And What I Also Relearned Along The Way
Recently, my online theater company, New Normal Rep, released an audio play, Step 9, which is available to you, free of charge, on all podcast platforms. I’m very proud of this play, and especially, the production put together by New Normal Rep. The cast is really remarkable, and it’s an object lesson, as if I needed another, in the fact that theater is a team sport. And I had a hell of a team to play with. Their acting raised the level of my text, but just as crucially, they gave me thoughtful critiques along the way that helped me to rethink several key elements which demonstrably improved it. More on that in a bit.
While that concept is one I’m quite at home with, this is the first time I adapted a stage play to an audio drama. I found the process to be enlightening and, I’m willing to bet, it will help me in the future, regardless of what medium I write for.
In many ways, as I tend to rely more on language than visual imagery in my plays, the switch to audio probably isn’t as great as it would be for some writers. But there are, I realized, more than a few moments I rely on the audience seeing something to provide the necessary context for the audience to understand what’s happening, let alone engaging with it.
Words, Words, Words. And Then Some More
There are a few moments in the play in which one character has a conversation in her head (like we, or at least I, tend to do). And whereas normally I’d let the director and perhaps lighting designer make that apparent to the audience, I had to use language. It put me in the very rare position of having to write more.
At the same time, the dialogue had to feel organic and not weighted down by anchors of exposition. “Well, here I am imagining a conversation and how it might play out according to the dictates of my own imagination” would not do, despite my wishing it would.
By and large, as I referenced before, the medium didn’t require too many radical changes in my script, as I tend to rely on dialogue to a greater degree than other writers do (or, put another way: I lack the capacity for imagery that many other writers do). What it did do, however, was require me to apply a scalpel to language wherever I could in the script, ironically because audio dramas rely so heavily on it. Because the listener will be experiencing the play entirely via dialogue (and sound effects), there is, so to speak, no escaping the language (unless they turn it off, but that’s something I ideally wanted to avoid). Therefore, I tried to enforce a zero-tolerance policy regarding unnecessary words (it would also make life easier if I’d apply this principle to the rest of my life). This is always paramount with me, as adding the extra sentence, or even extra words in a sentence, is a trap I fall for with a frequency that rivals Wile E. Coyote’s inability to learn that the highway he has painted on a mountain face, while permeable to the Roadrunner, won ‘t give way for him.
See what I mean?
But in this instance, I knew I had to make the text as aerodynamic as possible. There is no doubt I was less than totally successful, but I hoped I would, to use Samuel Beckett’s phrase, fail better. This is where listening to your cast and director is crucial. While there is a danger for a playwright in taking everyone in the room’s advice uncritically, it’s equally critical that you don’t ignore them, either.
Firstly, it’s a huge advantage if you trust the people you’re in the room with. In my case, I was working with a company of actors whom I trusted implicitly. Even more importantly, I had a justifiably unwavering faith in my director. Ultimately, most actors can’t help but be advocates for their characters first rather than the play as a whole. After all, that’s their job. Only you and the director are responsible for looking at the whole landscape, and of the two of you, only she is approaching the script without the endemic prejudices of the script’s creator.
There was one scene in particular almost everyone – but very much the director – felt was deeply problematic. Not the dialogue itself, but its fundamental premise. They felt it rendered one character irredeemably unsympathetic. I was surprised to hear this and, having heard their arguments, felt they were in the wrong. That’s a dilemma. Maybe the biggest dilemma writers face: when to stick to your guns about something you’ve written despite pushback, and when to entertain the nauseating notion that you may not have the correct read on your own writing.
Trust Yourself, But Not Too Much
Here, it quickly became clear I should reassess my views. If several people – all of whom you respect – are saying take route “X” while you’re still clinging to your internal GPS urging you to stay on route “Y,” it’s probably wide to at least pull over for a bit. In this case, I did something I’d recommend to other writers (I’m loath to give advice because, why would anyone feel compelled to listen to it? But this is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, and I want to spare others the hours I’ve wasted, because I’m exactly that nice): why not try writing a version of route “X”? Doing so required me to add a new character, but it was only after I had been willing to go down that road, to stretch the metaphor past any hope of dignity, I came to realize, route “X” was infinitely better.
This was the thing I’d known for years, but had to relearn. And likely will again. It’s a play I’m proud of, and I hope you’ll give it a listen. It’s available on all major podcast platforms, and also be clicking this link: