As you probably know by now, I have written a little play entitled A Truckload of Ink. It is a commission for The NOLA Project theatre company. In the aftermath of the massive upheaval at The Times-Picayune, AJ Allegra, NOLA’s artistic director, called me and expressed a desire, given my love of the city and its politics, that I should create a fictionalized dramatization of those events. Coming off the triumph of the company’s joint production of Balm In Gilead, AJ felt that his team was ready for an original piece that played to his actors’ talents and gave them a signature work of their own. It was a happy fusion of events. After discussions with him and the show’s director Beau Bratcher, we hit upon a structure, tone, and destination for the story of an industry and city in rapid transit to an unknown destination.
But before a single one of those decisions was made, we knew the play had to be big. Not just in idea or scope but also in the number of players. We felt there was no way to give a dramatized newsroom the comparable bustle and community of the real deal without a cast of 10 plus. Therefore, the standard 5 to 7 actors God-I-want-to-be-produced-by-a-TCG-or-NNPN-theatre structure would just not work. It had to be an ensemble piece with equal weight to each character, so the option of setting it in one office within a newsroom (a structure that might work for a star turn) was really not there. It would have to be 14 to 15.
And that decision has made this play’s future beyond its September production a potentially difficult journey. It will have to be better than even we think it is if it will be seen by more than just people in New Orleans.
For you see, that is the economy of playwriting these days. After you creep above the seventh character, you are making it very difficult for non-shakespearean companies of moderate size to do your shows. And once you breakthrough the 10 plus ceiling, your show better walk out of Steppenwolf, be written by Richard Nelson, or be crafted for Mark Rylance if it is ever going to see the lights of a major American or British Theatre.
And this got me to thinking about advice I would give to young playwrights who are musing about writing the next Jerusalem, August: Osage County, or Two Shakespearean Actors. So, I have crafted rules of the road for writing big plays with lotsa actors.
1. Don’t. If you have no track record, are not connected to a theatrical company, or are just starting out, don’t. It won’t get done, and it might not even get read. You should be writing 2, 3, and 4 handers. You should be honing your craft, you should be learning the ins-and-outs of the profession, and you should be proving that you can handle the basic stuff before you try to breathe the worlds of Edwin Forrest, Johnny “Rooster” Byron, or Violet Weston onto the stage. Here’s an idea: see if you can simply create one of those characters before trying to bring their entire world to life. Take a look at the big plays that have crawled their way to the big time, and then do some historical research on the body of work of the playwrights leading up to that production.
2. Keep the characters; kill the actors. Simply saying the sentence to a producer will make them happy. But ask yourself the question, “can I double these characters?” A big play with ten plus actors must have a compelling reason to have all those characters. Here’s the biggest one: they appear on stage together. If they don’t, then start figuring out ways to maintain your sweep and imagination while killing off unnecessary equity contracts. Good enough for Tony Kushner, good enough for you.
3. Keep everything else simple. You are violating one of the biggest rules of the new economy of theatre, so don’t transgress any others. It’s like not making an illegal turn when your license is expired: don’t break two laws at the same time. Your play shouldn’t call for multiple sets, monstrous amounts of costume changes, large jumps in time or a massive special effect at the end. Your dramatis personae page is already a semiotic middle finger to the literary manager or producer reading your play. On the outside chance they read past page 20, do you really want them to mouth fuck you when they arrive at this stage direction in the middle of the second act:
There is a large explosion. It blows off the door to the bathroom, shatters the penthouse windows, and sends JENINE, CARSON, and MARGERY hurtling towards the distant skyline. CLIFF seizes the central pole and prevents himself from joining the three others in their fate.
The script has now been hurtled across the room towards that same distant skyline. Actually, it has missed a garbage can and will sit in the corner as a cautionary tale to all others who would think of indulging in your folly. Take the time to read August and Jerusalem, and check out how ferociously they hold to the other unities of time, place and action. If you can’t honor the unities or keep the characters under ten, you are not writing a play; you are writing something that requires key grips. And yes, clever people, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot essentially unfolds in one place. Its other locations are pools of imagination within that courtroom.
None of this is to say you should not write your play. I am a firm believer in not letting the new economy of playwriting undermine your imagination. However, do you know what else is demoralizing for a young playwright?
Not getting their work even read.