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Dramatists Guild — Ohio Region — DIY: Self-Production for Playwrights, Lyricists, and Composers

November 14th, 2011 1 comment

DIY Conference

Dramatists Guild of America

Went to the 14th Street Theatre at PlayhouseSquare yesterday for another fantastic day-long Dramatists Guild conference put on by Faye Sholiton, Cleveland Regional Rep, and the wonderful people from DG.

Both Roland Tec, Director of Membership for the Dramatists Guild of America and David Faux, Director of Business Affairs for the Dramatists Guild of America were in from New York to speak about issues relevant to the careers of playwrights: empowerment, self-production, taking the bull by the horns, artistic integrity, ownership of intellectual property, subsidiary rights and royalties, and much more. The space for the event was very generously provided by PlayhouseSquare, and Linda Jackson, Community Engagement & Education Program Manager for PlayhouseSquare was present to talk with us briefly and discuss Launch, an artistic residency program at PlayhouseSquare.

Roland Tec

First, Roland spent around an hour-and-a-half discussing the playwright as producer, including the topics of money and budgets, project oversight, organization, hiring and firing, contracts, and marketing and promotion.

For Tec, as soon as you (the playwright) begin discussing a project with others you are either moving the project forward or moving it back; that is, you’re getting a sense as to whether it is ready to be brought into the public sphere or not. Furthermore, for Tec, as soon as you gather people together to read your script you are engaged in the process of producing your play: even if as Tec says, it’s just as simple as inviting people over for lasagna and then having a read through.

In discussing the playwright as producer topics mentioned above, Tec noted that it is rare to find all the qualities that you need in one person; that is, it’s rare to find a person who can gather and motivate people and who can organize, balance a spreadsheet, etc Tec advised that if you can find such a person that you hold on to him or her for dear life.

For Tec, no production is produced by a producer — there must be a team of people. And to this end, it is crucial to get out and see other people’s work and to participate in a community. That in order to produce work you need to have a community of people to support you.

Producing a work is a monumental task. To this end Tec provided practical advice:

  1. Gather people
  2. Have a notebook for the project
  3. Every note on every conversation should be in the notebook, for example:
    • I called actor A and he will be out of town for two months and be back in June; or
    • notes on who showed up to your reading, who acted in the reading, who read parts, is the actor right for the role? Notes on how each person did.
  4. Every conversation moves the project forward or moves it back; pulling back is an example (often) of self-deprecation–i.e. not giving yourself enough credit for what you’ve done. But it can also be doing productive versus unproductive things. Example…

Tec provided a rule about productive versus unproductive communications which he learned “from the guy who brought Pedro Almodovar to America”–**Correction**Tec didn’t say and I have no idea who this person is **but now I do, and so do you, dear reader, because Roland was good enough to comment below**. The rule is that you must include all relevant information in your requests. Again:

Rule: you must include all relevant information in your requests.

It seems very basic, almost comic, but the reality is that we all do it all the time (ineffective communication) and the result can be that we’re asking someone else to do the work that we did not, or fill in the pieces of information that we left out. To this end, I’ll provide the example that Tec provided:

Counter-productive email: “Hey Joe, Just a reminder that we’ll need sides for the auditions next week. Thanks, Roland.”

Productive email: “Hey Joe, Please make sure we have at least 12 copies of all sides for the auditions next Tuesday, November 8th from 10am – 6pm at Ripley Grier Studios, 580 Eighth Avenue, 12th floor. To recap, the sides we agreed upon are: For Role A: pp 2-5; For Role B: pp. 45-49 + 88-89; For Role C: pp. 3-7 + pp. 18-21. Make sure all copies are collated and stapled and printed, single-sided, with PROPERTY ACME PRODUCTION COMPANY as a header. Thanks! And see you at 9:30pm for the setup. Cal my cell if you have any questions: 555-555-1234. Roland.”

You get the idea. In the first case, Joe is going to have to follow up with all sorts of questions: how many copies, single sided versus double, etc. In the second case the answers are provided, as much as possible, in the first email.

Clarify Your Goals

If you do a reading: are you trying to get a sense of the piece? Trying to find out what needs fixed? Find out who’s on board or interested?

Need A Producing Partner

You will need a director or actor, fellow playwright, etc. Particularly with new work. At some point the piece must be fixed (honed/refined) and this takes a critical eye. Simultaneously, there must be a cheerleader for the project–a champion for your show or what you’re doing. These two people cannot be the same person. That is, the person who is offering critical insight into the piece cannot be the person out saying “hurrah” for it.


