Richard Nelson addresses ART/NY

written by Richard Nelson

First I want to thank Laura Pels - a truly generous woman. Generous in both the obvious sense, and also always with her time, her energy, her enthusiasm, her humor. She and I have had a few meals together over the years, both here and in Paris, and I've enjoyed every minute of them and always left inspired and encouraged. And I wish to thank A.R.T./New York for inviting me here tonight. I have to say I was surprised to be asked, but also very honored.

I am also very honored to be speaking to each and every one of you; I know I am in a room of people who care about theater, who love theater, many of you have and are devoting your lives to theater. And any lover of theater - must also be a lover of plays. And any lover of plays will, I am sure, recognize the unique place of the playwright in the making of theater. And it is this place that I wish to speak about.

By the way, I think this will be the first 'speech' I have ever given; fifty-six years old, and I've managed to escape giving a speech until now. I suppose I never thought it was my 'thing,' I love hearing what I write spoken by others, not myself. But things change, we change.

I remember when I became a father for the first time. And suddenly I found within me an ability to fight for my child in ways that I could never have fought for myself.

A year and a half ago I began teaching young emerging talented playwrights at the Yale School of Drama. Tonight I want to talk about issues that are important to them - and to me, and I believe to all American playwrights. But mostly to them. And I suppose it is because of them, and because of the hundreds of playwrights whose work I now read each year, that I feel the need, the passion, but more importantly the responsibility to discuss the state of our profession with you tonight.

So much has happened to the profession of playwriting since I had my first professional production at the Mark Taper Forum Lab in 1975. And so much of what has happened has not been good for playwrights.

The profession of playwright, the role of the playwright in today's American theater, I believe, is under serious attack. Some who attack are simply greedy, some ignorant, some can't understand why theater isn't TV or film. But perhaps the greatest threat to the playwright in today' s theater comes from not those greedy and ignorant, but rather from those who want 'to help.'

'Help.' 'Playwrights are in need of help.' This is now almost a maxim in our theater today. Unquestioned. A given. But where does this mindset - for that is what it is, a mindset - come from? Of course playwrights need things - money, productions, support, encouragement. So do actors, directors, designers, artistic directors. But THIS mindset is different, because what is meant here is: 'Playwrights are in need of help – to write their plays.' 'They are in need of help - to do their work.' 'They can't do their work themselves.'

How strange. What other profession is viewed in this way? What other person in the theater is viewed this way? Imagine hiring say a director with the assumption that he couldn't do his work himself. Now I am not saying by this that a director shouldn't listen to others, receive notes, be open to discussions, and so forth. Quite the opposite, for THIS is all part of what a director does. AND I am NOT saying a playwright shouldn't listen to notes, be open to discussions, and so forth - because THIS is what a playwright does. What I am saying is that the given mindset should not be that the playwright cannot be trusted to lead this process. Cannot be trusted to know how to work within the collaboration of theater.

Nor am I talking about mentoring, or educating young playwrights here. I'm not talking about a classroom situation. I'm talking about how our professional theater looks at playwrights and the playwright's play. About assumptions made and about the various specific solutions theaters THEN make based upon these false assumptions.

What is really being said to the playwright by all the help? From the playwright's perspective it is this: that the given now in the American theater is that what a playwright writes, no matter how much he or she works on it, rewrites it at his or her desk, the play will ALWAYS not be right. Will ALWAYS need 'help.' In other words, writing a play is too big of a job for just the playwright to achieve. This, I believe, is now a prevalent attitude in the American theater. And this mindset is devastating.

Emily Mann told me the other day that in her 17 years running the McCarter Theater the greatest change has been - that now more and more plays are submitted that are obviously unfinished. That writers today recognize that if they wish to participate in a process that perhaps will lead to the production of their work, then this will require rewriting and revision guided and cajoled by others. So why finish anything?

I sit with young writers and hear how they now leave chunks of their plays purposely badly written - hoping that the 'help' they receive will concentrate on these areas and not on others that they care about. Tricks, games that many a screenwriter has learned over time, but now finding their way into the writing of plays.

Now no doubt many of you are thinking - but the plays aren't finished, they need help, and they do get better.

Again, I am not saying that a playwright should avoid and ignore comments and reactions to his work, quite the opposite. But I am saying that our mindset toward playwrights should be this: 1) the playwright knows what he is doing, 2) perhaps the playas presented is as it should be. So that the onus for change is not on the playwright but on others, on the theater. And the theater is there with a full array of tools to support the playwright as he or she attempts to improve upon his or her play. How to improve a play should be the domain of the writer, with the theater supplying potential tools, a reading say, or a workshop with clearly delineated goals. These are tools that should evolve out of a need, as opposed to being a given.

Now a culture of 'help' breeds a culture of dependence and this is what, I believe, we now have in the American theater: the culture of readings and workshops, one unimaginable when I was a young playwright thirty years ago. A culture of 'development.' And this culture, more than being an activity, a process - is a mindset. Having spent a great deal of time in classical theater, I have watched actors and directors approach classical plays that have massive contradictions and address those plays not as works to be fixed, but rather to be solved. So I am arguing for a theater where the mindset is not to fix new plays, but to solve them.

Now if it is assumed that all plays need to be helped along, then no playwright actually has it in his or her power to complete his or her play. Therefore, can it really be called his or her play? Ah - now we come to other trickier sides of this equation, where the 'help' given writers also has strings. In the time I've been given, I'd like to look at just a few - there are many - examples of how this mindset has infiltrated our theater and what it is doing to my profession. So let's get specific.

And let's look at the actors, directors, even audiences who have been taught/re-educated by this culture to feel a responsibility to 'help' the playwright write his or her play. Producers, literary managers, dramaturges who 'help' with rules about what makes a good play, who 'help' by mandating readings because they must be 'helpful'. Let's look at managers who 'helpfully' organize commissions so that the theater can encourage OR is the word 'enforce' changes that are 'helpful' to the play. There are contracts that demand remuneration for this 'help.' There are foundations that allow their monies to be used in a developmental hell that breeds the loss of confidence and control that every playwright needs, must have, to succeed.

SO. Readings. Mandatory reading of plays for judgment or to 'give help.' Be careful. This is dangerous, and has already caused great harm. A play with two people at a table having a conversation - this works in a reading, we get a good sense of what the writer is after. But what about 7 people in a room, moving about, talking to two, then three, unheard by a forth, and so on. This makes no sense in a reading. And so playwrights, practical people that we are, slowly - like a bad evolution - we stop writing in forms that don't work in readings. And again, slowly, our plays begin to look alike, dramaturgically similar. Of course a playwright can benefit from a reading, but one needs to be so very careful about why the play is being read, what hopefully is being gained. And, what is being lost. All those reading series out there - careful, careful, in the long run are they doing much more harm than good?

Workshops. What are they? What IS the role of an actor or a director in a workshop? To direct or act in a play requires, I believe, a strong element of confidence in the play; a belief that the answer to one's questions or confusions can be found - in the play. This is what a director or an actor does, this is their talent and how they explore. But if the playwright is encouraged to - no CELEBRATED -for rewriting during this process, then where does that put the actor, the director - not acting, not directing - but there - 'to help.' Isn't this the wrong mindset for a director or actor to have? Is this the way they should be looking at a play? Couldn't their talents be put to better service trying to solve what the writer has written - as opposed to trying to help him fix it?

Audiences. By involving them in readings and discussions and god forbid workshops, we are apparently asking for their 'help' with the play. But doesn't this confuse even warp the role of the audience? And in terms of new work doesn't this put an audience's focus overwhelmingly on 'does it work?' as opposed to 'what is it about?' or 'why was it written?' or 'does it matter?' Aren't these the questions we want discussed? Aren't these the questions that help generate the sort of substantive discussions we in the theater wish to have with an audience?

