Biographical Playwriting I: Authorship & Ownership
When writing a biographical play the first and most important things that a playwright needs to address is authorship and ownership. Authorship is the creator of the piece of work. Ownership is who owns the story. These may seem like the same thing, but they are vastly different when it comes to writing about someone else. The basic questions you need to ask yourself are: whose story am I telling and do I have the right to tell this story?
If the person whose story you want to tell is alive, you must ask their permission. Irrevocably, you do not have ownership over their story and must be granted the right to authorship by them. Even if it is a close friend or family member, you need to clearly ask their permission and receive an affirmative response. If you want to write about someone with limited or affected mental capacities (for example, a grandparent with dementia), you must ask them and their next of kin or carer.
Sometimes they will have terms that you need to respect in order to tell their story. The most common example is not to use real names, but this can also include excluding certain parts of the story or telling the story in a certain light. At this point, it is up to you to determine if this version of the story is the one you want to tell. If you are happy to work with their terms, then continue with your project. If you feel that their terms would change the story you want to tell too much, then you must abandon the project. It is their story and you must respect their decisions.
Most people’s first response is to hold a seance and ask the person themselves. I don’t recommend seances as there is always the potential that you might start singing Harry Belafonte against your will. (That was a Beetlejuice joke, gang.)
If the person you would like to write about was alive in recent history, you need to approach their family, next of kin, or estate to ask permission to tell their story. The same rules apply as above. Keep in mind that these rules are in place to protect you and your source.
Historical persons are usually easier to write about as their family is usually as historical as they are and just as difficult to approach. However, it is important to keep in mind that certain historical figures hold cultural, political, or religious importance to various groups of people. Keep this in mind when writing about historical persons and be sure to do thorough research into all aspects of their life.
If you don’t give yourself permission to write this play, I really can’t help you. That’s a conundrum right there. Consider what version of yourself you are writing about. Remember that you will be offering up a piece of yourself to the public in a way that has not been done before. Even though you have both authorship and ownership, that is still a huge responsibility. Keep this in mind when venturing into the next topic: Theatricality versus Reality.
Exercise: Questions about your Authorship
Once you have considered your source and their ownership of the story, you need to consider yourself as the writer. Though every right has the ability, in theory, to tell every story we need to consider if we should tell every story. Below are some questions to ask yourself before embarking on your project. Be honest with yourself throughout this process.
Why do you want to tell this story? What is your personal connection to it?
What is your relationship to the source?
Why are you the right person to tell this story?
How will your own background and lived experience affect this story?
Are there aspects of your lived experience (race, socio-economic background, religious beliefs, gender, etc) that could affect the way you tell this story?
If so, how will you navigate those aspects?
Have you done an adequate amount of research to fully immerse yourself in someone else’s story/life?
Are you writing this story for yourself, for the source, or for someone else?