Sunday, April 28, 2013

Playwrights Theresa Rebeck, David Lindsay-Abaire and Nikkole Salter Share Thoughts on Mark Twain House Panel

Theresa Rebeck, Nikkole Salter, Frank Rizzo and David Lindsay-Abaire
By Lauren Yarger
I enjoyed attending part of the annual Writers' Weekend and Bookfair at the Mark Twain House in Hartford yesterday. The big draw of Saturday's events was the Playwrights Panel, featuring Theresa Rebeck (Seminar, Dead Accounts, The Understudy), Nikkole Salter (In the Continuum, Carnaval) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Pulitzer Prize winner Rabbit Hole, Good People, Fuddy Meers).

Moderated by Hartford Courant arts columnist and theater reviewer Frank Rizzo, the panelists discussed everything from their process for writing to reacting to reviews of their work. The event was informative and lively with Rebeck even taking Rizzo to task for a review of her work.

Here are highlights of what they had to say:

What's the methodology for your writing process; do you focus on one idea or have a bunch going on at once?

Rebeck: She works in different media, so she'll have an idea for a novel working alongside a play and a film or TV show (Rebeck's most recent TV show is "Smash."
Salter: She is more in the beginning of her career, so she doesn't have to juggle projects yet, but kidded that "broke" playwrights can make themselves sound busier by saying "Oh, I am focusing on one thing."
Lindsay-Abaire: 20 ideas might be in his head for many years, then he'll "smoosh" some of them together and see whether they form a play.

What's the process for collaboration?

Salter: Much of the award-winning In the Continuum (co-authored with Danai Gurira) was birthed through improvisation. As a writer, she needs to bounce ideas off other people and to hear the play. She has had the creative team for her plays on board about half way through the process of writing them.
Rebeck: She wrote Bad Dates for Julie White. Sometimes collaboration involves writing for people you have worked with. You know they know how to do it. You won't have to explain. Novels are more lonely.
Lindsay-Abaire: When one of his earlier plays, Fuddy Meers, was being produced, the director and actors spent a lot of time studying and discussing the characters and their actions, but what he was seeing in rehearsal made him wonder why they wouldn't "just do it the way it is in my head." When an audience came in previews, everything clicked. There's a "fine line between giving people their process and knowing what you want," he said. And in the movies, you have less control over the process. It's like being an extra in a film, watching it for yourself and saying, "Oh, there I go."

Are dramaturgs helpful to the process?

Rebeck -- No, if they seem to have their own agenda; yes if you find over time that you trust them. It's "dicey" if they don't know your taste.
Lindsay-Abaire: for historical pieces, a dramaturg can keep you accurate and honest. Who does he trust to read his work? The student writers group that formed when he was a Julliard and which continues. Dan Sullivan "has given me the best dramaturg advice I ever have received" though he has the title director rather than dramaturg. (In case you're wondering, a dramaturg is someone who helps research and shape the story).

Do you care what the critics say?

Salter: Yes and no. She reads reviews, but with a grain of salt. It is, after all, just one opinion. That opinion can make or stop opportunities for the show, though.
Rebeck: Tries not to read them. Sometimes they seem to focus on calling her a man hater, a feminist, a sexist. She seems always to be told that she has some secret agenda when her only agenda was to write a good play. She can't always figure out what triggered anger from the reviewer and feels they sometimes hide behind the excuse that their opinions are justified because their readers want to know.
Lindsay-Abaire: His ideas about critics have changed over the years. Early on, he embraced good reviews and joking that he "slept with them under my pillow." He bristled, however, when critics panned his early, more absurdest works and said, "I could write one of those naturalistic plays if I wanted to. So I wrote Rabbit Hole."
"You're welcome," Rizzo quipped.
Inevitably, criticism continued despite the Pulitzer, with critics saying he sold out by writing a couch play. Ultimately the process caused him to grow.

Do they ever feel they are being categorized?

Rebeck: She gets called a chick playwright. She gets tired of the "woman playwright" category. Being a woman who writes comedy is even more rare and creates a "nervousness."
Salter: They expect black stories and black characters.
Lindsay-Abaire: People want you to re-create the type of thing you wrote before, only you change as a person over time and so does your writing. He can't go back to creating silly plays written by a young man who didn't know what he was doing because he isn't the same person any more.

Can people make a living these days as a playwright? How does one get produced?

Lindsay-Abaire: Hollywood work helps. There's pressure for playwrights to write works that can be produced commercially, rather than to create brilliant plays that might be more expensive to stage or which won't appeal to a larger audience. Submit everywhere you can (his first resource was "The Dramatist's Source Book"). "You never know what line is going to catch a fish."
Salter: "It's like dating." You check meet up with many different producing houses to find the right match.

What have you seen recently that really knocked your socks off?

Rebeck: Once
Salter: Enjoyed being in an appreciative audience for Motown.
Lindsay-Abaire: Was excited to see Clifford Odets' The Big Knife, which he had not seen before and was blown away by some of the performances.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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