War Stories: Interview with Richard Dresser, successful PlayPenn dramatist

PlayPenn is an artist-driven organization dedicated to improving the way in which new plays are developed. Their most prominent public event is a three-week conference each July in Philadelphia where they develop eight brand new plays by playwrights who are on the forefront of American theater. Each play receives two readings that are free and open to the public. To celebrate this year’s conference, Phindie is running interviews with prestigious playwrights who have benefited from their experiences with PlayPenn. 

First up is Richard Dresser. Dresser’splays have been produced in New York, regional theater, and Europe. They include ROUNDING THIRD, BELOW THE BELT, TROUBLE COMETH, 100 YEARS, and CLOSURE. He wrote the book for the musical JOHNNY BASEBALL and a new bluegrass ghost musical, THE HOLLER. Both appeared at the Williamstown Theater Festival with music by Rob and Willie Reale. He is on the board of the Writers Guild Initiativewhich does writing workshops with veterans and caregiversamong other groups. 

Richard Dresser, headshot, courtesy of the playwright


Henrik Eger: How did you come up with the concept for your play, War Stories?

Richard Dresser: I do writing workshops with wounded warriors and caregivers—primarily women who care for husbands with traumatic brain injuries—and have become conversant with some of the issues they face. My friend David Tucker, a fellow mentor, was in the Army for 20 years and fought in Iraq. He suggested that I write a play about “stolen valor,” which is when someone claims to have served but didn’t. This is, naturally, an extremely emotional issue among veterans, and the more I investigated it, the more intrigued I became.

Eger: Describe the stages that your script went through, from your very first draft to the version that you submitted to PlayPenn.

Dresser: I tend to write a very fast first draft, which certainly happened in this case. I then had David Tucker read it and offer suggestions. He has an impressive military background, but is also a fine writer and teacher. He had some terrific ideas which I was able to incorporate. So, I went back to the play and revised it several times before I submitted it to PlayPenn.

Eger: If you have taken other play development workshops, what made them different from your PlayPenn experience?

Dresser: My other play development experiences were at the O’Neill Playwrights Center [Waterford, CT], New Dramatists [New York, NY], and The Lark [New York, NY]. The O’Neill was a month-long residency, and I was lucky enough to go relatively early in my career. It had a profound effect on me, both in developing my plays and in the writers I met. It was when Lloyd Richards was in charge; it was a pretty amazing time.

New Dramatists is more self-directed in terms of developing a play. You chart your own course, but there are amazing resources there. The impact was in the opportunities but also in meeting the writers.

The Lark is also extraordinarily successful at genuinely assisting playwrights at every stage of a play’s development. Each of these venues has its own approach and each has been hugely important in developing my plays.

This was my first experience at PlayPenn and it was short—four days—but it was as focused, productive, and engaging as any of the other workshops I have experienced. And because of Paul [Meshejian], it has its own unique, exhilarating, and demented sensibility.

Collaborative Process

Eger: Many theater-goers seem to know little about the important work of dramaturgs. Could you describe the input on your work, if any, by your dramaturg, Michele Volansky?

Dresser: I’ve known Michele since I was doing plays at the Humana Festival [Louisville, KY], and I was thrilled to learn that she would be my dramaturg on War Stories. She brings her own clear-eyed point of view which she manages to articulate with grace and humor, but leaves it completely up to the playwright whether to act on it. I found her to be right an annoying amount of the time.

Eger: What impact did Paul Meshejian, your PlayPenn director, have on the way you rewrote parts of your script?

Dresser: Paul was the perfect director for War Stories. He is a veteran of both Vietnam and the American theater, both of which are baffling enterprises, which can only be understood with a large tumbler of whiskey in hand. But more than that, he was truly attuned to what I was trying to do with War Stories.

There are some directors who feel the need to impose their own vision on a play, and there are directors, like Paul, who take on the much more challenging task of figuring out what a thin-skinned, contentious playwright is trying to say—and finding ways to achieve that. One of many examples of this in War Stories was his belief that Boyd’s troubled relationship with his own son was the key to his relationship with Danny. For me, an observation like that is gold, and I don’t look for anyone to tell me how to do it, just that it is an important aspect of the play that I hadn’t developed.

