Themes in Multi-Authored Works of Art

Theatrical productions are works of art with multiple authors. Playwrights make scripts, directors oversee productions, designers make sets, lighting, costumes, etc., and actors act on stage. Great productions hold together, with all of the pieces working in concert to bring a wonderful experience to the audience. Directors often get advice to have a theme for a production. Some like to describe themes in terms of emotions or concepts, but I prefer them in terms of cause and effect (e.g., I think the theme of the film The Perfect Storm is "greed leads to death.").

In theater and film, the director is in charge of overseeing the whole. It is his or her job to make sure stuff works together (to varying degrees the producer does some of this too). In theater, there is one element the director has just about no control over: the dialogue in the script.

Contracts for playwrights usually specify that a director may not change a single word of dialogue without the permission of the playwright. Contracts in film are not like this-- once a screenplay is bought anybody can completely rewrite it, if they like.

The good thing about this, for playwrights, anyway, is that their work is protected. The bad thing is that the playwright does not know what directors are going to come up with, and sometimes a change in dialog might be appropriate.

For reasons that are not clear to me, directors are allowed to ignore stage directions. This limits the playwright because it encourages things to be done with dialog that might be better done with action. For example, if you want the character to nod instead of say yes, the director has no obligation to have the actor nod. It's a stage direction, after all. So to play it safe, the playwright has a motivation to make scripts wordy. An extreme example would be a silent play. In a play with no dialog at all, what protection does the playwright have?

As a playwright, it's a little bothersome that the only tools I can use to communicate with the director and actors are the keys on a keyboard. This is a severe restriction. There are things that are difficult to express with a keyboard. For example, most languages have a commonly used word for the English "so-so." In everyday English, however, we don't use "so-so." Rather, we say something like "eeeh," and tilt our heads, with a slight disgust expression. Notice how long it took me to describe that. There is no elegant way to put that in a script. Another example: in America and Canada, the way we say "I don't know" has a specific cadence that is recognizable without the words. You can hum "I don't know" and people will understand. How am I supposed to put this in a script?

Talking over each other is another challenge. In real life, people talk over each other all the time, but in scripts it's a challenge to indicate this. I have my own convention, but it's not perfect and I had to make it up myself.

I read an article by playwright Edward Albee (2009). I quote:

...since a playwright must be able to "hear" his or her characters, what the character says and how the character says it must be precisely "notated." I use the composers' term intentionally, for a playwright must be able to hear as a composer hears, as precisely, and indicate it all, as a composer puts it down on paper. There are durational differences between a quarter note and a dotted quarter note, for example...We playwrights should hear these distinctions as precisely as a composer does, and use them as precisely. We should hear the durational differences between periods, semicolons, commas, three dots, and dashes, for example, as well as emphasis markings such as underlining, capitalization, italicization, and whatever else we can think up to render our dialogue as precise and "spoken" as our ears will let us.
This is interesting, because he's trying to use punctuation to indicate pauses and such. Note, however, that he does not say how long a dash is in term of time, nor, indeed, whether a semicolon is a longer pause than a dash. Not only does he think that playwrights should use these notations, but that directors and actors should follow them exactly. How they are supposed to do this without knowing how long a period lasts, I don't know.  Albee continues:

Now, no director will pay the attention they should to our specifics. Somehow our knowing what we want can inhibit their "interpretation" (read "distortion," if you like) of our work. And some actors feel preciseness can inhibit their creativity, too. (The answer here may be puppets.)

I think Albee goes a bit far here (he sounds like Mamet, who says similar things in his Black and White book). One of the wonderful things about theater is that different productions will have different themes. If each production were exactly the same, it makes it more like watching a movie. And if a particular director is going for a particular theme, it might work better or worse with the dialog exactly as the playwright imagined it. Playwrights are not always directors, and can fall into a trap of thinking that the words are all there is to a play. 

Film suffers because scripts are rarely re-made. In theater, because it's so local, scripts are re-done all the time. In television and film, people even get freaked out when different actors play the same role. Coming from a theater perspective, I don't get bothered by this at all. 

When I wrote Medea: The Fury (with a co-author) I didn't indicate in the script that there should be dance sequences. The director, Montica Pes, put in a ton of them. They were wonderful. A playwright friend of mind said that he would have not been pleased with dance numbers being added to the script. I didn't mind at all. I don't want to put dance numbers in the script, because other directors and producers reading the script in the future might not want them in and reject the script.  

The best situation, I my opinion, is when the writer is working with the production to make the best work of art on stage (or film) as possible. The predefined roles of writer and director have limitations that I believe can keep certain productions from fulfilling their potential.


Albee, E. (2009). Dialog. The Dramatist. Sept/Oct 9-10.

