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No Elephants in the Second Act:
A Conversation with Playwright Joanna Kraus
By Anna Olswanger
Joanna Kraus, a playwright, author, and arts educator, is Professor Emeritus of Theater and former Graduate Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Arts for Children Program at the State University of New York College at Brockport.
Her plays have garnered a number of awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, New York State Theatre Education Association; Distinguished Play Award, Upper and Secondary School Category from the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (for Angel in the Night); Winner, American Voices, New Play Reading Series, GeVa, Rochester, New York (for For the Glory); First prize winner, IUPUI, National Playwriting Competition (for Remember My Name); Creative artists Public Service Fellowship, New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts; and Charlotte B. Chorpenning Cup for Achievement in Playwriting.
Women of Courage, an anthology of five of her plays, appears this summer from Dramatic Publishing. Joanna Kraus lives and writes in Walnut Creek, California.
ANNA OLSWANGER: How did you discover theater?
KRAUS: My mother kept me out of school one afternoon to see a traveling road show of Brigadoon. I thought she was surely the wickedest woman alive because I was missing a spelling test. I didn't think she was doing the right thing. And then I got into the theater in the red velvet seats and the curtain went up and the music started, and I didn't care about anything except this wonderful play. I began thinking, wouldn't it be wonderful to be part of this world?
OLSWANGER: When did you write your first play?
KRAUS: I was in high school. The Portland Children's Theater had a banquet at the end of the season. At that time Bette Davis and Gary Merrill were living near Portland on Cape Elizabeth, and Bette Davis, who was on the board of the theater, came to the banquet. They had asked me to write a sketch about the theater. Bette Davis came up to me afterwards, and in that gravelly voice of hers said, "Darling, you've got talent. Keep writing."
OLSWANGER: How do you know if a play is for adults or children?
KRAUS: Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, "Children still demand a story." They want the structure of a beginning, a middle, and an end. They donít want something amorphous and philosophical, people sitting around talking. Maybe you can get away with that in adult theater, although I still happen to think that the best theater grips you because itís a story of struggle, a story about somebody who wants something desperately, and you wonder, "Will they get it, or wonít they?"
It's true that you can be more subtle now in childrenís theater than you could twenty years ago. You can deal with child abuse, you can deal with divorce. In todayís world, there is almost nothing that you canít write about in terms of content. But when you deal with these topics, it canít be completely hopeless. There has to be some feeling that if these people work hard enough and struggle long enough, theyíll get out of the predicament theyíre in. I think that is one of the hallmarks of a play for a younger audience. Not that itís a happy ending, and not that itís deus ex machina with somebody coming down to solve the problems. And not that it canít be bittersweet, but somehow, you have a feeling of hope.
OLSWANGER: What's the first piece of advice you give to new playwrights?
KRAUS: If you are serious about writing, you should go to all kinds of theater. See what works, what doesn't work. Be familiar with different styles, and don't be closed-minded. See Shakespeare, see things that were written centuries ago but are still being done. See different styles of the same production. My husband's a drama critic, so I was fortunate enough when we were first living in New York City to go to the theater three and four nights a week. I was holding down a job and it was exhausting, but I saw a great deal of theater. Now that we're not living in Manhattan, we go to regional theater. We try to go to new works.
OLSWANGER: Should a new playwright concentrate on studying drama?
KRAUS: There is nothing that a playwright doesn't need to know. Almost anything that's in the newspaper may at one point become important to you. I never thought I was going to be writing about a gold rush in North Carolina, but when the North Carolina Museum of History and the Raleigh Little Theatre commissioned me, all of a sudden I had to visit a gold mine to see what a "kibble" was, and to go down the mine shaft.
Also, you have to find a genre that's comfortable for you, whether it's comedy or straight drama. When I'm teaching playwriting, I ask my students to begin with a straight drama because comedy is much more difficult than you think. Whatever action you have, it has to come from the character.
Finally, I think it's easier when you're beginning to write something that is from your own experience, something that you are familiar with, something you care about and take seriously.
OLSWANGER: How important is the skill of observation?
