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Struggle with Play Structure

January 5th, 2007 No comments

Struggling with the structure of plays. Have exhausted myself creating them without conscious awareness of the structure, that is, the historic structural questions.

Picked up Poetics and have started that. Reading a history of the theatre, as well. I have a great book on Ibsen entitled Ibsen’s Workshop, which shows his notes, scenarios, drafts of plays, all of which you can compare to the final published plays. The additions to A Doll’s House are quite telling of his process, the fleshing out of his characters from a skeletal beginning.

This is the process I used for my play The Empiric. Unfortunately, per the first sentence or two, I was ignorant of the process and was adivsed to use it by my professor, Mike Geither, who is an excellent playwright. Mike, however, uses a method of discovery and writing that is at the opposite pole from my own: I being much more plot oriented.

So, I will begin at the beginning, with Aristotle, and work through. I have read William Archer as well, an interesting book on playwrighting and drama. Just finished a 1958 article by Arthur Miller entitled, “The Shadow of the Gods,” from Harpers. I will move on to a Theory of the Modern Stage and Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd. The most important thing, I guess, is to keep writing. Plenty of ideas…

Building the Play: Re-Writes

January 27th, 2011 No comments

What can I say about re-writes? Hmmm. Self-defeating, triumphant, withering, the source of endless self-questioning, confusing, revisionist approach to history, etc.

There is much to be said for Shepard’s belief that the first shot is the one. Period.

I wrote a while back about Wallace Shawn’s piece in American Theatre where he discusses editing. Well, Sex and Editing. In that blog entry I wrote that:

The small kudos paid to the logical dweller in the great cavern who’s only pedantic offering is to sort things out. And I don’t underestimate this by any stretch of the imagination. Shawn is quite right to point to the “skill” required, for it is that. It is one that I am still honing. I can catch the torrent and ensure that it pours out onto a page. It is that skill at going back and doing the “modest organizing” and the “finding” that is most important. To pare down the utterance. To select. And yet NOT TO HARM or DISTORT the voice.

And, of course, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I found myself right back in this same place. I guess I’m finding that the true challenge in writing is how to become a good editor–and pedantic organizer.

I’ve just gone through one round of meetings and revisions only to have a reading where the whole structure of my piece has been called into question; and hence, made me call it into question (right at the point where I should be affirming, not doubting–rehearsals begin in a week).

The main comment that has set me off is that “pattern is no replacement for narrative”.

That was the comment. The whole premise of my play is precisely that. It is precisely that pattern is a replacement for narrative. The human mind actively seeks pattern. The human mind finds pattern and then makes meaning out of the repetition. This is absolutely true. It has been proven time and again by cognitive scientists and psychologists and computer scientists, and even though I know that is a “weasel” statement, because I have no intention of finding citations at this time to back that sentence up. But I’m not even concerned about the assertion right now so much as I’m concerned about the fact that my specific set of patterns aren’t working.

Then again, maybe they are. I don’t know how many people who heard the reading felt that “pattern is no replacement for narrative” and how many felt the opposite. You see, the trouble here is that narrative has functioned in 1) (subversively) the structure of how plays are written; and 2) (overtly) using a narrator or strong exposition; for so long that people come to expect that sort of guidance. Hence, when you don’t provide it (intentionally) they might just not be used to it. It’s not that they don’t get it, but that they don’t like it.

The contradiction between the two paragraphs above is not me being fickle, but rather it highlights, I think, the inherent problem of re-writing and revision: you may have done it right the first time but given the opportunity to re-examine what you’ve done, you start to tinker where you should have left well-enough alone. This is especially the case where there are readings, and more readings, and more readings, and you gather input from more and more people. Perhaps the best example of this is contained in these two quotes:

Patterns not necessarily a substitute for narrative

Really felt the oppression of repetition…the oppression is in the repetition itself.

That is, if my interpretation is correct, there are some who felt that there was something missing from the play without the standard through-line of narrative; and others who felt as if the patterns used were oppressive–hence, overly strong. How do you deal with that? Two people expressing completely opposing views of what is wrong with the play?

The obvious answer is to ignore both and just assume that you’re right on the mark, which is what I’ll have to do.

The good thing about readings is that you can tell where things are just too damn long. There are places in the play where it just drags a bit. These are places to cut and re-draft. This is easy. It’s in the structure or “theoretical” parts of how you’ve built the play that the damage can be done if you’ve mis-stepped. For instance, right now the play is cast, so there is very little I can do in editing it–that is, I can’t really cut characters or re-think them. I have to work within the framework that exists now.

Let’s hope that’s a good thing.

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