Shaping Real Life: Present & Past

“How do dramatists balance fact and fiction when crafting stories from real life events?  This panel, made up of award-winning playwrights and documentarians, explores how factual materials can be crafted, shaped, and transformed using the dramatic writer’s art.” – Shaping Real Life: Present & Past

by Robin Byrd

At the Dramatists Guild Conference: Having Our Say:  Our History, Our Future, I sat in on the “Shaping Real Life: Present & Past” session.  The panel included:  Sheila Curran Bernard, Andrew Pederson, Craig Thornton, Jayme McGhanThe above questions are what they focused the session on.

What I took away from the session was the following:

When writing history, one should try to keep the facts straight where you can.  If it is missing you have to fill in the blanks but when it’s there, you should try to keep the facts straight.  This was the consensus among the panelists.

Be ethical when writing live characters.  Check with the Dramatists Guild about the way to get permission to use the person/persons’ story.  You should take care of this before you start the process.  However, just because you have a waiver to write about an incident doesn’t mean all those involved should be subjected to how putting it on a stage will affect them so this is where you should use discretion.  With live characters, it is a continuing relationship you can’t do the story and go away to work on another play like you didn’t build those relationships.  Ethically, you would want to deal with the matter of you making money off their story by reason of your finished piece (once in the play, it becomes your copyright property).  You want to make sure you have already come to an agreement with them (because you consulted the Dramatists Guild lawyers before you started the process and all parties have signed the agreements/contracts.)  It can not be stressed enough, the Dramatists Guild is there to help the playwright.

When writing real life and to creatively move the story, you may need more than the facts you have in your notes.  The panel discussed using made-up characters to handle  factual information.  “In My Shoes” (a docudrama about the tensions of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan felt by the children of the soldiers),  written by Craig Thornton, used a chorus to tell the story of 911.  Because, ultimately you are trying to make  a drama out of the real life events, all the elements of a drama must be in place.  “In My Shoes” needed an inciting incident to pull all the monologues together and solidify the collection as a play; the use of the chorus satisfied this need.

When more than one person is involved, like a novelist, the live person, and the publisher, the panel urged the room to consult the Dramatists Guild lawyers to make sure there are no underlying rights agreements that crop up later because you got permission from only one person in the involved group.  Here is where working with dead subjects is a little easier because dead characters have less rights than live ones.  You will, in some cases, have to deal with heirs or the estate…

Panelist Jayme McGhan, I believe, quoted his favorite reminder, “Better to ask for permission than to ask for forgiveness.”

Another thing to note about working with live characters is that by the end of your interviewing/gathering information, you will have created a relationship with the person/persons.  More likely than not, a continuing relationship, where you cannot do the story and go away to work on another play like you didn’t build those relationships.

The panel also discussed when to stop researching.  One clue Andrew Pederson said, was (as I remember it) “when you find yourself asking yourself if you have enough information.  You have too much information.”  Too much research can kill your creative impulses.  If you have the essence of a story, you can start.  Outlines are good to help with research so all you have to do is fill in the blanks but be open to changing it as you find the good kernels in your research notes that you may want to use.

In some cases, while crafting your play, you may have to “cheat” to give back story – by cheat I mean find a way to creatively add it without it looking or feeling like you added it.  Historical stories gain context immediately because you should tell history at a certain level as it is.  Truth is the most powerful thing you can work with if you can get it out so the fudging should be limited otherwise, you may have to state at the beginning of your play that it is “based on” or “inspired by”…

In essence when you are shaping real life into drama, your dramatic license should be the tool used to keep the story moving within reason but not a thorn in the side that takes away from the credibility of your piece…

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