Caroline Jester and Caridad Svich
Edited by Caroline Jester
Bloomsbury/Methuen Drama ($35.95)
by Justin Maxwell
In Fifty Playwrights on Their Craft, dramaturg Caroline Jester and playwright Caridad Svich offer a valuable and broad-ranging collection of interviews. Each playwright interviewed for the book was asked three simple questions that formed the basis of a longer conversation. The three questions are: “1) What is a playwright? 2) Does the audience influence your work? 3) How do playwrighting and the playwright fit into the digital age of storytelling?” Depending on the shape and tone of the answers the writers provided, the interviews were then sorted into five thematic sections, a surprisingly useful structure to support the book’s insightful content.
Fifty Playwrights is a substantial collection. Reading it straight through can feel mildly repetitive, though the reward is an invaluable awareness of the dramatic community writing in English today. Because the book is structurally versatile, one can approach it in a variety of ways: one can start with writers one knows and move to the unknown, or try the opposite, or start with the section that seems most interesting. Any order should produce a viable path through this adventurous book. Moreover, each approach probably generates news ways of situating theatre work and workers.
What Fifty Playwrights is not is yet another playwriting handbook—after all, there’s already several shopping carts full of nuts-and-bolts, make-a-manuscript style handbooks. Instead, it delves into the nature of text and its relationship with both its audience and its makers—a much deeper investigation. Beyond the classroom, where it will undoubtedly become a staple, the collection should prove to be a valuable historical document serving as a broad portrait of contemporary writers discussing their art. Given the political upheaval in the United States and Great Britain at the time of many of the interviews, the context these art makers are working in adds to this collection’s potential for longevity. This collection is a joy to read, and each reader is sure to connect with at least some of the voices it presents.
The interviews of Fifty Playwrights exist in a place between the craft essay and the personal narrative. Perhaps because of the nature of interview, the narratives are more intimate than a craft essay; perhaps because of the deceptively simple nature of the questions, the narratives are more useful than memoiristic ones. This book is composed of people who are deeply dedicated to what they do. While everyone interviewed does the work of playwrighting differently, their shared dedication produces a pervasive, passionate subtext—an unexpected unity. I suspect monks would talk about faith in a similar way.
The autonomous nature of each interview belies a subtle dialogue between interviewees, fostered by the parallelism of the interviews and the artistic choices of the editors. This dialogue felt especially clear in Chapter 2, titled “How Do You Put it All Together?” where the disparate interviewees’ responses sit alongside each other, without interacting. Instead of each voice talking or arguing with the others, each writer states their experience of the playwriting world, and the editors let the juxtaposition drive a subtle tension, making separate texts eminently readable and giving the book an unexpected flow. For example, George Brant stands in contrast to Sibyl Kempson in fundamental approach: Brant describes himself as “often inspired by the dramatic structures and strategies that other playwrights hit upon, and frequently try my hand at what has come before, influenced by both the triumphs and missteps of others. Ultimately, I try to follow Sondheim’s advice and match story and form, whether that means trying something existing or new.”
Brant’s advice is clear and pragmatic and the text overall gains emotional energy when his answers are juxtaposed with the incantatory answers of Kempson. When asked “What is a playwright?” Kempson replies, “To me, a playwright is someone who puts images, events, emotions, and words together in different combinations. These have the potential to be sacred combinations. Usually unbeknownst.” Kempson starts out in a place so mundane as to be indisputable. But, by the end of her sentence, she has arrived at magic. In Kempson’s answer there is a little moment of dramatic twist, a little bit of showing the magic that she does. Kempson goes on to say, “it’s time to find new structures, and new ways of uncovering those new structures, that are more in line with our intuition, our authentic imagination, and our direct experience. It’s time . . . to change the images and stories we tell for the better, wider, longer future purpose.”
Lisa D’Amour splits the difference between Kempson and Brant, adding another voice, deepening the implied debate. D’Amour lands in an interesting space between Kempson’s magic and Brant’s logic. For D’Amour, “A playwright is a trickster who frames human experience through performance texts in the hopes of getting what she wants: The truth. Since truth is relative, the playwright, like the trickster, will always become ensnared in her own trap (i.e. frame, i.e. play). The play will always be imperfect, and the playwright will always be driven to try again, using new strategies, reaching just far enough outside of her own grasp that she will become ensnared again.” Instead of offering us something prescriptive or supporting a unified thesis, this text presents the plasticity of methodology that underlies artistic creation.
The collection’s inclusive nature allows it to hold the diverse voices that exist across the broad demographics of the field and demonstrate the complex spectrum of playwrights that constitute contemporary British and American theatre. Long-established voices like David Hare, Neil LaBute, and Paula Vogel offer their thoughts, but make room for voices speaking with a global perspective like Aizzah Fatima, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, and Saviana Stanescu. Young voices like Kempson, dramatic spell-casters like Erik Ehn, and poets like Sabrina Mahfouz all say their piece. For a beginning playwright, this book is a great early-career springboard to launch one toward their future. For an avid reader or watcher of theatre, it is a unique glimpse of the artists behind the art. For someone who spends their life around the arts, it is a new telling of an old story.