Deborah Brevoort, the author of our just-premiered play The Comfort Team, talked about the process of play development and what it’s like writing a play for VSC.
When NASA was given the job to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth, one of the Apollo engineers remarked that they were entering a nine-year period that would be characterized by nonstop failures and mistakes. Success would only be achieved after every possible mistake had been made and eliminated. In fact, the engineers coined an expression about this that became their motto: Failure is a tool for making progress.
This principle applies not only to engineering but to artistic endeavors. It is a description of the creative process: it’s what happens during rehearsals for a play and what happens when you write a play, too.
When I was working on The Comfort Team, I kept getting it wrong: not only the objective, historical facts like the proper military acronyms, and the ranks, and the titles, but the bigger things, too, like the characters and the situations and the dialogue. If something could be wrong, it was.
About a year and a half into the project, I picked up the phone and called Chris Hanna to discuss my latest draft.
“I hate this,” I said.
“I do too,” he answered.
I was on draft #3 and the script was off by a mile. But Chris was unconcerned.
‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it, “ he told me. “Just keep writing.”
And I did. Gradually, the mistakes fell away. We did a workshop where I got rid of many of them and made some new ones. During rehearsals for the production this fall, I continued to make mistakes and eliminate others. I was cutting and adding lines right up to the opening night—and after opening, too. In fact, I’m still making changes to the play, even though it has ended the run.
What is surprising to me is how few people really understand this process—including people who work in the theatre. In my twenty-five years of being a playwright, I’ve had to spend a lot of time assuaging the fears and anxieties of producers who don’t understand the artistic process, leap to judgment and try to rush their projects to “success” without giving them the requisite steps of failure. Maybe it’s because the stakes are so high, and because our work is so public. Egos, careers and money are on the line, after all. But this lack of understanding makes a difficult process even more difficult, and often holds a play back from becoming all it could be.
During the race to the moon, the Apollo engineers were often under siege by Congress, the press and the public for their string of failures. Jim Webb, the director of NASA, ran constant interference with the powers-that-be in order to give his engineers what they needed to succeed, which was, the need to fail. If it were not for Jim Webb, we never would have gotten to the moon.
Chris Hanna is the Jim Webb of Virginia Stage. He knows what a playwright needs to get a play right. Which is, to get it wrong. This is one of the reasons why the work at Virginia Stage is so good. His refusal to bring judgment, fear or anxiety into the process liberates his artists to do what they need to do. Artists do their best work in this kind of atmosphere. It’s why I love working here.
It’s also why I signed up for another American Soil commission. I am writing a play called Homespun about Martha Washington. I’ve been writing it for a year. It’s a mess. Which means it’s on the right track.