Editor’s note: this is a guest post by Takeo Rivera, author of the play Goliath.
I’m not really a playwright.
When I’m hanging out with real playwrights—folks who have been trained in a dramatic, theatrical tradition with gorgeous well-refined scripts, I feel like an imposter. That’s because, my female, male, and genderqueer friends…
I’m not really a playwright. I’m a poet.
Not only that, I’m the worst kind of poet: I’m a spoken word/slam poet, the kind of poet to whom Harold Bloom has attributed “the death of art.” So anytime I’m hanging out in theater soirees, I can’t help but shake the feeling that I should gather up as many hors d’oeuvres as I can before the bouncer figures out that I don’t deserve to be there.
Why am I revealing this deep, dark secret? First, I wanted to amuse you. But secondly, and more importantly, I want to express that even if you come from a poetry background—or hail from any non-theater disciplinary upbringing—the realm of drama is, in fact, open to you, perhaps even imperatively so.
Despite the fact that I write choreopoems instead of bona fide, dramaturged, character-driven masterpiece scripts, I have one such piece staged in New York City this month.
And to think that back when I was a sophomore in college, I was terrified of getting into the field.
Playwriting seemed so massive and intimidating back then, not just in terms of genre but in terms of logistics; assuming I could even get the play staged, the notion of relying on an entire infrastructure of directors, set designers, and actors seemed far outside the scope of my comparatively myopic solitary writing practices. If it wasn’t for Cherrie Moraga, my writing mentor at the time, who forbade me from writing poetry in her classes in order to force me to attempt dramatic writing, I would never have expanded beyond the comfort zone of poetry.
Sometimes we need some prodding to try out a different form.
In short, what I am trying to say is that you can do it. It is possible to enter playwriting and maybe even get your work staged, and it isn’t that painful.
Allow me to try to dispel some myths and provide some tips for you today:
Myth: Writers need to specialize in one form at a time. I shouldn’t even try playwriting until I get poetry/short stories/creative nonfiction mastered. Or, if I do try doing multiple forms, I should keep these skill sets separate.
Reality: Boundaries between writing forms are meant to be semi-permeable.
Trying playwriting will make you a stronger poet, fiction writer, etc. Conversely, contrary to popular belief, your preexisting training can inform your work in other forms in positive ways.
Allow me to illustrate: once, in the process of playwriting, I’d find myself wanting to bust out with some intense lyricism or metaphor or such, even if it didn’t necessarily fit the character. What I came to realize was that the artistic project required a formalistic shift—that the entire internal logic of the piece would have to transform in order to fully actualize what it was I wanted to accomplish.
My first play became a choreopoem, infusing styles from spoken word poetry, in order to best convey my message. That project had to go in that direction, and it ended up being fairly successful and well-received by both mentors and audiences.
Depending on the project, I have often found it simply easier for me to write scripts as if they were poems. Quite literally. I write many of my scripts with line breaks; this gives not just the text but the writing process a kind of aural quality, with each breath punctuated in the text. Since plays need to come alive on stage, I find it very helpful to break the formatting standards.
The point is that you can make the form fit your voice, rather than the voice fit the form, and that applies to playwriting, as well.
Myth: Writing a script is one thing. Getting it staged is downright impossible, so it’s not even worth writing a script if I could spend my time working on a manuscript of poetry instead.
Reality: While it’s true that getting staged is a challenge, it’s not impossible.
From what I can tell, getting staged is largely about building connections: connections with actors, directors, etc. before the writing has even started. It is possible conduct some research to ascertain who is in the local theater scene, then try to attend or apply to their workshops and exercises. However, it is often easy to build these connections unintentionally while in a university setting, which was my case—the majority of folks who were part of my first staged production were friends I already knew through classes, extracurricular activities, and the like. Even if you are a grad student, tap the undergrad student community: there are often legions of undergrads who want a shot at an acting opportunity, many of them absurdly talented (like undergrad Ollin, by the way).
Of course, you can still do this even if you are no longer a student: you can use your alumni connections and contact folks in student groups (or corresponding faculty) at your alma mater. Many well-established playwrights apply for prestigious fellowships at universities largely to have a student pool with which to workshop and stage their new work; with the right connections, you may not even need a fellowship to gain such access.
In my case, the producer and director also nominated the collegiate production of my play to the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival. A representative from the Kennedy Center came to watch the production and accepted the play into the ACTF Regional Festival in Los Angeles. Thus, by applying to theater festivals, it is possible to rise from the “amateur” student level of theatrical production to that of a more prestigious setting.
As you can see, it can pay to start small and branch out further.
Myth: If my play hasn’t been staged, I’m a failure and it was all a waste of time.
Reality: Even if your play is never staged, it’s worth it on several other levels.
Let’s say that staging doesn’t happen, or it’s just something you don’t feel like doing yet. Of course, playwriting is an excellent artistic exercise to perform even if it doesn’t ever see the light of a theater. However, you can still submit that script to playwriting contests, workshops in the area, etc.
Try to get on listservs for budding playwrights in your region, as there are many excellent opportunities for such. Not to mention that all you need is a couple of friends to put up a roundtable reading of your play, which is excellent for both “sounding out” the work and establishing an “event” for the work to go semi-public!
Well, in any case, no matter what your background, be it poet, scholar, essayist, or fiction writer, just know that it is still possible to try to write something for the stage by just adapting your preexisting skill set.
It isn’t as hard as you might think!
Takeo Rivera is a poet, scholar, and activist who is currently enrolled as a PhD student in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. For the last two years, he has worked as a rape crisis advocate and educator in San Jose, CA. His play, “Goliath,” directed by Alex Mallory, is currently enjoying a seven-performance run in the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity in New York City, which concludes June 18. See http://www.poetictheater.com/goliath for more details
Have you ever thought of writing outside your own genre or form? Ever experimented? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
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