Playwright Mark St. Germain on Theatre
Keynote Address at Orlando Shakespeare Festival
By: Mark St. Germain - Dec 20, 2014
I just came back from the National Theatre in Oslo. It was founded in 1889. It’s incredibly grand and beautiful with a sense of its history - some rooms over 200 years old that are untouched and have the same furniture and paintings they were furnished with.
But more than that-
They have five theaters of all sizes in two different buildings. Not so remarkable – Orlando Shakespeare has three.
They have a year round Repertory Company of 40 Actors, many with contracts for life. Over the years, all get to play a variety of roles, stretching them and giving their audiences that pleasure following their careers.
They have a staff of over 400. Producers, Designers, Stage Manager. It’s like a little city of theater.
And on top of all this, they are funded over 90 percent by the Government.
When I talked with different Actors and Staff I told them how incredible their situation is. They agreed, then would began listing the shortcomings of the system, problems of programming, staffing, contracts. I think it’s human nature. No one can be completely happy – just happy enough.
This is all a way of saying that you might have the same reaction to some of the observations I’d like to make. Robert Anderson used to have a note on his typewriter- “Nobody asked you to be a writer”. And he’s right.
I became a writer late – I taught until I was around 30. I believe so many Teachers are underappreciated, so I thought to myself where is a profession where you could be less appreciated and make even less money? That’s why I became a Playwright. Because I don’t have the talent to be a poet and lower my income more.
I’d like to talk about five things I’ve learned over these 30 years of writing. Actors, the Audience, Critics, Directors and the “Why”. Why are we doing this?
This comes down to learning one thing every six years, so you can see I’m a very slow learner.
So, in alphabetical order-
My biggest contribution to theater was not becoming an Actor.
I went to Graduate School for acting. And during the summer I thought I’d get some experience by auditioning in New York and get a head start learning some of what every actor learns very quickly.
I found about a dozen open calls for Non-Equity Auditions. No appointments just show up and get in line. I was about 20, but there was a long line of actors of all ages. Some looked sad, like they’d been standing in line since they were twenty.
Here are some of the things I learned:
Speak loudly because you have to be heard over the Director and his Staff talking to each other throughout your audition.
Try to make your resume very uninteresting because people will read it while you’re auditioning and not be tempted to even look up at you.
Eat before you audition – you get hungry watching people pass out sandwiches and have lunch in front of you while they argue about which order is theirs.
I decided quickly that I wasn’t cut out for this kind of rejection.
Years later when I decided to write it made it so much easier to get rejections for my plays because at least it was by mail or email and I could be sitting there eating lunch while I read them.
My son is a stand up comedian. One of the first times he went to an open mike in NY he came home and told me not one person in the audience laughed at a single joke.
I went into “Father” mode. I told him, Dan, there are a lot of comedy clubs in the city and you’ll find another one.
He said no. He said he was going to go back to that club every week until he got people to laugh. That’s the kind of courage you need to be an actor.
There’s a very simple way to maximize your chances of having you a successful production. Hire good actors. Period.
If you don’t, it doesn’t matter if every other element of the production is stellar, you might as well put up the closing sign.
Good Actors will not only show you what’s wrong with your play through the rehearsal process, but they often can be so good that they camouflage the flaws of your script.
When you write a scene and watch the Actors and Director try to make it work trying it different ways, listening to any ideas any of you have– when the scene still doesn’t work wake up. It’s your fault. Actors have to have the patience to put up with the self-delusional writers who blame the fact that their script isn’t working because of the way it’s being done.
I know one lyricist who insisted his lyric was hilarious even though he was the only one laughing during previews. He wouldn’t change it night after night until he was justifiably physically threatened. Even then he insisted it wasn’t the lyric’s fault, it was the way it was sung.
I’m not saying that you don’t run into a situation where there’s bad chemistry that sinks a play. But if it’s a good play, someone will hopefully read it and take another chance on it. Meanwhile move on and write another.
Hal Prince had a smart way to handle both success and failure. The morning after a new show opened, whether it was a hit or a bomb, he had a meeting with the creative team of the next one he was doing. Of course that was the day where writers were able to get new work up one year after the next, but you can’t think about that. Just start the next play.
There is an asterisk here regarding Actors or anyone in the company, really, something I learned from Jerry Zaks. We were casting a show, looking at resumes, and I saw an Actor I had seen recently who had given a terrific performance. I told Jerry we had to bring this person in.
Silence. He agreed that this actor was very, very talented, but he didn’t want to see them. When I pressed him he told me that one of the most important things he’s learned is not to work with people he called “Life Shortening Experiences”. He said life isn’t long enough, there are many other great Actors are out there, don’t get someone involved who can make life miserable for everyone.