According to Tec, a budget is a living breathing organism. It is a snapshot of your production TODAY. Reality on the ground: TODAY. For instance, rent costs change–so they may not be the same next month as you budgeted for today. Tec provided a sample budget which I can scan later as a demonstration. The point of the budget example is to show that a budget will tell a story. If you look at the proposed budget for a project and the actual budget for a project, you will see as story told in numbers that includes: assumptions, mistakes, discrepancies, opportunities, setbacks, etc.

A budget is a guestimate and it will change. It should be visited (re-visited) every week. A corollary questions is: How can we squeeze more for less? How much can you get for how little? Tec told the story of how a theater group he was working with got the use of a $2,000 light kit donated for $150 and later he heard the manager asking if it could be $0 instead. Tec says he thought, “that takes a lot of nerve”… but the reality is, again, how much can you get for how little?

Tec notest that sometimes you will simply not have the time to seek out donations (as this can take time). Same holds with volunteers–there is a plus and minus to using them. When you pay a professional to do something, he or she will do what is expected of him/her (theoretically) and the job will get done. When you hand off something to a volunteer, you might not get what you need. This brings up a point I heard many years ago when working with volunteers you should hold them to the same standard as paid employees–that you have certain expectations and they must be met, else you’ll fire them. And you can have to fire volunteers.

According to Tec, you must be clear about your expectations and that they are clearly defined when working with others. For example, a theater had a paid for the rental of a light kit and the company brought it out and installed it. However, for whatever reason they did not come back and take the kit down–but still expected it to be returned on time, etc. That is something that was just assumed when it should have been clearly defined. (i.e. who would strike)

This led to a side conversation, some notes follow:

Tec: If someone is doing your play and for whatever reason the company cannot pay you, ask for $1. If the company will not give you $1 then you know something about that company. Everyone who works on a play should have a contract. An example of something being clearly defined would be “Actors agree to speak the lines of the script.” Again, it seems absurd, but you can find yourself in a place where there is disagreement or where an actor is ad libbing, etc. Clear lines in a contract ensure that you can cancel the contract if things aren’t working out.

Faye Sholiton provided examples from a friend of hers in Los Angeles who has, over her playwriting years, had some egregious examples of things that have gone wrong or were unexpected. She may provide examples from this list later. Ask if there are hidden charges or see if you can discover any hidden fees–for instance, the LA playwright had a $400 computer repair charged to her in a production.

Another example is that a theater donated the space for a production, but the production had to use their house manager who was a union house manager and had to pay her salary for the productions.

Considerations of the space: example is that a space was identified for use in production in the summer and when the performance took place in the winter there was a dreadful knocking and banging of heat pipes. This was not something that was anticipated in the initial consideration. So, Tec gave the admonition to ask about pipes in winter, subways, etc.

Side note: when you are producing a piece in a certain space it is wise for the production to seek ads from the businesses in the area; Tec noted that the businesses are, in fact, buying good will, in that the production draws people who will use the businesses around the production. Tec also noted that this effort (ads) is done the “good old fashioned way”–face-to-face. He further suggested that there should be a synergy between the space and the piece–don’t do your play in a comedy club and expect the audience to take it seriously (if you play is highly dramatic or whatever).

Tec noted that contracts are not about suing people. They are about clear communication and to document expectations. In the end they are documents that should ensure a certain amount of civility in how people work with one another.

Tec: 10% of the total budget should be contingency. Someone in the audience suggested that he viewed it not as contingency, but opportunity $$.

Budget Worksheet

Roland distributed a Budget Worksheet that I can add to the site. It includes broad categories that one would expect in a budget for nonprofits, for instance, in Income there is fundraisers, grants, sponsorships, ad sales in the program, and even merchandise and concessions. There is also a formula that Tec uses to estimate Box Office sales at 40% capacity:

# of seats x # of performances x price of tickets x .4 = projected revenues for shows

Tec provided some good examples and ideas, for instance, when doing a fundraiser find a person who comes to your theater and supports your theater who has a fabulous home and who will handle the food and drinks, etc. If possible, find a friend who is a chef or starting a catering business to prepare the food; this person can leave out business cards, etc., to get his/her business off the ground.

Tec strongly advised that you NOT read the script at a fundraiser. He’s been to fundraisers where that has happened.

