dusting off my playwright’s cap

Sara Israel, May 3, 2010

Moss Hart is one of my role models– a director who terrific playwrights relied upon, but also a terrific playwright in his own right.

I wish I could reach across the decades between us, hunt him down, convince him I’m not a crazy person and I really had just traveled through time– so I could pick his brain for a few minutes.  Over a cup of coffee, say.

I’d ask him, How do you balance your responsibility to your own plays with your responsibility to the work of others?

He’d probably have a pretty pithy answer for me.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve almost exclusively been wearing my director’s cap.  I love wearing it.  It’s really fashionable and sexy and it looks good in public.  But now, after a weekend that included directing both a fantastic reading Friday at 6PM and a wonderful opening of another play later that very same night, it’s time to swap out that director’s cap for the slightly dowdier playwright’s variety.

My directing work no doubt informs my writing.  That starts with the other writer and his or her play, of course.  But what I find really sinks into my own playwright’s bones is what I learn from the actors.  The truthful and unexpected places they take not only words, but also silences, and how those words and silences create an architecture for character and story and, well. . . a whole wide world parallel to our “real” one.  The work they do– and, as a director, having the privilege of seeing it from the inside out– reminds the writer-me not to limit myself, reminds me that the world is my oyster, because their skill and talent is my permission and my safety net.

The seven actors I had the pleasure of directing, culminating in my crazy Friday, performed in plays I did not write, but working with them will absolutely serve to propel my writing forward.  You should work with them too, soon and often:  Keith Allan, David Bickford, Michelle Gardner, Sharon Madden, Eric Nenninger, Karen Jean Olds, and Rick Steadman.

It’s apropos for me to be waxing rhapsodic about actors right now, because the play I am working on this week is inspired by the wonderful actor Drew Powell.  “Inspired,” as in, I wouldn’t have a freakin’ clue how to approach the lead character of my play– and therefore the entire play– if I didn’t have a vision of what I know Drew is capable of achieving.

A few years ago, I knew there was this story I wanted to tell, but I was completely lost when it came to telling it.  And I didn’t know why.  Then I saw Drew perform, not the first time I’d seen him on the stage (he was a friend of a friend) but his work that night– heartbreaking yet gregarious yet incredibly restrained– made me realize that I wasn’t cracking this play I wanted to write because I was afraid.  I was writing with a fear that the character I wanted to create couldn’t really exist in my story.  Drew’s performance screamed at me to stop being a chicken, stop underestimating myself and others, and just go for it.

This play is still frightening and unwieldy for me at times, by far the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to get out onto the page.  But Drew remains my touchstone.  It’s the first time I’ve ever written anything with an actor in mind, and who knows. . . by the time it’s done, the character that he’s inspired might manifest in the form of an 85 year-old woman.  (And if Drew’s reading this, he was probably a bit freaked out by this point anyway; now add to that he might have to age himself by 50 years, shave significantly, and buy himself some quality hosiery.)

And now, my playwright’s cap dusted (and maybe sexier than I give it credit for)– onward to my “real” writing for the day.  If anyone knows what Moss Hart would have said to me over that cup of coffee, please let me know.

11 Comments

  • By Daniel Israel, May 3, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    Sara –

    You bring up such relevant points in your post. Although there’s rarely a “right answer” to any of these types of questions, your analysis of the situation seems pretty dead-on. I’ve always tried to subscribe to the multiple hats philosophy. But when one seriously impedes the other, then it’s time to rethink.

    Would Moss like Starbucks?

    Thanks for your insight.

  • By Rick Steadman, May 3, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

    I so appreciate your respect for actors. It’s very easy for playwrights and directors to become cynical, and forget or ignore or even disdain actors’ contributions. Your respect for actors was incredibly clear for me while working with you, and was one of the factors that made it a real pleasure for me. I can’t wait to read or see some of your plays!

  • By Christina Brown, May 3, 2010 @ 11:03 pm

    I think it’s great that directing has opened up that new space in your writing! I’m not a professional– just an audience member– but, it seems writing a play would require that symbiosis between page and stage. I love that seeing behind the curtain, literally, has given you a new perspective and inspired you to become even more fearless! I always love everything you do and can’t wait to see what comes next.

  • By Nick, May 3, 2010 @ 11:50 pm

    This is great!

  • By Lara Olsen, May 4, 2010 @ 8:48 am

    I agree with you about actors and playwriting. It’s as though your play is a lovely animal – playful, colorful, does impressive tricks – it’s something you’re proud of and think others might enjoy, too. And then an actor steps in, and suddenly it hits you, “Holy shit! I didn’t realize my animal could fly! That’s so cool!”

  • By Sunshine Jen, May 4, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    I think you and Moss Hart should drink lots and lots of coffee out of ceramic cups. Lovely!

  • By Dean Mitchell, May 4, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    Being a playwright/director much of what you said hit home. My favorite part of directing is working with actors so your acknowledgment of them was appreciated. I hope you follow your idol Moss Hart and keep writing AND directing.

  • By Michelle Gardner, May 5, 2010 @ 9:59 am

    Sara – I can only echo what Rick has already written. Working with you was a joy and your understanding of and respect for the text was evident from our first readthrough. I look forward to many more collaborations – and I thank you for recommending us to the world at large (via the internets) xoxox

  • By Mia Lobel, May 5, 2010 @ 9:34 pm

    I’m sure any actor would be *thrilled* to work with a writer/director as appreciative and thoughtful as you. Can’t wait to read more of your musings.

  • By dylan jones, May 6, 2010 @ 9:43 am

    well my lovely friend
    you’ve gone and done it again
    somehow or another you seem to always be capable of having a conversation, instead of just writing words, that makes me feel like we are having one of our long drawn out dinners.
    and yes, this is one of the reasons i love you
    but one of the other ones is your love for theatre and the process involving all the players and sexy hats.

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