Rules for writing plays. My god. One hears young playwrights being told what a play 'must do,' or 'how a play works.' One hears writers being told that a character's 'journey' isn't clear enough, or that the writer needs to determine a character's 'motivation.' One hears how a play has to 'build' in a certain way, or how 'the conflict' isn't strong enough. These are terms that seem to suggest a deep understanding of what a play is and how it is put together, but in fact they tell us very little. Perhaps a particular play might be helped by one of these suggestions, but they (and other 'rules') are too generally prescribed. To see how silly this prescription is, one has only to ask: what is the clear motivation of Lear? The playwright doesn't write out of 'motivations' but rather out of truth and reality, out of people and story and worlds he or she wishes or needs to create for us. These terms are perhaps useful to the critic, or the dramaturg in finding a way in for themselves to these plays; but such considerations are not how plays, good plays, great plays are made.

The word 'text.' I may be crazy, but I think I just woke up one day and suddenly somehow people starting talking about the 'text' instead of 'the play.' How did this come about? Since when does a playwright only write 'words.' Isn't that the hidden meaning of this? To make the playwright the 'word guy' and leave the theater making to others? As if the writer was only a source from which words flowed that others made into plays.

As I tell my students endlessly - theater is the only artistic form that uses the entire live human being as its expression. Playwrights write people, not words. We write words to convey the people. To push us aside, to make us the 'text guy' and not the 'play guy' is a subtle but dangerous change in thinking and betrays a new mindset about the place of the playwright in the making of theater.

Step commissions. These are commissions - and this is pretty prevalent I believe - ?where the playwright is paid in say three stages. First when he agrees to the commission and signs the contract, 2nd payment when he submits the play, and 3rd payment when he submits the rewrite. Now what is wrong with this picture? What is the underlying assumption here? That the play the playwright submits will need to be rewritten and that the playwright will only do this rewrite only if he or she is paid for it.

Now as we all know the playwright still is the owner of the play, he or she owns the copyright. So - say you build a house and you own this house. And someone comes along and suggests that you add a window. Now if you agree and think this would improve your house a great deal you are going to add this window. However, suppose a guy comes along and says – he thinks you should add a window and he will pay you to do so. To your own house! How bizarre. This guy must be thinking maybe you don't want to add a window and you need to be paid to do it. Well, that is very much what these step deals suggest - and once again insidiously we have the role of the playwright, or at least his judgment and understanding of his own play and what it needs doubted, questioned. In his mind he's thinking he is being paid to do what he doesn't necessarily want to do.

Here's one that will upset some of you. And the one that will take the longest to explain and discuss. The idea of 'participation.' You should see my first year students' faces when I explain what 'participation' is. You mean, they say, that I give up a percentage of my play forever? Why? Because, I say, the theater has done your play. Why? They ask again. Because — and I tell them the theaters will give you two reasons: they have enhanced the play's value by producing it in a important 'market' and two, because the theaters have HELPED the writer with the writing of the play. Ah this HELP again, which may have been unwanted, now we have to pay for! How did this happen?

A little background that most of you know, I'm sure. Participation has been around a long time in the commercial theater, but it is a fairly recent development, certainly as a pervasive practice, in the non-profit theater. And it just sort of happened. No real debate that I know of. Now who is to blame for this? Of course playwrights themselves need to accept a good bit of that blame, for not fighting this harder when it began to occur in non?profit contracts. But - and I would guess that those who now run the Dramatist Guild might even agree until very recently our Guild was pretty myopic, and saw theater only through the lens of Broadway where participation was a given. So there was no understanding of why it should be stopped in the non-profit theater. And so there was little if any serious debate or opposition. Only when Gregory Mosher and Bernie Gersten took over Lincoln Center and they refused to take any participation from new work was there even the glimmer of discussion. And certainly nothing like the praise that those two gentlemen deserved.

So it happened because no one fought it. The playwrights were too weak and disorganized to fight back and understand what was being done to them. So - I suppose it's our fault. However, as we all know, that's not how the theater works, the serious theater works.

