I am the luckiest person on earth and there isn’t a day goes by when I don’t think about that. I mean, look what I do for a living. I make up stories, and then I get to go into a rehearsal hall and work with extremely talented artists and we all put on a show together. And then audiences come into a theatre and they watch us and they laugh and they cry and then we go home and we do it all over again the next night. This is work? No, this is not work. My father toiled at a factory job from the age of sixteen until the day he died. That was work. I once had a summer job cleaning air conditioning ducts using acid and if you spilled the acid on yourself you had to scramble out of the air duct and run to the washroom as fast as you could to wash it off before it scarred, but we never made it to the washroom in time. It always scarred. THAT was work. What I do now—writing, acting—this is not work, and if anybody tells you it is work, then they have never worked. I mean really worked.
Recently it occurred to me that it might be a good time to sit back and reflect on what I’ve been doing for the past thirty years. To be honest, I have been writing so much, that I haven’t had time to stop and think about anything else. So, this might be cathartic for me. And in my reflection, maybe there is a tip or two that I can pass along to up and coming writers. That is who I’m writing this for. The greenhorn writers. You veteran writers probably have all of this information stored away already, but feel free to read along too if you like.
Let me kill one myth right away. I do not write small cast plays because they are cheaper to produce. The Melville Boys was written for that reason, yes. Back in 1982 someone told me that one set, four character plays had a better chance of being produced, and God bless them for telling me that. But as I began to write more I discovered that I enjoyed writing the smaller cast plays for two reasons. Number one, it made it easier for me to flesh out each character. The characters had more depth, more of a story behind them. They had more meat on their bones. Number two, it makes for a much happier cast when the play is an ensemble piece, when everyone has an equal part. And trust me, you want a happy cast. You really do.
I have written a couple of plays that I wish would never get produced again. I won’t name those plays here because it would be an insult to the people who like those plays. But even though I am not all that fond of those two or three efforts, I am glad I wrote them because they were steps in my development as a playwright. I learn something new with each play I write. When I sit down to write a play, I fully expect that play to be the best thing I have written to date, and I expect the next one will be even better. I am best known for The Melville Boys, a play I am very fond of and hold dear to my heart, but I have written at least five plays better than that one, most of those coming in the last five years.
I have a list of people that I will never work with again. Sometimes I refer to it as The Book, and these people are in The Book, not based on their talent or lack thereof, but on their attitudes and their dearth of professional integrity. I refuse to work with anyone who darkens the rehearsal hall, who complains constantly, who makes life miserable for everyone around them, who sucks the air out of a room. I don’t care how gifted they are as artists. As I said earlier, look at what we do for a living. What right do we have to complain about anything? I’m surprised that we all just don’t go through each day skipping and laughing like school children. That’s what we should be doing. We should be unable to control our delight over these lives we live. But some people can’t see that, and so, I have The Book, and I will tell everyone who will listen who these people are who are in The Book. Yes, I will name names at the drop of a hat because I don’t think these people should be a burden on anyone else’s productions. Thankfully, there are only a few people in The Book. It is an exclusive club….so far.
I don’t socialize with other playwrights very often. Talking about writing is boring and most writers just want to talk about themselves (like I’m doing right now) so I don’t feel that I can learn anything from them. If you want to learn something about real people and real life, hang out with a curling team.
I have never applied for a government grant in my life. I think the government should support the arts by throwing money at the school system and its arts programs and by giving money to theatre companies to pay salaries and to initiate writer-in-residence programs. I don’t think individual playwrights should be given money to travel to Lubbock, Texas to do research on what kind of prescription eyeglasses Buddy Holly wore. Too many times I have seen the grant system abused by writers who are just looking for a free ride. I know this might upset a lot of writers, but then, I don’t hang out with writers so I don’t really care. (For the record, Buddy Holly had myopia and was near-sighted. Think of the money I’ve just saved the Canada Council.)
As a writer, you should learn to trust your actors. I guarantee you that 90% of the time, the actors will make your play a better play. I am constantly amazed at the talent of these artists and how they can lift the words off of the page and raise the play to heights I hadn’t imagined were possible. If a play doesn’t work, it is not the actors’ fault or the director’s fault. It is my fault. Period.