If you don’t, the other Actors won’t be happy, which means, ultimately, the audience won’t be happy.
So if you see a lot of unhappy Actors on stage except for one, who’s very happy, you’re probably looking at the Life Shortening Experience.
I take that back – the other Actors will be acting like they’re happy.
How many Actors are in the Audience? Can you stand up? Thank you.
Without you we’d all be Novelists.
Two: The Audience
We’ve all been told that an Audience is essential to any night in the theater and it’s certainly true.
They Audience are partners in the process, it’s not theater without them.
What’s not talked about as much is how the Audience helps REWRITE the play.
After you learn from the Actor, Director and Designers, the audience is the Teacher giving you final grades.
This is not because of Talk Backs. Talk Backs are an iffy proposition. Sometimes you learn good things from them. Sometimes you learn how an Audience Member would rewrite your play.
But standing in back of the Audience and watching them, not the play, teaches you what you really need to know.
You see if and when it works.
There are clues to watch for:
An Audience flipping through their programs,
Checking their watches,
Folding their arms,
Dozens of tiny bright lights from iPhones.
Inspecting the theater’s architecture,
Sighs. Moans. Snoring. Groans.
People looking around for anything to throw.
Seriously, there’s a crystal silence that falls over the Audience when the play is working. Body language is different, people are leaning forward slightly in their seats.
So when do they do it? Where are you losing them? Take notes where the shifting starts or ends. Afterwards, ask people you trust what was unclear, what needed more explanation. Or less.
I had a play that in the first reading ran about two hours without an intermission.
When it was complete and after the rehearsal process it ran eighty-five minutes.
Some people would say afterwards, “I wish it had been longer” and I’d say, “Believe me, you don’t.”
And a P.S. – this applies only to a paying Audience, not a run for friends of the company who come as guests or a benefit performance from the St. Anthony Home for the Criminally Insane where the Guards have to teach them to clap.
It’s not true that Playwrights hate all critics. Emphasis on the word “all”.
I can’t say some of my best friends are Critics but I have to say I do have one good friend who is and who’s work I admire, whether it’s praise or a pan.
The best Critics are those who embrace the fact that they’re reporters with opinions and not entertainers.
A good critic loves the theater. This should be obvious, but it’s not always the case. I’ve had conversations with critics who actually try to get sympathy by saying things like, “Do you know how many bad plays I have to sit through? You have no idea how painful two hours can be.”
I do know. Because after working for months or years on a play that you fall in love with I know how painful it is to watch someone dismiss it after two hours. Or respond as if the playwright wrote the play for one reason: to annoy the Critic.
Good critics know theater history. Good critics research a play to know everything they can about it. Whether it’s a new play or YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU.
In their reviews good Critics tell their audience what the play is about. They give specific examples of what they liked or didn’t. How often have we read reviews searching for a clue to whether the reviewer liked it or didn’t? How often have we read reviews where a quote from the play’s dialogue is either praised or damned, and on reading it we think exactly the opposite.
But that’s a good thing. We see what their taste is and base our review of the review on that.
I just co-wrote a comedy with John Markus called THE FABULOUS LIPITONES, about a barbershop quartet in the Midwest who has to replace a member in time for the championships because their founder died on stage holding a high “C”. They had to face off with the National Champions. One critic wrote, “If you are a person who laughs at the name of their rival group THE SONS OF PITCHES , you’ll find this show funny”. He admitted laughing. But it would have been an equally effective if he didn’t. He conveyed the tone of the show.
I’ve never talked about this. I was once a theater critic. I worked for a newspaper on Long Beach Island, a summer resort in New Jersey.
The theater there, the Surflight, did a new musical every week and I covered it.
The Newspaper Editor, named “Pooch” for some reason, called me in when she read my first review, which was ugly. She sat me down and said, ‘I’m not going to tell you what to write. But before you do your next review I want you to think of these things first: These casts are made up of Actors from College and Graduate Schools. They have one week to put up a huge musical, and rehearse the next one while they’re performing the old one every night. And their two strongest actors just left the company without notice and eloped.
'That’s the context you’re reviewing in. And our readers don’t want to read you, they want to read about the show.’
She was a thousand percent right. And karma was served when I started to write plays of my own.
I have a system to determine how good a critic is.
At the end of the year most arts writers put together a “Ten Best” column. It’s a nice way of looking back and appreciating the highlights of the year.
Then there are critics who put out a “Ten Worst” column. These people should stop writing about the theater and become Undertakers. They like staring at corpses, especially if they helped kill it.
