We sat down with Ethan Warren, author of In Gilded Palaces (which you can read here), and asked him about writing for the stage and screen, his writing habits, and his inspiration.
What does In Gilded Palaces mean to you?
It’s a story that I find both heartfelt and unsettling; I feel compassion for the characters even as I’m disturbed by their behavior. I set out to write about coping with grief in a way that I hadn’t seen explored before, and to investigate whether it’s possible to shift our own identities, or shift someone else’s identity for our own selfish purposes (the working title of the piece was Identical and I wanted to interrogate what it means to know you’re a physical duplicate of someone else, especially when you don’t know who you are yourself). I think I achieved those goals, at least to the best of my ability, and I hope readers feel the same.

What inspired this piece?
This is an idea I’ve had in my pocket for seven years, and it’s interesting to look back at how details have shifted while core concerns have remained the same (the idea of a widow bringing her husband’s estranged twin to visit in hopes of forcing closure for herself was the initial idea that grabbed me, but at one point Pete was homosexual, at another point Maya’s child was already a few years old and a present character). It felt like a rich psychological playground that I could never find the best way into. When I struck on the idea of Pete struggling to find his identity after psychological trauma (and yes, to be brief, some of Pete’s struggles do match my own, but only in the broadest sense) that made everything click, and I was able to finally produce a version that felt right.
What’s your writing process like? Do you have any specific rituals or routines that you do to amp your creative process? Any favorite editing techniques?
I like to write my rough draft quickly and impulsively—I call it the “vomit draft”—and then start to build a true first draft from there. It’s much easier to craft and shape something that exists than an idea in your head. I think of it like doing a first rough pencil sketch that then leads to shading and definition. In revising, I always start a new document and re-type from the beginning. Even if I’m happy with a scene, I re-type it rather than copy-pasting. It helps me stay in the flow of the project, and I find the voice of a piece shifts slightly enough as you go that even the scenes I’m happy with will go through minor changes and improvements as I import them.
I also think it’s important to take big swings when revising—my first creative writing teacher told us that “revise” comes from the Latin for “to see again.” So a true revision should involve a good, fundamental look at the story and its weaknesses.

Reading the script aloud is very important for me—something that can feel perfectly natural on the page can surprise you by being completely unsayable.

You’ve also written a feature film, West of Her. What do you do differently when writing for the theater or for the screen? What challenges are unique to each art form?
An ambiguous, unsettling ending will often be much more accepted onstage than in a film. I think it has something to do with the fact that a play is happening live in a shared physical space, so there’s a grounding and a connection to the work that then makes you open to being challenged by form or content.

As for me, I like to write dialogue, and a lot of it. But people go to the movies for an interesting visual experience, not to hear characters sit and talk. So when screenwriting, I have to fight against my urge to write long swaths of dialogue. Writing for the stage, I can let my urge to write long conversations have freer reign, knowing the audience expects that sort of thing.

What’s your advice to other playwrights?
Take in as much theater as you can. If you don’t have access to a theater scene, the streaming service BroadwayHD is a great resource. Read a lot of plays to see how dialogue and action feel on the page. Everything I see and read generates new thoughts and ideas for me (especially the stuff I don’t like), particularly when it comes to the infinite ways a play can be constructed.

Hear your scripts read aloud, even by friends in your living room, and try to realize where an audience might get tripped up by a line that feels beautifully ambiguous to you, but so confusing for them that they miss the next three lines.
Keep a running list of ideas, even if it’s just a one-sentence premise (an old teacher called these “story buds,” because a tiny idea can be nurtured and grow into something significant). Try taking another idea from your list and mashing them against each other to see if they can be combined into something new and unexpected. My first full-length play, Why Are You Nowhere?, came from my urge to experiment with theatre of the absurd. But I had no premise in mind, so I took one I already had and tried it through an absurdist lens, which led to something much more exciting than anything I might have conceived specifically to be absurdist.

Ethan Warren is a playwright and filmmaker. His two-act play, Why Are You Nowhere?, won the Playwright’s Award for Staged Reading at the summer 2016 Midtown International Theatre Festival, and had its debut production in 2017 at Southeastern Louisiana University. His work has also been performed in Florida, Alaska, and Pennsylvania, and his debut feature film, West of Her, was released in 2017. He lives in the Boston area with his wife, Caitlin, and their daughter, Nora.

You can learn more about his work at www.ethanrawarren.com.