Limits, freedom, & ghost stories: a discussion on writing collaboratively

Writing tips
Ben French


Commissioned by Actors Theatre of Louisville, playwrights Jen Silverman, Meg Miroshnik, Martyna Majok, and Jiehae Park collaborated to write a new play called Wondrous Strange for the theater’s Apprentice Company. Soon after the play’s run at the Humana Festival of New Plays, PWC Editor Ben French corresponded with the group to discuss the process of writing a new play collaboratively with other writers. 

You four just finished up working on Wondrous Strange. Can you tell me a little bit about how the four of you found yourselves together in the room?

Jen Silverman: I had done Humana the year before with my play The Roommate, so when Amy Wegener reached out and asked if I’d like to come back and do the commission, it was a no-brainer. I think Actor’s Theatre is really good about continuing relationships with artists they know, while also making space for artists in the room who they want to know.

Meg Miroshnik: I just got a lovely email from Actors Theatre Literary Director Amy Wegener one day asking if I might be available and interested in the project. It was magical! And then even more so when I found out that Martyna, Jen, and Jiehae were the other writers involved and that Marti Lyons would be directing and Jessica Reese dramaturging.

Martyna Majok: We owe a lot to Marti and Jess. We were given the time-frame for the entire project, which I think was established by Actors Theatre, and then Marti and Jess structured our time within that. We knew from the start that we were each responsible for four pieces—2 ten-minute and 2 three-minute ones.

Before this project, you four had never co-written a play like this. With some mystery surrounding what to expect, how did the process begin? Was there something that jumpstarted everything?

JS: The way ATL generally structures the commission is smart and well-considered—they give the writers a common theme (in our case, “haunting”) and a packet of material (in our case, related to Kentucky-specific ghost stories), so everyone has a shared vocabulary and place to start. Each of us wrote four pieces, and Marti Lyons (our director) and Jessica Reese (our dramaturg) picked two from each, and then we all figured out how those pieces talked to each other.

M. Majok: As playwrights, we had roughly a week in September (for exploration), a week in December (for workshopping our text), and then a week or so in February to be at some part of rehearsals. And we could Skype in whenever. 

M. Miroshnik: We began with the same inspirational texts, listened to the Apprentice Company tell the same ghosty stories, and wrote pieces responding to one another's work.

M. Majok: That first week in September was priceless—we met our company of actors and got to know their interests and skills through making work pretty immediately. It truly was play. We had all read the same ghost stories, shared our own, and then proceeded to make theatrical happenings all over the Actors Theatre building. Lots of flashlights, lots of sheets. A great time. We remembered the pleasure of ghost stories. And the potential for beauty and humor. A lot of what we shared that week seemed to inspire our writing.

Then the process began. As you were working, what challenges and surprises arose while writing with other playwrights in the room? 

M. Majok: That first week, the four of us had conversations about characters, structure, scenes—I mean, we could do anything, which can be both freeing and daunting—but we didn’t nail down any limitations really except the ones given us at the get, which had to do with time. If there wasn’t mutual respect among us, I think the project could have been a disaster. But there was, and we were bound in wanting to make something for these actors that we’d already come to care so much for and to be so inspired by. I’m still in awe with how it came together. But because of that week of sharing, we had built a kind of very specific collective unconscious that we ended up drawing from.

M. Miroshnik: It was thrilling to share process. There was a social quality to development that I don't usually experience. I found it especially liberating to try on other peoples' processes for size. Early on during our first development workshop, Jiehae suggested we bring in short "content-less" scenes for the actors. I had never worked in that way (building a world is like 99% of the work I do at the beginning of a project, no matter how short). Being given permission to forego that step was kind of a revelation for me to jump-start writing. It's a strategy I've used alone on my own work since.

Another big difference between this model and a more conventional single-playwright process is that the writers are not the ones looking out for the skeleton of the piece. Again, I find that so much of the work I do in a rehearsal process is about shaping and reshaping the arc of an evening...but since we were all just responsible for our own discrete pieces of the play, there was kind of a freedom in letting that usual part of my process go. So much credit for authorship of the whole actually goes to our director Marti Lyons, dramaturg Jessica Reese, and assistant director of the Apprentice Company John Rooney. 

JP: It was surprising how egoless the process felt. Because we all knew we were writing for this group of insanely hardworking, talented, open-hearted young actors in the apprentice company, there was a liberation in creating something for them—and there were so many grains from which to start from.

It was really fun to throw in little callbacks in our pieces to other writer’s pieces. Sometimes that could be a challenge (for example, if there was a callback to another piece that ultimately didn’t make it into the evening) but those were very minor bumps in the road. Everyone was so generous about creating space for each other and working flexibly toward the greater goal of the project—serving this fabulous company of actors.

That brings up a good point. This play was written specifically for the Acting Apprentices at ATL. Can you talk about how you approached writing for a specific ensemble of actors? 

