The world of the performing arts, and theatre in particular has taken a gut punch this month. Playwrights are reeling, seeing their productions shutter overnight. Theatres are having a difficult time seeing into the future, which has put upcoming productions in jeopardy. Some writers are not even certain that upcoming readings and workshops will happen. There is much uncertainty and relentless worry out there on all media, but I will not attempt to echo it here. Instead let's take a deep, cleansing breath and see if we can make good use of our time in isolation. Because the theatre WILL return, as it always has for millennia; even when interrupted by war, societal upheaval or pandemic.
There is a popular meme going around about how Shakespeare's London saw a pandemic in 1606 which called for the closing of theatres. And in that same year it is believed he wrote three of his greatest plays: King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. It is surprising what a writer can accomplish when isolated and only focused on their work. Noel Coward famously wrote the play Hay Fever in three days. Bernstein, Comden and Green wrote the score for the musical Wonderful Town in three weeks. Think of how much writers get accomplished when they go to a retreat or colony. So let us think of this difficult time as one worldwide colony of playwrights. We have time and isolation. We can make the best of this.
Can you write five pages a day? Then in three weeks, taking one day off to rest and recharge your brain you will have a hundred-page play. Who cares if it is a masterpiece? There will be plenty of time for revisions later. You will have a full play where there was nothing before. If that sounds daunting, make a goal of a single one-act play a week. Or three ten-minute plays a week. Have you ever seen a submission opportunity for a theatre company you really want to work with, but they have asked for something very specific that does not match any of your existing works? This may be the time to stretch yourself to write exactly what they want, which is a good exercise if you are given a specific commission in the future.
Do you have some works that have not had a lot of attention of late? Take an afternoon and take one of your plays. Look at it with fresh eyes. Can it do with some revision? Tighten a plot point, sharpen the dialogue, add a few jokes.
Go through your play collection and review the synopsis on each one. Could it be sharper, clearer or more concise? Then go to your page here on the Playwrights' Center website. Can you update information? Freshen your synopsis? Add links? If you have a page on New Play Exchange, do the same there. And if you have not set up a page on either site, or have not made a great effort to polish it so that it fully represents your work, this is the time to do so.
Reach out to another playwright that you know and whose work you respect. Offer to do a play exchange. You read theirs and they read yours and then share constructive feedback.
Have you considered branching out into screenwriting but don't have the practical training? This is the perfect time to download a textbook on the topic and see if you can carry over your skills to another medium. Maybe you even have a play that could work just as well or better as a screenplay. Have you ever thought about writing sitcoms? Pick an old show where you are very familiar with the typical plots, characters and style. Write your own “spec script” as if you were trying to get hired as a staff writer on the show. This is wonderful practice if you ever get that opportunity to be considered for a sitcom's writing staff.
Do you come from a creative writing background but have limited theatrical experience? This might be an opportunity to learn more about theatre. Find a list online of plays that are considered the greatest ever and read all of them. Study the works of dynamic directors and theatre makers to discover storytelling techniques that go beyond the common “kitchen sink” drama. Treat yourself to a one-month subscription to Broadway HD, which can easily be ordered from their website or an Amazon account. Luxuriate in seeing amazing productions of great plays and musicals from respected companies all over the world. Take the time to watch that long-form miniseries that you have been putting off and see how a writer can tell a story and develop characters over eight hours instead of two. Even YouTube has thousands of videos of plays available. It also has documentaries about theatre creators, and profiles of theatre companies as well. Do you have knowledge of other performing arts disciplines? Study up on opera, ballet, modern dance and mime. Study storytelling techniques and music of another culture. Read a play and then watch the movie version to see how it was adapted to another medium. Watch a movie and then watch a Broadway musical based on it to see how the cinematic becomes theatrical. Read a biography of a great playwright to get inspired while learning more about the inner workings of the business. Peruse an autobiography of a director to get insight into their creative process.
This is the time to go through all of the submissions here on the Playwrights' Center site. Are there any you missed due to a lack of time? Have you considered joining Play Submission Helper or using the resource directory on the Dramatists Guild website to search for new submission opportunities as well? Was there ever a submission that required a long application form or an essay that you might have passed up due to a lack of time? Well, now you have time!
As they say, “this too shall pass.” And when we emerge from our containment cocoons we may find that we are more fortunate than most. We practice a craft that can be created and perfected in isolation. Times of great difficulty and upheaval have led to some of the greatest works of art. Let us see what we can create!