Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Eat Me or What You Will

I can be a real jerk to new playwrights.

Whenever the development hell meme comes round the wheel of Theatre Blogger Topics, I usually side against the playwright. A couple years ago, I watched a panel of speakers at Theatre Row discuss play development and how hellish it is. The panel included a New York critic, a Yale professor, and two theatre administrators and they all agreed that the limp ritual of the staged reading was cruel and pointless and only generated invasive comments that were harmful to the playwright's self-esteem.

And all I could think was,"Yeah, but ... most new plays really do suck."

To be sure, some plays are born sucky, some achieve suckiness, and some have suck thrust upon them. But the panel's lament only covers to the last of those three. It occurred to me too late to ask at the time: how can a critic and a professor claim that development was bad when their professions require an endless stream of ball-busting commentary? A critic applies standards to a play when he reviews it and a professor applies standards to a play when he grades it. But when individual theatres want to hear something out loud and then provide a list of things that do or don't work ... well, that's just unfair.

I'm an actor, so I know about rejection and criticism and the living death that is the audition process. I experience development hell from the other side of the music stand. After Bacchus-knows-how-many staged readings, I'm starting to think all bad plays were written by the same two playwrights. With that possibility in mind, I offer this list of things that make it hard to respect the writer and his or her self-esteem during a development reading ...

Ping pong dialog. Conflict is the essence of drama, yes, but some young writers are stuck on a binary dialog rhythm that sounds something like this:
A: Stop chewing your food that way.
B: This is how I always chew my food.
A: Not since you started eating meat again.
B: I thought you loved meat.
A: You and I both know I'm a vegetarian.
B: It's news to me.
A: Everything's news to you.

And so on. So two characters are fighting about everything and nothing and all we learn is that one character will oppose what the other character just said. It's astonishing how long some people try to sustain this rhythm ... like a really boring version of the Question Game, or a really pointless improv activity. It's undeniably dramatic, but it bars any possibility of dramatic development since no statement can escape the self-canceling pull of the succeeding statement. And it's definitely emotional, but anger is the only emotion that can sustain this stuff for a whole scene.

The Vocative Tense. A glitch that occurs most often in book adaptations. The vocative should be used sparingly:

A: How's it going, John?
B: Oh, great, Sally, great.
A: John, is something wrong?
B: Sally, stop asking me that!
A: I can't help it, John, I love you!
B: We're not going to discuss that, Sally.

Most people don't use the vocative in real life. We know the person to whom we are speaking; there's no need to whip out the proper name, except for emphasis. Book adaptations sometimes import the vocative as a replacement for "he said" and "she said." But I think the over-reliance on the vocative comes from a failure to touch the character, or to distance oneself from the character. Some intimacy or chemistry is missing and the writer makes up for it by clutching to the names. It's an easy enough diagnostic to run: go through the script and find them all. Ask yourself if they're really necessary or natural-sounding, and then find the connection the character really wants to make.

A brief note. "This play benefits from an accelerated pace. The characters are fast-talking, the action is hyperkinetic, the emotions are volatile. A ponderous interpretation is anathema to the spirit of the play." I've seen some version of that caveat in front of so many scripts that I now deliberately force myself to read at half-pace just to see what the author wants to cover up. This forced gloss on the composition means the writer has failed in two ways. First, a fast, hyper-kinetic, volatile play shouldn't need a note to be understood as such. Playwrights can suffer from mangled tone, genre-tweaking, or bad design, but the rhythm of a play should be self-evident. How many Mamet imitators do we have today? This is not to say that a director or actor can't betray the rhythm of a script; many do. But if this betrayal is so chronic as to merit a note in the script, the playwright should seriously ask themselves why they keep falling in love with the same asshole. Second, the desire for speed usually means there are other weaknesses in the story that the writer would not like to confront. The dialog is chaffy and impersonal. There is no theme or thrust to the story, so one must be imposed after the fact.

Split Scenes. Tony Kushner has inspired more imitators than David Mamet and Tom Stoppard combined and just as Mamet's disciples have their brief notes and ping-pong dialog, Kushner's fans have gone wild with split scenes. Act Two, Scene Nine of Millennium Approaches shows a man dumping his AIDS-ravaged lover in a hospital room while a Mormon confesses his homosexuality to his horrified, drug-addled housewife. The scene is only "split" because it takes place in two rooms. The larger actions of abandonment, confession, judgment, and revelation all blend in a heartbreaking simulcast fight between four very different people facing two equally agon-izing dilemmas.

