Bill Rosenfield on Playwriting in the U.S. and U.K.

"True Fans" premiere at The Abbey

In part one of our interview with playwright Bill Rosenfield, we talked about his adaptation of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella for New York City Center’s Encores! musicals in concert, his recurring role as script writer for the Drama Desk Awards, as well as his former position as Senior Vice President of cast recordings and film soundtracks for the RCA Victor record label.

In part two below, we discuss his playwriting career, and the different approaches in the playwriting industry between the U.S. and the U.K., where Rosenfield currently lives.

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Of the three, which do you prefer–your adaptation work, [awards ceremony] script writing, or playwriting? Or is it all one big package?

"True Fans" poster
“True Fans,” a play by Bill Rosenfield

It’s all one thing. It’s all a new chapter in my life. And because I’ve been on the other side of the table, it’s harder to be on this side of the table. I now understand so much more about what people on the creative end go through, and the abuse that they go through, and the insecurities that they have. But it’s part of it, and while I have an advantage in that, being as old as I am, I know a lot of people in this rather small community, they don’t necessarily want to talk to me about playwriting. They want to talk about, “Do you think it would be a good album?” And when I say, “That’s over, that stopped in 2008, or 2009,” whenever “Hair” was, I had to draw a line under that and say, “I’m not going to do that anymore.” So when phone calls come in saying, “Can you help us out with this recording?”–and even if it’s people I love and have worked with–I have to say, “No”–because if you’re going to reinvent yourself in this community, you have to say, “This is the new me, deal with this one.”

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That said, I have an every year-and-a-half gig where I write and host a game show at the Broadway Across America conference… Where Broadway and road producers, and managers, and press agents, and all those people are there–and I’m Richard Dawson–I make fun of them and have a good time with them. It started out as a Broadway Family Feud and has had many different variations since then. This year it was a version of The Newlywed Game. And this past conference in January was the first time nobody asked me about an album, nobody asked me about musicals–everybody treated me like a playwright. Nobody asked to read any scripts, but there was an acknowledgement that I’m doing something else now. And that was really gratifying.

Bill Rosenfield with cast of "True Fans"
Bill Rosenfield (second from the right) with the cast of “True Fans” at The Abbey

What I’ve discovered talking to playwrights that I know, whether they’re struggling like me, or very well established, we all go through the same thing–a play is sent out to someone, and you wait and wait and wait and wait. And you see the people at a party or a social gathering, and they think nothing of going over and talking to you like there’s nothing looming there–and that’s part of the deal. And a couple of playwrights that I know who are Tony and Pulitzer winners say, “I sent in a script to a theatre that I helped put on the map, to an artistic director who is my closest friend, and I wait five months or six months, and then I get a, ‘No, it’s not for us.'” And so while that’s terrible, it’s very gratifying to know that I’m not alone, and it isn’t because I’m a tiny speck on the landscape of playwrights. I don’t take it personally anymore.

You and I have both had similar frustrating playwriting experiences. It is sometimes a frustrating form to write for, but it’s the only form I’m interested in writing for.

Yes. I don’t want to be a show runner on a sitcom. I mean, if they asked me, sure I’d say yes, but that isn’t my goal. My goal is that I want to write–I want to tell stories that I want to tell. And that’s what I’m doing. Nobody asks you to be a playwright. So if you choose to tell stories in this manner, in this art form, you can’t expect the way the system works to change for you. It isn’t going to. And that’s that. So I’ve signed on to writing these plays, knowing that they may never get on, and that’s it. It’s for me.

Nobody asks you to be a playwright. So if you choose to tell stories in this manner, in this art form, you can’t expect the way the system works to change for you. It isn’t going to. And that’s that.

I’m luckier than a lot of struggling playwrights in that I have an agent here in the United States, and I have an agent at home in London. And they’re good guys, high quality guys, and I’ve had readings of several of my plays. But the leap to a producer saying, “I’m going to invest money, and time, and gather a whole group of people to invest time, and energy, and creative energy into making your play alive”–so many things have to come together and align to have that happen, that it’s a miracle when it does.

Your play that was produced in Florida last year, True Fans –were you workshopping that along the way, or did they take the script and do your script?

They took my script and did my script.

Have you had workshopping experiences?

