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Leave Your Ego at the Workshop Door

As you hit the "save" button on your computer keyboard, you realize two very important things: You have just completed the arduous task of writing a play, and you have a long way to go before the play is ready for an audience.

Few things are-I imagine-more fulfilling than standing in the back of a dimly lit theatre listening to actors breathe life into your words. When the audience responds the way you intended, it is a thrill that can only be compared to the first time you heard someone say, "I love you."

However, getting from the page to the stage is a process that can be ego-crushing and uplifting at the same time. The most important thing to remember throughout this process is, the work has to come first.

One of the first pieces I workshopped was the road trip/buddy play Great Land.  The play, set in 1977, tells the story of a journalist bringing a developmentally disabled man to Graceland to meet Elvis Presley.

Having the luxury of hindsight, I decided to include jokes that played on the future of technology. In one case, a character breaks another character's 8-track tape. They decide that life would be better if music came in a format that was small and more durable. "Ya know...like a disc...only compact...."

The actors in the workshop named each of these jokes "Mickey Mouse" and didn't see the need for them in a sweet, gentle story about two men learning about life from each other.

I thought I was being clever; they pointed out that I was being too clever and it wasn't serving the piece. As I excised each Mickey Mouse moment, the play became smooth and the arc of the story was uninterrupted. Now Great Land is currently being considered by a LORT house here in Chicago.

The workshop process is integral to the development of the work. It is also integral to the development of the playwright's character, which is in direct proportion to the longevity of the playwright's success.

I choose a liberal, almost communal, style of workshopping. I open the creative floodgates to everyone involved in the production. Stage managers offer ideas. Actors with minimal training and brilliant directors (and vice versa) bandy my ideas back and forth like badminton birdies. I soak up every word and then filter out what is germane to the piece and what comes from ego.

Ultimately the work has to be the priority. If I lock down on a Mickey Mouse moment, I am losing more than I am gaining. That is where playwrights have to find the balance. As unforgiving as the workshop process can be, if you believe in the work and in the people around you, the final product will be the best it can be.

This, however, doesn't mean that you and your work are doormats to be stepped on or abused. In 2004 I was workshopping my piece After the Ball. There was one actor who absolutely did not get one of the jokes and insisted I cut it. His reasoning was that if he didn't get it, then audiences wouldn't get it. Aside from being the  egotistical element I had ever encountered in a workshop, he was just flat-out wrong. 

I kept the joke in; some audience members laughed and some didn't get it. Not everyone is going to get all of the jokes. That actor? He has gone on to produce, direct, and act in a variety of my projects. Mutual respect between the art and the artists is the key.

My motto is: You can't come to playwriting with an ego. You have to come to playwriting with passion.   

Paul Barile is a playwright and founding member of the n.u.f.a.n. ensemble in Chicago. His work includes The Cemetery Tree, HomeGoing, and A Summer's Tale. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America. He was named the discovery of the year by ChicagoCritic.com for his The Bound Trilogy.

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