Writing a successful play or screenplay is no easy task. When I was commissioned to write a play about young Abraham Lincoln more than a decade ago, I had no idea the project would take me into the dizzying orbit of “devised” or collaborative work.
Collaborative work can be dangerous. Ever heard the expression “a camel is a horse designed by committee”? I believe editors can work collaboratively, but it’s a different ballgame for writers. When an ex-Hollywood screenwriter I know told me about her experience as one of twelve — yes, twelve — writers for a Hollywood sitcom, I wondered how that could work.
She told me that the writers all sat around a huge conference table with their notepads and pens. They scribbled and compared notes, voted on what sounded best, and then ordered takeout.
It must have been a difficult process. How do you get twelve people to agree on a sentence, a paragraph, or even a storyline? Twelve may be an apostolic number, but it’s too many brains for a smooth consensus. One immediately thinks of the trials and tribulations many juries go through when it comes time to reach a verdict.
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I always thought writing a play was a solitary endeavor, like the way novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote his novels on yellow legal pads while standing up in his kitchen, using his refrigerator as a desktop. (He would also submit his novels to Charles Scribner’s Sons in longhand.)
It amazed me that so many French writers could find the concentration to write in cafes like the Café de Flore in Paris. Café de Flore is where Jean-Paul Sartre sat, drinking coffee while making notes for his play “No Exit.” It’s also where Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s primary mistress (he had many), worked out many of her projects. On the other hand, the novelist Colette locked herself in her house in order to write, and Marcel Proust was so noise-phobic that he wrote all day in a cork-lined room and then went out at night with his coachman to Paris’ nineteenth-century gay salons.
As a student in Baltimore, I tried the writing-in-public thing and took my pad and pencil to the local Greyhound bus station, where I wrote poems about the people I observed. There’s never a shortage of oddballs at bus stations. Mostly, I felt like a poser writing this way. Not surprisingly, none of the poems I produced under the glare of the bus station security guard were any good.
With the theater producer, there was no composing in public, although, towards the end of the project, we would spend several collaborative writing sessions that inevitably led to a lot of tension.
The beginning of the collaboration was like a honeymoon in Versailles. Although she wasn’t a writer, she suggested books to read, conferences and lectures to attend, and even trips to designated historical “hot spots.”
The theme of the play had been worked out well in advance, but the producer began to look upon the theme as a moveable feast, at first suggesting minor changes in the script but then going whole hog the way contractors do when they gut a house.
Collaborative work can be dangerous. Ever heard the expression “a camel is a horse designed by committee”?
Initially, the play was supposed to be about the close relationship between a Kentucky store owner and the future sixteenth president of the United States. The idea was to illustrate this closeness: how the two men met in the man’s general store; how when Abe, who had no place to sleep, asked where he could find a room, the store owner immediately offered to share his bed, which happened to be in a room above the store.
Men often roomed or slept with other men in a single bed in the 1840s and beyond. Quarters were tight. Whole families lived and slept in one- or two-room houses, sharing every intimate part of their lives. What was rare even in those days was that two men could go on for so long — four years — sharing the same bed.
When the producer added a dramaturge, I thought it was a good thing, except when it came to the subject of politics.
The catalyst in this case was slavery. This was the beginning of the woke era when some people asked if Lincoln was a racist. Did Lincoln deserve to be written about as if he were a good guy?
Suddenly, the play turned on its axis: the slaves, who had hitherto been peripheral characters, now became pivotal. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s the story you want to tell. The problem was that the story or the play’s theme kept changing depending on who the producer spoke to.
She would talk to a neighbor and change the focus of the play the next day. A week later, she might consult her local mail delivery person and incorporate those ideas into the play. She might get an idea while reading a book about the Civil War and then suggest further additions. It went on like Ravel’s “Bolero.“
She sent copies of the play to friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and even people she met on elevators. “What do you think?” she’d ask. “Email or call me with suggestions.” Soon, she was collecting lines of dialogue from random folks. She added and subtracted lines and ideas faster than feral cats dashing between parked cars.
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What I had once thought was my play was now being written by committee, much like a Philadelphia City Council bill with a long list of advisory co-sponsors.
What to do?
I did some research and discovered that “devised” work in the theater is the latest avant-garde infection — the latest rage.
A noteworthy champion of “devised” work is David Dower, Associate Artistic Director at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. At a panel discussion recently, Mr. Dower proclaimed, “The future of theater will be made by devised work,” and that “the days of one writer sitting alone in a room, submitting the play to the theater” are over.
Arena Theater, for instance, has a new “devised” policy of accepting plays from playwrights they “engage” with — meaning if you’re a playwright outside their professional circle, you don’t stand a chance.
Michele Volansky of Philadelphia’s PlayPenn wrote about Mr. Dower in PlayPenn’s newsletter and voiced a “wait and see” view of devised work, giving it the benefit of the doubt while also questioning some of its more radical expressions, like the supernova avant-garde play without written text.
You read that correctly; no words at all…
“For a play to endure,” she wrote, “you have to have a text.”
As for the “devised” concoction of what once was my play, I can only compare it to the incidents of satellites crashing to Earth that sometimes make the news.
A satellite is made by a community of builders, but even this doesn’t prevent it from crashing and burning in a mountain of debris. As far as I’m able to discern, a similar thing happened to my play about Mr. Lincoln: the community of thrown-together but well-meaning stalwart builders, who should have strengthened the play, basically killed it.
The play written by committee turned out to be a total flop.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.