramatically so, but you find yourself wishing that there was just a little more time, money and people to do what you'd really like to do. Like, in my case, maybe spending a couple of million on an extraordinary set; a real kitchen, instead of the suggestion of a kitchen. Or perhaps getting the Vatican to loan an authentic Pope costume. Or financing trips for Bill Maher and/or Pope Francis to attend a performance. Much to my chagrin, neither of them made it to the show.
The chance of getting anything you've written up on a stage for the first time and having your ideal vision of it survive the production process, is slim, and approaches 'no chance' rapidly. As I recall, Arthur Miller's vision for Death of a Salesman, in terms of its physical set, was nothing like, not even close, to what opened on Broadway in 1949. Miller was around for a lot of that production's development, but it was Elia Kazan, who won the Tony Award for Best Direction that year, and Jo Mielziner, who picked up the Tony for Best Scenic Design, who got Miller's words up on the stage and got them moving around in characters, occupying a highly stylized and original theatrical environment that Miller hadn't thought of.
Be prepared to discover that your play is better than you thought it was. Actors are going to make your written words better than you imagined them. Even if what you've written is really bad (although it's hard to imagine any author believing that of their own work), actors are going to make it better, whether you've produced and directed them, as well, or not.
You'll probably find things in the script that you can't believe you wrote. Some of them, you'll be glad you did. Some of them, you'll wish you hadn't. Ideally, you'll remove the words you're not proud of, and replace them with ones that are better.
You will discover, if you're put in the position of producing and directing your own play, that the show up there on the stage on opening night, is about 20% you (10% each for writing and directing) and 80% pretty much everything and everyone else. The actors brought things to this production that I hadn't imagined when I wrote it, or even as it started to develop. It's one of many things that's hard to envision when you're writing the piece.
I'll take this opportunity to applaud the contributions of Wilmington's Page to Stage organization, which offered me the opportunity to prepare a staged reading of the play's opening scenes, back in the spring/early summer of 2016. Then, there was TheatreNOW, a dinner theater venue in the city, whose owner (Alisa Harris) and artistic director (Zach Hanner) offered me the opportunity to produce it in their space. Hanner went a step further and when an inability to cast the role of Billy threatened to derail the whole project, he agreed to play the role; did it well, too. If there aren't organizations set up to develop original scripts in your community, like Page to Stage here in Wilmington, work to get one started. Get a bunch of like-minded people together and solicit original scripts from your community.
Offer playwrights the opportunity to hear their scripts, performed by actors with scripts in their hand. The benefits of this, to the playwright, and to the development of any production possibilities, are enormous. Ideally, your community should also have a theatrical organization like Wilmington's TheatreNOW, which offers original script opportunities to its audiences. Without the support and hands-on assistance of these two organizations in Wilmington, Billy & The Pope would probably still be languishing in my computer files.
The most important consideration for any author who'd like to see their script coalesce on a stage, is to practice saying "thank you," because you're going to end up saying it to more people, more times in a roughly two-month period than you're likely to say it in a year.
Thank you, again, to all the people who helped bring Billy & The Pope to life.