Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette
Every playwright has to start somewhere. Even Shakespeare had to earn his chops with Titus Andronicus, they say. While aspiring playwrights usually hope to burst onto the larger stage—being featured at a prominent festival, winning some prestigious fellowship, or getting their script on Broadway—I have found there’s something to be said for starting small.
My very first—and so far, only—produced play was staged in a tiny venue on the campus of a private college. You could easily call my 1940s-era Hollywood dramedy, The Screenwriters, the underdog of the underdog. Our play was the filler, mid-semester play to a big-name musical. The upperclassmen directors took most of the experienced cast and crew, leaving us a group of scrappy newcomers. Even more challenging, we only had eight weeks of preparation, while the musical got the entire semester.
I looked around at our team during the table read and realized that for about a fourth of us, this was our first-ever stage experience—including me, a college junior who before now intended to only write screenplays. We had nowhere to go but up.
Because we were such a small production, I had the chance to co-direct. Few feelings are as surreal as seeing your words spoken by living actors. While playwrights usually get the chance to oversee their work to some extent, being co-director allowed me a unique opportunity to mold the play during each step of the process. I attended every rehearsal. I could tell actors exactly what I meant when I imagined a particular line. I wrote each of the actors a several-paragraph-long backstory about their characters and personalities. In return, the actors gave me feedback, telling me when I needed to add a scene or rethink a character’s reaction.
To make a small production work, I discovered, you need several elements working together. One is a supportive crew and dedicated cast. Nearly all of our actors had their lines memorized before our first official rehearsal. Everyone gave more than was asked, and each department tried to make the final results excellent, often in spite of our small budget and limited resources.
Another element is organization. Any play will fall apart without a strict, detailed schedule, and our production was blessed with an incredibly capable first-time producer. While I have worked on several plays since, this was the only one where the cast and crew felt ready for the production on opening night.
Finally, it’s important to promote the heck out of a show. While this was probably our weakest point, the college theater club was well established in the community, and the majority of the student body attended every play. If we failed, we joked, all of our friends would know.
We ended up being the only production of the semester by mistake, when the musical failed to get its licensing. Our performance days passed in a whirl of late nights, last-minute mishaps, and green room jokes. The venue was homemade, to say the least. Actors had to be careful to not shake the scenery as they burst off stage, and if you sat in just the right seat, you could glimpse the stage manager when she operated the smoke machine. However, the actors’ performances won the audience every show. We ended up making a 35 percent profit, which isn’t shabby for an original production with a relatively elaborate set.
For me, as a writer venturing into theater, I couldn’t have asked for a better first production. Starting small gave me the chance to learn how every part of a stage production works. I got to see the behind-the-scenes duties of each team member. I had the opportunity to express a substantial amount of creative control over my work, in a supportive environment with a practiced co-director. If we failed, we could easily brush our venture up to experience and never mention the play to the professional world. If we succeeded, as we did, we could say we pulled off an original production and turned an impressive profit—a great fact to drop into resumes and letters to agents.
It’s been two years since that production. I have graduated from college, and many of the cast and crew have headed off into untheatrical jobs—except for my co-director and producer, who have founded their own community theater. Every February, one or more of our team posts a picture of our cast photo on Facebook. The memories I built and the experiences we shared changed my life. The Screenwriters made me fall in love with theater.
Sure, I’m not too different from most writers. I dream of getting my next play into a theater in a major city. I dream of winning writing fellowships, and maybe, just maybe, seeing one of my works on the big screen or on Broadway. But I’m also not afraid of starting small. Theater is theater. Art is art. Small beginnings can teach you a lot—and prepare you for the big leagues.