In admiring reflection of that feat, a generation of playwrights have copied the structure and written backwards from an echo without first generating any sound of their own:

A: We need to talk.
1: Talk to me, Tom.
B: About what?
2: What do you want me to say?
A: This can't go on any longer.
1: I want you to look me in the face.
B: Face it, Susan, it's your fault.
2: The fault-lines of our marriage are emerging.

It's hard on the eyes. But it's written to be easy on the ears so that nothing can emerge except a shiny peal of raw Confluence.

Intermission Anxiety. Intermissions should be more than an opportunity to sell Kendall Jackson Merlot at $5 a cup. They should challenge the playwright to trust the audience to come back. They also allow the playwright to experiment with elliptical structures (and traditional ones, for that matter). If I had to boil down the art of dramaturgy to one catchall maxim, it would be: "People change. Then they change again." Some plays have interesting people that don't change. Some plays have interesting people that change. But we should be offering compound fractures of the heart for the ticket prices we demand. An intermission is a great way to test if this has happened.

As Sara Cormeny pointed out at Parabasis a few weeks ago, many new playwrights like to place bewildering flights of zaniness right before or right after intermission. In her reading, this feels like a lack of confidence in the original premise. The inciting incident has spent itself. The play sports a saggy mid-section. It reclines in a hammock, propped up by an Act One Novelty and an Act Three Twist. And like a hammock-dweller, the writer swings lazily in the middle, looking for distractions (dream sequences, usually) to kill time before it's over. Suddenly, intermission looks more dramatic than anything happening on stage.

The other cure for Intermission Anxiety is, of course, the 90-minute one-act play. No exits.

Stage direction: She cries. There's a scene in the movie Juno where the talented Ellen Page is seen crying in a car. Her pain is presented as an extant moment, asserted by the script and captured by the camera. There is a scene in the movie Truly Madly Deeply in which Juliette Stevenson loses her shit in front of her therapist. She bawls so heavily her breathing does that little-kid undertow inhale thing. Between spasms of distress, she shouts out everything that still torments her about her husband's death. When she's done, her sinus is filled with snot and the therapist hands her Kleenex with a disgustingly proud look on her face, as if to say "Well done, my client. I have helped you achieve something emotional today." The therapist is impressed. We are impressed. Stevenson's depth of feeling for the story would be betrayed by a hard cut to wordless, unmotivated tears.

So whenever I see a stage direction that says "she cries" I think ... No she doesn't. If she does, it's because the action or the dialog demands tears, not you. Male playwrights, in particular, often assert a moment of emotion for their female characters instead of building one from the inside out. I did a reading a month ago and was surprised to discover, after a week developing the script, that there was an entire emotional event hidden in a paragraph of stage direction. It went something like "she stands, she waits, she thinks, she cries, she gathers herself." None of us caught it or talked about at the table and no wonder. It's a scene built entirely in tech rehearsal: five cues from the light booth et voila!

Altered consciousness. Some people can only communicate when they're drunk or high. These people have a problem. Some playwrights think eloquence and insight can only emerge from a drunk or high character. This is a problem, too, because it condescends to that character. No one could be as naturally clever or verbose as the playwright, so a convention must be introduced to make the line/moment/insight more believable. This isn't always a bad thing -- Dionysus was the god of wine, after all -- but a good writer shouldn't need a circumstantial excuse to be poetic. Theatre is a Dionysian event because it produces altered consciousness, not because it represents altered consciousness. Like the brief note above, the drunk scene can be used to glide over lines that wouldn't sound meaningful or poetic in the first place. And if anything falls flat in a drunk scene ... well ... that's what drunks do. So now even the bad lines can be excused as altered consciousness. Unless that consciousness is itself and invention (i.e. some new form of inebriation) there needs to be a really good reason to send your characters on a bender. Drunk scenes can be great exploratory scenes, as long as the writer cleans his characters up for the real event.

Empty Spaces. The modern American theatre is an expensive Rube Goldberg machine for powering a ghost light. So much effort, exploitation, and charity just to light an empty room for 21-hours a day. Schrodinger is laughing in his coffin.*

We all knowingly rag on Kitchen Sink Plays, but at least Kitchen Sink Plays have a reason for being set in a room for a couple hours. Now playwrights throw everything but the kitchen sink at the audience in a flurry of agitated, orally-fixated dialog that rarely connects with the physical, the corporeal, the actual space inherent in this space-bound medium. That's just a crabby broad-swipe, I know. But for me, it's the ultimate test.


