Literature 9-21-2005

Letters from a Writer: Be Difficult

Jean Sramek tries to decide between being "difficult" and being "flexible": which is a rock and which is a hard place?

Jean Sramek

You have a reputation for being flexible. Woe is you.

Periodically, like most Creative Artists, you have had a reputation for being difficult. Ironically, your flexible approach to the creative process is what got you the “difficult” label. You welcome input. You welcome suggestions. You see theatrical productions as an organic kind of thing, and understand that when plays are written from scratch or adapted from existing material, it is very different than when plays are produced for the millionth time because they are classics. The process of writing a play from scratch is not so much writing as it is building. It’s crazy and strenuous and it’s about structural things, not just finishing touches and rag-rolling the flats.

You build a script for some people and they think you are crazy and difficult, because you keep changing things as you go. They want a finished product with smooth edges—they want this from the start—and you can’t give it to them. This makes you difficult, but you ask them to trust you. They don’t trust you, and they talk behind your back to the cast and now everyone says you are difficult. But you ask for input and suggestions and you brainstorm ways to make things work. You ask them—again—to trust you and they still don’t, but they are pleased with the product when the audience loves it. They admit that they have never worked with someone this flexible, and how wonderful the creative process can be when there is input and suggestions from everyone.

They tell other people that you are flexible, and suddenly you have a reputation. And you build a script here and there and it works great because the secret to all that flexibility is to temper it with self-control and a wide-angle vision of what the final product should be, and to always remember that this is for an audience.

You build a script for a group with a large cast and a large team of directors and designers. You meet with the production director, who asks for clarifications and shares concerns about the script, then approves the final product and copies it for distribution. They perform your finished script. The second year, they hire you again and you meet with two or three key people and they give you input and suggestions. They ask questions which are mostly about how they should be executing your ideas. You finish the script, and they perform it. They have changed a handful of things.

The third year, you are asked to meet with five or six of the staff, who analyze and critique your drafts as they receive them. They ask questions, but they also make statements. Sometimes they state that they don’t understand things, but not in a way that asks for your guidance. They listen, dull-eyed and impatiently, to your explanations of the cultural references and humor in the script, then repeat: “I don’t get it.” Because you are so flexible, and because building a script looks so effortless, some of them fancy themselves able to join in the fun. You offer opportunities and outlines for building scenes of their own, but they come to planning meetings empty-handed, preferring instead to give input and suggestions for how your work can be changed.

You give them the finished script. You go to see the play. They have gutted your script, rebuilding it in their own image. You are mortified. You ask yourself: which is worse, having a reputation for being difficult, or having a reputation for being flexible? You attribute the horror that is your molested script to the personalities of the staff, most of whom will not return next year. You rationalize: your openness to input and suggestions has cheapened things. Your flexibility has allowed them to disrespect your work in a way that they would not do to a play that has been performed millions of times.

The fourth year, you are asked to meet with a team of directors and designers even before the script-building process has begun. They have input and suggestions, but you figure it’s better for it to happen now, early. They thank you for being so flexible; they say that they have heard all about how flexible you are. You present a draft of the script at an initial read-through; there are a dozen people there, who give you more input and suggestions. Some of these people have pet ideas for costumes, dances, or other things which they, in no uncertain terms, ask you to shoehorn into the script. You take cheerful notes and promise to consider some of their ideas, but remind them that the important thing is the finished product and the positive experience of the actors and audience. The audience, you say. Remember the audience?

Some of their input and suggestions are worthy; some are jettisoned. You give them a final draft. In your accompanying notes, you explain the rationale and vision behind what has been incorporated into the script. This prompts a flurry of emails from this group—which has now grown to include seventeen people,some of whom have, at best, a tenuous connection to the designing and directing staff. The group explains that “we” feel your script needs this, and “we” feel your script doesn’t reflect that, and “we” don’t care for this either and “we” had in mind a completely different ending. It’s a freaking input and suggestions festival. The truth of the matter is that several of “we” don’t know what they’re talking about and have spectacularly bad ideas. Why did “we” hire me anyway? (Oh, right. I’m flexible. The word “WELCOME” is embossed across my flexible forehead.)

They announce that they will make changes. You plead, meekly, to have final say over these changes. They thank you for your input and suggestions. You decide that being meek is bullshit, and tell them that “we” can do whatever “we” want with the script, but to please take my name off the byline, out of the program, and to kindly refrain from using it in any publicity or advertising for the production. You feel like a high-maintenance Artiste for doing this, and next year they will call you difficult.

What a relief that will be.