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.


    1. That’s the interesting question. At Columbia, the head of the Theatre Department was a Playwright, and he did NOT believe a play had to be produced to be considered a “play” — but one of our Playwriting faculty members did believe that, and crushed all students in her way, when everyone realized, in her mind, few of us were ever going to write a “play” at Columbia because there was no guarantee of production for the MFA Playwriting degree. All the directors in our program had an MFA production, but not all the Playwrights.

      I think it’s silly to say a play isn’t a play — or even fully realized — unless it is professionally staged. Is an elementary school production not as validating as a Broadway performance? If so, why? Where is the line drawn being being just a bunch of writing and a “play?”

  1. This is fascinating – I love the clip of an unbearably young (and cute, I might add) David Boles with the wonderful director Austin Pendleton. It’s all quite thought provoking. Because I see so much theater, am on the Board of Directors of a theater and am friends with so many actors and directors, I am going to pass this along for their input. But, simplistically, it seems to me that a play is a distinctive art form unto itself, whether produced or not. Just as a novel or a poem is, whether published or not.

    1. Hi Nancy! Thanks for the kind words! That CUNY-TV show was unreal. It was the first or second day of classes and our entire incoming class went together. Many of us were still worn out from moving to NYC — Janna and I just arrived from D.C. — and we had no idea where we were, let alone who we were! Many slept on the CUNY-GC floor waiting in line to enter the studio because they were so exhausted.

      It was a magical thing to actually get to ask a question at the end of those Theatre Wing workshops because they often went long and no questions were asked. For many years after, I would get phone calls from people who “saw me on TV” and couldn’t believe it was me, from Columbia University, asking the panel a question while wearing a George Washington University sweatshirt! It was totally unreal!

      I’ve been building into an archive of some of my past work. If you haven’t been there recently, there’s lots of scripts and photos and video and audio to pull through. Looking back isn’t one of my favorite things to do, but sometimes you need to make a record of what’s happened for those who follow after you — and it’s a keen feeling knowing that some of my unsold book pitches were about 5-6 years ahead of their time — too bad the publishers didn’t know that then or we’d all be rich! SMILE! Lack of imagination is what wounds so many young careers: Go Your Own Way, I say!

      The question of the Play is a fascinating thing. When does it become real? When has it found its perfect, and expected, life? Our instructor who started the prairie fire, argued that a play, in written form only, is merely a structure for what needs to come next in the collaboration process. You have to add the actors and direction and lighting and sets and music and all the other Aristotelean “Poetics” elements o fully realize the real intention and expectation of any play! To have the work only exist on the page is, according to her, not a play at all, but rather an outline for the structure of a play to come…

      I can understand and take her point — I’ve had lots of productions and things do change a lot during the process — but her argument also lacks a respect for the imagination of the reader who is able to take the Playwright’s cues and build them in them mind. Our instructor would counter my argument — because she did! — by saying plays do not exist in a single mind, they exist in the communal hive mind of those who happen to be gathered together in the theatre, at a specific time and place, all watching the play unfold in real time: Artist, Object, Observer.

      Some others argued with her that novels exist without being published, and while she disagreed with that also, she said it wasn’t really the same thing because the only thing that changes with the novel is distribution. A play, she said, cannot exist only on the page and be called “a play.”

      As Chair of the Department, Howard had a hard time going against her, but he had to, because too many Playwriting students were upset and demanding an MFA production of their own to be fully realized as a graduate of Columbia. That didn’t happen — it could not happen with the budget and all the Playwrights — and some students, to this day, are still extremely raw about being “ripped off” because they never had a Columbia play production.

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