Thus Spake Undergrads

Some plays sit in a drawer for a year, some for five years, and then there's the play you wrote in 2001 and it still hasn't seen the (stage)light of day.  That would be Spake.  Or it was Spake until a few weeks ago.

Derek Evans as Nicholas Photo Credit: Mikki Schaffner

Victoria Eleanor McDevitt as Ann, Victoria Hawley as Irina, and Erin Elaine Ward as Jessica (l to r) Photo Credit: Mikki Schaffner

On Friday, April 19th, Spake had its world premiere as part of Northern Kentucky University's YES festival.  This festival is unique in that it is the only festival of new plays produced by an undergraduate program in the country.  I'll admit to harboring a tiny bit of concern that 18-22 year olds would be performing my play, but those worries went away when I saw a dress rehearsal of Spake, directed by the generous and talented Mike King and stage managed by the fantastic Chandler Baer.  At that point I was wondering: why don't more undergraduate programs have festivals like this?

Hanna Shaw Firstenberger as Muriel Nolan and Zak Schneider as Cal Photo Credit: Mikki Schaffner

Seth Wallen as Mark Galen and Alyssa Rae Cousineau as the Orderly Photo Credit: Mikki Schaffner

What a valuable experience for actors who will soon be leaving school and may be venturing out into cities where they will be performing in festivals or in off-off-Broadway shows that are between drafts!  These actors (who happened to be students) couldn't have been more professional in the way they handled line changes or scenes that were cut.  They recognized that a play that is premiering is still an evolving entity, and they did everything they could to make sure the production they put on was a terrific one.  Plus, their performances, the designs, the entire show, all were wonderful; what a fantastic experience!

Matt Krieg as Edward Rulloff and Erin Elaine Ward as Jessica Photo Credit: Mikki Schaffner

Anthony Newton as the Priest Photo Credit: Mikki Schaffner

And they made it snow on stage!  There are few things more magical in theatre than that.

Erin Elaine Ward as Jessica Photo credit: Mikki Schaffner

Just Hanging Out, Reading Plays

There are few scarier and more exciting times for a playwright than to hear a new play read for the first time.  If you're doing your job, you've probably said the words more than a dozen times, but to hear an actor give voice to them, making choices and interpreting what you write, this moves you to a whole new stage in playwriting.

"You thought the character meant that when I intended the opposite?"  "You didn't understand the premise of the play because it's too much in my head and not enough on the page?"  "You hated it?"  All right, getting "I hated it" as a note doesn't help much of anything, but the other notes (and so many more) do.  They should, anyway.  The writing is important, but the rewriting, that's where you decide if you're going to be a good writer or not, if you can keep sculpting this piece into all that you want it to be.

Typically, the best way to do this is to get some actors in a room, read it, and talk about it.  For me, though, I'm now living far away from many of the very talented actors I know.  What to do?

The answer is technology.

In the last two weeks, I've had four separate Google Hangouts* where I read my new play "The Starving."  I had actors in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco participating, all from the comfort of their own homes, and it was a fantastic experience! Not only was I able to hear and see the actors reading the play, but by working it online, I was able to have multiple readings with multiple drafts, updating with notes after every hangout.

Once an issue from the first reading was addressed, I could move on to clarifying and refining, doing the real work on my play.  Once the changes were made, 

I didn't have to take time to find a room, print up scripts, and coordinate actors' schedules; I was able to get immediate feedback on the new draft from a whole new group of actors.  It was a full-on workshopping of a play that I could organize with just a few emails at a cost of zero dollars.

Maybe every playwright is doing Google Hangouts* to hear their work read and I'm super late to the party, but the actors for my readings had never done this sort of thing before and many of them told me how much they enjoyed the process.  

I agree and I know I'll be doing the same thing with my next few plays.  And they'll be better plays for it!

*No, Google Hangouts is not a sponsor of this website.  It just worked best for this project!

