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Playwriting Process–Thinking Theatrically, Part II

October 27th, 2007 No 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.

Playwriting Process — Thinking Theatrically

October 26th, 2007 No comments

Per Jonah’s podcast, number 1.1: “Theatrical–of or for the theater of acting or actors; calculated for effect, showy, artificial, affected.”

In chapter two of Playwriting in Process: Thinking and Working Theatrically, Michael Wright considers theatricality and the flaws of current approaches to teaching playwriting and deficiencies he often sees in plays created by new playwrights.

In his Theatrically Speaking series of podcasts, Jonah Knight started with podcast 1.1 and 1.2 by considering theatricality.

I think the fact that both of these playwrights have started their works by looking at theater through the lens of theatricality is telling. That is, it must be important. There must be something about it that demands or merits attention. And on my part, theatricality has been the most difficult and elusive of elements and only recently have I started to get my hands on it or my head around it.

My Take on Theatricality

To me, writing theatricality means grasping space as you write. It means apprehending not only the characters and events that you mean to portray, but the physical environment in which they exist; how that physical environment affects your characters and events”and then using this apprehension creatively to your advantage”or more specifically, passing the three-dimensional world of the play that you are creating on to the audience and thereby making that world actively interesting, engaging, and unique to the meaning and content of your play.

In my play A Howl in the Woods one of the characters is in a bad position”he’s trapped in a place where he doesn’t want to be (physically, psychologically, and spiritually)”throughout the first part of the play trash has been thrown about and has covered the ground: including beer cans. It came to me suddenly that this character could flatten a beer can and use it to construct a mock telegraph machine and use it to send a message”and then it hit me next: what if he got an answer? What if that answer were a howl from off stage? A presence that kept encroaching? This, to me is theatricality. In this scene, the character is having a dialogue with himself; his behavior is telling: it shows his state of mind and the mock telegraph makes tangible his struggle to get out; it holds mystery; it reveals his imaginative nature and experiments with the space he occupies.

Before I wrote this play, the extent of my theatrical sense of a stage was limited to people crossing up and down and from side-to-side and motioning and, occasionally, singing something as they puttered around. That is, this was my physical sense of the play. I have always had a good verbal sense; and my plays are highly imagistic and carry meaningful metaphors and themes. This is to say that language is important, too. As is emotion. Getting that sense of what a character is all about by seeing that character move in space, seeing that character break a vase, weep in deep sobs, tackle another person. Theatricality is realizing all the elements of emotional characters; using all the elements at your disposal: language, physicality of action, physicality of expression, etc.

Not Thinking Theatrically

In his book, Wright begins his first chapter by writing that: “One of the most interesting teaching challenges I’ve experienced is dealing with a student population that does not innately think ‘theatrically.’ And Jonah discusses this in podcast 1.2 where he describes a reading in which the characters just sit around and play trashcan basketball. That nothing happens. Nothing in the dialogue refers to what they’re doing (playing trashcan basketball). It, in fact, has no relation to the scene. This, to my mind, makes the activity spectacle”and poor spectacle at that. That is to say, the activity doesn’t advance the plot, it doesn’t expand our understanding of the characters; it doesn’t reflect on the meaning of the play in any symbolic or metaphorical sense. It is just something that for some reason the playwright thought was “active.”

Wright offers two solutions to overcome this state of not thinking theatrically: read more plays, and write as much as possible. The writing, he insists, will force the young playwrights to experience the challenges of creating and overcoming obstacles in the creation process.

A Representation of Potential

One of the things that I like about what Wright says is that:

“a stage is always a physical representation of potential. The stage is a space that contains possibilities, not realities: it is a place for imaging “In itself a stage is theatrical. Even empty, it’s a kind of show because the imagination is engaged by it. In use, there is no limit to what can happen there, unless the imagination itself is limited.”

I think Jonah makes a good point on this as well. He talks of an exercise that he once experienced that asked playwrights to figure out something that could not happen on a stage. Jonah’s idea was “the sky falls down.” He talks about moving the stage; doing it with lighting, etc.

I think what is important is what Wright says at the end of the quote above”unless the imagination itself is limited,” so the real challenge is to break out of your own style and always explore, always challenge yourself, always think and push what is possible: what’s going on here? How can it be different? How can I look at this situation differently? How can I show what is happening and not have people talk about it?

Children’s Theatre as an example

One of the things Wright points to is children’s theatre. That several things happen in children’s theatre: 1) it is usually done on a limited budget so things have to be imagined; 2) children are expected to participate in the act of creating”not just to sit passively and watch.

This doesn’t mean that you have to have your audience help create the play”although, as I pointed out in my podcast appearance on Theatrically Speaking, in people’s theater it is one approach to play generation. But more practically it means always be open to the possibility that any scene holds for you. How can you look at the scene differently? How can you evolve it using what is already there? What haven’t you explored in a given scene? In its setting? What is available to you if you act imaginatively?

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