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Anonymous said…
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pesfucius said…
Part 1.
(Response too long, has to be 3 parts.)
Whew! Okay, you asked me to contribute my thoughts and there's a great deal going on here. I'll try to tackle my response by addressing points as you have brought them up in your entry.

First, it's a semantic thing, but technically productions have many contributing creators, however there is one author of the play and that is the playwright. The playwright's only currency is the dialogue. The director is responsible for "authoring" the production via the creative talents of artists who work on the production. The director's currency is the other artist's talents.

Proms get a theme. Plays have themes. Directors don't decide these like the prom committee, they are inherent in the playscripts. It is the director's job to discern the theme in order to create the strongest possible production. Theater 101: As we have learned from Aristotle, there are 6 inherent elements found in every play (character/story or action/ language or pantomime/idea or theme or self-revelation/rhythm/and spectacle--even an empty space). Simply put: a play is about someone/ in a situation/ who communicates something/ in some manner/ somewhere. So the theme is there, even if the playwright isn't aware he/she wrote it. And frankly, it's not their job to be concerned with it. But the director damn well better be.
pesfucius said…
Part 2.

I like to think of the director's responsibility is akin to lifting the script off the page and presenting it to an audience of people in much the same way and audience of one director's the production in their mind's eye when they read the script.

You point out the director has no control over the script in theater and that is the way it should be, just as it is right that filmmakers can amend the script as much as they like. The reason for this is simple: theater is an art of language and film is an art of images. Now, I can hear the yelling at me right now--"They are both visual/aural" etc. Film scripts are sometimes shredded because the image can communicate more fully than words and in the cinema, words can be boring. It is just not the same art at all. (Which I have always known and advocated their differences even though I believe in the visual "cinematic" theater experience.)

In the theater, the impetus is always the script. The script is the seed from which everything germinates. I believe, if a project is worth my time to do, the author has chosen every word and the nuance it creates for a reason and I dare not wish to change it. It is my job to suss out why they used this word. In film, the impetus is the IDEA so the script is not always sacred. Now let me leave film alone to go back to your entry...

If a play is to be developed and it hasn't found its legs, then perhaps a director contacts the playwright and changes in dialogue are discussed, but honestly I can't think of a change in dialogue I could suggest to an author who has labored long over the only providence he has and as for changes to be made to accommodate my production or worse, to suggest I understand these characters better than their creator.

Directors, if they are worth their weight, understand what the play is communicating in order to lift if from the page and not advertising an "agenda" to showcase some "theme" they came up with to author a production they would like. That is just a recipe for a tedious night at the theater.

As far as director's ignoring stage directions, all I can say is, that it's not a playwright's job to direct the production. Yep, that's right. You write the language, the director determines the action. Sorry, those are the roles. And I have to say, having worked with playwrights, sometimes you don't have any idea what will communicate your inherent ideas best. And sometimes someone will direct your play who doesn't know their ass from a hole in the ground and no amount of stage direction following from you will save this production from being a pageant of poo. So the protection a playwright has is the choice not to license their plays for production or to limit who has access to produce them. This happens everyday. Only Broadway, West End, then the largest regional theaters or tours have access to produce works. The hope is the bigger the house, the more talented the director and other artists and hopefully years later when the play is produced at a community theater, people will know that the play must be good and the community playhouse production staff was crap.
pesfucius said…
Part 3.

I don't think I have to comment to you my distaste for this thinking, but there it is. There's your playwright's protection. And as for starting out, well, you have to select those to develop your work very carefully. And to address the dances in Medea. Since I directed that production and developed it, I had a creative hand in ensuring it used physical language (dances, etc.) to further the language--just like pantomime is a language, so is dance. Had this script been given to me and I looked to direct it, I would have to consider if dances were appropriate. This is a difficult argument to have since the entire play was constructed with these elements in mind. So your playwriting friend is perhaps responding to a director inserting something into his play which wasn't there and being bitter about directors decisions in general. Or perhaps, he feels they didn't further the play. I'm not sure.

As far as communicating to the director, you can always write directions, notes, or speak to them directly. If they are a good director they will want to hear what you have to say. Only don't be offended if they chose not to follow your advice. Remember, their job is to "author" the production. Besides, and this will sound harsh, but if the playwright is worthy of greatness, these gestures are unnecessary. Shakespeare is a perfect example: Everything he needed to tell us is all there. We just have to dig.

As far as working as a whole: I love to have the playwright there, only the playwright has to remember, their only providence is the words which the characters speak. If they want to control more, I say they add a slash to their title and become a playwright/director and produce their own work. Of which I also have some thoughts...but that's for another blog.

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