You’ll also need someone to be the “speaker” someone who is upbeat and can do an ask. Along these lines, when it comes to the ask, Tec offered a *secret*: always come to a donor with a number in your head and always speak the ask and then shut up. Let the donor fill in the silence. “We were thinking that yours support would be $25,000.” Then you shut up. Tec says that people always have a tendency to take away from what they ask, so simply shutting your mouth is the best approach.

Fundraisers raise money, but they also raise awareness.

Beginning of the PR campaign for your show is when you hold auditions. This is when the talking begins. Actors talk with one another and this is the beginning of the public promotional campaign.

Every conversation moves the project forward or backward. When auditions happen, you are communicating about the project. If you have chaos in the auditions–behind time and off schedule, uncoordinated, forget order of audition candidates, etc.–you are conveying a message regarding what these productions will be like.

Stand on stage and welcome people. You should also be in the lobby after the show and during intermissions to talk with people and get feedback, etc. You should be accessible.

Fundraising Formula

Gather core people together, have a meeting, target list of who will be invited — say 250 people? 50 people? etc. What will the charge for the house party be? $75?

500 x 75 = $37,500 x .1 = $3,750 (never estimate more than 10%)

There are some companies or organizations that allow others to piggy-back off of their nonprofit status; for instance if you want to have a fundraiser but want the donations to be tax free (or a portion thereof). Fractured Atlas is one company that was mentioned. Applying for 501(c)(3) can be expedited and take around 6 mos. Other fundraising opportunities online include Kickstarter and Indie-Go-Go.

Investing productions
Corporate sponsorships
Run of the mills stuff

All of them work on personal relationships.

Estimate Box Office at 40%

$20 Tickets = T
200 Seats = S
40% Box Office = B
3 Performances = P

P x T x S x B = $4,800

When something is happening there is momentum which can draw other investors or interested parties. The caveat being that everyone has to be having a positive experience.

A question was asked, as was mentioned above, about the difference between a contingency budget and an opportunity budget. Roland advised that it is best to prepare several dream budgets, etc., to ensure that if you have lots of $$ rolling in that you know immediately where to direct it; versus a low end budget that is more realistic.

**Groupon** one of the people present discussed at length their use of Groupon for ticket sales to an event. That a Groupon rep will buy in if they like a project. You have to price carefully with Groupon as it is based on a two for one notion; so whatever the price of your ticket is, you will only get 1/2 of that. I.e. price accordingly. For instance, a $15 ticket is actually $7.50 per ticket. In addition, Groupon will take 50%, so you’re actually getting $3.75 per ticket. The amount of money in this case drops pretty significantly, but you have to realize that it’s a numbers game. In the experience described here the folks managed to get hundreds of people because of the higher profile.

So, lets take our example from above:

$20 Tickets becomes $10 dollar tickets which in reality becomes $5.00 tickets. But say that attendance due to Groupon goes up to 100% capacity.

P x T x S x B = $3,000

So, again, it’s a numbers game. In this scenario you lost $1,800 assuming various things (that you get 100% capacity in scenario B or that you achieve 40% capacity in scenario A). Alternatively, you can boost ticket prices in the Groupon examples, as the people buying are really getting 1/2 off. If you bump tickets to $30 a piece, your scenario comes out at $4,500, which is closer to the original scenario, but you’ve added 120 viewers for your work!

Proof read the ad. In the Groupon example the contributor noted that there was a mistake on Groupon regarding the start time which was listed at 10:00pm not the 9:00pm start time, so said contributor had to delay the start for an hour to accommodate those coming late.

Roland advised a Cheat Sheet in the box office that describes your show so the person in the office can read the description. Tec noted that there is nothing more dispiriting than calling a box office and hearing a person describe the show by saying: “I don’t know what that’s about, I haven’t seen it.” Or something like that.

Explore all group buying ventures and, as Tec advised, explore cooperative deals with other theaters for joint promotion.

Scheduling and Hiring

1st person you hire should be the Director. First, you really can’t put together a schedule without the director (auditions, performances, etc); Second, the director needs to coordinate with the production team (including set design, costume design, etc)

You should identify the first date for the performance and work backward from that date.

Tec breaks the process into 3 phases:

Preproduction — includes consideration of design, space, auditions, staff, time frames, etc. Tec advises that you let the designer pick his own people/team.

During preproduction you should create a list of all the things that need to happen/be accomplished in preproduction and you must check off the list. This must include contracts, union contracts, etc.

Production — includes rehearsals (don’t start until casting is complete), PR (website), Box Office, house management. The press releases should have a contact name and that name should NOT be that of the playwright, director, or an actor.