Eger: Tell us about your work with the actors, especially anything they said that might have helped you in reshaping parts of your play, or perhaps rephrasing something.

Dresser: I love working with actors, particularly in situations like PlayPenn where they are truly a part of the collaboration. I think actors are rarely empowered to be a creative force—and the truth is, with a three-week rehearsal process for a new play, there often isn’t the time. However, the PlayPenn actors were really wonderful at stepping into the fray, making some important contributions to the play. One example is Kevin Meehan, the actor playing Danny, who suggested that Danny should take the phone call from the political handler at the end of the play when Boyd is out in the riot. This recommendation turned out to be a critical piece in establishing how Danny comes into his own by the end of the play.

Eger: Among playwrights in North America, both Paul Meshejian and Michele Volansky are renowned for nurturing new plays. Could you give examples of how their work shaped part of your script?

Dresser: They started with the issue of clarity. In the initial draft, there were a number of aspects of the story that didn’t quite add up, such as the specifics of the women’s plan in approaching Boyd. So, my first pass at the script was to make the story clear, and that resulted in a huge all-night rewrite. We were basically working from a new script on day 2. From there the notes were aimed at strengthening the scenes, refining the characters, sharpening specific moments, and cutting out the dead wood. As a result, the play got stronger every day.

Playing at PlayPenn

Eger: One of the PlayPenn goals is to “provide as many resources and remove as many obstacles as possible.”

Dresser: To have a willing cast, a smart director, and an engaged dramaturg—those are the only resources I need. However, there were two obstacles: the first was time—to whip this play into shape took every minute we had. I wouldn’t have hated a few more days of tussling with War Stories. The second obstacle was parking [at Drexel University], which was challenging, but not impossible.

Eger: Could you tell us a bit about your experience with Anita Castillo-Halvorssen, your intern?

Dresser: Anita brought a great spirit and a number of ideas to our rehearsals. She was completely a part of the collaboration from start to finish.

Eger: Your play was given a public reading with professional actors. How much did that process shape your play?

Dresser: The audience is a huge part of the process: audiences don’t lie. If it isn’t funny, they won’t laugh—even if they happen to be blood relatives, as I have discovered to my dismay. So, it was exciting to face an audience after four hyper-intense days of rewriting and rethinking War Stories and see what emerged from the wreckage. It really illuminated the soft spots and the land mines in the play. As there was no talk-back after the reading, I got informal reactions, which were very positive, but of course there was an open bar. I was mainly concerned with the clarity of the storytelling and that the audience not get ahead of the play.

Eger: Overall, how would you describe the PlayPenn process and its impact on your play? What were some of the best insights you gained from the PlayPenn team?

Dresser: I really loved the open-ended quality of PlayPenn. All the resources were there and it’s up to the playwright to dig in and make the play better. My experience was more compressed than others, but I had the feeling that there was a basic foundation of support for the playwrights, who could choose how much—or how little—they wanted to do to further develop their plays.

Playwrights Under Pressure

Eger: If there were moments when your play moved into a different direction than you had anticipated, how did you handle feedback and any possible misunderstandings?

Dresser: Since we just plunged in and kept charging forward, from first reading through the public presentation, all of the activities I experienced were presented with honesty and directness. There was no time to be polite or dishonest, which was quite a refreshing change from the rest of life. I think one of the big questions in War Stories was whether Boyd was fully conscious of the lie he’d been living. Examining that situation took the play in a different direction, as did the clarification of what Jackie’s plan was when she came to the hotel. Answering those questions had a ripple effect throughout the script.

Eger: What do you think your play or your main characters would say about being looked over and reviewed extensively by theater experts?

Dresser: Boyd, the main character in my play, would be thrilled at the attention, wherever it came from. He would be heroically modest and understated, but keep the spotlight on himself by talking about turning the spotlight on others. And then there would be a simple question from a rail-thin, haunted stranger standing in the shadows—which would reduce Boyd to a quivering ball of terror, curled in the fetal position, calling for his mommy.

