Continuing Education

Dan Tarker Talks About Playwriting: From Page to Stage

The amount of entertainment drama we can now access is dizzying. With expanding digital domains like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, hundreds of cable stations and major and independent film releases each weekend, it’s a wonder any Imageof us can keep up. As the song said, “Here we are now, entertain us…” If we could, a vast majority of us would stay home, behind closed doors and binge away every waking hour. Why would anyone in their right mind want to see live theatre, let alone learn to put a play on paper? For Playwriting: From Page to Stage instructor Dan Tarker, the answer is quite simple; we will never replace the impact a live, communal experience with moving images on a screen. Not now, not ever. “As our media continues to expand digitally, I think playwrights need to increasingly embrace the fact that they are writing for live, communal events,” he says. “(It’s) something that just cannot be experienced on television or at the movies.”

For his part, Tarker says he always enjoyed writing growing up, but it was time spent exploring live theatre that lead him to playwriting. “I started studying theatre in college and working at a small regional theatre in California,” he recalls.  “So I came to playwriting from acting, which I think is actually the best avenue. More than anything, theatre is really an actor’s medium. They are the people on stage giving life to the playwright’s words. So it is important for a playwright to understand how an actor works in order to write for them. I keep returning to playwriting as a genre of writing because of this performance aspect. There is always something magical about seeing how an actor transforms words in the script and makes discoveries you may have never considered.”

As a playwright and instructor, Tarker takes inspiration from a range of theatrical voices and genres. “Among living playwrights, Tom Stoppard sits at the front of the table for me,” he says. “I love his use of acrobatic language and theImage way he plays with big intellectual ideas. Arcadia is a masterpiece to me. I also have a great affinity for absurdist writers like Beckett, Pirandello, Ionesco and Pinter.”

When it comes to his own writing, Tarker says he’s torn in different directions. “On one level, I’d like to develop more absurd or even surrealist texts. On the other hand, I’m also increasingly drawn to ethno-drama or what might otherwise be called docudrama—collecting people’s real stories through interviews and transforming them into dramatic presentations. So who knows? Maybe one day I’ll write a surreal docudrama.”

Though the nature of our entertainment technology has continued to evolve, the fundamentals of storytelling remain essentially the same for film, TV and theatre. How we tell our stories must adapt to the shifting culture. “More than anything, I think you see new genres emerging,” says Tarker. “Hamilton, as an example, is groundbreaking in its intersectionality – using a variety of African American musical styles to tell the story of our white founding fathers. I think there is more openness to genre-based theatre like science fiction and horror as well, though these certainly exist more on the fringe.”

Tarker is fond of noting that playwriting, and theatre in particular, are all about tackling Big, Hairy Ideas. It’s a creative process that cannot survive in a vacuum and it’s a method he looks forward to exploring with students. “As a director of new work, I can tell you that we know if a play is broken pretty early in the rehearsal process,” he says.  “If the actors and director are having to fill in huge blanks, then we are actually doing the job of the playwright. It’s not that all the information should be explicit, mind you. God, no! But it should be easily inferred. A play is like an iceberg. A huge part of the playwright’s job is to build the unseen part of the iceberg, the part just below the water. If they only focus on the surface of the iceberg that we can see, the whole thing will sink. We will be focusing on asking a lot of questions to make sure the writers are building the world underneath the words and actions we see on stage.”  

Playwriting: From Page to Stage will be primarily a workshop-style class. Playwrights will be asked to bring their work to share with fellow students and solicit feedback. “I do give strict guidelines about how to give feedback such as not trying to re-write the author’s text,” says Tarker. “Our job is to share our perceptions. What did we enjoy? What Imageconfused us? Where were we gripped? Where did we lose interest? What questions do we still have? So we try to create an environment where the writers gets constructive feedback that they can use to continue revising their work. I’ll also be giving out exercises to teach fundamental principles of playwriting such as pursuing an objective, creating sub-text, and creating suspense.”

Seattle is an incredibly fertile ground for playwrights and Tarker looks forward helping to plant as many creative seeds as possible. “There are a lot of theatre groups out there, including many mid-sized regional theatres who are eager to do new work,” he says. “I encourage aspiring playwrights to go volunteer for them. Theatre is all about relationships. Build relationships with local companies like Annex Theatre, 14/48: The World's Quickest Theatre Festival, Parley Productions, the Northwest Playwrights Alliance. Work at the box office. Tend bar. Sweep a floor. If you’re around, opportunities will open up.”

Learn more about Playwriting: From Page to Stage.

All photos courtesy of Dan Tarker.

Credits: Chris Mayse and Peter Cook in Woyzeck, adapted and directed by Daniel Tarker.

Toni Stankovic, Jose Amador, Disko Praphanchith and Sean McDonald in Reflections in Shakespeare’s Mirror, written and directed by Daniel Tarker