At Plays for New Audiences, we want to empower young people to write for the stage and tell the stories they are passionate about. To help, we sat down with playwright, Ashley Griffin, to talk about her writing process and what advice she had for young writers and aspiring playwrights.
As a writer, Ashley's work has been produced/developed at New World Stages, Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons, A.R.T. and more. Her debut novel The Spindle was recently released.
Your titles include A Little Princess, Ever After, The Snow Queen, and The Jungle Book. What inspired you to write these scripts?
These scripts were initially commissioned from me by Maor Performing Arts between about 2017 and 2021. The subjects of the plays were a collaboration between Maor and myself…we both found that we were excited to look at adaptations of beloved stories and fairy tales. I was especially excited to adapt The Snow Queen – Hans Christian Andersen is one of my favorite authors and The Snow Queen is one of my favorite fairy tales. Especially with the success of Frozen (which claims to be based on The Snow Queen but actually bears little resemblance), I was really happy that a whole new generation would get to experience the original! And I’ve never seen a play adaptation of it… I was also very excited to write Ever After in which I got to play with some of my favorite characters in new and surprising ways. And I’ve always loved The Jungle Book and A Little Princess – I even got to write an original fairy tale within The Little Princess that one of the characters gets to tell. That was very special for me.
What playwrights do you look up to?
Shakespeare was actually one of the first playwrights whose work I was exposed to and I grew up loving his plays – I think because I discovered Shakespeare at such a young age I was never afraid of his work, I just got to experience it like he was any other writer and I’m so grateful for it! His work is actually really accessible but sometimes is presented in a way that can make it feel difficult and scary and I’m really glad that wasn’t how I ever felt about him. I also love Sarah Ruhl and Martin McDonagh. But I’m also a real musical theater person and Stephen Schwartz is a huge hero of mine. He actually became my mentor right after I graduated from college and is still a dear friend and colleague – he’s taught me a lot and it's been a dream come true to get to know him and learn from him on a personal level, not just from afar.
Once you have your initial idea for a new script, how do you get started writing?
I like to spend a good amount of time really thinking about a new idea before I actively start writing – as I’m going about my day I might think about a scene or ask questions about a character until I feel like I have a good idea of what and who I’m writing about both thematically and structurally. I find structure is actually really important in dramatic writing – not meaning you have to know everything that’s going to happen ahead of time but…I liken it to going on a road trip. There can be a lot of flexibility along the way but if you don’t at least know where you’re starting and where you’re going to end up it’s really easy to find yourself stuck in the mud in the middle of nowhere with no gas in your tank. So I make sure I have a solid foundation and then I find that the actual writing goes really fast. I’ll often start with the parts of the script I’m most immediately excited about and go from there. I’m a very fast writer…it usually takes me about nine days to write a full length play, and about two weeks to write a full musical libretto.
How does your editing process work?
I’ll usually do a first pass at editing a scene right after I’ve written it – just to make sure everything I wanted to communicate was actually communicated and to trim anything extra that gets in the way and read it in the context of what comes right before and after (if it’s been written already.) Once a first draft is done I’ll let it rest for about a day and then read it from beginning to end making tweaks and changes. I’ll do that as many times as I need to before I get to the point where I feel like I can’t make any more improvements on my own – that’s when I’ll call in collaborators and friends to do a table read so I can hear and talk about the piece. Then I’ll rewrite some more. From there we might do more table reads, or a staged reading and the piece will continue to develop, but it’s usually pretty solid by the time it gets to that stage. It’s also important to take time to really think about any feedback you’re getting, decide what you think you need to implement and how best to do that. Lots of people like to tell you what they think you should do with a script, but to be most effective you need to get to the heart of what the challenge at the center of that feedback is, and use that information when editing. For example, someone saying “the play’s too long” could be in response to anything from there’s a lot of repeated information to the main characters’ arc needs to be tightened, so the piece is lacking tension… all of those things require different editing plans other than just “making the piece shorter…”
How do you know a piece is finished?
The truth is a play is a living, ever evolving thing and unlike a stationary work of art or even a book, it will be different depending on who’s performing it, where it’s being performed, etc. even if a word never changes. There will come a time, usually after a show has had its premiere production following years of development when you feel it’s in a pretty complete form and it’s expressing what you intended in a solid, consistent way. But I like to think of every performance as a new incarnation of the piece and, if possible, like to tailor things depending on who the cast is or what the circumstance of the performance is – sort of like haute couture. That doesn’t mean it’s ok for anyone to change a play just because they want to, but I think a creator is constantly trying to get a piece to express their intention in the best way possible and that’s an ongoing process that never really ends.
What is the most rewarding part about writing a new script?
Honestly, every part is rewarding in a different way – that’s one of the things I love about it! I love when you first get a great idea and are just so excited thinking about it and watching it come into focus… I love the actual writing which I feel so fortunate that I can do anytime, anywhere. Writing is one of the rare things that you can always be doing – while you’re riding the bus, when you have a break in your day, even at two in the morning in your bedroom. Any time you want to write you can write! That’s not the case with many professions… I love getting in the rehearsal room, working with collaborators and watching a piece come to life, and then getting to share it with an audience. It’s all great in different ways.
What advice would you give to new playwrights?
I’m going to borrow some wonderful advice from Neil Gaiman…
“Read. A lot. Read outside your comfort zone. Write. A lot. Finish what you write. Write about things you care about. Tell your story. Tell the stories that only you can tell.”
You learn the most by DOING. So write things, finish things, get friends together and read it out loud…put it up in your living room.
I’m also a big fan of some advice Stephen Schwartz gave me:
“The more personal something is, the more universal it becomes” and “Trust yourself, please yourself, but be hard on yourself.”
And don’t let anyone tell you you can’t be a writer or shouldn’t be a writer. You can and, if you’re passionate about it, you should.