Highlights from the 2013 Dramatists Guild Conference
As Stephen Schwartz put it, "just tell the truth and make it rhyme."
This past weekend playwrights, composers, lyricists, librettists, and theater makers of all kinds gathered in Chicago to swap writing-related quips and tips at the Dramatists Guild of America's national conference. The Guild boasts over 6,000 members and is the only professional association dedicated to promoting the interests of those who write for the stage. In addition to providing model contracts and educational programs, the group offers this conference as a highly entertaining and valuable resource for dramatists from all over the country.
This year's conference, "Having Our Say: Our History, Our Future" took place August 22-25 and invited members to attend speeches, networking receptions, and a diverse collection of seminars. Featured speakers included Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Gretchen Cryer, Rebecca Gilman, Carol Hall, Winnie Holzman, David Ives, Lisa Kron, Martha Lavey, Robert Lopez, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Theresa Rebeck, Stephen Schwartz, Jeffrey Sweet, John Weidman, George C. Wolfe, Charlayne Woodard, and Doug Wright.
The Guild's current president, Stephen Schwartz, was an active speaker throughout the weekend. His shared session with Winnie Holzman on the process of writing the musical Wicked was one of the conference's most popular. The two explained the happenstance of Schwartz discovering Gregory Maguire's book and their experience persuading moviemakers to turn it into a musical instead of a film (after all, everyone had seen and loved Oz on film already, Schwartz had argued). Both recounted memories of their collaboration, with Schwartz writing the music and lyrics and Holzman writing the book, as well as Kristin Chenoweth's influence on the creation of the role of Glinda.
A packed session on adaptation featured a panel of four renowned playwrights: Carol Hall, Doug Wright, David Ives, and Holzman once again. These four very different writers opened up about their processes in a discussion sprinkled with wisdom, such as Wright's advice: "First write all the good parts, and then...hope you're finished!" More seriously, Wright also discussed the balance between biographic responsibility and artistic interpretation dramatists must consider when writing about real people, as he did when he adapted Grey Gardens from a documentary into a musical. Ives commented on the challenges of preserving the time period and cultural context when translating, citing his own experiences adapting Molière's The Misanthrope into his play School for Lies.
Ives speaks just as he writes, swiftly pivoting from jokes to insights. In his crammed keynote session on crafting comedy, the crowd found themselves laughing one moment and pensive the next as he confessed, "I write to make my wife smile."
Robert Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda exchanged views and anecdotes in a lively conversation about writing for musical theater. The two actually attended the same elementary school and described how those musical experiences shaped their writing aspirations early on. Miranda discussed similarities between musical theater and rap, while Lopez outlined how trends in musical theater have changed mostly in subject matter, rather than form. Both cited Sondheim as a strong influence, and Lopez and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, even topped off the session with a live performance (at the audience's request) of their original song, "I Wish That I Had Written Something Sondheim Wished He'd Written" to tumultuous laughter and applause.
The Guild's conference sets the stage for an often hilarious, always impassioned exchange of creative brainpower. While it certainly provides a chance for members to learn from established writers, it also offers an important opportunity for artists to share ideas and make new connections.
Playwright Lisa Kron provided a hopeful perspective on the state of American theater in her funny yet powerful closing address. As with life's major events, she explained, stories affect us most "when we are innocent of the coming moment." Kron reminded us through anecdotes both comical and emotional that "theater exists in the collective imaginative space between actors and audience." In doing so, the acclaimed playwright created a glimmering moment of theater herself as scores of the nation's dramatists imagined with her, before scattering across the nation to write and create for another year.