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The Writing Life, by Ken Ludwig

By Ken Ludwig
Sunday, March 21, 2010; BW12

I can tell you the exact moment that I learned the First Golden Rule of Playwriting. It was at 4:30 on a September afternoon in the 1990s in a rehearsal studio in New York City.

That spring I had written a new musical using the songs of George and Ira Gershwin called "Crazy For You," and it was headed for Broadway. On the day in question, we were about to run the whole show for the first time, without stopping, in front of an audience of about a hundred guests.

By 1:30 p.m., the room was lined with producers, investors, designers, family and friends, everyone buzzing with optimism. Huddled in the corner was the core creative team, which included myself, the director, the music director and the choreographer, all of us feeling nervous but hopeful. At 2, the pianist struck the opening chords of the overture, and there was enough electricity in the room to light up Times Square.

I can report without blushing that the first act was a triumph. The cast flew through the songs and the stage business like it was their hundredth performance, and the audience responded with whistles and applause. By intermission we were geniuses, especially to the investors, who pumped our hands with joy and relief. The director and I felt particularly gleeful at this point because we knew in our bones that if the audience liked the first act, they would love the second. It was funnier, more tuneful and more wonderful in every way.

Except it wasn't.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the second act was a stinker. By the time the audience filed out an hour later, they had those glassy-eyed stares that the crew of the Titanic must have sported about 10 minutes after spotting the iceberg. The investors, in particular, looked frozen. It was at this moment that I learned (or perhaps just relearned for the hundredth time) the First Golden Rule of Playwriting: When it comes to the theatre, the audience tells you everything.

No matter how well the lines read while you sit in your study, no matter how much the jokes make you laugh and the love scenes make you weep -- if the audience doesn't get it, you simply have to go back and try again.

This (along with Rules Two and Three, see below) is how playwriting differs from writing novels, poetry and other forms of literature that fit between two covers. With a novel, say, or a book of short stories, the success of the work can rightly be judged in terms of that wonderful one-to-one relationship between the author and the reader. But if you put a play on stage and the audience is getting restless after the first 10 minutes (and believe me, if you're an author sitting in the audience, you can tell in a heartbeat), then you simply have to try and fix it. It's no use crying, "But I just wrote the most moving scene since the death of Hamlet!" If the people are coughing, go pick up your pencil.

The Second Golden Rule of Playwriting came home to roost almost immediately on the heels of the First. By 4:35 on that fateful day, we on the creative team had a choice to make. We had two more weeks of rehearsal left in New York, after which the show was set for a month-long tryout at the National Theatre in Washington.

The question was whether, on the one hand, we should throw the second act out and try to write a whole new act in two weeks; or, on the other, try to nudge the existing second act into acceptable shape so that the D.C. opening wouldn't be a complete disaster. Then, during the longer stretch in Washington, we could do the major surgery with a sense of perspective and a little sleep. Clearly, the second choice was more mature and professional. And naturally, we chose the first. Our reasoning was simply that if we rewrote the second act in New York and it was still lousy when we opened in Washington, then we'd have a second chance to rewrite it before opening on Broadway.

The next two weeks were like something out of a 1930s show-biz movie called "Backstage Shenanigans." For 14 days I sat locked in my hotel room trying to come up with a new plot line and new dialogue, then scribbling it all down as fast as I could, while a runner waited at the door and carried my new pages, scene by scene, to the rehearsal rooms 40 blocks away. There, the actors learned their new lines, the dancers their new steps, and the pianist his new notes, all of them supervised by the director, the choreographer and the music director.

And all of this leads us straight to Rule Two: Playwriting is a collaborative art. If you don't play well with others, leave the sandbox and go write That Novel. If you're lucky enough to be a produced playwright, then every project comprises two phases. In phase one, you get to listen to your muse and dream. This is when you laugh and cry and bleed. The second phase is getting the play up on stage, and that is when you start collaborating. It's not that you need to listen to everybody's opinion or that you shouldn't stick to your guns. You don't and you should. But you do need to listen to the actors and the director -- and ultimately the audience -- because the play is no longer yours alone. It's a piece for the theatre.

My memories of collaborations over the years are in some cases extremely fond and in others of the wake-up-screaming variety. There was the famous actor in London who called me at one o'clock in the morning after the first day of rehearsal and kept me up all night insisting that we fire the director. There were the two stars on tour who got into a slapping match in front of the audience and locked themselves in their respective dressing rooms, refusing to come out and perform Act Two. And then there was the time during a pre-Broadway tryout when I heard rumors that my producers were thinking of hiring a funny dentist from Long Island to add some jokes to my script. The collaboration part was talking to the producers.

This brings us to Rule Three of Playwriting, the one in which I take the most pride: Playwriting is as much craft as it is art. The rule is contained in the very word itself: playwright. A wright is an artisan who constructs things for practical purposes, like a shipwright or a wheelwright. Similarly, a playwright's job is to construct a literary work that is acted on a stage so that it entertains people while making them think and feel. Often that requires practical solutions.

Take, for example, the day we returned from Washington with "Crazy For You" and started technical rehearsals in New York, with our opening only two weeks away. I walked into the Shubert Theatre, and the director came running up the aisle crying "Lines! Quick!" As it turned out, the sets were moving more slowly than they had during tryouts, and a key transition had just grown longer by several seconds. (For anyone who knows the show, this is when the heroine's father is vacuuming the lobby of the Opera House in Deadrock, Nevada.)

With over a hundred people stalled in the theatre, this was no time for niceties, so without time to pull off my overcoat, I sat in the front row and wrote several new lines of dialogue to cover the set change. They remain in the play to this day.

A journalist once said that writing is easy. You just sit at a typewriter and open a vein. In the case of playwriting, you open the vein, then go into rehearsals and reopen the vein and keep it open until opening night. At that point, you breathe a sigh of relief, have a drink and start all over again.

I can't wait.

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