The (Occasionally) Written Word

The David L. Williams Collection (original manuscripts)

As much as I'd like to be one of those pretentious writers who claims to do no work on the computer and only writes in longhand, well, you're looking at my website, so that's clearly not true.  I do a bunch of writing on the computer, but I also do a lot in composition books.  In the picture above there's just a sampling of the composition books that are filled with my writing.  Some of it made it into plays, some did not.  But I make sure I keep all of the books.

Why composition books?  Why not legal pads or spiral notebooks or journals?  Well, I didn't start writing in composition books until 1998.  That's when I went to see the Hal Hartley film Henry Fool.  I think the film is terrific and the two main characters are both writers (of a sort), and what stayed with me was that everybody was writing in composition books.

Like here:

and here:

and here:

There was something so elegant, so compact, so portable about the composition book that I had to start using them.  I bought my first composition book (one that was strictly for playwriting) shortly after seeing the movie and I've been buying them and filling them up for almost fifteen years.  If I start a project in a composition book, I like to finish it in one, so they tend to pile up.

When I was visiting my parents a few years back, I had finished writing in one composition book and had to get a new one.  I grabbed one at the local drug store and the clerk decided she wanted to have a conversation about it.

"Going to be doing some composing, huh?"
"Music or poetry?"
"Are you composing music or poetry?"
"Neither, actually.  Plays."

And then she shook her head, like I was using them wrong, and rang me up.  

I don't know; I feel like I've put them to pretty good use thus far.

(And yes, I have seen "Seven."  I use composition books in spite of that film.)

The Rewrite Stuff


The page above is a mess.  I crossed out every original sentence but one and replaced them with new words.  That should mean failure, right?

No, to me, that absolutely means success.  This is, I think, the fourth play I ever wrote, "The Murder of Gonzago, and this is how I rewrote a scene that I especially liked.  I gutted it and replaced it with all different stuff.  In my opinion, better stuff.  When you start writing plays, the rewriting is the hardest and least enjoyable part of the craft.  "I already wrote this perfectly.  Why do I have to change it?"  The more plays you write, though, the more you enjoy rewriting.

If playwriting is truly a craft, these are the times when you can best show your craftsman ship.  You're sanding down edges, you're shading things in, you're getting the curve of the nose of your sculpture exactly right.  You got the story and characters generally right on the first pass (hopefully), but this is the time where you show you can make them shine.  This is when you can make the world and the people in it just what you want.  You'll never get the play in your head to match exactly the one that's on the paper, but the rewrites are where you go from 70% to 90% to 99%.

That page is a mess, true, but it's the best kind of mess.

(And yes, I'm well aware that I have terrible handwriting.  But I'm a great typist!

Dig If You Will The Pictures ...

The postcards for the Fringe and non-Fringe productions of The Information She Carried

You can work hard on writing the play, assemble the best cast possible, put together the show of which you've always dreamed, but if you can't get people in the door to see the show, well, that's a problem.

In NYC productions, postcards are a big deal, and two of my favorites have been for two different productions of my play, "The information She Carried."  They were both photographed and designed by the very talented Dan Levine (please check out his work by clicking on his name) who always finds a way to listen to my request and make it better.  The one on the left was for the NYC Fringe Festival and it focusses on the baseball and conspiracy theory aspects of the play, while the one on the right, which was for an independent production, directs you to the woman in trouble (the lovely and talented Breanna Pine) in the play and the information she's seeking (much of which is not available, as shown by the redacted words above her).  They both, by the way, feature a baseball that was given to me by Pirates pitcher Rick Rhoden at a baseball game in the early '80s (we superimposed the crazy writing for the postcard on the left; my baseball remains un-scrawled-upon).

Choosing an image to represent an entire production can be a tough slog, but I love both of these postcards and was happy to have them as the calling cards for my work.