Post-Mortem — counting money, paying all bills, strike set, PR clipping book for the play, core team dinner meeting to assess the results. Every unpaid bill is a relationship in jeopardy. Follow-up communication or email to thank everyone involved. Get feedback from everyone you can.

Should have a production office — doesn’t have to be a rented space or store front, but needs to be a place where people can come to drop things off or pick things up.

Tec distributed a worksheet — Untapped Equity Sheet — that allows you to identify untapped equity from the people around you. Tec notes that we tend to think “task then resource”–example: “I need to do a mass mailing: stuff envelopes, affix labels and stamps; so I need x many people to do this.” Again, Task –> Resource.

Tec encourages you to think the opposite direction: identify resources that you have in your life and then identify appropriate tasks for the resource (hence the untapped equity sheet). So, identify people who can help with your production and think about how they can help your production. Assign roles and tasks based on willingness, skills, etc. Start with people, then find the tasks.

Playwright who resonantes with me right now at this moment as we speak currently this second…and why

December 8th, 2009 No comments

I think the playwright whose work most resonates with me, right now, is Paula Vogel and her play How I Learned to Drive

I think this is the case because I have been struggling with an idea I have for a play, and have been struggling for some time, with the shape of it.  I heard something from Mike Geither recently that resonated with me; Geither said that he’s coming to realize that the structure or the form of a play is what is important, and I whole heartedly agree, and I think there should be a playwriting class dedicated solely to that topic.  In fact, I’m beginning to think that this is actually where the art lies.  I have heard in describing postmodern art forms, more times than I care to mention, that the form is the meaning, and I never really quite got what that was driving at, but more and more as I read plays I am coming to understand exactly what that means.  If we presented every playwright with the exact same story: plot, narrative, characters, etc, and asked them to turn it into a play, it is clear that we would have as diverse a set of plays at the end as we have already had presented to us.  Structurally, stylistically, vocally, in tableaux, image, symbol, language, and in use of space we would see a full range of possibilities for how plays can be constructed. 

I have been struggling with the play I am loosely calling Patterns.  It is a play that uses the metaphor of pattern as its uber theme and begins with a young woman addressing the audience about making a dress and the sewing machine and pattern that she has chosen.  The problem is that I could not get beyond the visual image of the woman addressing the audience and I could not get beyond a play structure that had direct address as its primary vehicle of exchange.  The awkwardness of this form was reinforced recently for me when I saw a couple plays at Little Box, including Waves and Projecting: both of which use women who directly address the audience as their primary form.  Waves has very distinct, well-drawn characters and events and is an emotionally enthralling piece; however, the form of the thing is not right.  In fact, I would characterize it as grueling.  In retrospect, I recently saw the play The Heidi Chronicles at the Eldred Theater at Case and it is, in my mind, what How I Learned to Drive would be had not Vogel had a different vision for the play.  The Heidi Chronicles expresses a woman’s life as reflected upon and shows in linear time the course of events that lead to where she is in the present.  It is boring.  It is difficult to sit through.  It is the exact problem of linearity that Vogel escapes. Very like Waves and The Heidi Chronicles, I simply have no doubt whatsoever that my play Patterns would become the same thing: grueling, maudlin, even tiresome and repetitive–if there is no consideration of what can be done by breaking form and reconsidering structure.  The art comes in the consideration of the form.  The art comes in stepping back and figuring out, like some ancient mathematician or philosopher, what the underlying structure or form is–and identifying how that form can be brought out.  It is no easy task and requires as much focus, concentration, and serendipity as writing alone.

A while back I read an essay by Eugene Ionesco called “Discovering the Theatre.”  I ‘found’ the essay in several beat up copies of the Tulane Drama Review that I somehow have laying about my house.  In the essay, Ionesco writes about his dissatisfaction with theater.  He writes:

“Why could I not accept theatrical reality? Why did its truth appear false to me? And why did the false seem to want to parade as true, substitute for truth?… [The actor’s] material presence destroyed the fiction. It was as though there were present two levels of reality, the concrete reality, impoverished, empty, limited, of these banal living men, moving and speaking upon the stage, and the reality of the imagination. And these two realities faced each other, unmasked, irreconcilable: two antagonistic universes which could not succeed in unifying and blending.”

