It Can Only Get Better

Posted on Jun 20, 2015


It Can Only Get Better

Harare, June 18th 2015 | Thandiwe Nyamasvisva


The most important lesson I learnt about playwriting during the Playwright’s Festival is that a play that goes through a rigorous development process can only get better. Under the guidance and help of Robert Egan and Stephen Belber, I watched in delightful surprise as my play continuously improved right until the day of the staged reading. The play I submitted for the festival was a play called ‘Relentless’ which I had used to apply to Juilliard playwright’s program in 2013. I didn’t get into Juilliard so I decided to take advantage of the Playwright’s Festival to further develop this play (and maybe find out why I didn’t get into Juilliard).

The play is set in a bar in Harlem and traces the story of Michael, a former philanthropic NYPD policeman and victim of a drive-by shooting who is married to Hope, a Zimbabwean woman. Michael discovers Hope had sex with Jamal, a gang banger that they helped to rehabilitate, confronts Jamal and gets shot dead by Jamal’s friend BJ. He then goes into the judgment chamber (which is the toilet of the bar), and meets God who tells Michael to evaluate his own life and determine whether or not he deserves to go to hell. Michael chooses to judge himself by the Ten Commandments and when he sees that the Ten Commandments condemn him, he decides to judge himself by his own personal moral standards but they still condemn him and he slowly comes to the realization that deep down he is not a good person but a lying, cheating murderer who deserves to go to hell. This realization transforms him, and God, seeing Michael’s transformation, has mercy on him and gives Michael a second chance by taking Michael’s penalty upon Himself. In short, the play is about the relentless love of God – well that was the intention when I wrote it…

But at the first reading around the table, when I asked people to tell me what they thought the play was about in one sentence, I got a lot of (good) answers, none of which had anything to do with my original intention! I also realized that because my play had too many plot lines, many people were missing the main plot line. At the beginning, Robert had said that a script is autonomous regardless of what the writer intended. Now, after the first reading, I fully understood what that meant. Robert also asked us the question, “what is the essence from which you are agitating”? Throughout the festival, that question affected every aspect of my play – choice of characters; which plot lines to keep or throw away; character objectives in each scene and the dialogue. That question will stay with me forever.

Five drafts later (yes I went through five drafts in a week and a half) I was confident that my play was now answering the ‘essence’ question. This was also largely due to my director, Patience Tawengwa who was very patient with me and kept me on track whenever I was getting carried away with new ideas during feedback sessions. Stephen Belber came to join us in the second week of the festival and, together with Patience and the actors; we went through the play line by line, fine-tuning the dialogue. This was a tedious process and we sometimes spent a long time trying to decide whether or not to keep a particular word within a sentence. But once we were finished, I was amazed at how the dialogue came alive! I recommend every playwright to sit in a room with a director and actors and go through their script line by line…

Like I said at the beginning, a script that goes through a rigorous development process can only get better. But one has to be willing to put in the work. I worked ridiculously hard during those two weeks but it was all worth it as I watched my play go from being confusing, repetitive and just funny to being clear and progressive with relevant comic relief. When we had the final Staged Reading with an audience, I was delighted to hear them laugh at all the ‘right’ spots. But the highlight was when I asked the audience to tell me what they thought the play was about and they unanimously agreed that it was about Redemption; which is the highest manifestation of the relentless love of God! I had achieved my ‘essence’! However, I still have a lot of work to do on the play and I desire to workshop it a few more times. Then I shall use it to apply to Juilliard again and this time I am confident I will get in…



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