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Playwriting Process–Thinking Theatrically, Part II

October 27th, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Mystery Play

Continuing my consideration of Michael Wright’s book, Playwriting in Process: Thinking and Working Theatrically:

Wright writes,

“I try to encourage my students to think of watching a play as being involved in a mystery no matter what the style or subject matter of the play may be. The audience is there to figure out what’s going to happen (in conventional theatre)the concepts ‘suggest rather than spell out’ and ‘show, don’t tell’ are about giving the audience the chance to try to figure things out for themselves, of sustaining its agreement by actively engaging its imagination.”

What’s Most Important

Wright goes on next to talk about what he considers the two most important components of plays: dialogue and behavior.

Wright discusses the complexity of dialogue: namely, it goes beyond what is said and how: the richness, symbolic nature, imagistic expression, etc. It includes also what is not said, or left unsaid. It include subtext. Bob McKee in his book Story states that it is commonly held in screenwriting that if your characters are talking about what they’re talking about, you’re fucked. That is to say, what characters are talking about hides or masks their motivations. This fact is one of the big flaws in my play The Empiric. There are too many times when people are saying out loud what people don’t say out loud: people hide stuff. There is much that people would rather die than say aloud. How do you show what pains a person, without having that person state it? That is subtext. That is mastery of dialogue and behavior. That is theatricality.

As examples, Wright uses “I’m fine.” Think of your encounters with people in the morning at work.

Me: “Hi, Bob, how are you today?”
Bob: (Smiles) “I’m fine.”

Me: “Hi, Bob, how are you today?”
Bob: (Scowls) “I’m fine.”

Subtext is in behavior. With regards to behavior, is your character flighty? Is she clumsy? Is she hysterical? How do any of these behaviors play out in a scene? What do they reveal about the character–without that character ever saying a word?

So give your audience something to see and figure out–let them discern what a character is about based on what that character does and let them judge if what she says jibes with what she does.

Plays are meant to be seen. You need an audience.

As Wright states,

“a play is a human event that is being observed by other humans–it is witnessed”

Wright speaks of the “witnessed present,” that any play we watch happens right now, in the present. It doesn’t matter if the play was written 500 years ago, or 20 years ago, when we, as an audience, watch it, it takes place in the present: right before our eyes.

Wright notes that,

“it’s our present at the same instant, because the problems of the characters reflect our own lives. We may not have the literal dilemmas that Oedipus struggles with but we all have to deal with issues of morality and personal integrity”

Next, Wright points out that thinking theatrically is “rooted in an awareness of the existence of the other”–that is, the play is being performed by real people right in front of you–they are aware of you, and you are certainly aware of them. This reciprocality of awareness make the event itself more real.

Wright comments that we all like to watch others. That it’s a natural human tendency which goes a long way toward explaining the ascendency of “reality” television. He writes,

“we know without hearing a word that the couple over there is arguing, or the man sitting to our left is really nervous. We read these things in the behavior of the people, but we also feel these things because we are in the same environment. When we’re in a theatre, we are focused by a successful show by the same kind of immediacy one experiences [in life]. There is no filter between you and what’s acting on your sensory receptors: we listen, watch, and feel the human struggles on the stage directly.”

4 Points on Theatricallity

For Wright, thinking theatrically means writing with all of these elements in mind:

  1. to write dialogue that is crafting language: both text and subtext and delving into the inner feelings of characters;
  2. creating revealing behavior that allows us to “witness the struggle with those feelings;”
  3. Using the stage space in the most imaginative ways possible to engage the audience “emotionally, intellectually, and viscerally.”
  4. Crucially, expressing your imaginative impulses–that is, as I said in my podcast regarding “censoring” and Intermission has said about the “editor’s mind”; follow your instincts and don’t squash what rises up from your unconscious.

At the end, Wright asks,

“The question that plagues all playwrights is how do we craft stories and people who are truly theatrical? How can we use the real potential of the space we call a stage?”

This is the challenge of Thinking Theatrically.

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