I think I have finally come to understand what so upset Ionesco and am coming to understand what makes metatheatricality so important and a hyperreal or absurd or fantastic approach to theater equally important: the alternative is “impoverished, empty, and limited.”  There is something about the “two realities” facing each other that just shows the staged reality to be a thin grey thing…or, as Sylvia Plath might say, "They are always with us, the thin people / Meager of dimension as the gray people / on a movie screen. They / are unreal, we say."  As I read realistic plays and watch plays like The Heidi Chronicles it becomes almost unbearable: the unbearable unreal reality of it, like a scab that you mustn’t pick, and yet your fingers keep on sidling over to it.

My mind has boggled lately at trying to figure out what theater is.  What makes it theater?  For instance, can you simply take a novel or short story and put it on a stage, have people speak the lines, and say: “behold, theater?” And if that is not theater, or not theatrical, why is that?  What defines or demarks what theater should be?  I tried approaching the question of “what is theatre” from several different points of view, and have even discussed it on my blog: what is theatre, why is theatre important, etc., all to no effect: any attempt to write about it seems boring or redundant, definitely uninteresting: academic. And even in the context of considering craft with Vogel in mind that danger emerges.  But I’ll go back to Ionesco, as the nature of the conversation changed for me when I found his essay in that 1959 issue of TDR.

The article shocked me. At first, it shocked me because I was appalled by what Ionesco was saying about theatre. Then, I was shocked because I was agreeing with him. Finally, I found myself mentally applying the points he was discussing against the play I wrote most recently and identifying what was right and what was wrong with it—and I knew that what Ionesco was saying was correct. For instance, I’ll highlight one of the comments that Ionesco makes late in his essay which, although it may seem confounding, is precise and elucidating:

The theatre can only be theatre, even though for certain contemporary doctors of “theatrology” this identity with itself is charged with tautology, or considered false, an attitude which strikes me as the most incredible and amazing of paradoxes. / For these doctors, the theatre, being something other than theatre, is ideology, allegory, politics, lectures, essays or literature. This is as aberrant as if one were to claim that music should be archeology, or painting, physics and mathematics. (Ionesco and Pronko 16)

The point is so critical that I will no doubt make a fool of myself here articulating it clearly, redundantly, to myself: theatre is theatre. Well, what does that mean, precisely? It certainly begs a question. It begs a question that I want to avoid like the plague: If theatre is theatre, what then is theatre?

In his essay defending poetry, Shelley begins with a discussion of reason and imagination and the actions of mental processes on the individual and society. I will not presume to be so lofty. I will instead attempt to identify, of my own accord, those elements that make theatre unique. That is, what is it about theatre that makes it theatre? What makes theatre different from poetry, or different from screenplays, or what is unique when it is compared against the novel? To do this, I’ll begin with questions: Is theatre simply a physical space in which an action takes place? Is theatre the notion of seeing an action or event enacted? Or is theatre a glib sneer for practices that are intentionally dramatic and unnecessarily emotional—red herrings drawing attention from something more important? This question ‘what is theatre’ is likely has old as theatre itself and, despite my attempts, it not likely to be any nearer an answer than theatre is near its end. Perhaps theatre can be defined using the words of Potter Stewart, the Associate Justice of the United States, who, in articulating a definition of pornography said, simply, “I know it when I see it.” But if that’s the case, then it begs the willful suspension of disbelief: a phrase that not only irritates some but is a statement whose precise spirit led Eugene Ionesco to write his essay in the first place: namely, that theatre had become dishonest and embarrassingly false. (Ionesco and Pronko 3-18) The complicated fact is that theatre is all of those things mentioned above: a space, an action, and, unfortunately, a diversion. Theatre is many different things to many different people: to children, it is Bread and Puppet Theater or guignol; to subscribers at the Cleveland Play House, it is On Golden Pond; and for more sophisticated palates, it is the productions of experimental theatres such as convergence-continuum or the more extreme performance art of Karen Finley. In the introduction to his book Playwriting in Process: Thinking and Working Theatrically, Michael Wright, talks about plays in a way that can be generalized to theatre, saying:

…there is no longer any meaningful single definition of a play that applies across the spectrum of what is being created around the world, beyond saying that a play is a (largely) live event that takes place in a space that all involved have agreed is a “stage.” And in the end Wright concludes that “there is little reason to believe that theatre will retreat to the well-made play or to some rigid Aristotelian framework. Theatre is far more likely to continue its expansion of form, subject matter, language, use of space, and so on…theatre continues to evolve in an open and free manner. (Wright xiv)

If this is so, then how can one define it? Worse still, how can one judge what is good theatre and what is not good? Is good theatre a full evening of theatre? Is it an hour? Ten minutes? Is it theatre that makes you laugh and feel good—or should it make your heart break? Or should it come right out and punch you in face and scream “hey, buddy, wake up and take a look around you?”