Don’t listen to people who say that if a play entertains it is not art. If you followed that point of view to its logical end then you would conclude that the less entertaining a play is the more artistic it is. Poppycock! People who say this, say it because they don’t know how to write a play that entertains. And by entertains I don’t mean it makes an audience laugh themselves silly for two hours. I mean it keeps an audience glued to their seats for two hours. It doesn’t have them checking their watches in the dim light of every scene change. A well-written drama entertains. A somber play that doesn’t get so much as a snicker from an audience can still entertain greatly. Few things irk me more than an artist who uses the excuse “Well, the audience didn’t understand it.” Oh, they understood it all right. They understood that they were bored to tears. All art entertains at some level. To say otherwise is narrow-minded, ill-informed and arrogant.
Don’t be discouraged by a bad review. I remember my first bad review. It was nineteen eighty-six and I was walking along a street in downtown Toronto one morning and I decided to pick up a newspaper and get caught up on the news, something which I rarely do because the news depresses me. Well, there on the entertainment page was a review of a play of mine that said I was a ‘waste of time’. Not my play, but ME. I was a waste of time. I was crushed. I could barely pour my Bailey’s into my coffee that morning. That afternoon, famed director Bill Glassco sent a dozen roses to my hotel with a card that read “Welcome to Toronto.” He may have saved my writing career by doing that because I was ready to give up due to one bad review. Over the years I have developed a very thick skin where reviews are concerned. Nothing a critic says can bother me anymore. Nothing. Here’s why. I’ve written forty-nine plays, been through at least as many rehearsal processes and workshops, and I have sat in theatres and watched my plays in front of hundreds of audiences. This might sound cocky, but I think I know more about writing plays than any critic on the planet. Now, some critics will counter that they have seen hundreds of plays and they know how to construct a good one. Well, I’ve seen hundreds of hockey games, it doesn’t mean I can play left wing for the Canadiens.
Anybody can get a play produced once. The key is getting that play produced a second and third time. I have four plays that have only been produced once. I consider them failures.
There is no right or wrong way to write. It is up to the individual. We all have a different process that we go through when writing a play. Some do it quickly, others take years. (Although if I thought it would take me years to write one play, I would find another trade.) Some write in coffee shops with a pad and pencil. Some write naked on a wharf. Some map out each scene in great detail before they write it. Some just start writing and see where it takes them. I repeat, there is no right or wrong way to write. I write in my office at home, fully clothed, in silence. I have a starting point and an ending point and I work towards that ending point.
The single most important aspect of writing a play is to tell a good story. If you don’t have a good story, you have nothing. If you don’t engage your audience you have lost them and once you have lost them, you won’t get them back. You want to grab them by the scruff of the neck right off the top and pull them into your story, and you want them to come back after intermission, anxious to find out what happens next.
If you don’t have a good ending to your play then everything that has gone before, no matter how brilliant, will be diminished.
Writers please, don’t be a pain in the ass in the rehearsal hall. Don’t sigh or groan or cover your eyes or throw a fit. Don’t tell the actors they are doing it wrong. Don’t tell the actors ANYTHING. Give all of your comments to the director at the end of the day and let the director deal with it. Be as invisible as you can during rehearsals.
Writers please, don’t take yourselves so damned seriously. You’re writing a play. You’re not reconstructing a colon. Stop contemplating your purpose and your reasoning and your message and your sense of the piece and just write the play already. Let it flow. Enjoy this gift you’ve been blessed with. And when you’ve finished writing the play, leave it alone. I know writers who do sixteen, seventeen, even twenty drafts of a play. Now, I know I said earlier that there is no right or wrong way to write a play and that we all have our own process but, you know what? If you haven’t got it right by the tenth draft, chances are you’re never going to get it right.
I am thankful for this life in the theatre. A life that I stumbled upon quite by accident. I am thankful for the incredibly talented people that I have crossed paths with and have had the honour and thrill to work with. I have made many life long friends in this business, people that I care about very deeply, people that I would go to the ends of the earth for. I have had experiences that have made me feel so unbelievably fulfilled, they have given me goose bumps. I have walked outside after opening a new show and just stood there in the night air trying to catch my breath, it was that exciting for me. I have had tears in my eyes wishing my mother and father, who worked so hard in their lives with so little reward, could see what their son has become. I know it would make them smile. I would not trade one day of this life, not one. (Well, maybe that day back in 1986 when I picked up that newspaper in Toronto.) I look forward to many more wonderful moments in this magnificent world of the theatre, and I wish every writer could experience even a small fraction of what I have experienced. Believe me, your dream is out there. Go and get it.