The keys to done town

You know a play is finished when….

So when is it? Is it the day after that first draft when you feel so excited to get to the end? Is it after draft three? Draft seventeen? Is it after your first reading? Your fourth workshop? Your tenth performance?

What are the keys to knowing when a play is finished?


The Audience Response

You’re sitting in the audience. Your play is on the stage. You are looking for two reactions:

  • Laughter.
  • Silence.

If you’ve written moments of levity the only way to know they’re working is when you hear an audience react. Is the timing right? Does the audience laugh when you want them to? Does it get a guffaw or a nervous titter? Does the action on stage move a laugh forward?

My favourite reaction in the world from an audience is nothing. Silence. The audience is so captivated by what’s happening on stage they forget to move. They are so still, they are so drawn into the world of the play they can’t think about their laundry or their aches and pains.  That is when you know to close the book.

The Actor Response

When you’re in rehearsal for a new work, actor questions are good. If they’re asking questions that means one of three things:

  • They’re trying to figure out their character for themselves.
  • They ‘re confused about their character.
  • Something is wrong that needs to be fixed.

I love being asked questions about a play. It’s amazing what prompts a question in a text. You have to remember that you’ve been living with this play for a long time. You know a lot about the characters and how they came to be.  It’s an actors job to come to a same or similar place with their character. That’s why they ask questions. It’s not necessarily because your work is incomplete.

I don’t always answer them – sometimes an actor will ask a question that is pure interpretation; the answer should come from within them.

Having said that, sometimes their questions reveal missing plot points, unclear details, an interpretation that you didn’t intend at all. And when these types of questions come up, you need to pay attention. These types of questions indicate that your work is not finished.

The Enjoyment Factor

I recently had a premiere. And after the show was over, I realized how much I enjoyed the performance.  I was an audience member. I wasn’t agonizing over the words.

That is a great sign that the play is finished.

This does not always happen. I have sat through shows and I know it’s not good enough. The pace is not clear. The transitions need work. Characters need clarifying.  And sometimes you have to really open your eyes in these moments. You have to know when a piece isn’t finished even though the audience was having a good time. Even though the actors didn’t ask those red flag questions.  You have to be able to examine a script and say I could do better.

It’s the worst feeling in the world to put so much time and effort into a play and at the end of the road know it’s not done. But you have to be truthful with yourself. Do you want a good work or something great?

Beware the Perfection Monster

Time and time again the thing that stops writers from finishing work is the perfection monster. It has to be perfect. It has to be absolutely perfect.

There is a difference between knowing your work can be better and trying to make it perfect.  You can never make a work perfect. It’s impossible. First of all, perfect for whom? Our audiences do not think with the same brain. If you make your play perfect for one group that means another group will think it’s decidedly imperfect.

Stopping any forward motion with a piece because you’re waiting for perfect will only result in an unfinished product.

We have to finish product. We need work ready to produce. Ready to produce again. Ready to publish.

That is what getting to done town is really about. Finish so that you can start work on the next project. And in order to do that, you need to know when you’re finished. When you can close that door and open another.

  • Listen to the audience.
  • Listen to the actors.
  • Listen to yourself.

Learning how to finish makes you a writer.