Let’s go back to Michael Wright, who has several ideas regarding what is important about theatre: first, it is a witnessed present, that is, the event that happens in real time; second, it is immediate: there is no filter or interpreter. To Wright, theatre is a ‘witnessed present’ that is “the problems of the characters are being worked out in front of us, right here and now,” and this, whether the play was written “today or in 504 B.C.” (Wright 6-7) And further, Wright notes, that “since the play needs this ‘us’ in order to exist, it’s our present at the same instant, because the problems of the characters reflect on our own lives.” More precisely, “the play is a present event—a play needs real time in which to occur and is put on by real people in front of other real people. Humans are watching humans…when we watch a play, the people performing in the play are right there, we are aware of them and they of us. And this means that thinking theatrically is also rooted in this awareness of the existence of the other.” (Wright 7) The theatre provides a sense of immediacy unlike other forms, “there is no filter between you and what’s acting upon your sensory receptors: we listen, watch, and feel the human struggles on the stage directly.” (Wright 8 ) Wright gives the example that, “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 people, but we also feel these things because we are in the same environment.” (Wright 7)

Aristotle in his Poetics states that theatre’s object is imitation, “Since those who imitate imitate men in action, and these must necessarily be either worthwhile or worthless people.” (Aristotle and Else 17) He then goes on to describe the elements that create good imitations and what they may be categorized as (comedy, tragedy, epic) and of what attributes they must consist. It is of note that the categorizations and attributes that Aristotle outlined where rebranded later as principles and eventually became a form of dogma in Europe that controlled what was and, more importantly, what was not produced for centuries.

Augusto Boal in his book Theatre of the Oppressed suggests that Aristotle’s Poetics presents a coercive structure who’s plain intent was to glorify the powerful and to dissuade those who would challenge them: seeking to elevate one moral sense (that of the patron) above another (that of the viewer) and disenfranchise the “worthless people” mentioned above. (Boal 3 ) Boal defiantly states that theatre is a means to political action and a means of creating political action and a political consciousness. For his trouble he was run out of Brazil.

William Henderson in his article “Why Theatre?” raises possibilities that are both similar to those raised by Michael Wright and yet different, identifying elements important to both those participating in the creation and those viewing it. Henderson is unique in including in his consideration of theatre the aesthetic elements attendant to all aspects of theatre: both inside and out, both actor and audience member. Specifically, Henderson points to the adrenalin of performance and the never-to-be-repeated moments of sheer astonishment; the sensual “pleasure of entering unfamiliar and strange ramshackle buildings, or coming upon an entirely new spatial configuration…the simultaneous danger and allure of performers’ bodies in the space around us”; in true Bakhtinian form, “the multiplicity of dialogues that exist—between performers and audience; between the various technological media at work; amongst the performers themselves; and between them and the technological forces employed—create the possibility of an intellectual engagement at a level which purely electronic media can only gesture at.” Henderson comments that “Theatre is also and always, the circus…is a high-wire event through time with the constant risk of falling off and never being able to recover…”; and that “the frailty of the performance…the very real vulnerability of the performer, the artist; and here, possibly, the real truth…the question not of our power to woo and entertain and audience but of our weakness…the sheer vulnerability of the human being in front of us surely confronts us with our own…the real sense that in our vulnerability and weakness we are fully human and thus fully connected with those around us…” (Henderson 11/08/2007)

In his article, “Why Theatre: Questions and Answers”, Craig Stewart Walker quotes Rick Salutin, a Canadian novelist and playwright, who bluntly states, “anything that brings people together in a communalizing way is valuable.” (Walker 55)

So, to sum things up (to this point), theatre is a physical space (that may or may not be dangerous to get to or strangely configured) in which actors (who may be dangerous or alluring or both at the same time) intentionally imitate (or enact) dramatic and emotional actions (that may or may not be politically coercive) which take place before us in real time (and thus will never be precisely repeated again) allowing no filter or intermediary interpreter (so we have to figure things out ourselves) which exposes the vulnerability and weakness of all present and may demonstrate the truth of our human condition (as weak and vulnerable) in a communal environment such that a dialogue is created, connecting all of us.

