How great plays are (eventually) made


Bryony Lavery's ‘Dirt,’ Studio Theatre (Scott Graham/Scott Graham)
April 6, 2013

It’s easy to forget when you see a play that what you’re watching didn’t spring fully formed out of somebody’s forehead. At first, it’s a rough draft, with the emphasis on rough. Writing takes forever. Rewriting takes a few back-to-back forevers.

Sometimes years pass. We root for Ryan Lochte as our favorite Olympian. Rewrites. We find out Ryan Lochte isn’t the swiftest fish in the school and crown a new favorite Olympian, Gabby Douglas. More rewrites. We reelect the president. Rewrites abound. Justin Timberlake releases a new album. Rewrites go on and on, until the MacBook is finally pried from the playwright’s aching, carpal-tunneled hands.

Then the play finally goes up, and — if the writer really nails it — there’s this feeling of inevitability about the whole thing, as if every false start and shaky draft had been building to this point all long — which, in a way, they were.

Now that Monday’s Helen Hayes Awards are upon us, it feels like a good time to pop the back of the watch off the five plays nominated for the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical and see what made the gears go round. (This is strictly a survey of plays, so it excludes the musical nominees, Imagination Stage’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and Arena Stage’s “Pullman Porter Blues.”) Where did the writing begin, when did it start to shine, what wrong turns did it take on the way from the roughest draft to opening night?

Renee Calarco, ‘The Religion Thing,’ Theater J

This world premiere comedy focuses on two couples, one of mixed faith (a Jew and a Catholic) and the other born-again Christians, one of whom is significantly more committed to religion than the other.

Number of days it took to complete your script: It started as a 10-minute play in 2004. I probably had a first draft of the full length in 2005 or 2006, and I made a lot of changes between then and opening night in January 2012.

Number of rewrites: I have probably at least 15 drafts of this play in some form or another.

Favorite line in the play: They’re all completely unprintable for a family newspaper. Other than those: “You can’t be a Jew like you wear a sweater. Too cold, put it on. Too hot, take it off.”

Line you think best sums up the whole play: “Faith is the one constant thing I have.” The character who says it, Patti, is explaining to her friend Mo how she became born-again. She’s a recovering alcoholic, and she’s unhappy, and she’s telling Mo that she went to AA and it wasn’t enough for her. She tried all of these things . . . and religion and faith is the one thing that was always there for her.

Most difficult scene to write: Knowing that I had to write a sex scene. . . . Also, honestly knowing that I probably couldn’t get away with the two characters being naked. . . . The biggest concern for me was how to make it true to life, how to make it honest, and how to make it producible.

If you could get into your DeLorean and time-travel to the day you started writing this, would you do anything differently? I think I would have written it faster. I think I would have not doubted myself so much. I just think I would have paid more attention to what my gut was telling me, where to take the story.

What’s your L.A. pitch-speak description of your play? I guess “Friends” meets “Book of Mormon,” without the music.

Paul Downs Colaizzo, ‘Really Really,’ Signature Theatre

“Really Really” was one of the buzziest plays in 2012. We’ve covered the show and the playwright more than once, and if you are following Peter Marks on Twitter you probably know he’s quite the fan. It enjoyed an extended run off-Broadway at the MCC Theater with stars Zosia Mamet (hair-braider extraordinaire Shoshanna on “Girls”) and Matt Lauria (Luke Cafferty from the gone-but-never-forgotten “Friday Night Lights”). For those somehow still uninitiated, here’s the gist of it: One too-wild party leaves a bunch of college students facing the consequences of their certainly drunk and possibly criminal actions.

Number of rewrites: Oh God. I’m going to look right now. It’s going to be hilarious. And this is only on this computer. On this computer alone, which goes back to 2009: 44, but that’s only going back to 2009. Probably 51.

Favorite line in the play: I laugh whenever someone calls someone an idiot. I’m the only person in the theater who does that.

Favorite line that was in an earlier draft but had to be cut for space, tone or general kill-your-darlings rules: There are so many. It’s gotta be a Haley line. (Searches and searches and searches and finally sends along, via e-mail:) “He kept yelling ‘Hit me!’ — so I did — I kept hitting him with my hands and then with this, like, jack wrench, and I thought he was moaning with pleasure, but . . . you know . . . he wasn’t.”

Line, scene or character from the first draft that has since been cut and, looking back, you cannot believe you would ever have written such a thing, it’s so mortifying to even think about: Jimmy gave a gift to his pregnant girlfriend Leigh, and it was an in-utero guide to classic rock. Who told you to cut it? I think just the common sense that one must have to survive on Earth.

Line you think best sums up the whole play: It’s a new line. “The ones who refuse to take no for an answer.” . . . I was realizing that the whole play was an exploration of how people respond to the word “no.”

Most difficult scene to write: Probably the laundromat scene [in which] two girls who are very close friends become not-friends. Because I wanted to hit the characters in their core. And in order to do that, I sort of had to shed all of my own front. I had to go to a really vulnerable, able-to-be-hurt place to write that.

If you could get into your DeLorean and time-travel to the day you started writing this, would you do anything differently? Yeah, but I don’t want to tell the world. . . . There are a thousand things I would have done differently. Can I tell you on my deathbed?

What’s your L.A. pitch-speak description of your play? It’s like “Van Wilder” meets actual real-life repercussions.

