Playwriting as Improvisation

[Note: The following post is an expansion of a piece originally written for a newsletter sent to subscribers at the New Repertory Theatre.]

“Sometimes [while writing] I’m going along and I find myself writing ‘C. comes in’ when I didn’t know that he was going to come in; he had to come in at that point, that’s all.” – Harold Pinter

I’ve never been much of a planner when it comes to writing my plays. Some playwrights create outlines or write detailed character sketches before they begin their first drafts, or at least figure out an ending they can aim towards. That never really worked for me.

I don’t say this out of pride in the inability of my creativity to be tamed. Quite honestly, life would be a lot simpler if I could be a more methodical writer. When you go on a trip, it’s much easier if you can say, ” I want to drive to Chicago in three days, and I know I have to stop off for a night in Indianapolis.” If my travel planning were like my writing, it’d be something like, “I wonder where I’ll end up if I start driving and turn onto any road that looks more interesting than the one I’m currently on.”

Take the play that recently wrote for the New Voices program at the New Repertory Theatre. It’s called Protocol, and is set in an interrogation room of some unnamed government agency. I came up with a character to be questioned, and two people to question him. I thought up a few stepping stones, images and bits of dialog, and then plunged in.

And as I wrote, I found myself turning onto more interesting roads. The two interrogators started making references to a third, and I realized I’d have to bring in her as a character, too. New discoveries entailed rewriting previous scenes that didn’t fit the evolving narrative. Sometimes I’d completely dry up, and I’d have to brainstorm; in my case, this involved pulling up a blank Word document and typing out any idea that entered my head, no matter how wild, and made further discoveries. (Wait, those two characters are lovers?)

Then there was the ending. Or endings. I must have come up with at least three or four, each one different. The first one was terrible. Then second not much better. Honestly, I didn’t come up with an ending that didn’t appall me until about a week before the reading was set to happen. Curiously, the moral lesson learned by the protagonist in the original ending is the complete opposite from what it is in the current version (I was going to say final version, but it’s hardly that.) In the first draft, he comes to the conclusion that simply because he cheated on his girlfriend, that doesn’t mean he’s responsible for her death. In the new draft, with no changes in the circumstances of his girlfriend’s demise, he realizes that by cheating on her, he is responsible for her death. Honestly, that’s not a moral I necessarily agree with, but it was nonetheless the right one for the play.

Thus, gradually, the play evolved, and the end result was quite different in subject and tone than my original conception. And I was (mostly) delighted by the unexpected turns it had taken. I can’t really recommend this approach for everyone (or even anyone) but it seems to work for me.

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