Amanda Parris just wrote her first play — and she has some tips for other first-time playwrights
The host of CBC Arts: Exhibitionists learned plenty of lessons while writing her play Other Side of the Game
Update (October 2019): Amanda Parris's debut play Other Side of the Game just took home the Governor General's Literary Award for Drama. Below, she shares her tips for other artists writing their first play.
I've often wished that I was one of those creative geniuses I used to hear about — the ones who, after being struck with a brilliant idea, huddle away for two weeks working furiously and then emerge with a theatrical masterpiece ready for the stage.
- Dystopian non-fiction: Why one playwright is telling the story of her family's escape from dictatorship
My path to production for my first play Other Side of the Game — which is currently having a run from Cahoots Theatre and Obsidian Theatre in Toronto — has been a tad more incremental. It took me four years, four grants, thirteen interviews, three readings, one playwrights unit (more on that in a moment) and a playwriting residency before I finally completed my first work to be produced on the stage. So I thought I'd share some of the lessons that I gathered on that journey that may be of use to the other emerging playwrights out there.
Writing is (often) a solo endeavour, but it requires more eyes than your own
The myth of the solitary creative genius feels to me like it has little place in the theatre world. You need a team, not only in production but also in development. When Cahoots Theatre invited me to join the Hot House Playwrights Unit, they provided me with a community of peers. At each meeting we focused on a different playwright's work. When my turn came, the playwrights were generous with their feedback and rigorous with their engagement of my script. They asked me questions about the characters, forced me to think about the story beyond the page, highlighted the moments they enjoyed and ruminated on the scenes that were not clear. A playwrights unit may not always possible, but I encourage you to share your work with key individuals (beyond your family and friends who sometimes love you too much to be honest) who can provide constructive and critical feedback.
Know the world of your play inside and out
Once you send your script to other folks, they may begin asking questions — about the setting or the motivation of the characters or the backstory behind a plot line — and you may not have the answer to these questions. Don't panic. This is actually a good thing. See these questions as invitations to build the world of your play with even more detail and nuance. There are so many things that you as the playwright need to know about this world that go beyond the dialogue included in the script. But the more you understand about your world, the more nuggets you can drop into the script; you wouldn't believe how much subtext can be created by just adding some ellipses...
The myth of the solitary creative genius has little to no resonance in the theatre world. You need a team, not only in production but also in development.- Amanda Parris
No one is more important than your director and dramaturge
Finding a good director and dramaturge is kind of like finding a good date on Tinder: it may take some time, but when it does happen, it feels like you've won the lottery. These are the individuals you'll be working closely with for months. The dramaturge will help you to refine your script as much as possible before opening night, sometimes asking you to make painful trims for the greater good of the story. Your director will manifest your vision on the stage, often doing so in ways that transcends what you could ever imagine. A large degree of trust is a necessity. Choose wisely.
Don't attend every rehearsal
To have a living and available playwright around can be a positive addition for a production. In the earliest days of the rehearsal process, it allows the cast and crew an opportunity to ask questions and have a better grasp on the original vision of the playwright. But after that, your presence can be more of a hindrance than a help. The early days of rehearsal are a time of exploration. The middle days are a time of building. The final days are a time for refining. As someone who has lived with the story for a really long time (four years in my case) it can be difficult to watch these various stages and allow the cast and crew the freedom to experiment. And as much as you think you have the best poker face in the game, chances are they can see your eye twitch each time they mispronounce a word or suggest a questionable costume choice or sound cue. So do everyone a favour by respecting their expertise and giving them space.
- Q&AWhy this emotional doc about a community in crisis is told through the eyes of a young black girl
Be prepared to sweat your way through opening night
Wear light clothing. Put on the strongest deodorant you own. Try not to jiggle your leg through the entire opening act. Try not to be creepy when watching the reactions of the audience (because you will definitely be watching them) and, most importantly, take lots of deep breaths. Opening night will inevitably be a nervewracking rollercoaster of emotions, but then it ends. The cast takes a bow and you will realize that you've just opened your first show and a weight will lift from your shoulders. It's critical to remember that no matter what the critics say or how many people attend, no one can take away the fact that you have just accomplished a huge milestone. Take it from me — the person who had a fire alarm and a theatre evacuation in the middle of her opening night (yes, that really happened) — and give yourself a moment to bask in the feeling of pride. It's well deserved.
Other Side of the Game. Written by Amanda Parris. To November 5. Aki Studio Theatre, Toronto. www.cahoots.ca