by Fiona Wheeler
Whether it’s producing, acting, directing or writing, being involved in independent theater productions can increase a screenwriter’s knowledge, skills, and experience.
1. Writing for Stage
In Tales from the Screen Trade William Goldman wrote, “When a novel dies, or a movie, it’s usually at least a year between when your work is over and disaster overtakes you. But in the theater you’ve just finished that week and you have no defenses.”
For an established writer, the imminent threat of bad reviews is excruciating. But for an early-career writer working on stage shows, which have budgets in the hundreds or thousands rather than the millions, it is an amazing and affordable opportunity to see your work performed and to learn from it as soon and as much as possible.
Writing full-length stage plays allows you to work on your characters and story development without the strain of also having to juggle the complexities of screen format convention. You can just focus on telling the drama and creating characters complex enough to sustain a long-form story.
The performative arts aren’t the natural wheelhouse of writers. There are a million differences between the two art forms. That’s why writers who write-for-performance need to take the time to walk a mile in the shoes of actors.
Performing in plays by other writers gives you a chance to see things from the perspective of an actor. What script notes come across as over-written and condescending? What do you personally need from a script, and how does that differ from the needs expressed by the other performers in the ensemble? There’s no one method for acting, so as a writer you have to learn ways of phrasing things that inspires actors who work in all kinds of ways.
Why not just act in something you wrote yourself? I’ve met many people who are determined to write, act and direct their own productions. I’d point out that theater, television, and film are collaborative arts. If you want other people to give you vast sums to make a film, then you have to have a proven track-record of collaboration. If you’ve only ever bossed yourself around, then a studio/investor is right to worry that if you were given the reigns you might not respect their instructions and wishes.
Directing a play which someone else has written allows you to see how your own work might be explored and the themes of it teased out by a third party. Directors have to work with producers, stage managers, the designers and the publicity people. They also have to deal with any and all ongoing conflicts. And, of course, they have to direct.
The politics of directing help a screenwriter be a more balanced, mature, and effective part of the collaborative team when working in film or TV. You know your place, you understand what’s being said in passing, and which things will require implementation. And you understand and respect everyone’s role.
Plus, the knowledge gained from deconstructing the work of another writer in the rehearsal room helps your own writing enormously.
Some people say that producing is like directing but without the fun stuff. I suppose there’s some truth to that. Producing is certainly less visible. They also have more control, more power, and more responsibility. I find that as a screenwriter my knowledge of budgeting gained from producing indie stage shows has been invaluable.
When you work on independent theater productions, the budgets are only in the hundreds or thousands, but the breakdowns end up being roughly similar to film, which means that when you get to the point of thinking and talking about the budgets for your own screenplays, you have a much more accurate idea of what the hell the development exec is talking about, and you can get on with the task.
For example, you’ll often be asked to change a group scene into a scene with only two actors, as in “Can you change scene 5, 18 and 37 into two-handers so we can keep the crowd in 128, which I think is integral?”
An inexperienced screenwriter will go off to the nearest bar and complain about artistic integrity, whereas a screenwriter with a bit of producing experience under their belt will simply agree that yes, that crowd scene near the end of the film really does need to be there, so yes you can find a way to rewrite those other few earlier scenes so that they still have the same point, but can be shot with few cast members (and therefore cost less, and therefore bring the budget back to an acceptable amount, which can be the difference between a greenlight or not).
5. Pitch as Performance
Nia Vardalos’ My Big Fat Greek Wedding was first written as a screenplay, but when she wasn’t getting any interest from producers, she turned it into a one-woman theater show, which was basically just an hour-long pitch for her movie with her doing all the voices and playing out some of the funnier moments.
Tom Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson is from a large Greek family, so she went along to see the show with some of her girlfriends. She loved it and convinced her husband that his production company should develop and make the movie.
If you have the kind of screenplay that makes a great yarn, why not write it up as a monologue and have yourself or an actor you know perform it as a one-person show?
Theater productions do take a huge amount of time, energy and effort, but they also offer vast rewards. If you’re still not convinced, watch Season 1 and 2 of SMASH (executive produced by Steve Spielberg), which follows the Creatives and the cast members of two new Broadway musicals. Watching it always recharges my creative batteries.
Fiona Wheeler began writing for the stage, has a Master’s in Screenwriting from a top film school (VCA), and has a feature in development. Born in Australia, she’s lived in several different countries and cultures. This is reflected in the diverse, global screen stories she tells.