There’s an old saying in some theatrical circles that a play does not exist unless and until is has been performed on a live stage in front of an audience. You can imagine the heartache that creates for the amateur, but vigilant, Playwright who writes page after page only to have the work discounted in the end analysis by some because there is no final proof of production to validate the effort. Is that a right and fair way to deal with a written Art in Performance? Does the actor exist without being staged? Does the director have a role without filling an empty space?
This “your play isn’t really a ‘play’ play” mentality rots theatre departments from the inside out at the graduate level. An actor cannot get an MFA diploma without first starring in a production.
A director cannot get an MFA degree without directing a play — a play that may not exist until it is staged.
However, a Playwright can get an MFA degree without having a single page of a script presented on a live stage. MFA programs will go out of their way to give some of their students a moment in the evening sun, but the Playwright’s pathway is never surely lighted nor guaranteed in promise.
The work endures, the words are right there on the page. The Playwright goes on — the proof is in the typing — but the play is non-existent until it finds a live stage performance? Confounding the process even more is the notion in some minds that readings or staged readings of a play do not count as “produced” — they reason only a fully mounted production makes the play a play.
Let’s travel back in time to September 1988 when I had just started my MFA in Playwriting career at Columbia University in the City of New York. Our entire class traveled to the City University of New York Graduate Center to watch a live CUNY-TV workshop sponsored by the American Theatre Wing concerning working in the theatre. The more immediate topic was the Playwright, Director and Choreographer.
At the end of the conversation, I was able to ask the panel a question about new Playwrights working with directors who wanted to change the script in production against the Playwright’s wishes. Broadway actor and director Austin Pendleton gave me an answer that still rings within me today. Sometimes it’s better to go unproduced than be a part of a wrongful production, and here’s the video snippet:
Here’s the full workshop:
Is isn’t enough to just write or just collaborate or throw something on stage — there has to be a greater meaning and purpose in the discovery process that “only produced counts” misses.
A play can live, and even be produced, in the mind of the reader. It makes no qualifying sense that a play is not a play until the play is performed. There are wildly different methods of staging-for-validation a live play in real time, and just the Artful arc of writing something that effectively dramatizes the human condition is enough movement of spirit to credit the cost of production in mindful imagination.