Productivity in Playwrighting

August 8, 2013 by Sam Graber

How much work do you get done in a day?

That is a toughie, isn’t it? As playwrights we think we’d have some stock answer to instantly rejoinder this question which ranks (at least for me) as the question which gets asked most. We’ll be at a social gathering, or sporting event, or even at a theater industry roundtable, and people will ask about how much work we get done in a day. Set designers want to know.

Which presents kind of a problem. It’s a problem because instead of retorting with some generally accepted measurement of work along some universal scale of productivity, we tend to smooth over the inquirist with a generic answer that basically says, “I work extremely hard each day even though my definition of work would sound like a foreign language at best and bogus at worst.”

No, we can’t say that. We say things like how many scenes per day we write. Or the amount of pages we put out in a day. And what’s a day, anyway? Are we talking the couple of hardscrabble hours we’re able to cobble together in the middle of night? Playwright days are the longest week I’ve ever had.

So here’s a little missive on the fallacy of existing work measurements as it relates to playwrighting, and a potential framework through which we can feel good about the daily furthering of our playwrighting productivity.


Playwrighting is an act which on its worst day is frustrating, crushing and generally maddening, but on its best day is simply frustrating. If playwrighting was a car it would start without fail and then roll forward with the first pressing of the gas pedal before arriving at an intersection where three different turns could be made, at which point the car would shudder and break down and sit there at the intersection. Possibly for months. Why? Because playwrighting doesn’t have AAA.

Meanwhile, at this very moment, someone important to the development of the play would happen to see you and ask about how the new play is progressing, and you’d say that it’s going good because you’ve got the basic vehicle and direction but now you’ve come to the first big decision and you’re pausing to contemplate. And then that someone, possibly a granter or influential producer, would just happen to catch you the following week, and ask again how it’s going, and you’d say, really good! And they’d go, what’s progressed since I saw you last? And you can’t respond by acknowledging that you’re still sitting at that very same intersection, even though this intersection might be the most crucial juncture in the development of the play, the intersection at which every major accident is known to occur from rushed decision-making, such that the literary insurance agency is so aware of the danger presented by this intersection that they caution all playwrights to sit here for months before proceeding, so you end up responding to the question with some babble about narrative development or outline furthering, all the while inducing yourself with stress, wondering just how much (or how little) work has actually gotten done.

A problem, and I will label it a problem, playwrights face is that we exist in a world where capitalism impacts the work equation of everyone and everything. The nature of today’s productivity is nourished by a populace seduced by efficiencies. We want more of it and sooner. We want it on demand. The extension of thinking is that with minimal time and resources, a playwright should be able to produce quality work that is tangible, distributable and actionable. This is a problem.

I recently read a book in which various prominent novelists detailed their writing regiment. Each novelist wrote a short bit about how they structure their typical work day and how much work they do in a day. Apparently, many novelists work on a self-imposed word count. They don’t stop daily writing until a certain word count has been reached.

Ah, the dreaded word count. Which really shouldn’t have such impact on playwrighting but yet there it is. A looming specter joining the armada of productivity metrics which conspire against the playwright of contemplation.

The thing is that playwrighting is a vocation by which productivity gains are not linear or sequential. Similar to scientists who are wrong, wrong, wrong, until they are right, playwrighting occurs over time, backwards and forwards, inside and out. Playwrighting is a vocation of invention. Invention measured by today’s productivity imperils creativity by permanently synchronizing authorship to the parameters of resource input and commodity output. And by that very definition, the extension then incorporates time as a resource input which ultimately becomes a contributing factor of critical judgment.

Again, this is all brokered by a modern western mentality tethering the economies of production to the commodity of output. The play becomes a commodity which pressures the playwright unfairly. So when someone asks me, how much work did you do today?, it’s hard for me to respond, ‘I sat in the library for ninety minutes straight staring blankly in the direction of book spines on DIY for Dummies as drool fell onto my lap while I wrestled internally with which way to proceed through the intersection.’ Didn’t I do that yesterday? And the thirty days preceding, in a row? Why, yes. Yes I did.

Word count, page count, scene count and screen time are all misleading and misanthropic measures of playwright work. From a physics vantage, applied force equals mass times distance. But to playwrights, applied force equals stuff that makes the audience go DAMN. That kind of force cannot be reduced to a simple equation of work because theater energy is not controlled by simple and repeatable laws.

I offer that playwrighting productivity operates not so much on word count but on thought count. You can spend days and days writing words, 100WPM-ing them onto a screen, only to have nothing really worthwhile that makes the audience go DAMN. Meanwhile, you can come up with one or two major thought counts in a month which can ultimately have a monumental impact on the audience experience. Word count is something that producers and publishers impose as a cap for the byline. Thought count, however, is the ultimate labor, the checkmate move, the platinum podium of playwrighting victory.

A playwright friend who works in Fortune 500 advertising tells me he was tasked recently to produce and direct a series of thirty second commercials. While the rest of his team sat on chairs in cubes typing furiously to propagate ideas, my friend would sit on the floor, pencil in mouth, staring up at the ceiling, drool falling on his lap. His fellow creatives complained that he wasn’t doing any ‘real work.’

Playwrighting doesn’t take time. Plays take time. Playwrighting happens pretty fast actually but most plays don’t. Of course I’ve had the play that’s surged out of me without much planning. But for every one of my successful plays which quickly thundered from the storm of inspiration, there are ten more which brooded amongst the gathering clouds of thought before getting brokered to material medium in a finger-typing surge. Plays take time and plays take thought.

One technique I use to feed thought count is to hang out in the audience section of an empty theater. I sit a little off center about twenty rows back facing the stage. I bring with me whatever I have so far from the play I’m working on: synopsis, script, etc. I read aloud to the stage. More often than not I realize what I have concocted is not only trite but badly trite. I can hear how my futile attempts at eliciting laughter from the audience will only anger them. But the big boon here is that I don’t have to wait for a staged reading to learn about my weak spots or to gleam audience feedback for ideas. I can sit as the audience would sit and brainstorm ideas that lead to thought count.

This overall concept of thought count might horrify any project manager used to dealing in firm and finite milestones. But word count doesn’t get us to the finish line everyone wants, while screen time is a quota that distorts a real sense of accomplishment. When did the amount of time positioned in front of a computer equate to work? Sitting in front of a computer contributes to flattened glutes, which is a diminishing rate of profit on any scale that hopes to inflate brains.

I can just see the ideal, though, I really can. It’s the intersection. But instead of some sullen, torturous divot it’s a beautiful turning point. And we’re not there in cars. It’s this massive truck confab, each playwright with their pickup truck hitched to trailers which carry their play. And as each dusk settles the next playwright arrives and hops down from their truck while those already resident welcome this next playwright to the intersection. At night, we all sit around a fire and pass food and drink and hoot and holler raucous chatter and when someone asks me how much work got done today, I respond, “I thought a lot!” to affirming grunts of acceptance. And at day you’d see a meadow of playwrights reclining in foldout chairs, or lying in the grass, or leaning against their trailer, now totally quiet, staring blankly in various directions, thinking, for as long as it takes, until one playwright suddenly jumps up and shouts gloriously and pumps their first in celebration, and hops in their truck and navigates up to the intersection and turns right, while the rest of the playwrights watch and go, ‘turned right, interesting’, but not with jealously or envy, because we all know that truck is going to come upon the next intersection, sprinkled with even more playwrights, all sitting around and thinking, and welcoming you to the great big party we call the mighty road of thought.

See you there.