What is it like to write a play? As a new playwright I’ve been getting this question a lot, lately. I wrote an adaptation of A Doll’s House in 2015, but Not Equal To is my first original script.
I decided to write an original play sometime in the middle of 2016. Six months later, I hadn’t written a word. I started out with the intention to write a play about caste based discrimination in the workplace in India. I read, I met people. But then, for a variety of reasons, I ended up abandoning the idea. Soon after, I got caught up with a play that I was directing that was to go stage in early December. I didn’t have the time to write.
December rolled around. My play wrapped up. I hadn’t even begun on the script. Forget writing dialog, I didn’t even have a plot for the play. We had to announce our 2017 season in a few weeks. The clock was ticking. I had to get my act together.
In retrospect the pressure of a deadline was good. It created a sense of urgency. I can maintain a fast clip once I get going. But I'm a slow starter.
What was the play going to be about? I knew I wanted to write about inequality. I happen to think that inequality is the social justice theme for our times. But I didn’t have a plot. I needed a plot.
One day, my son Naren, was describing a chapter in the book that he was writing - a fantasy magnum opus that he claims he will finish one day. The setting for his chapter was in England during the Industrial Revolution. At the time, children were being employed in the factories because their wages were lower. The working conditions were terrible. In his story, the children unionized under a leader, a child who had some super power. I don't remember what happens later. He anyway ended up not writing that chapter at all.
But I liked the idea. What if I were to take a union like that - a hopeless David like union - and put its conflict with the Goliath like management, at the center of my play? What if that union was in the IT industry? The IT industry doesn’t have employee unions. But what if it did?
From there the story and the characters developed rather quickly - a female hacker, her love interest, a larger than life Chairman. I don’t think unions are an important social justice cause any more. But I needed a plank for the depiction of class conflict. And now I had found one. That's how serendipity works, I guess. I chose the Bangalore IT industry as the setting for the play since I am very familiar with it.
I knew a few things about the play I was going to write. It was going to be about inequality, yes, but first and foremost it had to be gripping and entertaining. It would have high drama but also some comic relief. The plot had to feel real. I didn’t want the audience to have to suspend disbelief entirely. But I still wanted it to have a few fantastical, allegorical elements which were important for what I wanted to say.
Writing a play is not a linear process. I don’t know what it’s like to write a novel, but my guess is, writing a play would be a lot more iterative. Think draft after draft after draft. I had already finished quite a few drafts before the first play reading. And then maybe a dozen after it. There were three play readings in all.
A few words about play readings. A play reading is a powerful tool in a playwright’s toolbox. You don’t really know what your words sound like, until you hear someone else read them. You might have a good sense of dialog yourself but you still need to hear someone else say the words to know how they will sound on stage.
I got some very valuable feedback from the people who came to the play readings. We loosely followed the Liz Lerman Critical Response Method. I was looking for, and received, great feedback on characters, plot points, moments of drama and so on. Lots of rewriting ensued after each play reading. By my estimates 30% of the script was written or rewritten after the first play reading.
Now, rehearsals have begun. I’m still editing and rewriting! We have a great cast of talented, hardworking actors. I don't want to make their lives difficult by changing their lines on them after they’ve learnt them. So, I’m trying to keep the changes small and manageable. But as the writers among us know, there’s always a better way of saying what you’re trying to say. You just don’t know it yet.
Writing Not Equal To has been fun. I would say rewarding…but writing is a performance art. Writing a play, even more so. It is rewarding if the audience likes it. I hope you will.
- Basab Pradhan