I remember an executive committee meeting many years ago at the Guthrie where I was working, when we were going over salary increases for the next season. When it came to the proposed raise for actors one new board member said, 'but I understand that there are always lots of actors who want to play each part. So why are we now going to pay actors more? We should pay them less and save that money.' A few minutes later a couple of more experienced members of the board took this gentleman aside and explained. And what they explained is obvious to all of us in this room: we in the theater have a responsibility not just to our immediate bottom line, but to the future of our art and profession. You apply principles of hardnosed business to every element of the theater and you will destroy the theater. So yes, we playwrights did not protect or fight for ourselves. Yes, we should have. But that failure does not make us — fair game.

We write our play, we own our play and we should continue to own our play - all of it, at least as long as we stay in the non-profit theater, which is a theater that raises its money often on claims of producing new writing.

Now only one argument about this has ever made sense to me: if a playwright has a huge hit, shouldn't some of that money come back to the theater and support other writers and other productions? And I have signed many contracts in England stating just this, that should I make a very large amount of money from the play during a given year, then a percentage is owed to the theater. That makes sense. That is responsible. But I have never seen an American theater contract with anything like that language. If theaters won't take it upon themselves to rectify this situation, if playwrights prove as a group too weak and unfocused, then I say let's turn to the funders themselves, the foundations and donors, and ask does this make sense to you, that healthy percentages of future incomes from plays presented in smallish theaters with small royalties, requiring months and months of work and involvement by the playwright - should these theaters now have a right to this? Should they now own part of the plays? And what signal does this send to the writer, especially the young ones?

These are a few - there are many more - specific examples of how this mindset toward the playwright has found its way into all reaches of the theater and therefore how difficult it will be to change.

Finally to conclude, as I'm running out off time: EMPOWERMENT, that I suppose is what all this is about - allowing the playwright to feel that he or she owns the play, IN ALL MEANINGS OF THAT WORD. AND TO HAVE PRIDE IN THAT OWNERSHIP. Prescribing 'rules' - this does the opposite. A culture with a mind set of 'help,' does the same. The loss of a percentage of one's play - the same again. And so it is my hope and I believe my profession's best hope — to change this mindset and the culture based upon it. When I was asked to give this speech, I was told to speak about anything I wanted. I knew right away that this is what I wished to talk about with all of you. Because, it is my great belief and hope, that it will be from gatherings like these, gatherings of caring, dedicated theater professionals, lovers of theater, that we can change how we think, change the broken ways, and reinvigorate, even re-imagine our theater. Thank you.
--Richard Nelson

Richard Nelson's plays include Conversations in Tusculum, Frank's Home, How Shakespeare Won the West, Rodney's Wife, Franny's Way, Madame Melville, Goodnight Children Everywhere (Olivier Award, Best Play), The General from America, New England, Left, Misha's Party (with Alexander Gelman), Columbus and the Discovery of Japan, Two Shakespearean Actors (Tony Nomination, Best Play), Some Americans Abroad (Olivier Nomination, Best Comedy), Principia Scriptoriae. His musicals include James Joyce's The Dead (with Shaun Davey, Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical), My Life with Albertine (with Ricky Ian Gordon), Paradise Lost (with Hal Prince and Ellen Fitzhugh). He has adapted and/or translated numerous classical and contemporary plays, including Chekhov's The Seagull, The Wood Demon, Three Sisters, Strindberg's Miss Julie, The Father, Goldoni's Il Campiello, Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro, Pirandello's Enrico IV, Moliere's Don Juan, Erdman's The Suicide, Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and Jean-Claude Carriere's The Controversy of Valladolid. His work for film and television includes Ethan Frome (Miramax Films), Sensibility and Sense and The End of a Sentence (both American Playhouse). He has written numerous radio plays for the BBC. Mr. Nelson is an Honorary Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and a Professor (Adjunct) and Chair of the Department of Playwriting at The Yale School of Drama.