KRAUS: New writers should have a camera in their head and always watch human behavior. I'll say to my students, "Imagine you just dropped down from Mars. Look around this classroom, at how people are dressed. Look at the difference in the way they walk, the way they pick up a teacup, the way they respond."
I tell them, "Turn on that camera in your head to record constantly. When you are in the midst of a terrible disaster and you're screaming or crying or whatever, watch what you're doing. Learn from yourself. This is your greatest resource."
You don't have to go to India for truth and enlightenment to become a writer. You just have to open your eyes in your own neighborhood. Look at what Jane Austen did.
OLSWANGER: Does a playwright need actors to write for?
KRAUS: I do think when it's a work-in-progress, you should have good actors available to read your work. After the play is published, you have no control over it. You're far away, sometimes thousands of miles away, and they may call you and they may not. But when you're working on a script, you want actors who know their craft to be interpreting, not so much because you want them to tell you how to write the play, but because you need to ponder when an actor tells you: "I have trouble with this line; it doesn't seem to follow," or "I've just said this and now I'm saying that."
You need intelligent, talented actors to give your script a fair chance. You also need to know what they pick up on because what is in your head may not have made it to the page. So I feel that when a play is in its embryonic stage, that's when it is important to have a group of decent actors give it a staged reading.
OLSWANGER: What are the steps you go through in writing a play?
KRAUS: Usually when I do a first draft, I need to hear it. So if the play has been commissioned and I'm not living nearby, I say to the director, "I need to get a reading of this. Can you tape it for me? And can you give me some feedback from your perspective as the director?"
My husband, who still does some writing as a drama critic, is often the first person to read the script, and is very honest. He says it's hard to be a critic and to be married to me, but he gives me feedback. I don't always agree with him but at least I know that he's responding as an educated reader. I listen, I think, I mull, and then I go back to draft two and the process starts again. In the case of Sunday Gold, the partnership was with the North Carolina Museum of History. So while there were things that the director and I liked, the museum said, "You can't do this because historically it isn't plausible." We had to wrestle with that. Even though I was doing a tremendous amount of research, there were things that I couldn't find.
For example, in the play the woman gives birth to a child and is attended by a doctor. They said, "There wouldn't be a doctor there in the 1840's unless there was a complication." So I had to make the mother ill because I needed the doctor in the scene. Sometimes your supposition as somebody who is living at the end of the twentieth century can steer you the wrong way. I had the daughter boiling water. The museum said, "No, they wouldn't boil water at that time. They didn't know about sanitation. They used egg whites to bathe the baby." So you go back and forth.
Often I do five drafts on a play. That's not unusual. But I don't do them without some feedback and what I try to get is a reading, and a workshop production. The reading is for me because although I will read the play aloud to myself, it's not the same. I start reading aloud and pretty soon I'm reading silently so I'm not really hearing. And I'm certainly not hearing what someone else will do as interpretation.
OLSWANGER: And you also need a workshop production?
KRAUS: I need to see the play on its feet, because if it has a lot of physical action, I need to see what an actor will do, or I'll need a director to say, "You've got three elephants coming on. How am I supposed to do this?" I remember once my husband left a note on my desk, "No elephants in the second act."
I think that a writer should not censor herself, not say, "This will be too hard to do." Get it out, and then decide if it's too difficult. I may say, "All right, what I want to show is this man in danger. Is there another way I can do it?" You can do almost anything in a novel because you're dealing with the reader's imagination, but when you're trying to stage something, you have to think about, "Are they going to tour this? How many actors? What's their budget?" And while it's not your problem when you start, it becomes your problem while you're working. It may be that the ten-second earthquake isn't worth it. Sometimes the director will say, "Will you think about this scene some more? Can we expand it? Can we let it go?"
There are things that happen when you start dealing with a theater and people and all the realities. But I think that your first job is to get it out the way you want it, and then go back.
OLSWANGER: How do you submit your scripts to theaters?