An ad for the staged reading of

No, I'm not shilling for Gino's Pizzeria or advising you go back in time to see Richard III at Cinemapolis.  Up top is the ad for the first award I won, first place in Cornell University's Heerman-McCalmon Playwriting Contest.  Now, contests and awards should never be the reason anybody pursues an artistic endeavor, and who can judge between two pieces of art or literature and determine which one is more worthy of accolades?

But ... once in a while it's nice to get recognition.  It's great to submit a script to a theatre company that knows nothing about you, have them read it, and then get the call or email that says that they like your script enough to take it one step further (be it a staged reading, inclusion in a festival, or a full-on production).  I submitted three scripts to the Heermans-McCalmon playwriting contest that year, and I won first and second, meaning "The Murder of Gonzago" received a stage reading directed by Diane Wynter.  It was my first time seeing real, non-college actors perform my plays, and also my first time having someone else direct my work.

Having a playwriting contest right at my school (one with impressive prizes for first and second) and a terrific playwriting track run by Ron Wilson was a real gift for an aspiring playwright.  I had written four one-act plays by the time I submitted to that contest, never thinking anything would come of it.  Winning that year was a real boost for me and helped set me on this writing path.

You Never Forget Your First

My First Review - Lesbian School at Cornell

Ask any playwright about his/her five most memorable productions, and I'd be really surprised if his/her first produced play isn't one of them.  I found this review the other day (well, it's barely a review, but still, it counts) and it's for my first real play, "Lesbian School," which I directed at Cornell University during my sophomore year.  I could still be sore about the comment that some jokes hit and some jokes miss (I'd like to believe that all my jokes hit), but I prefer to just remember how excited I was to see something I've written taking life in front of me, and watching an audience respond to it.  It's not my favorite production ever, it's not even my favorite play, but memorable?  Oh, it makes the top 5 easily.


There are very few things I'll keep from a production.  Typically the program, a postcard, maybe a picture or two, that's it.  I almost never keep props.  The above is an exception.  When I produced "The Information She Carried," the set was designed by Kley Gilbuena.  Since the play is about a conspiracy theorist, he constructed nearly everything with file cabinets and papers.  It was fantastic! 

One of my favorite things he created was a pillowcase, stuffed with papers, to sit at the head of a file cabinet bed.  The pillowcase was covered with conspiracy theory scrawlings and audience members would want to take a look at it after the show.  Most props don't interest me, but this one I had to keep.

The Program Matters Too

In The Meantime program

When theatre is done right, every element of your experience as an audience member should be of the same tone.  Not just what you see on the stage, but the music you hear, the space you enter, and even the program.  That's why I love this program of "In The Meantime," my most recently produced play as of this writing, so much.  The chess board pattern immediately sets the tone that you're going to see games being played, but you're also going to see a battle.  You also learn that these aren't old-timey queens and knights; they're three people in contemporary clothes, and they're all drinking.  Plus, at the very back, there's a way out, but boy does it look far away. 

Terrific program art for a terrific production!  Thanks, aMios, for the production and thanks, TED Otting, for the artwork!!

The Hottest Cast in the History of Theatre

When a cast looks this good, who cares what words are on the page?  And yet, the words were great too.  What a show!

(The cast of the NYC Fringe production of "The Armageddon Dance Party," directed by Kara-Lynn Vaeni.  L to R, Maya Parra, Tommy Day Carey, Lordan Napoli, Brittany Scott, Cedric Sanders, Eve Udesky, Kycas Howland, Lindsay Joy, and David Matranga)

Where it began

Play 1 - Page 1

To mark the beginning of this website, I thought I'd start with the beginning of my playwriting career.  It was the spring of 1994 and I was at the State Thespian Festival in Tampa, Florida.  I went to a seminar on playwriting one morning and the playwright ... didn't show up.  I'm guessing because it was the morning and he was a playwright.  I had to kill time until another meeting so I sat in the hallway of a hotel and started writing my first real play.  Back then I thought I was going to be an actor.  I was wrong.

"Lesbian School" premiered about eighteen months later at Cornell University in the fall of 1995.  That's where this all began.