Five Ways Directing Theater Taught me How to Write, or My Student Loans: A Rationalization: Part One

Hey there, fellow writers! It’s me, Chris O’Neill, a writer just like you! Yup, just another book-loving writer of books, fresh out of book-writing college, where I majored in book-writing, and took courses like “Books: How to Write Them (Introductory)” and “Books: How to Write them (Advanced).” Why, I wrote so many books, my nickname around campus was Writey McAuthorface. They called me Galactus, Devourer of Words. Because I just…I mean, I was like a machine…I won all the awards…



(Side note: My coworker Anna actually is looking at me, and I think it’s because she suspects I’m writing a blog post and not doing anything work related. Well, you’re wrong, Suspicious Anna. This document entitled “Relevant work document” is exactly what it sounds like. Now get back to work, we’re paying you for this.)

True confession: my background is not in writing. It’s in theater. I direct plays. I’ve directed bunches and bunches of plays. Sometimes, in addition to this, I also teach kids the art of “drama,” which I think means, “how to best perform musicals for your parents and their cameras.” This is a very high-pressure job, because these are people’s kids we’re talking about, and their cameras.

I imagine this is the question you’re probably asking yourselves, as you fold your arms across your chest and suspiciously raise one single eyebrow, much like my coworker Anna is doing: where do you get off writing books, mister?

This is a valid concern. In fact, I have always written books. Here is a brief history of my book-writing:

In first grade, I wrote detailed character studies of all the Masters of the Universe. Ram-man’s chapter was in the form of a song.

In sixth grade, my class was assigned the project of writing 7-page stories that we would bind into little books, for a state-wide competition. My book was 250 pages and needed to be bound with duct tape and coarse thread. It was called THE CAVE OF TIME and it was about a cave where you could travel through time.

And…That’s about it. My master’s theses are technically in libraries somewhere, but they’re relatively short. My personal, largely unpublishable memoirs certainly exceed novel-length, but we’re talking about fiction. I’ve written plays and screenplays, but we’re talking prose here. The real stuff.

SO, you say again, literally scalding me with your harsh, Anna-like, gaze, WHERE DO YOU GET OFF?

…always watching…

Well, I timidly reply, as it happens, there are numerous valuable lessons to be gathered from the world of the theater which I, an avid reader of prose, have applied to my own writing. W-w-w-would you…like to hear more?

…YES, you reply, relaxing, finally, and then politely taking out your parchment and feather quill, with which to take notes. Huh. I would have expected you would just take notes on your laptop. I’m always learning new things about you!

1.       Intuition first, interrogation later.

During my brief, tortured tenure as a Production Manager at NYU, I discovered a fascinating tension – dare I say schism? I do! – between two competing factions in the Directing faculty. They were ideologically split over a point that had never even occurred to me to think about consciously, and I’d spent years swimming in the neurotic waters of university theater programs. In one corner were the traditionalists, who believed that freshmen Directing and Design students should be given some basic information about the craft of directing plays: how to examine narrative structure, for example, or how develop production concepts that actually clarify or illuminate some facet of what the playwright was going for. Teaching kids about the thing that they were here to learn: a shocking proposition, I know.  In the other corner were the folks we’ll call the Messy Boys, because this is a phrase that does not already mean anything else, who believed that these students should be allowed – nay, encouraged – to completely eff up all their directing projects for the first two years of their college careers. The Messy Boys believed that teaching any sort of craft too early would offer students too many nice, safe shortcuts and creative crutches. And it would condition them to be critical of their wilder impulses, those vitally important imaginative/emotional responses one has when first encountering a text. Don’t think about it yet – just feel it out first and follow your heart.  You want to set Macbeth on a vampire space station? DO IT. Think Tennessee Williams would be improved by video monitors projecting each actor’s fourth grade class photo superimposed with images of that Japanese town where all the people who live there are foxes? That’s exactly what THE GLASS MENAGERIE has always needed!

Bringin’ it home!

At the time, I suspected that the Messy Boys were a bunch of dirty, wrongheaded hippies who just happened to be a thousand more times professionally successful than I ever, ever would be. But the truth is, “shoot first, ask questions later” is at the heart of all good creative thinking. Improv performers live and die by it: when you’re making up a scene onstage, you always start by shouting out the first thing that pops into your head, trusting that everyone else on stage will support you and accept your crazy offer. The fun part of watching improv is rarely hearing what the actors blurt out – it’s usually watching the next part, when they invite their brains back into the conversation and have to come up with a coherent explanation for why, exactly, they’re wearing a bear suit to their grandmother’s funeral.

This is how we make good art: we start with all the crazy. We start with the visuals, we start with the music, we start by designing specs for the laser beams that will shoot over the audience during Macbeth’s monologue. Sometimes we identify an image that symbolizes the play for you (if we’re talking about Macbeth, I’ll just assume it’s a butterfly lollipop) even if you have no idea why.

(Point of clarification: I am referring to an actual candied butterfly, NOT merely a lollipop in the shape of a butterfly. If you assumed the latter, theater isn’t for you.)

It’s only after you’ve indulged your imagination that you put on your thinking cap and you apply your craft – mapping out the rise and fall of the narrative, doing your research, asking succinct questions about the characters and their world, figuring out the themes and how to properly activate those themes in organic ways. I promise, you won’t forget about the fox village. In one form or another, it will be with you to the end.

With writing, we have a rather glorious luxury that theater directors rarely have, assuming you aren’t working on Broadway and get seven months of previews during which you can break every one of Spiderman’s bones – we get to revise! And revise and revise and revise!

So, writers: brainstorm first, brainstorm hard, brainstorm to your heart’s content. Let music inspire you. Let art inspire you. Fill a notebook with images, and maps, and snippets of dialogue and evocative phrases with no context whatsoever. If anyone ever finds this notebook, they would think it is the scribbling of a mad person.

Just as importantly, here are the things you don’t, under any circumstances, ever, ever think about first: THEME and PLOT. The crafty, brainy tools of self-sabotage. Those easy-way-out crutches that serve mainly to help you for procrastinate doing the real work of just pouring a lot of terrible words onto a page.

If you start with themes and allow that to drive your process, you run the risk of creating something that’s preachy and heavy-handed. If you map out the plot first, your book will feel overly contrived, the characters just cogs in your brilliantly constructed clockwork mechanism. There will be time, later, to figure out what the book’s themes are and then to begin sharpening them. And there will be time, later, to figure out the minutiae of the plot.

Well, this went on for a bit longer than I expected and – SUSPICIOUS ANNA’S COMING OVER HERE, THIS IS NOT A DRILL, THIS IS NOT A DRILL –

To be continued…

Next time: Character stuff!

Think I don’t know what I’m talking about? Confirm your suspicions by reading my book!

rolling raccoon

4 thoughts on “Five Ways Directing Theater Taught me How to Write, or My Student Loans: A Rationalization: Part One

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