“Like any writer, my ability to leap up from the desk and do any dumb thing is huge,” jokes playwright Madeline George.
George has a point. Writing is a lonely endeavor and requires fierce discipline. A playwright has been described as “a poet who just got lonely.” The hardest part of writing is sitting down and just doing it. In an attempt to have the best of both worlds—that is, writing and socializing—playwright Anne Washburn recalls “writing dates” with friends. “You go to someone’s place, have a pleasant chat for an hour and then write for a few hours. Maybe it happens every few months,” she says. “Chatting is lovely, but it’s inefficient when it comes to writing.” Washburn also has a point.
Playwright Erik Ehn has been leading silent writing retreats for the past six years with the administrative help of Washburn, George and Gary Winter (all three are former members of the playwright collective 13P). The retreats range from just 24 hours to a full 10 days and have taken place at NACL, a theatre in upstate New York, and at a ranch in Texas. After housekeeping rules and chores have been assigned, participants take a vow of silence; throughout the retreat that follows, Ehn offers writing exercises to help spur ideas and prompt the pen to hit the page.
“There’s something innately powerful about being with a bunch of writers in the same room,” says Washburn, who, together with George, has taken the culture and practice of the Ehn-led silent playwriting retreat model and adapted it to city life. Their venture, the Writer’s Army, is a simple revolution. They rent out a space for a week and put out a call to writers keen in engaging in silent writing. The cost for space is split among those who sign up, so participants usually pay between $60 and $75. (Washburn factors the cost of coffee in the price.) Enlisted writers are encouraged to bring snacks as well as writing exercises for the group. Typically the writing hours range from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with an hour-long non-writing break for lunch, though there have also been some evening sessions. It’s a simple yet effective model. Says George, “The greatest artistic initiatives are the ones artists invent themselves.”
Since June, Washburn and George have held eight week-long sessions of the Writer’s Army at three different spaces around New York City: Sanctuary Playwrights Theatre in Long Island City, Access Theater in lower Manhattan and 29th Street Repertory Theatre in Chelsea. “People sign up for the whole week, but a lot of people will just come to the morning sessions,” says Washburn. Flexibility is fine so long as a writer comes for a full morning or afternoon session so as not to distract others by drifting in and out of the space. Otherwise, when writers turn up, the shift in energy is good.
Washburn buys coffee, and she and George provide TV trays for people to put laptops and notebooks on. Participants sign up to lead writing exercises that kick off the mornings. Everyone brings snacks. “There are two kinds of snacks,” Washburn observes, “healthy snacks like carrots and grapes and exquisite snacks—something that feels like an indulgence. People aren’t necessarily hungry; everyone understands that the snacks are for a moment of consolation.” (By the week’s end there are usually leftover nibbles.) The whole group, which usually ranges between 10 and 15 people, goes in on the room rental.
Lunch is between 1 and 2 p.m. “Rules are really helpful—having a period of time to write is just as important has having a period of time not to write,” Washburn observes, adding that the morning exercises warm up the brain and ignite productivity. Participants sign up for buzzer duty to let others back into the space, and writing recommences promptly at 2 p.m.
There is Internet access. However, Washburn and George ask that if writers use it, they do so with discretion so that it remain hidden from others. Says George, “There is a totally different kind of concentration in a room full of people writing versus people on Facebook. There’s a different crackly mental space. The idea behind Internet discretion is to preserve that for people.”
Meanwhile, writers are asked to rotate their seats so as to not establish territories. “We want people to have access,” says Washburn. “We always say in the Ehn silent retreats that ‘silence is a way of ignoring everyone else, but also taking care of everyone else.’”
“I think that I work pretty hard in terms of my writing,” says Washburn. “But I also know that I am not as focused as I should be. Being held to a standard by a group is useful. We’ve created a space where people can get their own work done in the company of other people writing. And the exercises help you be more productive.”
For Washburn and George, the model’s effectiveness lies in its dual ability to simultaneously inspire and shame. At an early Ehn retreat, Washburn recalls sitting by a window in the theatre at night while across the yard she could see playwright Ben Gassman at work in a window of the house adjacent to NACL. “I would have these moments where I’d want to give up, but then I’d look out and see Ben writing and tapping away and I’d go back to what I was doing. Years later we talked about how we could both see each other that evening. He’d had a similar response: ‘If Anne can do it then so can I!’”
While it’s hard to quantify how many actual plays have come out of the Ehn retreats—or the Writer’s Army—playwrights consistently sing the method’s praises. “It surprised me how fearless my raw material was from the silent days in the room with the others,” declares playwright and actor Eisa Davis. “Things got synthesized and expressed in a way I didn’t expect.” And while Davis acknowledges that there’s no scientific way to meausre whether or not she wrote better at the Writer’s Army than she does at home, she emphasizes, “I definitely wrote, which I might not have done, and I wrote faster.”
“Carting around the TV trays has been the single most pain-in-the-ass thing,” sighs Washburn. For the first few sessions Washburn and George factored in the cost of the trays, plus the cost of transporting them in a taxi, into the price for participants. Currently playwrights Erin Courtney and Scott Adkins have the trays and bring them to the sessions, but Washburn knows this is a temporary solution. “What we needs is Man with a Van and a Basement,” she jokes.
For George, the biggest challenge has been noise levels. Silence is not native to New York City and dealing with noise bleed—whether it’s car horns or dancers thumping above—has been a continual conversation.
According to Washburn, the Writer’s Army has been relatively easy to set up so that the operation runs itself. “The main thing you need is silence, other people, TV trays—unless you find a place with enough table space—and some set of rules or culture. Beyond that the specifics of the Army can be adapted and tweaked at will.” George concurs, “Anyone can do this—there’s nothing magical about it!” Nevertheless, Washburn cautions, “It takes a lot of jostling and finessing the first few tries. People should be aware that the simpler something is, the more complex it is.”
As George and Washburn continue to fine-tune the Writer’s Army into a well-oiled machine, George looks to the national landscape. “I can imagine something like this happening at an institutional theatre. Why not take the four writers your theatre wants to cultivate and make rehearsal space available to them? It’s a way to bring a writer into your house. Instead of giving writers a reading, give them an empty shop. It’s low-tech and doesn’t tax your resources. Yet it’s transformative.”
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!