By next April, 20 of Richard Hirsch’s plays will have been produced, yet he considers himself new to the play-making process.“Every situation is different and I learn valuable stuff from each show, particularly about working with actors and directors and how to listen. As someone who always wants his work to be presented in its best light — which includes having the director and actors be proud of what they’ve done — I do my best to attend rehearsals and offer support. Sometimes this means asking the director for changes (though after, never during rehearsal). And sometimes it means backing off,” he says. “I recently heard Beth Henley speak about her love for being at rehearsals of her new work. I am the same way. Seeing and hearing the words come alive allows me to learn so much about what I need to do to convert my solitary written thoughts into a live performance in front of an audience.”
Hirsch is lucky enough to be able to devote his time to writing plays full time now. “For many years I was a business owner — first, of a contract furniture dealership and then, after that was sold, a very cool high-tech covert video surveillance firm,” he says. “Both jobs allowed me to travel quite a bit as well as develop relationships with all kinds of people, from employees to customers and everyone in between. I also benefited greatly from learning good work habits and communication skills and by developing my imagination in order to come up with creative marketing plans. Now I use material from my former ‘careers’ in everything I write.”
A sense of place is a strong element in several of Hirsch’s plays. “One of the bonuses of all those years of owning my own businesses was that I was able to do some traveling and have some experiences worth writing about,” he says. “So far, plays I’ve written have been set in such places as Italy’s Amalfi Coast, France’s Cote D’Azur, London, Rome, and, of course, Manhattan. In each case the setting was an integral part of the story, and in some instances, such as in The Quality of Light, it could even be considered its own character. I find that incorporating foreign locales or geographically-specific situations brings an extra element of storytelling into the mix that adds texture to the narrative and helps stimulate audience interest and imagination.”
He adds, “Each time I travel I find new things to write about, but as a playwright who lives in Los Angeles, nothing is more inspiring than traveling to New York City and being part of the theater community there … from having my work read at the Abingdon to seeing a show at one of the big Broadway houses or Theatre Row or attending a Fringe Festival production down in the Village. But the most inspiring thing for me to do in New York is to spend time in the Drama Book Shop, where I can read any play I want while becoming insanely jealous when I see work written by people I know decorate the ‘new plays’ display case.”
Hirsch says he was overcome by an urge to write after graduating from college, so he enrolled in a short story workshop in UCLA’s writers’ program. “After about one year writing strictly short stories, the instructor told us that in lieu of writing a story, for a change of pace we could write a one act play. I fell in love the form immediately … largely, I think, because I was raised in an argumentative household and writing dialogue seemed to come very easy to me,” he says. “The second line of dialogue I ever wrote basically hooked me for life to playwriting. Can’t remember exactly what it was, but what appealed to me was the fact one character could say something, and then I had all the time in the world to come up with a witty reply. For a smart ass like me, this was instant heaven on earth.” Since then, Hirsch has had a number of instructors and fellow playwrights who have helped him with his work, but he credits the actor/director Neil Flanagan as being a mentor. Flanagan, who passed away in 1986, worked with Lanford Wilson, Marshall Mason, Robert Patrick and others at Cafe Cino in New York. “After he moved to Hollywood, Neil both acted in and directed my first plays and brought a wealth of theater experience to the process. When he passed away I stopped writing for a long time,” Hirsch says.
The playwright, who was an economics major in college, doesn’t believe one needs advanced degrees in theater to create plays. “I do not believe one needs a Master’s or Ph.D. in theater arts to understand that all compelling drama derives from four sources: the head; the heart; the genitals; and the gut,” says Hirsch, who is playwright-in-residence at the Chandler Studio Theatre in North Hollywood, California. “To be sure, every play ever written draws from one or more of the first three, but the best plays always spring from the gut as well. By ‘gut’ I mean the empathetic part of the writer that identifies so strongly with a particular desire that he or she feels it in the pit the stomach, as if the nature of their very existence in jeopardy. For it is that deepest desire, transferred to our characters, that leads audiences to care about what happens to the people on stage. Drama or comedy, it doesn’t matter … you can write smart, you can write poetic, you can write sexy, but if you don’t write from an authentic place of profound, often excruciatingly painful, feeling, you won’t get where it is you need to go.”
Hirsch currently is working on a new play, titled The Rigors of Happenstance, which is about a British expressive art therapist who is treating a young woman suffering from amnesia. She learns that her patient spent time with a suicide bomber the night before he destroyed a London bus. He also is polishing his plays The Monkey Jar and The Concept of Remainders, which will premiere in Los Angeles early next year.
Send out those scripts. “I find that writing query letters and sending out scripts to be tedious and even physically painful if I have a play I’d rather be writing at the moment. But if one doesn’t get it out there, no one will ever produce it, so … I write query letters and I send out scripts,” Hirsch says.
Network. “Though I’m not a great salesperson, I do try to network and get to know theater professionals whenever the opportunity presents itself. I do love spending time with actors, directors, and fellow playwrights that I admire.”
Contact media. “I do my best to promote current or upcoming productions of my work by contacting media who might further promote the play through reviews or feature articles.”
Write for yourself. “Many fledgling playwrights make the same mistake, in that they feel they have to impress the world, which often leads to over-writing and a lot of unnecessary and boring exposition, coupled with a dearth of dramatic action.”
Be confident yet humble. “We all struggle to tell our tales without the audience being hyper-aware of the “playwright’s “voice”, but there seems to be a particular stubbornness on the part of new writers that can only be overcome by years of absorbing frank, sometimes painful feedback,” Hirsch says. “A certain level of humility is essential to writing a good play, I think. Though self-confidence is important, too, so there needs to be that balance. But being open to constructive criticism is essential.”
Sandra Hosking’s plays have been produced in New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Canada, and elsewhere. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America and the International Centre for Women Playwrights. Please submit comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
--- This article copyright 2007 by Sandra Hosking. Used by permission.