Down with the Press!

21. October, 2014 Theater No comments

Well, this is what I was greeted with in my inbox after my review of Recipe came out this morning:

Recipe playwright Michael Gene Sullivan currently stars as prospero in African-American Shakespeare Company's The Tempest.

Recipe playwright Michael Gene Sullivan currently stars as Prospero in African-American Shakespeare Company’s The Tempest.

Hey, Sam.

I would like, as best I can, to disabuse you of a myth.

The San Francisco Mime Troupe does not – nor in all the time I’ve been with the company – engage in any form of group playwriting. We have playwrights, they write play – the only difference is that the playwrights get feedback from  company rather than a producer, since in our case the company is the producer.

No group playwriting. A playwright stays up night after night writing, brings in a script, workshops it, makes changes – just like any other playwright workshopping a script. Nor do people write their own parts (I read that once in an article, too. Some idiot who never asked us.) Even when we do have multiple writers they are writing. No improv, no changing things on the fly, no just come up with some stuff. It’s a play.

I hate this misconception. It keeps writers for the Troupe from being seen as playwrights, and is based on some misunderstanding on the part of the Press when it comes to the idea of Collective Artistic Directorship. Despite how many times we tell them the truth it just doesn’t penetrate their pre-concieved notions. For good or ill it would be nice if some members of the Press could let go of the myth and try to grasp the reality.

Also, “Recipe” was not group written either. I wrote it years ago. All by my lonesome.

Assumptions abound when it comes to writing. At least in the Bay Area about how I write plays.

I don’t know if the idea that the Mime Troupe’s shows are not group or collectively written will stick in your or anyone’s memory. It takes a lot to overcome decades of wrong.

Oh, and for Helen lavender represents being a sterotypical old lady something she rejects about herself. She actually says that at the beginning. In the show. On stage. You must have been distracted. That, and the idea that the Baking Circle is a group of naive women, revolutionary possuers as Diane says they are, playing at revolution. Hence the press release. And that…

But perhaps this is all related. I mean, if the Press can’t get that the Troupe doesn’t group write plays – despite the fact that we keep saying WE DON’T GROUP WRITE PLAYS how can I expect that same Press to pay attention single play – which also WAS NOT GROUP WRITTEN?

Ah, well…

michael s.

I guess I stand corrected!

Incidentally, Central Works plays aren’t group-written either. They’re collaboratively developed. In that case, too, the playwright goes home and writes and brings the script back to the group. It’s just that the group is involved in throwing ideas around from the start. If the SFMT collective is not involved in brainstorming, then that is indeed a misunderstanding of my conversations with playwright Michael Gene Sullivan on the subject. To me there’s a difference between the terms playmaking (the term I actually used) and playwriting, and it takes many hands to make a play even if there’s only one person writing it, but I can understand if that’s seen as too fine a distinction. The fact that this particular play is not a Central Works Method play and was brought to the company pre-written, unlike every other play they do, was indeed a misunderstanding on my part.

Ah, here it is. The reason I thought the SFMT was a similarly collaborative process with group brainstorming involved is because Michael told me that. Here he is in 2004:

“What we do is, we get together around November, December, and start discussing what we think is going to be the hot topic of the year, the burning issue — what is the thing that we feel like, each individually and as a group, is something we really need to deal with. Trying to accurately predict is part of what the collective does; we bring in research, we bring in people to talk to us about things, people bring in articles, and then we battle through ideas until we come up with something, and then we start writing scenarios. Different people in the collective will say, ‘I’ve got an idea,’ you kind of have to break down your idea to tell it in 9 scenes or so, break down your idea to see if it makes sense. Then we babble through different scenarios, and once we get to a point where we’re pretty much set on a scenario, we figure out who’s gonna write. It’s normally people who have written for us before, writers who are in the company or outside, those people are kind of designated as the writers, and they go off and write. They have as much time as a month or two. Then we start rehearsal, and the collective has input — you know, artistic input. Because the collective is the artistic director, if they feel the script is going in the wrong direction, they’ll argue the point, and the writer can try to argue back. The writing is all done by the writers — the collective informs the politics of the show, in making sure that we’re saying what we need to say.”

And here he is in 2007, on how his role as head writer at the Mime Troupe works:

“It changes year to year. It’s absolutely infuriating to work with me. I assign people scenes, and eventually I would rewrite their scenes, because I’m writing the rest of the show and there’s some good stuff in there but it’s no longer in the flow of where the show goes. It’s remarkably hard to write scene 5 when they don’t know scenes 1, 2, 3, and 4. They’ve got a scenario. By the time they’ve finished scene 5 is a diamond, they’ve honed it and they bring it to me, and I go, ‘Yeah, that’s good, but scenes 1, 2 and 4 are now here, so we have to change that.’ We tell them, none of the stuff you write may end up in the show. You may end up with two jokes. Last year Jon Brooks said, ‘Well, can you at least keep some of my punctuation?’ So frequently my job as head writer is breaking people’s hearts by cutting their scenes, rewriting everything they do. This year we were signing a birthday card for this one, and one of our writers wrote on the card, ‘Michael may want to look at this and see if he wants to rewrite it.’ It’s a heartless position, but one thing that made me feel less like a dick was that Jon Brooks, who was a writer last year and this year said that he sees how heartlessly I cut my own stuff, so he understands. Because I’ll write a scene and go, I love this scene but it doesn’t make sense anymore – I’ll just cut it. As a collective, everybody’s job is so important, and you are collaborating in a way that you don’t get in most places.”

So it seems like the main objection (besides the news that this is a rare case in which a Central Works play is not a Central Works Method play, a fact not contradicted but glossed over in the press release) is a misunderstanding of what I mean by “collaboratively developed” and “group playmaking”–where again, I mean “playmaking” as something distinct from “playwriting.” That said, SFMT shows (including the most recent one) often have three people listed as the playwrights of any given play, so Michael’s all-caps and underlined insistence that they never do group playwriting seems at odds with how they routinely present their work to the world. But I’m sure that’s the press’s fault.

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