We asked our authors the question, "What piece of conventional wisdom about playwriting have you found to be the least helpful?" As part one of a two-part series, below are a few of their replies:
Nathaniel Kressen offers:
The least helpful conventional wisdom I've received is "Write what you know." Certainly, you should pour your experiences and heart/mind/soul into every project--you should give it your all everytime. But that's not enough. I think the better derivative of this is "Write what you'd want to see." That helps keep the project focused on the end result--live performance. I think all too often beginning writers focus too heavily on their internal life and real experiences, thinking it'll make great drama (I know I did, starting out). A show is intended to provoke thought and emotion, and not least of all entertain. Infuse it with all you know and work tirelessly to create a solid piece of art. In other words, start with the truth, and build from there.
Patricia Lamkin expresses:
A “convention” that annoys me is that you should only write short plays with small casts because the current trend of theatres leans towards this. I say write what you want to write, and if you can't get someone to produce it, do it yourself.
Meron Langsner shares with us:
I had an instructor who was adamant that phone calls had no place on stage (I was generally not a fan of this person, so I disregarded him and have won awards not listening to him). Other conventional wisdom was careerwise about pigeonholing, and not to work in other areas of theatre. I have a whole parallel life as a fight director that has served me well as a playwright in terms of meeting actors and directors who have been in readings and productions of mine.
Fengar Gael impassions:
The least helpful (in fact most dangerous) piece of conventional wisdom is that old adage "Write what you know." I think that phrase has squelched many imaginations, and damaged the theatre as an evolving art form. Like many people, I prefer a theatre of heightened passions that takes me to unfamiliar worlds, so it's more challenging to write plays about people of different races and ethnicities in professions that interest me but that have to be researched extensively. Write what you know forces the writer to police their imaginations, to define him/herself in terms of race, gender, age, ethnicity, time and place, but if the great evolutionary triumph of our species is imagination, then the challenge is to write plays that employ our wildest, most creative and subversive thoughts, impulses, and curiosities. That said, I confess that most plays I see continue to be linear domestic realism that could have been wrought fifty years ago and usually feature literal sets with sofas and sinks in apartments located in New York. The first playwrights were poets and myth-makers, so "write what you know" strikes me as not very ambitious, because after all, what do we writers, stuck in our limited time-space continuum, seated in our homes in front of screens, really know? Not nearly enough!
Big thank yous to Nathaniel, Patricia, Meron, and Fengar for sharing their thoughts and reflections. Click the link for Part Two of the response to "What piece of conventional wisdom about playwriting have you found least helpful?"