Ionesco would be quick to point out, I think, that what is missing (and it should be missing) from the summation I provided above is that which is contained in the latter part of the opening quote I took from him, namely that misapprehension that theater “is ideology, allegory, politics, lectures, essays or literature. “ That is, nowhere in the summation I provided is there any mention of the content of the theatre (okay, there’s one mention)—nor is there any attempt to explain theatre in terms of something else: something that it is not. It is precisely Ionesco’s point that theatre should not be ideology, allegory, politics, lectures, essay or literature, for these forms already exist and do perfectly well on their own. So, theatre should be theatre.

But the confluence of many of these elements into theatre had a damaging (and still does have a damaging) effect on the experience of theatre, leading Ionesco to write that:

I derived no pleasure from [theatre]…The playing of the actors disturbed me: I was embarrassed for them…there was something false in it all…it seemed to me that the actor was doing something inadmissible, censurable. He was renouncing himself, abandoning himself, changing skin…It seemed painful to me, and somehow dishonest…To go to the theatre meant for me to go and see apparently serious people make a spectacle of themselves. (Ionesco and Pronko 3)

On the surface there are a few things that draw me immediately to Vogel and especially the play How I Learned to Drive: the routine breaking of the linear narrative; the use of visual images and aural statements from driving guides/classes to break into this monolog-driven play and add a higher level of meaning; the use of direct audience address/narrative broken by engaging, staged sequences between the characters; the nature of what Paul Castagno calls in his book New Playwriting Strategies, the polyvocal text–that is, the intrusion of other voices.  The idea of polyvocality is taken from Mikhail Bakhtin and his work the Dialogic Imagination, which holds up the novel form as the great potential for polyvocal, multitemporal texts–but theater can accomplish the same thing in a much livelier way.

Pam Monteleone in the journal Theatre Topics, writes:

In Part II, "Strategies of Structure and Form," Castagno explores ways in which the dialogic principle shapes larger structural units, from the "beat segment" to the scene, the predominant "building block" for most contemporary playwrights (129). Two of the most useful chapters examine monologue, a noticeable omission in many playwriting tests. Castagno’s analysis of new monologue forms, multiple narrators and voice-overs, for instance, that blur the distinction between telling and showing, furnish playwrights with more creative choices for structuring time and space than writing "blackout."

Castagno uses playwrights such as Vogel as the exemplars of how new playwriting strategies can be employed and realized.  As a result of exploring Castagno’s book, I have recently read Eric Overmyer’s Native Speech which was equally revelatory to me in terms of jarring narrative structures and spatial/scene changes, as well as techniques for making the monologues work: such as the use of a microphone and radio program, the main character adopting different personas and voices so frequently that the polyvocal nature of the text cannot be doubted.

The power of How I Learned to Drive comes through its oblique approach to the narrative, which is precisely structure.  The play is revealed piecemeal through techniques that break the linear narrative and cause the audience to view events out of time and out of place and thus to view them all through different eyes.  A play that is presented linearly allows an audience to predict what will happen by seeing ahead, and more importantly, to judge the content of the narrative because the structure is an inherited structure which advances a traditional logic that is not only not challenging but is based on assumptions of epistemology that postmodernism directly confronts and seeks to overturn.  The logic of how we know is not step one, step two, step three; experience comes at us from many angles and we never really understand what happened until we can get distance from the events; a distance which the play itself plays with.

The use of visual images and aural commentary or framing provides another postmodern break to the traditional narrative structure and focuses attention on society’s formal structures and rules but abuts them to a highly transgressive story.  Although, I guess I’m forced to consider how postmodern some elements are as I guess Tennessee Williams used projected subtitles in The Glass Menagerie, and I doubt many would consider him postmodern. The nature of these visual and aural segments also function in a highly symbolic way as the mind is much more capable of comprehending and holding concrete concepts delivered through symbolic presentations than highly abstract constructions.  The use, then of these visual and aural symbols provides the mind of the audience something to “chew” on or digest as the contrast is presented or as the overt meaning of the symbol is reconstructed by the playwright in the context of the events of the play.  In some cases, these stage symbols act as foreshadowing for directions that are to come, besides commenting on the action of the piece. For me, this is an interesting “toy,” for lack of a better term, as traditional pattern use in dressmaking can be used in a similar manner; that is commentary can be added to the events of the play from dressmaking texts of a certain period alongside images standard to dressmaking.  These external structures again provide the minds of audience members something to ponder or consider in and of themselves and also in the context of the events and meaning of the play.  Also, these external structures make the text of the play polyvocal or include elements of what Bakhtin refers to as heteroglossia–that is, multivoiced texts create new meaning and multiple layers of meaning.

