What are we doing when we write for the stage? Are we entertaining ourselves? Entertaining others? Having our say? Trying to make a living? Trying to make a point? Furthering the art form? Joining the dialogue? Trying to save the ship? Trying to sink the ship? Getting even? Getting ahead? Keeping our career alive? Completing a commission? What?
We’ve all written for all of these reasons from time to time. We’ve all needed what only the theater has to give, and we’ve all offered our hearts up to the gods in the hope of getting a place at the playwrights’ table. And we have all been hurt. We have all heard
“No, you can’t sit here. You’re not ready.”
“Yes, you can sit here, but we’re not going to feed you.”
“Are you crazy? People like you can’t sit here.”
“OK, you can sit here, but just til the new you comes in.”
“No, you write for TV, you can’t sit here.”
“Yes, you can sit here. But just til your next show opens.”
If you are reading this magazine, you know that it hurts to write for the theater. But you also know that hurt is not just what artists go through. Hurt is the human condition. Fortunately, hurt is not the only human condition. Humans also feel hope and love and fear and confusion and power and glory. They experience frustration and defeat and triumph. They long for the wrong person, they make bargains with the devil, they take things that don’t belong to them, they have fatal flaws and outrageous fortune, they make the same mistake again and again, and sometimes they learn things. Especially in musicals, people learn things. What we need to do, as playwrights, librettists and composers, is not try for a seat at the table, we just need to say what it has felt like to be a lone, living human in our time. The playwrights who convey the human condition, who chart the desperate path of one human toward one goal, those are the playwrights we treasure. The plays that tell the stories we need to hear, because we are traveling the same road, those are the plays that survive.
We all want to write these plays that don’t go back in the drawer, that have a life of their own. Like Dr. Frankenstein, we all want to create the monster that gets up off the table and walks out into the night looking for love. But how do we do that? If we were going up a big mountain, a trusted guide would tell us what to wear, what to take in our pack, and when to stop and rest. Listening to this good guide could improve our chances of getting to the summit and back, save us time and even save our lives, maybe.
So what are the ropes of the playwrights’ life, the signposts, the signals, the ways to get on the right path and stay there. This whole issue is a collection of them, from some of the finest guides we have, people who have spent their lives watching people go up the big mountain. But I want to talk a little about SUBJECT, because in my experience, choosing the wrong subject is the mistake you don’t recover from, it’s the beginner’s mistake that anybody can make any time. So what is a good subject for a play? Arthur Miller said the only subject was, how does a man make of the world, a home. But what does that mean?
When I was first starting to write, Jon Jory asked me what I wanted to write about. I said I didn’t know, I just knew I belonged in the theater. And then he gave me this advice. “Go back to a time when you were really scared and write about that. Being afraid makes you remember details, and details convince people a story is real. And chances are, if you were scared by this, other people will be scared of it too, and that will make them pay attention.” The play I wrote after that advice was Getting Out, based on a violent girl I met when I worked in a state mental hospital. It launched my career and is still the most performed of all my plays. All my students have heard this advice. David Lindsay-Abaire has credited this advice with giving him the subject for Rabbit Hole. I heard Toni Morrison say the same thing once. She said, “Dread is what keep people turning the pages.” Clearly, fear of something is a great subject.
At this point, we could go through all the great plays and musicals and reduce them to what all the great characters were afraid of. That might feel trivial, but Hamlet is afraid of what will happen if he doesn’t discover who killed his father. Nora is afraid of what will happen to her if she keeps living in Torvald’s house. Lear is afraid his girls don’t love him, Oedipus is afraid more people will die if the curse is not lifted. Masha is afraid of not getting to Moscow, Juliet is afraid she won’t get Romeo, Curly is afraid Judd will take his girl, Maria is afraid to leave the convent, etc etc. But a better use of our time is thinking about fear, and how we are pulled to edge of our seats when we have some form of it on the stage.
One thing I know for absolute certain, it isn’t enough just to have the fear by itself. I was recently onboard a whale-watching expedition north of Iceland. I was so afraid of drowning that I wore a huge blue moonsuit, an orange raincoat, a life preserver, two sets of gloves, and three hats. I never stood up, not once. Because the sea was so rough, I held onto my seat and kept my eyes shut the whole trip. What I was hoping for the whole time was some relief from this fear, but it never came. Only when the boat docked was I free to leave, and I got out of there as fast as I could. If this had been a play, I would have been furious at the playwright for trapping me and torturing me like this.
The point here is that your character needs some action she can take to overcome her fear and save herself. We come to the theater to see what people do when they get in trouble, almost any kind of trouble. We want to see this because we may find ourselves in that same trouble someday. For all of our time on earth, we have gathered around our tribal fires at night to listen to stories. But they are not the stories of what made our people happy. They are the stories of how our people survived their difficulties. Maybe this is why we know so little about being happy, because we see so few stories about how people do it. But we have survived as a species because we have told stories about how people have solved their problems, conquered their fears and got where they were going. Or not.
So now. This is your guide speaking. If you know a story about a brave human in big trouble, write that. Write how the trouble started, what the person did, and how it turned out. Little troubles, for example, troubles that will solve themselves just by the person growing up, you don’t need to waste your time on those. Write about greed, revenge, rage, betrayal, guilt, adultery, and murder. When writing about softer troubles such as injustice, loss, humiliation, incapacity, aging, sadness and being misunderstood, just be sure to attach them to one of the more active troubles. Attach betrayal to loss and you have a play. Attach adultery to aging and you have a play. And let fear drive the whole thing. An aging woman is afraid her husband is having an affair, so she plots to kill him. Just kidding, but you see what I mean. We know we would watch that story, as stupid as it is in sentence form. Then you just add your great dialogue and your fabulous scenes and you’re done. Haha.
Seriously, what we are doing when we write for the stage is telling stories people need to see. We do it for the same reason we put up stop signs, because it is important, for some reason, for people to stop at this place and look around. Our place at the playwrights’ table is determined by how many people remember the stories we tell, and people remember the stories they feel they will need someday. Just like life. Urgency is the key to a good story, fear is the force that keeps it moving. The good news is that humans are so hungry for stories that our brains invent them even when we are asleep. So they need us. It is a great privilege to be a storyteller. And if it hurts, it hurts. We can take it.
Marsha Norman won a Pulitzer for her play ‘night, Mother, a Tony for The Secret Garden on Broadway and a Tony nomination for her book for The Color Purple.
Ms. Norman is co-chair of Playwriting at Julliard and serves on the Steering Committee of the Dramatists Guild. She has numerous film and TV credits, as well as a Peabody for her work in TV. She has won numerous awards including the Inge Lifetime Achievement in Playwriting. She is also Presiden of the Lilly Awards Foundation, a non-profit honoring women in theater and working for gender parity nationwide.