Someone sent me this quote from Teddy Roosevelt after an experience I had with a Critic Mortician.
It’s about Monday Morning Quarterbacks everywhere:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
There are critics whose work is remembered and who stand out because their work is incisive and beautifully written.
Critics like Shaw. Walter Kerr. Alexander Woollcott. Robert Brustein. Terry Teachout.
Then again, all these critics wrote plays as well.
I’ve been very fortunate to work with many wonderful directors and in all these years only one Life Shortening Experience.
I remember his helpful advice when I offered a suggestion on how to button a scene. He said, and I quote, “That is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.”
And maybe it was. But good Directors, who have people skills, always a good thing, never have said it. Maybe something like, “That’s interesting” or “You look stressed, why don’t you go home early today?”
Beware when you overhear a Director say “I really should have read the whole play before I agreed to do it.”
Good directors are Captains. They navigate the entire production, get everyone to work so it goes in one direction. At times they’re also coaches and cheerleaders. Before there were Dramaturges they were the dramaturges and many still are. They’ll ask the right questions and offer opinions. They force you to think, defend your ideas or change them.
Good directors don’t in every sentence use the word “I”, “What I want, what I think.” They use the word “We” as in “Maybe we can try it this way…”
Good directors realize theater is collaboration. If they want to pursue only their own vision they should be directing films, which is a “Director’s Medium”. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone call Theater an Actors’ or Playwrights’ or Designer’s medium. It’s all of ours: a team sport.
Actors want to make their part work, Writers want to make the play work, Directors want to make every element of the production work together. That’s a lot of pressure.
And it’s why Directors should be allowed to throw at least one, maybe two fits during the process.
The Master of this was Producer and Director David Belasco, who had the Belasco Theater in NY named after himself while he ran it. Belasco was known as “The Bishop of Broadway” because he wore all black and a priest’s collar.
Legend has it that his ghost still haunts the Belasco and that sounds very logical to me. He wasn’t a man who let go.
Belasco could only throw his unique fit once during a play’s rehearsal process, and that was after making sure everyone knew about the pocket watch he carried that he said his beloved Grandfather had given him.
When he decided he needed that extra push to get everyone to work even harder, he called the cast together and ranted at them. He got more and more worked up until he reached into his pocket, took out the pocket watch and smashed it on the ground.
And then Belasco would begin to sob over the loss of his Grandfather’s legacy. Naturally, everyone comforted him and went above and beyond in the show to make him feel better.
After which, Belasco would go out and buy himself another prop watch. A smart and crazy man. Another reason he directed mostly new plays.
There are Directors and then there are Directors who have the courage to do new plays.
This means adding the volatile element of a live playwright. Someone who is as opinionated as they are insecure. Who might make the director to decide afterwards to work only with playwrights who lived only ‘till 2014.
So I’m grateful for all the brave Directors, like the ones we have here, who have the same attitude as the actor Dan Lauria, who is the Patron Saint of New Plays and says, “I’m tired of just doing plays by dead white guys.”
Directors, could you stand?
LASTLY, a question I don’t know the answer to.
Why do we all do this?
Tony Kushner, who wrote ANGELS IN AMERICA, a play part of theatre history, stirred up a lot of people when he described himself as a Screenwriter first and not a Playwright.
His reason was simple: he supports himself writing Screenplays.
This was seen as some kind of blasphemy – shouldn’t being a Playwright carry much more prestige than writing for commercial film and television?
The sad truth is that I don’t know of one writer who supports themselves writing plays.
I raised my family by writing for TV and Film. I was very fortunate. I could have been waiting tables or working as a gofer for TV and film writers. Many writers balance other professions with their writing- teaching or tech design.
There are some theaters now like the Arena and Signature in NY who have put playwrights on staff, which is an amazing act. Playwrights get a salary and even medical benefits.
I’ve read a blog by a writer who calls himself Dennis who compared these positions to winning a mini-lottery. According to his numbers, the Dramatists Guild puts the number of member playwrights at about 6,000. He assumes ten percent of those are mid-level to good playwrights, which totals 600. So getting one of six positions at Arena puts your odds at 1 percent.
Then there are the lucky playwrights who have a successful Broadway or Off-Broadway play, but lets look at the financial breakdown based on one dollar that they would earn.
Ten cents of that dollar immediately goes to an agent. That leaves 90 percent. A portion of what remains, let’s say 5 percent, might go to the theater that originated the show. That leaves 85 cents.
Forty percent of 85 goes to your producer who has kept your show open for a set amount of weeks, maybe 30. That leaves the writer 51 cents out of 100. Pre taxes. And other expenses.
