San Diego Playwrights

Getting San Diego Playwrights Produced on San Diego Stages

SCRIPT DOCTOR–An Interview with Anne Marie Welsh

on November 14, 2014

Playwright California Jack Cassidy talks with Script Doctor Anne Marie Welsh about her career as a theatre critic and how she helps playwrights strengthen their scripts.

Anne Marie Welsh

Anne Marie Welsh

You’re a professional book/script doctor. What does that mean?

I help authors make their books, plays or screenplays the best they can be, by clarifying the writer’s intention. I pay close attention to dialogue, pacing and especially dramatic structure, and offer advice on how to polish the style while maintaining the author’s voice. That’s key to the coaching part of the practice—helping a writer discover his or her voice and then the right tone for each work.

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Tell us more about your background.

I began writing for newspapers as a sports stringer when I was 14. I have a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis in drama, and have taught courses in the history and criticism of theater and dance at several universities. My first deep sense of vocation as a writer came when I wrote about dance and theater in the Watergate summer of 1974 in Washington, D.C. That career took root and blossomed for 35 years there and in San Diego. Since leaving the UT in 2008 I’ve done some free-lance reviewing, but mostly I’ve been writing books – three of them on theater — and helping writers as an editor, book doctor and coach. I rarely review shows for local publications anymore, so I began developing a new niche as a script and screenplay doctor. Given my experience, I’m good at it (or so people tell me), and I feel comfortable and happy helping fellow writers!

You helped me with my play about government surveillance, Border Grill. I know you also did uncredited work on an award-winning memoir. Can you talk about any of your previous clients, or do you maintain a code of silence about them?

I’ve worked with dozens of fascinating clients, some of whom want to remain anonymous; many others are happy to be identified and have written testimonials about our work together. My clients have ranged from an octogenarian mystery novelist to several authors writing for Young Adults, to a gifted young romance writer. Yogis, Yoga therapists, playwrights, screenwriters, essayists, and Ph.D. candidates have worked with me, many memoirists, as well as some corporate clients needing help with speeches, reports, newsletters, or web content. A diverse client list has turned my editing and coaching work into an engaging second career.

When you’re hired to help with a play, how does it work?

If the playwright has a complete draft, I read it, mark it up with comments and suggestions, then write a report assessing its strengths and weaknesses and suggesting changes —often to its structure—that I think will make it more appealing to theater directors and audiences.

If someone would like to discuss their play with you, how should they contact you?

Call me at 858.456.5205 or write at annemariewelsh@gmail.com

Do you have a website, or testimonials?

I have both: http://www.annemariewelsh.com and on the Services page there are many testimonials.

What brought you to San Diego?

I moved here in 1983 for a job on the arts staff of the then San Diego Union, now UT-San Diego. I was the dance critic, backup theater critic, and arts reporter. For the last 10 years as a member of that shrinking staff I was the chief theater critic.

What are some of the common problems with play scripts, both with beginning authors and famous, established playwrights?

Endings bedevil many playwrights, including one of my favorites, Sam Shepard. Dialogue, of course, which can be flat and one-dimensional. Foreshadowing, too, can be so blunt it telegraphs what’s coming and deprives the poor audience of dramatic tension and/or surprise. A flabby structure can have a similar effect, making the action lose momentum, go slack or just dwindle away. Overwriting. Clumsy exposition. There can be as many problems as there are elements of the craft! Identifying those weaknesses (as well as the script’s strengths) is a key element of what I do as a script doc.

What advice do you have for us playwrights?

First, the old-but-true cliché, writing is rewriting. The second would be to develop a tough enough hide to accept criticism and a keen enough judgment to know which critiques are on target and which aren’t—for you and the work that wants to be born from you. Always read your work out loud to yourself before you show it to anyone else. And finally, stay true to your vision and process without worrying too much about results. Once the script becomes communal property around the table or in the rehearsal room, that’s a different story, of course. But trying to please an imaginary audience or director (or agent) while in the creative flow of writing—that’s a recipe for disaster, or at least for artistic failure. The person you have to please first as a writer is yourself; you are the one who has to live with your own artistic conscience.

My scripts are sometimes too “on the nose.” Can you talk about that problem?

Sometimes playwrights want to make a point, often a political or satiric one, but state the opinion or point of view in ways better suited to an essay or harangue than a play. In the hands of a great writer, debate plays can be terrific and engaging. But more often, dialogue is best when it is rich in subtext, hinting at the unspoken intention of the speaker, not hammering home thematic points. Or when it’s oblique. When dialogue is just straightforward exposition or point-scoring it tends to be flat and uninteresting, failing to do one of its most important jobs, which is to define character and hint at (as yet) unseen conflicts. And pretty often, the flatness is simply a matter of the playwright forgetting to “show” not “tell.”

How would you evaluate San Diego as a theatre town?

It’s definitely one of the top five or six in the country. Think how lucky that makes all of us here, to be able to see strong work in theaters large and small and often before it’s seen elsewhere.

You teach yoga, don’t you?

I teach Deep Yoga three days a week in La Jolla, as well as monthly Yoga workshops. I also lead Yoga retreats in inspiring places. This late-in-life blessing has opened my life in so many ways.

I always think that getting you to evaluate a script is a little like going straight from script to review, without all the messy production steps in the middle. It lets me avoid problems that would have been much harder to change if I had gone to production before consulting you.

I take that as a big compliment, Jack. Obviously I see ahead to production issues or problems when I read a script. So thank you for noticing that.

The spelling “theatre” seems to be overcoming the old spelling “theater.” Why is that?

Actually theatre is the old U.K. spelling and frankly I don’t like its usage in the U.S. I think it is pretentious to use that international spelling (theatre) in the U.S. where “theater” was for so long the favored spelling. San Diego theaters are nearly all Theatre now and though it’s not a big deal for me, I really don’t know why.

What do you look for in play reviews by other critics?

That’s easy. Intelligence, insight, contextual knowledge, passion and humor, and a fabulous writing style that makes the work—and the response—come alive for me.

What makes you so good-humored? 

Thanks for thinking I am! I come from a big Irish family that loves to laugh, but more importantly, I know most people do the best they can, and so I don’t spend much time judging or gossiping about others. I know how little is actually under my—or anyone’s— control, so I tend to take the bad with the good with equanimity, and then go gratefully forward with the flow of life. Raising three sons helped deflate any bubble of pretension or perfectionism I might have had!

You work fast! You used to do overnight play reviews in the days when you had to go to the newspaper office to file the story, right?   

12:30 a.m. was the deadline at most papers for the first 15 years of my career. That writer’s adrenaline really started pumping around 10:30 to 11 p.m. as I raced from an aisle seat to my car. I was younger back then, and loved the excitement of writing and putting another review “to bed” on time.

What do you do to get away from it all?

I sit at a secluded little beach near my house – Little Point, it’s called. I bring a book and a towel, and pretty often, I just fall asleep. Strange how that works. And love how that feels, like a lizard on a rock in the sun. And not an Albee lizard, by the way.

California Jack Cassidy is the author of “Border Grill”, a play about government surveillance that was produced in Scripps Ranch Theatre’s Out on a Limb 2014. He’s also a scientist, and he works a little bit of science into all his plays.

 

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One response to “SCRIPT DOCTOR–An Interview with Anne Marie Welsh

  1. leighfenly says:

    Any playwright would be lucky to work with Anne Marie. She’s the best writer/conceiver/thinker out there and has a remarkable ability to convey with empathy how to improve the work.

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