The Play’s The Thing
Manny Fried Explains How...
By Anthony Chase
A truly vital theater community can be recognized by the support it gives to new writers. Dublin ranks as a theater Mecca purely for the playwrights it has produced. Provincetown, Massachusetts, which cultivated Eugene O’Neill, and Lexington, Kentucky, which boasts the annual Humana Festival of new plays, also claim theatrical prominence for the same reason.
Manny Fried and Beth Geyer.
Photo by Jim Bush.
In this regard, Buffalo has some renown. We have exported playwrights of noteA.R. Gurney, Tom Fontana, and Tom Dudzick among them. And the single most important entity in our city, fueling a constant supply of fresh playwriting talent, is without question, the Western New York Playwrights Workshop, which has been run by Playwright Emanuel Fried for twenty years.
Known by everyone as just “Manny,” Fried is not exactly sure how many plays have been written in the workshop. “I didn’t keep track for the first seven years,” explains Fried. “I didn’t expect this thing to take on such permanency!”
Indeed, the workshop started out as a one shot deal at the request of Just Buffalo Literary Center. “They wanted a short-story workshop,” recalls Fried. “But I said, ‘Let’s do playwriting instead.’” And thus a Buffalo institution was born.
“The people in the workshop wanted it to continue,” explains Fried. It seems there just wasn’t another entity offering the kind of support playwrights need. Because drama is a performing art, playwrights, unlike poets and novelists, need to hear their words spoken back to them, and they need the feedback of prospective audiences.
In time, the workshop moved from the auspices of Just Buffalo to Alleyway Theatre, which is where the group now meets. The format is simple.
“We meet ten times for three hours each time,” explains Fried. “We chose Monday nights, because Monday is the off night for the theater.”
Each group begins its first session with a lecture. Fried, an accomplished playwright in his own right, and arguable the nation’s most celebrated playwright on subjects related to organized labor, talks about the craft.
“I tell them my three most important elements,” says Fried “First, ‘What is the central conflict of the play?’ Second, ‘How does the main character change?’ Third, ‘How do you use the past to play a role in the present, so the exposition can unfold naturally?’”
Though these principles do have a great deal in common with the thinking of the great director of the Group Theatre, Harold Clurman, with whom he studied in the 1930s, Fried explains that he developed them, as they pertain to playwriting, from his own experience.
“I learned the hard way,” says Fried. “I never studied with anyone and it’s too bad, because I could have saved myself a lot of time!”
Drawing on his personal resources, Fried has written an impressive number of plays, including, “The Dodo Bird,” “Drop Hammer,” and “Big Ben Hood.” He has won numerous awards, and has seen his work produced all over the country.
“I always tell writers to draw upon something they feel very strongly about. Conviction will overcome weakness in craft. I wrote ‘Dodo Bird’ before I knew craft.
“Second, I tell them to write when you are trying to find out something. If there is no personal discovery, you are wasting your time! Ask yourself, ‘What was REALLY going on there and why?’
“I urge new writers to start with something they know extremely well, and I outline different approaches. Basically, there are three ways of approaching a play. The first would be if you know the basic story very well from start to finish. Then you have to pick out the most important moments to tell in detail. Choose the most emotional moments, and work out the ways that the past is playing a role in the present.
“Or, if you don’t know the [origin of the] situation very well, approach the play by asking yourself how it got to be that way. It had to come from somewhere! Invent the beginning that rises to the end.
“The third approach would be if you see a situation that is unstable and cannot stay the way it is. Something’s got to give! Project what you think might happen.
“At this point, I send the students away and tell them to come back with a half page summary. We are looking for something with strong emotions, and we talk about how to write a scene in which they will embody that. Then they bring that in and we talk about how to expand that into a full play.
“During the workshop process, each person brings in what they are working on. The other students each write a critique before they say a wordso they have original observations. They talk about where they think it is working and where it is not. Then they give all of these critiques to the writer. They think about the responses they have received, they do a rewrite and then they bring that in the next time.”
Over seventy produced plays have come out of this workshop.
Fried notes writers like Tammy Ryan who just won a $15,000 grant as an emerging playwright in Pittsburgh. She got her start in the workshop. Rebecca Ritchie, another alum, has won numerous awards and seen numerous productions of plays like “Crustacean Waltz,” “Shiva Queen,” and “An Unorthodox Arrangement.” Penelope Prentice has seen productions of such plays as “Thriller” and “Lady and the Cowboy.” Donna Marie Vaughan’s plays “Stuck” and “In Sickness and in Health” have been produced in Virginia, Colorado, Montana, and Georgia.
Beth Geyer’s play, “Kill Her Before I Die,” about a romance novelist with personal problems, whose fictional characters take on lives of their own and rebel, was produced by the Pandora’s Box company at Alleyway Theatre.
“Three years ago, I saw an ad in Artvoice for the workshop,” recalls Geyer. “Now I’m not big on workshops, but I knew about Manny, and I thought this one might have something to offer, so I signed up.
“I wasn’t disappointed. I think the reason it is so good is that Manny has the other writers read your work to you. I was so glad I didn’t have to read my own work out loud! When you do that, you can only think about how well you are reading. You can’t listen to your words. But in Manny’s workshop, I could just listen, and I learned a lot from that. Then you get all the written critiques, which is good, because you can take them and either use the suggestions or throw them away.
“The fun was in trying to get the class to have as little to say as possible. Each time I did a rewrite, there were fewer and fewer criticisms, so I knew I was getting close!
“I also found value in the workshop as a writer, because after the production opened at Alleyway and reviewers were mean, I had a store of constructive criticism [from my workshop colleagues] to work from. I could continue writing.”
Regional reviewers, who rarely see new original plays, are notoriously vicious to them. More new work is annihilated in places like Buffalo, Kansas City, and Cleveland than in New York City. Before a play opens in New York, it is likely to have had several smaller productions. Critics outside of New Yorkwith little or no experience of new workdo not know how to respond to an early production, and so they typically lash out at it. Writers workshops serve as a buffer for writers who might otherwise be devastated.
“Definitely,” says Geyer, “One of the most important things I learned in Manny’s workshop is when to listen and when not to listen to my critics!”
Anthony Chase is the Theater Editor for Artvoice. His articles have appeared in numerous theater publications, and his comments on theater can be heard every Friday morning on WBFO.
For information about the Western New York Playwrights Workshop, call the Alleyway Theatre at 852-2600.
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