My name is Stephen Belber and I am a playwright ... and I’m not sure why. Or let me put it this way: I make a tidy living writing studio screenplays; an indie movie just came out that I wrote and directed; and if all goes well, I’ll be directing another of my scripts in the near future -- all of which has led me to seriously question the Sisyphean endeavor that is playwriting. I mean let’s be serious, even Tony Kushner’s writing movies now, so what kind of wall are the rest of us banging our heads against?
Now granted, there are reasons to keep writing plays (and, indeed, I have one of my own), but let’s not start having parties about them. Playwriting is difficult, lonely and vastly underpaid compared with screenwriting. Getting either plays or screenplays produced often depends on luck, but at least Hollywood doesn’t try to trick writers into thinking that “projects of integrity” aren’t really just profit-motive-disguised-as-art. Which isn’t to say a lot of great movies don’t come out of Hollywood, for they certainly do. The difference is that in theater, it’s easy to think that the work you’re doing is sacrosanct, when the reality is that box office counts just as much on Broadway as it does in Hollywood, and producers will drop you with the same exact speed if the numbers aren’t there.
So why do we keep writing plays? The standard answer has always tended to be, “Because nowhere else but in the sacred space of a theater can there be a dialogue with the community that is pure and uncompromised by your own financial motive, studio greed or Gary Busey’s hair implant schedule.” Now this, of course, is true. There are no rules in theater, and if there are, they generally boil down to the fundamental: “Don’t write a sucky play.”
But even this isn’t true, because there are thousands of sucky plays written every year. (And films as well, because there is no corresponding sucky screenplay rule, as we all know.) The point is that theater is not a medium in which the writer is obliged to provide Page 30 and Page 90 “arc-enhancing” act breaks, or happy endings, or sad ones with glimmers of optimism at the very end. And only rarely are we asked to execute notes inspired by studio executives’ childhood memories of that time when they happily sledded down the hill and all was incomprehensively blissful.
In theater, you really can have two people alone in a room talking about the death penalty for three hours. In fact, one of the most liberating and satisfying feelings in the world of writing may well be returning to the rule-free world of plays -- of play -- after having slavishly devoted all your recent energy to making sure that a word commonly used for lovemaking doesn’t appear more than twice in your screenplay to ensure a PG-13 rating.
In fact, my most recent play, “The Muscles in Our Toes,” practically goes out of its way to use a wide array of lovemaking synonyms -- as verbs, nouns, adjectives, pronouns, proper nouns, glorified prepositions and choking devices. (I’m hoping many studio executives will attend this play so that they might subsequently hire me to write a remake of “Shampoo” meets “Must Love Dogs” meets “A History of Violence.”
But the fact remains that I’m sick and tired of writing ambitious-play-of-integrity after ambitious-play-of-integrity, only to have them bypassed by regional theaters for being too “edgy,” or rejected by off-Broadway theaters for being too bland, or not even read by Broadway producers for having too politically sounding a title. And besides, if one is lucky enough to get a play produced, there’s an incredibly good chance that no matter how well it goes, a New York Times critic will come by on a night when he has a slightly elevated fever or a blister or an irritable wart and write a review that will make you wish you’d gone into plastics after all.
So now I often ask myself: Isn’t it just better to write for Hollywood? After all, the projects I’ve been able to sell to the studios (thanks to my proffered guise as a playwright-of-integrity), have satisfied my desire for researching and writing about lofty and socially relevant topics -- such as the war in Iraq, the Swiss banking scandal, the early AIDS-activism fight against the big pharmaceuticals. And though those haven’t yet been produced, I am now able to afford a fancy computer and 154-grain bread and expensive lipstick for those moments when I feel like wearing expensive lipstick.
Why go back to theater?
Well, here’s one: Good characters. All my best characters started out on stage. This may be because many of my characters -- like me -- have no idea what they’re talking about.
Most of the characters I create tend to be equipped with language but woefully ill-equipped when it comes to accurately and honestly expressing their selves, a dilemma I find to be rather human. The world often appears to me to be full of good talkers but hungry for those who know how to use language to express something true and worth hearing, and that contributes to a communal dialogue. But don’t get me wrong, I love people who try to chisel away at the gargantuan rock of language in an attempt to create something sculpted and meaningful. In fact, my plays are often about small, occasionally odd individuals trying to articulate what they are convinced are their vital two cents. (And sometimes those cents are vital.)
What I’ve discovered about my “process” is that without theater as a breeding-ground, my characters tend to fall short of full development, for they lack specificity in their fundamental . . . unspecific-ness.
A ‘sacred venue’
One of the many things that appeals to me about humanity (besides organic grocery markets) is our quixotic attempts at self-expression despite the obstacles of occasionally meager intelligence, extreme emotional immaturity and oft-misguided passion. Thus for me, theater, among many other things, is a perfect place in which to release characters like this. Theater is that “sacred venue” within which they can communally dialogue with themselves and the audience, and in which a playwright can acquire immense knowledge as to who they are and what they are trying to say.
This will sound controversial -- and please know that I am not at all advocating theater as merely a useful way-station for film -- but at this moment in my career (which you’ve probably never even heard of anyway), I have found playwriting to be a hugely beneficial learning experience in terms of what I am trying to say. Which often means that after a theater production, with its many rewrites and repeated viewings and even the critical (and often, I hate to admit, very thoughtful) responses of reviewers, I have found myself ready to take my characters to a different level, a new iteration where their inarticulateness can be pared down, honed and made more precise and profound.
The medium of film -- with its visual splendor, its capacity for in-your-face intimacy, its ability to show the emotions and detail between the words -- can add exhilarating layers to already defined and emerged characters, allowing them to this time say a little less (in their own, inarticulate ways) -- and in so doing, say a lot more. Which is not to imply they become more articulate on screen; they just sort of . . . are inarticulate better. Because, remember, they really had no idea what they were talking about in the first place.
Belber’s plays-to-movies include “Tape” and “The Laramie Project” (co-writer) and “Management,” which opened last week.His play, “McReele,” is currently in development with Overbrook and Sony