The Write-Revise-Trash Cycle (Or, What Makes a Young Playwright Extraordinary)

My theater company, the National Theatre for Student Artists (NTSA), is currently producing a workshop of Slowmatch by Nick Mecikalski (Vanderbilt University '16) -- the script formerly known as Things People Defenestrated. I first read this script back in 2014 and fell instantaneously in love. It was one of those scripts where you start reading it on the subway, reach the end of Act One cliffhanger, and find yourself still sitting in the Nassau Street subway station an hour later because there's NO POSSIBLE WAY that you can continue with your day until you know what happens next. We ended up producing Rae Binstock's Expedition that summer, but Things People Defenestrated stuck with me so much that I couldn't resist coming back to it next year.

Sadly, we won't be producing Slowmatch this summer due to a mix of extenuating circumstances (like the fact that our new venue won't be fully-functional by opening night), but, thanks to the generosity of The Dramatists Guild Fund and Actors' Equity Association, we were able to bring the playwright and the director (Daniella Wheelock, Webster University '16) to New York City to workshop the script. At the beginning of the week, our mentor playwright (who works in the artistic department of Roundabout Theatre Company on Broadway) observed the first rehearsal. Afterwards, she told me: "I have never seen anyone, student or adult, who has been more willing to tackle the revision process head-on." And then, she told me that's how she knows that Nick will be successful someday.

(Nick workshopping Slowmatch in New York City)

I've worked with a lot of young playwrights through NTSA. While they've all been extraordinarily talented, many of them have been reluctant to part with their early drafts. They write version 1.0, and then they become locked into that structure and those characters. They focus all of their energy on deciding where they should make cuts and where they should add new scenes. But, for the most part, they remain firmly committed to the script that they submitted. As a producer, I never had a problem with this logic. After all, the NTSA staff selected that particular script because we could envision it being performed on our stage. So why should the playwright make major changes? Who wants to end up contractually obligated to a new script that they didn't even choose?

After we decided to move ahead with Things People Defenestrated, the NTSA team attended a Skype reading of the script, performed by students at Vanderbilt University. Afterwards, Nick received tons of feedback from our staff members. Most playwrights would have picked out the comments that they felt were most relevant/valuable and discarded the rest, making some minor adjustments along the way.

Not Nick.

Nick threw out the entire script. And when I say "the entire script," I'm not being hyperbolic. On the first day of the workshop, our cast read through the most recent draft out loud. I didn't even recognize it. The only way that I knew I hadn't walked into the wrong rehearsal was that the characters' names had stayed the same. The script that we'd originally selected was a semi-farcical "slice of life" about a young playwright who returns to his hometown to find his family in disarray; the script that's being workshopped on Saturday is a politically-charged (and sometimes surrealistic) drama about what happens to disabled children when they grow up and have exhausted their families. Honestly, I thought that the first script was outstanding, but I like the second one even better.

(In rehearsal with Katharine Nedder [NYU '17] and David Lepelstat [LaGuardia Arts '18])

I hate to think that if Nick had been a different playwright, if he hadn't been quite as willing to give up that early draft, then Slowmatch never would have been written. I feel like this is such a valuable lesson that we can teach our students -- in the classroom, in the rehearsal studio, in the conference room, wherever we work with them. I watched a microdocumentary of Mike Wierusz from Inglemoor High School, one of last year's Allen Distinguished Educators, saying something along the lines of: "Because your drafts are not sacred, we encourage you to crumple them up and throw them at us!" And then all the students crumpled up their engineering drafts and thew them at the teacher who tried to catch them in his recycling bin. It was a great way to add some joy to the classroom, while also teaching students to throw out those first drafts. Writing those drafts was not time wasted; they help you figure out what you're trying to say (and what you're NOT trying to say). But once you've gotten those thoughts out there, it's time to crumple those first drafts up into a ball and toss them into the nearest recycling bin (or at least chuck them into an archive folder on your desktop). And even late in the process, even when you look at a script and think that this might be THE final draft, you maybe could benefit from throwing it out and rewriting it one last time.

I'm not saying that you should get stuck in the write-revise-trash cycle forever. I've dedicated my career to funding fully-staged productions of scripts by young playwrights -- scripts that all-too-often get stuck in "Development Hell," that limbo where scripts receive reading after reading after reading without any actual production in sight. And producers certainly shouldn't be paralyzed by the idea that a script might be better in another month or year or decade; they should commit themselves to staging energetic, thoughtful, IMPERFECT work whenever it appears in their inbox. But if you're going through a revision cycle (or you have some free time), it might be worth it to start over from square one and just see what happens.

Additional Note: All of these photos were taken with the new camera purchased for my school's theater department. Which my eighth grade students assembled during class today. And also taught me how to use.

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