Getting To Know Playwrights As Characters

by:  Sebastián Bravo Montenegro at 12/12/2013

It is a unique experience to be in a room full of playwrights.

First, because there is always that underlying suspicion that something you say will make it to one of their plays. Second, it is interesting to see how much of themselves, although not directly (a la John/A.R. Gurney in The Cocktail Hour), they have infused into their work. Everything from the subject matter of their plays, to their jokes, to the type of stories they tell can seem to stem from their personality and lived experience.

One of the perks of being the Huntington’s Literary Professional Intern is that every two weeks I get to sit in on Huntington Playwriting Fellow meetings during which the Fellows share their work, at whatever stage of the writing process they are in, whether it’d be a full play, a scene, or two pages. It is followed by feedback in the form of comments and questions from each other as well as from Lisa Timmel, Charles Haugland and myself.

One of the things I have learned from these first two meetings is how much information I have about a person just by reading their writing. In preparation for my first meeting with the Fellows, I read a play written by each of them to learn their individual voices. When I walked into the room, I immediately started a game of matching the play to the playwright, and it was surprisingly easy once I had heard about five minutes of conversation among them.

By the second meeting, I had learned to recognize their style and pin down some specifics that make them unique — one of them clearly has a science fiction streak, another carefully explores mother-daughter relationships. Writers develop and craft their voice throughout their career, aware of what stories they like to tell and which ones they are best at, but I have also noticed that their style can be traced to minute details: the words they use and repeat, the structure of dialogue, or even the font they choose. After all, when you are writing, the font is probably the most important distraction. (I use 12-point Times New Roman at 85% zoom)

I spend a lot of time thinking about plays. The way they work, what I like, and what I don’t understand, but seldom do I think about the people who write them. While reading, our instinct is to picture the characters. We use the descriptions and dialogue to imagine what this person might look like in real life. We say things like “Laura is the kind of person that buys an oversized men’s coat that doesn’t flatter her.”

After these two HPF meetings, I have started a fun new game: if all I have to describe a person is what they have written, what can I glimpse about the person? Can I imagine the playwright as a character?

Writing can be an extension of ourselves. The work is always personal, and although the material might not be autobiographical, the piece is infused with our inner thoughts represented through different conduits and our specific sense of style. Every decision made in writing is made by a person, so can it tell us something about them? If you were to submit a piece of writing, what do you think it can say about you? What font would you choose?

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