KRAUS: In the beginning, I sent my scripts out. I don't recommend that. I think the best thing to do is to write a query letter and introduce yourself: "I'm so-and-so. I've done such-and-such. I've written a play about such-and-such. Would you be interested in looking at it?" Include a self-addressed, stamped postcard on which you write, "Yes, I am interested. No, I am not interested." I find people do return those.
Then if they say, "Yes, I am interested in reading your play about Amerasian adoption," you send back the script with a cover letter saying, "Thank you for your interest. I'm delighted that you want to read this." You stress that they have asked to see it, and you enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope. Scripts can get lost or disappear, so again, I include a self-addressed, stamped postcard on which I've written, "Arrived safely."
After a few months, as anybody will tell you, you may have to follow up with a query: "You have had my script for a few months. I haven't heard from you. I would like to know what the status is."
When I'm trying out a script, sometimes I will call or write directors, or I'll ask my publisher to suggest people to call. I'll say, "Look, I've got a a new script. I'd like to get a workshop production of it. What's your schedule like? Is it possible to work out?" These people often work a year or two in advance so it can take a while.
OLSWANGER: Do you recommend submitting to contests?
KRAUS: Contests are great to submit to. One of the big ones is the Waldo M. and Grace C. Bonderman IUPUI National Youth Theatre Playwriting Developmental Workshop, held at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. I've been a finalist once, and I won first place once. The prize was money and a production. When The Devil's Orphan, which became Remember My Name, won first place, four different publishers wanted the script. Interestingly enough, the discussion that night after the production was mostly people's outrage about the title. They were disturbed about my using The Devil's Orphan. In Europe they had called Hitler, "the devil," and I felt it was an apt title, but people in the audience were violent. The head of the program at IUPUI said church groups who always attend called up and canceled because of the title.
Finally I asked one of the publishing houses, "Does the title bother you?" The editor said it didn't until that night, so when I went with Samuel French, I said, " I think I should tell you what happened because you may not want to use this title." I offered them a couple of choices.
If a title deters someone from ordering the script to read, then the only sensible thing to do is change the title. I wouldn't change the play. If someone doesn't like the ending, that's too bad; but I feel a title is an invitation to look further. I wanted a title that would fit, but I didn't want a title that no one would get past!
OLSWANGER: How does a play get published?
KRAUS: Usually a play will not get published unless it's had a few productions. Most publishing houses will ask, "Where was it done? Send us information--publicity, reviews." They want all of that. And many publishing houses will ask for three productions, none of which you directed yourself. This gives them a sense of if there is a market, which is important in the publishing business.
Because I am a book person, the publication means a great deal to me. I don't feel a play is finished until it's published. Once Samuel French published Remember My Name, I felt I could put it away. It was on the shelf. So when people start quibbling over some line or something, I say, "But it's published. I can't make a change, even if I wanted to." The painting is hung, it's out of the studio.
OLSWANGER: What mistakes do new playwrights make?
KRAUS: Sometimes within a page and a half, somebody decides to commit suicide. Things happen way too fast without any development or depth or insight, to the point where the drama becomes melodramatic.
Sometimes the dialogue is extraordinarily stiff. One of the assignments I give to students is to go out and listen to a real conversation. Listen to the way people talk, and try to adapt that to a moment on stage. The point is that stage speech is selected, heightened. It only sounds natural.
I also tell students that their characters must sound different. They will go to great lengths describing different characters who all look different, but who sound the same. I give them this advice that I borrowed from another playwright: "Give yourself a test. Cover the name of the character. Can you tell who is talking?"
Sometimes its hard for somebody to dig down deep to what they care about, so as a preliminary exercise I have people declare a few areas that they care passionately about--freedom, courage, friendship, for example--and write about them. Louis E. Catron refers to this as a credo. He says you can't write well about something in which you have no interest!
And new playwrights don't fully appreciate how much hard work is involved. Writing is the first step, and then there's rewriting. It usually takes at least two years to get a script from inception to publication. It's not something that happens just like that.
Copyright 1999 Anna Olswanger. All rights reserved.
Other interviews by Anna Olswanger are available at Anna Olswanger Books.
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