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Approaching Rewrites

Playwrights’ Corner

kanishk pandey: The first part of being a writer, I believe, is learning to talk. The field we work in is one of conversation; each written word belongs to a voice, and each voice is only learned from hearing those around us. To put it simply, it is more necessary than anything else to be willing to take part in conversation. It’s only through interaction we actually learn to put words together that could maybe, just maybe, mean something to someone.

This is my first year working with The Lark, working with the Fall Playground - it was the opportunity to work with a team of amazing artists who were all lifting each other up. Along that journey, I came across an issue: I had a script I had no idea where to go with, and nothing to present. When I received my time, time normally allotted to hear a script aloud, I instead had a request: I asked if all the artists, writers and actors and directors and administrators alike, could share any tips or tricks they had for rewriting. We spent the next thirty minutes or so in discussion.

That type of conversation, to me, is what is gratifying both about the career of writing, as well as an institution such as The Lark. The opportunity to converse - to share, to learn, to lift others up, to educate - that form of charity is a part of writing that can’t be replaced.

Below, I and two other writers have shared different techniques and approaches we’ve taken to rewriting scripts. If you’re struggling with rewriting, I hope these help - and if not, the best thing you can do is find someone to talk to. You’ll be surprised what you learn just from that.

Zoom screenshots with actors and writers
Fall 2020 Playground Cohort, taking place virtually. Playground is a laboratory program used to explore work on its feet with directors and actors.

Diane Exavier

Put it away and change the channel! I won’t open the document for a while. Instead, I’ll take in some other forms of art, whether that’s a film, a painting, a sculpture, a podcast, an album...As I’m tuning into this other work, I let the play come back into my head and think about how I might apply components of this other artwork to my play. Sometimes that’s about borrowing form, shape, color, sound, mood, etc. And then I’ll write “B-side” scenes attempting those applications. B-sides are outside or extra scenes that won’t necessarily be in the next draft, but teach me something about the story or characters.  

After putting the play aside for a minute, I’ll return to it and run different scenes through “cold drills.” Cold drills are athletic writing exercises for selected segments of text. The directions are varied and arbitrary. Maybe I rewrite one scene so that it slows all the way down. Maybe I rewrite another scene where I cut off the last three words from each line. Maybe I adjust another scene so that every line is a question. Decide the rule and follow it through the end of the scene. Make up different rules for different scenes. Try not to go in chronological or sequential order. This is about approaching the language as pure material as opposed to the story you might already be emotionally or intellectually attached to. How can you make what you’re familiar with strange so that you might recognize it in a new way?  

kanishk pandey

Considering I’m saying this with rewriter’s block, take it with a grain of salt. But one useful technique I discovered was inspired by a Georg Lukacs essay, where he discusses the importance of potentialities in characters. So the exercise I sometimes follow to try and explore the full extent of my characters’ potentialities is called questions. I spend five minutes writing down as many questions as possible about random categories - from food to dreams to history of injuries. As banal to as “deep” to as specific as possible. Once I’ve spent about an hour just compiling questions, I start writing scenes to answer those questions - the only rule being each scene has to answer two questions, and they cannot be from the same category. 

I approach rewrites in a way that, truthfully, makes them unfun. The first draft, to me, is pure joy. That’s when I experience the play as, hopefully, an audience will experience the end product. So my first draft is a pure ride. But soon, I have to reread the play and realize that the rollercoaster is not the same read as it is written - they’re two varying experiences. So I view the rewriting phase as when you break the rollercoaster down. Now it’s time to look at the scaffolding, at each individual nut, rutter, and the intricacy of the designs on the sides. All to approach the asymptotic experience of that first draft.

I think one thing that really separates theatrical writing and rewriting from the other forms (with exceptions I’m sure) is how the effort is fueled by community. The playground that we’ve all been involved in is an amazing example of that. Because rewriting is so tied to hearing the work, editing the work, hearing others’ thoughts, the presence of a community fuels one's want to rewrite. “Look how the pages changed everyone.” A piece gets to grow with a group, instead of alone in the writer’s room.  Lord knows if I didn’t have people I wanted to experience these artistic things with, I would never rewrite. 

Mona Mansour

I love these thoughts, Diane and kanishk! It’s especially helpful to me because my first experience in theatrical writing was at the Groundlings, when I was a performer in a weekly sketch show called The Sunday Show. It was entirely generative, not rewrite-based. I have mad respect for that process: You basically had to write a short sketch by yourself or with another person, present it to the group on, say, Tuesday night, and if you were lucky, perform it that Sunday. You’d buy costumes, etc, in the hopes that the scene would run for many Sundays. It was very sink or swim. Something that was hysterical on Tuesday might get .5 of a laugh on a Sunday, and then it was out. So while it taught me resiliency, I can’t say I learned how to rewrite from that. 

There are two things I can think of that have helped the most with rewrites. One is very, very basic: Save a draft you like. If you’re old school, print it and put it away. It will always exist. You are then allowed to fuck up your play as much as you need to. Sometimes I rename the whole thing at that point, like, “Draft of Changing the Middle Section,” and then work. I always find great comfort in knowing I have that saved prior draft. One thing I do tend to value is in fact the first impulse, that thing you had to use at Groundlings. If I’m really lost, I’ll go and look at my early handwritten notes on a play. I often can find a line or two that speaks into what the play did in fact end up being, almost like the DNA of it all. I find that very comforting. 

The other thing I heard was from master playwright and teacher Ken Prestininzi, whom I met at New Dramatists. I was about to go into an older play, something I wrote with maybe a more open heart. He said: “Don’t go back in unless you’re prepared to have your heart broken all over again. Otherwise, you’re just moving pieces around, and those are lateral moves.” From that, I sort of gleaned that there are no shortcuts. It has to cost you every time you go back in.

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