The use of dramatic sequences is central to the success of this play, as the temptation to have a monolog-driven play that takes as its form direct audience address must have been quite tempting at the outset of the writing of this play.  But as mentioned above, per my experience at Little Box, and other minor plays that I have had the chance to see off and on, this play form may have worked one time (the first time), but has little hope of working effectively with audiences today.  People expect much of their entertainment and given the amount of time people a lot to doing anything these days they have a right to demand the most from the time they spend doing anything other than what they want to do–assuming, of course, that theater isn’t it.  Sitting in a theater and listening to one character vomit for his or her neurotic problems or the history of her neurotic condition is not particularly favorable, nor is a fatty layer of maudlin emotion buttered on top.  People today are much more cynical than of yore and while compassion exists, consistently overplaying emotion does not.  So, finding new ways to make people feel the emotion or feel the emotional confusion or experience the suddenness of the event and attempt to synthesize the experience in the context of the play is, to my mind, a much better solution than mere presentation.  As well, like it or not, when coming to the theater people expect to see representations of dramatic events.  As far as we try to get from the Aristotelian model of play construction there are some aspects which cannot be ignored, and that of a re-enactment is one of them.  Beyond that, character in action is still the single best way for an audience to understand and derive meaning from theater: showing not telling.

The polyvocal nature of the text is driven home (beyond the use of audio voiceovers) by the use of the Greek chorus and the addition of regular interactions with family members–especially those of earlier generations documenting the voice of the past.  The use of the Greek chorus accomplishes at least two things: it further plays with the structure of the play and how understanding of the events of the play and the issues of the play are delivered to the audience; it provides access to yet another voice (lens) through which events are expressed and understanding achieved.  The use of the Greek chorus, I think, also underlines the somewhat faceless nature of influences on our lives.  That is, while we might be able to trace certain childhood mis-understandings of the world back to our family, it can never be precisely clear what their origin is–whether something heard or felt or witnessed–and the use of a chorus presents the audience with a largely faceless construction that can manifest itself in many forms or identities throughout.  Considered in this way, the Greek chorus is much more ominous than any one character could have been.  The ability of the chorus to adopt a multitude of voices again underlines the significance of the polyvocal nature of the play and the diverse method by which meaning is constructed and life is understood.

The end of the play delivers a sense of “this is how I’ve come to be” without the age old framing device of a person sitting down on a wooden stool and saying, “Well, it all began back in…”, and going on to bore us from there, or the terrible linearity of The Heidi Chronicles.

The power for me of Vogel and the “language” playwrights in general, as labeled by Castagno and others, is that they force the construction of theater into a different form–a form that defines itself over for each play and is and can only be unique for that play: as each experience is unique.  In fact, it has just struck me how absurd is the notion of the Aristotelian form for plays–this “handed down” construct: that all plays should be forced into this single form–like Cinderella’s sisters cutting apart their feet to shove them into the glass slipper! 

So, craft for me has become a search for form, and many of the playwrights we’ve read this semester, Vogel especially, point a path for such discovery.

Works Cited:

Aristotle, and Gerald Frank Else. Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970.

Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. London: Pluto Press, 1993.

Brustein, Robert Sanford. Millennial Stages :Essays and Reviews, 2001-2005. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.

Hayes, Thomas. A playwright’s blog: dedicated to all things play building. October (2007): 11/16/2007.

Hayes, Thomas. A playwright’s blog: dedicated to all things play building. November (2009): 11/17/2009.

Henderson, William. “Why Theatre?” Craft Culture. September (2006): 11/08/2007.

Ionesco, Eugene, and Leonard C. Pronko. “Discovering the Theatre.” The Tulane Drama Review 4.1 (1959): 3-18.

McKee, Robert. Story :Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. 1st ed. New York: ReganBooks, 1997.

Miller, Arthur. “The Shadows of the Gods: A Critical View of the American Theater.” Harper’s Magazine 217 (1958): 35-43.

Monteleone, Pam. Review: New Playwriting Strategies: A Language-Based Approach to Playwriting. By Paul C. Castagno. Theatre Topics 14.1 (2004) 375-376. Accessed: 11/17/2009

Walker, Craig Stewart. “Why Theatre: Questions and Answers.” Canadian Theatre Review Spring. 86 (1996): 55.

Wright, Michael. Playwriting-in-Process : Thinking and Working Theatrically. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997.

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