Bryony Lavery, ‘Dirt,’ Studio Theatre

“Dirt,” which got its world premiere at Studio last fall, is a kind of meditation on death and mortality. Lavery was literally on the other side of the Earth while this article was being written — in Adelaide, South Australia, about 14.5 hours ahead of Washington — so she sent in her responses via e-mail.

Number of days it took to complete your script: More than the stars in the sky, more than the grains in the sand.

Number of rewrites: Thousands! This is the most rewritten play in the entire history of the known universe.

Line, scene or character from the first draft that has since been cut and, looking back, you cannot believe you would ever have written such a thing, it’s so mortifying to even think about: Well, there [was] the character called Dogwoman, who appears naked, snarling, toothless and silent in an alley in the first act [and] then goes on to kill her sister with the family Bible.

Line you think best sums up the whole play: Harper [says], “This considerable pile of dirt used to be my body!!!! Amazing! It used to be me!”

Most difficult scene to write: All the scenes where Harper is dead. Note to self: Keep your characters alive, Bryony, you fool, so they can have dialogues with other characters.

If you could get into your DeLorean and time-travel to the day you started writing this, would you do anything differently? I might start earlier trying to understand quantum mechanics.

What’s your L.A. pitch-speak description of your play? [It’s a] comedy about woman dying when dinner date goes wrong. “Pretty Woman” meets “Ratatouille.”

Jason Gray Platt, ‘Crown of Shadows: the Wake of Odysseus,’ Round House Theatre

Zeroing in on the relationship between brooding, abandoned teen Telemachus and his steadfast-yet-sneaky mother, Penelope, Platt’s reimagining of “The Odyssey” leaves the battles to Homer and instead sticks around Ithaca, exploring what war does to the family left behind at the home front.

Number of days it took to complete your script: I started that play in 2008 and it went up about four and a half years later.

Number of rewrites: I think the last draft ended up being the 15th draft.

Favorite line in the play: “Everyone desires to be conquered, it’s why they fall in love.” It’s toward the very end of the play, when one of the characters is trying to convince her son to commit this horrible act, to basically commit a murder. And she’s referring to the love of his father.

Line, scene or character from the first draft that has since been cut and, looking back, you cannot believe you would ever have written such a thing, it’s so mortifying to even think about: There was a scene [in which] a mother [was] manipulating her son in the middle of the play. But it was in this complete other world. I wrote the first draft in grad school, and I think I was reading [Caryl] Churchill, and it was very Churchillian. It was in a different world entirely. The characters were speaking in a language, a tone, that wasn’t anywhere else. It was very fast. There was a lot of overlapping, a lot of elliptical ending.

Line you think best sums up the whole play: “Nightmares are a small price to pay for the capacity to dream.”

Most difficult scene to write: The last scene. There’s a huge climax at the end, and it finishes very quickly. The play is sort of a slow build to this incredibly cathartic moment. And because it’s inspired by Greek myth, I was dealing with how I was going to parse out what I wanted to keep and what I wanted to throw away.

If you could get into your DeLorean and time-travel to the day you started writing this, would you do anything differently? I would think more about the structure. Because I started it in a very loose place; it just began as this series of scenes. And I really had no idea where it was going in the beginning. It took a lot of time. In the early drafts, I was dealing with a lot of inconsistences I’d written in. Usually I make very detailed outlines before I start writing, but this piece, I started writing it because I felt it, and I really had no idea where I was going. If I could talk to myself back then, I would say, “Maybe think about the ending first.”

What’s your L.A. pitch-speak description of your play? I would say it’s “Romeo and Juliet” meets “Macbeth.”

Matthew R. Wilson, ‘A Commedia Christmas Carol,’ Faction of Fools

Scrooge gets the commedia dell’arte gag-a-minute treatment in Wilson’s version of Dickens’s tale. Pratfalls for the whole family!

Number of days it took to complete your script: It was about a year from conception to premiere.

Number of rewrites: I was rewriting constantly, all the way up until opening. I’d say the script went through two major versions, but then there were tweaking lines here and there that happened all the way to opening.

Favorite line in the play: Probably the Ghost of Christmas Present, being Dickens, talking about how you can bring joy most to the poor because they need it the most. In my version, Scrooge says, “Redistribution of mirth. Harrumpf.”

Line, scene or character from the first draft that has since been cut and, looking back, you cannot believe you would ever have written such a thing, it’s so mortifying to even think about: I suppose the conversation between Scrooge and Marley, in which we had several different versions of gags going on. At one point, we kind of tried to squeeze all of that in and the scene was entirely too long and had sort of three different extended jokes intertwined through. Extended wordplay, gags. There’s a lot of plays on the word “tense,” the past, present and future and the tenses and the verbs and Scrooge says he’s becoming tense, and goes into existence and portents.

Line you think best sums up the whole play: One of the things in the play that happens is the iconic line, “God bless us every one!” Tiny Tim is a deaf character and is actually originated by a student at Gallaudet University. So at the end of the day when Tiny Tim teaches Scrooge to say that, it’s this moment when Scrooge not only learns how to say Tiny Tim’s line but learns how to say it in Tim’s language. Tim shows him how to do the sign.

What’s your L.A. pitch-speak description of your play? I guess “Dickens” meets “commedia dell’arte” is too obvious. Too obvious. Try again. It’s “Looney Toons” meets “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

READ MORE: My Drama: Getting a first play staged is all comedy and tragedy.

The 29th Helen Hayes Awards

April 8 at 8 p.m., the Warner Theater, 513 13th St. NW, www.theatrewashington.org, 202-337-4572

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