JP: We spent most of the first week in open-ended exercises and improvisations. There were some truly frightening, inventive things the actors came up with! This had the dual benefit of giving us material to riff on, and organically teaching us about the personalities, skillsets, and essences of the actors.

I think a lot of writers would say that they learn a lot about the play during initial casting sessions, and while we didn’t have those exactly, we got a similar boost from the second week of workshops, when we rewrote while lots of different actors played the same parts. There were some lovely surprises there, seeing what unexpected thing an actor did with a piece of text. So the back-and-forth of writing and casting was even more fluid and intertwined with the company in a beautiful way.

M. Majok: There was one actor in the company that I knew pretty early on I was gonna write for. We’re from the same part of the world—which can feel rare to me in the theatre—and he “speaks my language.” So I crafted a character for him in a two-hander scene. I didn’t have anyone else’s voice in mind so I wrote the other character with the intention of crafting it around whichever actress was chosen. This was “The Encounter.” I worked longest on that scene, trying to sculpt language that suited those actors and highlighted their strengths and beautiful individual personalities. And for my other piece, “The Watchman,” I had no back-story or character. Just the words of this story. And a specific way of speaking that story that maybe hinted at this character’s present situation. We really built all that with the actor we chose.

I think one of the most personal things about us is the way we speak. It reveals so much about how we approach the world, where we’re from, and how we think. And that’s how I get to know my characters. Once I know how they speak, I know who they are. When you’re writing for certain actors, you’re striking a balance of being inspired by who they are as people and also inventing a new person for them to inhabit.

JS: I tend to collect actors who have a particular facility with tone—riding the edge where the deeply honest meets the deeply weird—and so that was something I looked for. But in this project, given the parameters, it was also important to me to think about them as an ensemble—to see which actors needed material as the other pieces got cast. My second piece, “Bonnets,” was written for the nine female actors of the apprentice company. On a personal front, I couldn’t pass up the chance to put nine ladies on a stage together—because when does that ever happen? And then on an ensemble-minded front, I knew that previous shows that season had been a remount of Glory of the World, and Peter and the Starcatcher, both of which are guy-heavy shows. So I wanted to give the ladies a chance to have the spotlight on them for a second.

M Miroshnik: I love the problem-solving aspect of writing for a set company. The Acting Apprentices at ATL are wonderful, so I was really hoping to play to their strengths and be mindful of giving everyone a spotlight moment. As I've said to our director Marti Lyons a few times throughout the process, there are so few times in life where a playwright gets to "save the day". Usually you're the person who has created a problem that the rest of the team needs to fix. (How do we achieve that effect?!?!? Where do we find that one-in-a-billion actor?!?!?! How do we clean up all that blood?!?!? My words are always the source of someone else's headache.)  It's just glorious to have a specific problem set before you (i.e., these two amazing actors have not yet gotten a meaty moment in this production) and work within those strictures to create a solution.

You all have so much going on right now. What’s next for you? 

JS: After Humana, I go to Pacific Playwrights’ Festival at South Coast Rep, to work on my play Wink. Then from there I’m headed to Latvia and Lithuania, to co-teach an international new play workshop in Riga and Vilnius with Anne Morgan from the O’Neill. In June I land in Berkeley for a few weeks, to workshop a brand new play-with-songs called My Father the Speeding Bullet: Nincest at the Ground Floor Residency. And then in August I go into rehearsals in DC at Woolly Mammoth, for my play Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Boops; In Essence, a Queer and Occassionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were in Middle School and You Read About Shackleton and How He Explored the Arctic?; Imagine the Arctic as a Pussy and It's Sort of Like That. (But we’re calling it Collective Rage: A Play In Five Boops for short…)

M. Miroshnik: The next project on deck will happily involve reuniting with director Marti Lyons at South Coast Rep's Pacific Playwrights Festival. We'll be working on my new play Lady Tattoo. And I'm looking forward to seeing Jen Silverman's Wink in the Festival, too! 

JP: At this moment, I’m at a writer’s colony—I’m still struggling to find a balance between the more isolated, deep-quiet space of generating and the more communal activities of production.  This summer I’ll be at the new Sundance retreat in Utah with designer Tristan Jeffers working on Here We Are Here, and my play Hannah and the Dread Gazebo will have its premiere next season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 

M. Majok: I’m preparing for the world premiere of a new play, Cost of Living, coming up this summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival. This weekend, I’m closing Ironbound at Rattlestick in New York, a play and production that’s been very dear to me, as well as a workshop of the beginnings of a new play, queens, for the Women’s Project Pipeline Festival. I’ve got a few more months in the PoNY apartment so I’m gonna write as much as I can before I’ve gotta pay rent again. And there’s a few more things coming up that have yet to be announced.

Forest image used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Dom Crossley.

About the author

Ben French

Ben French is a writer and interdisciplinary artist. In the past, he has made work with the neofuturist group Modern Shakespeare Society as well as The Sprawl, a multi-city performance making collective. Nowadays, he serves as the Playwrights' Center's Editor and Content Specialist.