I’ve lost money on having plays produced off-bwy in NY because the royalties didn’t even cover the parking. And how many plays does the average playwright have produced every year? I think we’d all be thrilled if the number was one.
The average Salary in America is $46,440.
I’ve read the Poet Laureate of the United States gets the whopping annual salary of $35,000.
Maybe Playwrights should re-consider poetry.
But back to the question “Why do we do this?” which is beginning to sound masochistic.
There is an organization called the Dramatists Guild. The Dramatists Guild is the Good Fairy protecting playwrights.
They make sure that one of the biggest benefits of writing plays stays intact: Your words are protected.
Said as written.
Which is not the case with writing for TV or Film, where your words are sold and owned and whichever few of them the producers choose to use you have no control over.
Playwrights have control over their words. A Director or Theater can’t take a play by Brian Friel and decide to change its structure or add songs. A Theater doing the work of Samuel Beckett can’t even change anything called for in the stage directions. Thank you Dramatists Guild.
The first time I wrote a TV half hour for THE COSBY SHOW I was incredibly green. I had written only plays and recently stopped teaching and working at an arts agency.
Two of the producers had seen a play I wrote, asked me to come in and write a script for them.
I turned it in, got their notes, and rewrote it – it centered around the death of the youngest girl, Rudy’s, hamster.
One of the scenes was set in a Vets Office where Rudy and her Cosby took the Hamster.
The night they were taping it I was sitting in the audience watching the show. Almost through it – only a scene or two left, and no surprises.
The cast was saying the words I wrote.
And then the door to the Vets office was thrown open and a seal entered. Cosby and Rudy sat and watched the Seal Trainer do tricks for a few minutes, the scene ended, cut to a commercial, and the script went on as written.
Afterwards I met with the Writer-Producers who were very happy and asked me how I liked it.
All I could say was “The seal- the seal”- they told me Cosby had seen a seal act when he was performing in Vegas last weekend and brought them back.
They thought I was pretending to be surprised. And when they realized I really was one of them said to me. “You don’t get it. You had 90 percent of your script shot as written. That will probably never happen again”.
And he was right. Beside hour-long shows, which film so quickly they have limited time to rewrite scripts, it never came close to 90 percent again.
There’s a reason to be a playwright.
The next reason for writing plays is why we’re here tonight. Theaters with staffs like the Orlando Shakespeare Theater and UCF who care about New Work and don’t want American Theatre to become a Museum of Revivals of Revivals. Who decided to dedicate themselves to working on theater and not Wall Street. Could you stand, please?
We choose to do theater because we can’t be happy doing something else. We’re addicted. And theater addicts come together and hope to find a home, or build a home, to share it with others.
It might not be a full time home for playwrights, but while you’re here, it’s a home and that helps you get through the times you’re out there alone with your plays trying to find them another home.
And along the way there are halfway houses for support. Organizations that support new plays and playwrights like New Dramatists and the National New Play Network. New Play Festivals like this one. You have no idea how just encouragement of someone interested in your work keeps you working.
So is that enough of a reason? Not yet.
I think it’s this-
Tonight, when we see a reading, we’ll be breathing that story with the actors, here, alive, with an event that will never be the same because the audience will never be the same.
Television doesn’t breathe with you.
Film doesn’t breathe with you.
They’re like Skype in a way. You can sit there and talk with someone you love, get pleasure from it, but it’s never going to be the same as sitting in the same room with.
I think the greatest American play that’s been written is OUR TOWN.
It’s foolproof. Whether it’s being done by the Junior High School or a Professional Troupe it affects you.
Because we share the lives of ordinary people, like ourselves, in three acts:
Love and marriage
Death and Dying
That’s all of us up there. Day to day, year to year, it all adds up to the fate we all share.
And it tries to make some sense of it. And comfort us.
There are lines in OUR TOWN, no matter how many times I’ve seen it, that break my heart over and over.
When EMILY, brought back from an early death to see a day of her life as a child and unable to watch it. She asks the Stage Manager.
“EMILY: "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?"
STAGE MANAGER: "No. Saints and poets maybe...they do some.”
So she says Goodbye.
“Let's really look at one another!...It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed... Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover's Corners....Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking....and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths....and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
And the Stage Manager tells us:
“Now there are some things we all know, but we don't take'm out and look at'm very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even the stars… everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you'd be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being.”
Thornton Wilder wrote some wonderful books. THE BRIDGE OVER SAN LUIS REY, THEOPHOLUS NORTH and many more.
And yet he wrote:
“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
That’s what we share with two hours of our lives together.
Things that we know but don’t take out to look at very often.
What it means to be a human being.