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I’ve had workshopping experiences. True Fans was initially a musical, and I had creative differences with my collaborators. The creation of the show was very exciting and good, but once other forces started in–not so much our commercial producers, as my collaborators’ agent, who had an attitude of “a book writer is dispensable because you can always find another book writer”–hopefully one of his clients–that poisoned the room. And at a certain point a demand was made that was to get me out of it. And what they didn’t take into account was the fact that it was my idea, and I had put the team together, and I had found the commercial producers, and I owned the rights. So the thought was that I would say, “It’s more important to own part of something than all of nothing.” But in fact it was more important for me to own all of nothing. And so then I couldn’t creatively proceed with it as a musical anymore, and it took a year-and-a-half–about eight months of which I couldn’t even face looking at the script–to turn it into a play that went back to my original conception.

"True Fans" marquee
“True Fans” premiere at The Abbey

In the course of it being a musical, I had allowed things that I thought were fundamental to the play to fall by the wayside because other people were telling me, “No, let’s do this, let’s try this,” and I wanted it to be produced. And so I kept saying, “Oh, okay, fine, okay, fine.” And by the time that we had a workshop at Playwrights Horizons with a great group of people, it wasn’t my show anymore. And when everything fell apart after that, I, on one hand, was very relieved because it meant I could go back to what my original idea was. And that’s the play that went on to be produced in Florida [at The Abbey]. And my dissatisfaction with that production has nothing to do with my dissatisfaction of the play. I just didn’t demand to talk to the director before we started rehearsal to find out how he saw the play. And he didn’t see the play the same way I did at all.

When you’re writing a play, are you in the room with the characters observing them, or are you visualizing actors on a stage saying the dialogue?

I’m in the room with the characters.

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I ask that of a lot of playwrights, and I seem to get a 50/50 reply.

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One of my plays I gave to a very well-regarded director friend of mine, and he read it and said, “I was moved by it, thoroughly entertaining, beautiful–but I couldn’t see what it looked like on stage.” And I said, “Well, that’s your job,” and he said, “Right. I couldn’t figure out from this script what my job was. I didn’t see the people entering or leaving or moving around or how they related to one another, I was stymied by that.” And then the next play that I wrote was a man making soup for his mother. And it was very specifically for that director I said, “Here, now you know what they’re doing.” And he wrote back saying, “I know exactly what they’re doing, and that’s great, and it’s thoroughly entertaining.” I went back and looked at the play that he couldn’t visualize and I realized that I didn’t put much in there to help him.

You didn’t add stage directions, or you didn’t add specific dialogue?

Stage directions. My dialogue’s really good. I’m very pleased about that. I would say, “They enter.” Or, “It’s the living room.” Or, “Now we’re in the waiting room.” And that’s all I did. And because the play did a lot of time shifts, it became confusing for him. But actually, in The Most Happy Fella rehearsals, Casey [Nicholaw, director and choreographer] said, “Oh, by the way everyone, ignore any stage directions that are in your scripts because that’s what I’m here for.”

But that’s a different situation because it’s Encores!, and it isn’t a full production anyway.

Right. But things like saying, “Joey grabs Rosabella”…he [Casey] says, “We don’t know that he grabs her there, so just ignore that.” In London, the Royal Court, the Bush Theatre, the subsidized theatres–the theater program is the script. And quite often, the scripts that you get give no indication of stage direction. Mike Bartlett, who’s one of my favorite young playwrights–there’s no indication of anything. He’ll say that the names of the characters are John, Sue, Michael, and Herman, and it just starts. John, line, line–and there’s nothing.

It doesn’t even say where they are, what room.

I [tell] the story about Peter Shaffer writing The Royal Hunt of the Sun and saying, “Pizarro crosses the Amazon,” or “…crosses the Andes and arrives in”…and [director] John Dexter said, “Do you want to explain that stage direction to me?” And Peter Shaffer said, “No.” And John Dexter said, “That’s the right answer.” And that’s the fun of being a playwright, is that you can say that, and say, “Figure it out.”

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The director and the design team can make it happen.

There’s a wonderful director and playwright in Britain named Peter Gill who talks about one of the failings he feels of the American theater is that people believe that plays should be perfect, and should be worked on and made better and better and better through workshops and other productions–and he says that plays should be messy. And the messier the better, because that’s what the playwright intended.

The interesting thing is that he says that, and his plays are the most disciplined, detailed things–they’re extraordinary. There’s one that just closed [April 5, 2014] at the Donmar Warehouse, called Versailles, about the effects of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI on a formerly aristocratic family and their circle. And it’s three acts, it’s three hours, and it’s like a Harley Granville-Barker play, or a George Bernard Shaw play–it’s about ideas, and ramifications of ideas, and it’s incredible. But I sat there thinking, “This from a man who says plays should be messy.” It’s the furthest thing from messy ever. But it was great. A great, great, great play.