I recently performed in Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, playing the patriarch Jack Jerome. The play is a semi-autobiographical look at the playwright’s formative years, and according to his wife, Elaine Joyce Simon, “If you’re looking for the heart and soul of Neil Simon, you’ll find everything you need to know in Brighton Beach Memoirs.”
As an aspiring playwright myself, I wanted to get inside Mr. Simon’s head, and see what advice he could offer. As it turns out, there’s a lot of wisdom in his memoirs, Rewrites (1996) and The Play Goes On (1999). Here are some selected pearls of wisdom that I gleaned from listening to what Simon says.
1. Write. Rewrite. Repeat. Plays never come to the writer fully formed, through divine inspiration. You can’t fall in love with your own words, or worry about how much time you’ve invested in your first draft. You must be willing to rewrite. Simon completely rewrote all 125 pages of his first play, Come Blow Your Horn, 22 times!
Simon says: “Rarely when a play comes to me do I know how I will develop it. I never know who all the characters are nor how many there will be. It comes out drop by drop…. On the first day I start to write, I will put down almost anything, just trying to get the first introductory scene on paper, whether it’s good or not. I am introducing myself to the characters and them to me. Amenities over, they begin to speak.”
“In painting, as in composing or any art form, what you take out is an important as what you leave it.”
“I worked long and hard on each project, rewriting five times as much as I was writing, and … it still took me six months to a year to complete a play.”
2. Characters First. Writing witty dialogue comes naturally to me. But writing a play is about so much more than getting a laugh. To have a solid foundation, you have to have strong characters.
Simon says (quoting producer Max Gordon): “There’s no play without characters. First you get your characters, then you get your story, then you get your dialogue.”
“No matter how funny lines are, they’re nothing more than funny lines if they do not push the story forward. It’s what happens to characters in the story that interests an audience more than anything.”
“Everyone presumed because I was prolific that I could knock out dialogue on the spot. It never happens that way. It only starts to flow when you know the characters well, when you have a keen grasp of the story.”
3. Show, Don’t Tell. In my own writing, I’m always worried that my audience won’t “get it,” so I sometimes over-explain, but it’s much more realistic and interesting to leave hints and let your audience figure things out on their own.
Simon says: “You have to leave the audience some work to do on their own, because their own discovery of the truth ultimately is more interesting to them.”
“Always make your protagonist and antagonist equal adversaries, so that the audience was always in doubt about who was right and who was wrong.”
4. Court Failure. Neil Simon was 33 years old before his first of over 30 plays reached Broadway. He was also married five times (twice to the same woman), which is a testament to his eternal optimism and willingness to take chances.
Simon says: “One tends to learn infinitely more from the bad than the good … Allow yourself the possibility of failure. You must, in fact, court failure. Let her be your temptress. There must be danger in the attempt and no net strung across the abyss to break your fall.”
“I was never taught how to write a play. I found my way through years of experimenting, making mistakes and painstakingly fixing them.”
5. Make Connections and Reflections. Draw on your own experience. Even if a play is not about you, you can find things in common with your audience that they can also relate to. And if you can connect first with comedy, you can impart a deeper meaning through your work.
Simon says: “It is not autobiographical. An incident happens to you and it gives your imagination a starting point. But you turn it into someone else’s experience, hoping that it touches a nerve of identification in other people so that it may connect to something in their own lives.”
“[When I] make that stage a mirror of our own responses and reactions, … audiences seem to laugh at themselves. They usually say, ‘I know someone exactly like that,’ when in fact they may be talking about themselves.”
“Humor was the instrument I used to first reach people, and then, as an extension of the characters and stories, I would deliver the underlying issue, the pain that so many of us wanted to avoid at any cost.”
Tony Targan is an aspiring playwright whose short plays have appeared in Midwest regional and community theaters. He is also a director and actor in southeast Michigan community theater, mostly with the Farmington Players Barn Theater. By day, Tony works as a technology attorney in Detroit.