Eger: While the serious work might have been stressful at times, were there funny, perhaps even hilarious, moments?

Dresser: I was out of the room when anything amusing happened.

Eger: As a PlayPenn playwright, how has your participation in this intensive workshop series changed the way you might handle challenging situations differently in the future?

Dresser: The way I work is very much the way PlayPenn is structured. I am very collaborative by nature with directors and actors. I was doing a first production of a new play this summer, and my work with that cast was actually quite similar to the way I worked with the War Stories cast. Actors often have insights into their characters that the playwright doesn’t have—it pays big dividends to listen. That doesn’t answer your question but what are you going to do, sue me?

But I will say that PlayPenn made me hyper-aware of the value of staying open. You never know where the insight will come from that can change your take on your play and open up all kinds of new possibilities. As playwrights we are sometimes too attached to aspects of our play that might in fact be limiting its power. PlayPenn is all about opening up possibilities. It’s up to the playwrights to be super-vigilant in acting on them.

All’s Well that Playwrights Well: Beyond PlayPenn

Eger: Since 2005, PlayPenn has helped bring about 100 plays to a state they cautiously call “closer to production-readiness.” How close do you consider your play to be to that state? And what are the next steps you have taken to get it produced?

Dresser: I told Paul going in that my goal was to get War Stories ready for production. I believe it is much, much closer now, and, importantly, I think I know what needs to be done. The work that remains is not structural, but rather going deeper into the characters—specifically, Boyd’s troubled relationship with Eddie (his unseen son) will be an important element in understanding who Boyd is and why he has taken Danny under his wing.

Eger: What has become of your work overall as a playwright since the PlayPenn conference?

Dresser: I did productions of two new plays, CLOSURE (NJ Rep) and TROUBLE COMETH (SF Playhouse). A movie was made from my play ROUNDING THIRD. I did a workshop of a new bluegrass ghost musical, THE HOLLER. I workshopped WAR STORIES at Key City Theatre in Washington and it will be read at Williamstown in August in ever more refined versions.

Eger: Where do you see yourself now in this process of becoming an even stronger playwright than before?

Dresser: The most effective way to improve as a playwright is through incomprehensible mistakes, errors of judgment, constant rejection, prolonged disappointment, envy, greed, desperation, public humiliation, private terror, insomnia, and crippling need. If you can find time for even a few of these you will make steady progress—assuming you figure a way to stay in the game.

Eger: What have you discovered about yourself through the PlayPenn process—not only as a playwright, but as a mensch?

Dresser: With each passing day there are fewer things I care about, but what remains, I care about more deeply.

Eger: What advice do you have for the next generation of playwrights?

Dresser: We all work so differently. We all have to find our own way through the jungle. You should ask yourself basic questions, like what you need to be happy. Does it require a house, a family, a car, imported beer, mood altering drugs, a large pet, a vacation, a sport coat, a servant, new socks, a smartphone, dental work, season tickets, or a sailboat? Then you have to be realistic about how you will get those things you want while writing plays. That will make you write faster and faster. Eating and paying the rent are wonderful incentives.

If you can’t figure out how to get the things you need to be happy while writing plays, then you’ll have to choose. In terms of the work, it’s important to stay open, not only to the world around us, but also to the people in the room. I never go into a rehearsal believing I have to defend my work, and if anyone comes up with an idea that will make it stronger, I rewrite. I believe in keeping the script as alive as possible, and not getting into a defensive crouch.

Eger: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Dresser: Yes, but I have to go out and move my car. Okay, I have just a few seconds before I get a ticket. The theater is in extreme danger. It is on the verge of becoming utterly irrelevant to the way we live. It is on life support and needs everything we can give it. This has been true for two thousand years. But it’s absolutely and eternally true, so step up and leave your mark while there’s still time. 

 July 5-24, 2016; playpenn.org.

Read a three-part interview with PlayPenn founder Paul Meshejian


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