So I just finished doing a reading at the Kennedy Center's annual Page to Stage festival. The play was called Eat Me or What You Will and it featured, among other crimes, a very long drunk scene, a zany flight into guided meditation fantasy, some ping-pong dialog, a crying old woman, and a jarring rhythm that I'm sure could be fixed with a brief note in the script. I don't think the play suffers from Intermission Anxiety, but we only did the first act, so who knows? The complete play is over 160 pages, so some split scenes might be necessary.

Problem is ... I wrote it.

I'd like to think the drunk scene goes hand in hand with the bachelor party that contains it. And the drunk character misses out on important information while drunk -- he doesn't reveal important information this way. The guided meditation moment happens halfway through the act, not as some bizarre closer to bring people back. But I fear the moment is really just my feeble way into a female character I don't completely understand yet. It was gratifying to hear people catch the jokes and sit up for the tension build near the end of the act. But I was a sweating, toe-tapping mess the rest of the time and had to hold myself back from screaming TALK FASTER! LET'S GO!!

I stick to my list above. Writers are lucky because a good play will ultimately survive an under-rehearsed performance. Writers may not be as essential to the act of theatre as actors, but they have a harder job because they are not allowed to lie. Actors can lie all they want -- the effort to conceal emotion reads just as authentically as the emotion itself. But Jose Rivera was right when he said writer's block comes from an inhibiting lie in the composition.

Right now, I don't feel blocked, just over-stimulated. This is my first jump into a reading of my own words since college. In the intervening eight years, I've devoted my creative energy to acting, blog essays, and film editing. Each of those crafts lets the craft-maker repeat and behold his work again and again, making changes directly to the art-piece. I can play with different voices for my character, I can polish a sentence in an old essay, I can re-edit an effect or cut or that doesn't work. But I don't know when I'll get to hear my play out loud again. All I know is: the performance was the real site of discovery for me. I've learned enough from the other side of the music stand to know that the actors are a gift to that process. I pity the idealistic playwright who hates actors yet masochistically signs himself up for a very painful game of Telephone every time his work is performed.

So what have I learned from all this? Well, in the words of one of my characters: you have to aim past the board. The play isn't in the words or in my head, it's in the playing. The real story sits somewhere inside a thicket of exploratory scenes, surrogate interrogatory characters, lies, evasions, distractions, dream sequences and rewrites. I didn't go to grad school for this, so I'm happy to pick up any hellish development readings no one wants. Before I get furious at an actor for making a hammy choice I have to ask what it is about the story that permits it. And before I shoot my mouth off to new playwrights -- demanding to know why their assertions don't match their stories -- I will remember what a gift it can be to hear the words at all.

*or IS he?!


Jessica said...

Wow, you're showcasing your work -- interesting!

I'm always for staged readings and such...it seems like the painful process it sounds like it is, but I think they're pretty necessary.

I definitely agree with you on a lot of those points you made...Especially on the Mamet and Kushner imitators. I feel like Split Scenes and dialogue rhythm is all about the execution -- a lot of it is hit or miss. Some split scenes, like in Patrick Marber's Closer and even Alan Bennett's History Boys (I believe there were some in there), I have ended up really liking and feeling they got it right.

Anyway, I digress.

I'm sure you'll learn a lot from the process and go far with it. Let us know how it goes...

joshcon80 said...

"I can be a real jerk to new playwrights."

No, really? Ha!

I love staged readings. I think they're absolutely necessary, even when they're painful. The thing is (for me at least) it's only useful once or twice. I think the real problem is plays living "in development" for perpetuity. At a certain point, a play has to be produced or die, doesn't it? That said, I think I'm probably less sentimental about my writing than some playwrights. I'm happy to toss out or change anything that doesn't work in the process of development or production. I just want the play to be as good as it can be, you know?

I would question your list of grievances above though. For the most part, you've just written a list of some things that I happen to love in the theater. If done well, many of those things work nicely. I'm not sure why your tastes and aesthetic (or mine for that matter) qualify good or bad theater.

Also, your play has an AMAZING title.

99 said...

I can only say this: amen, brother, amen.

Karl Miller said...

Of course you can have a fast play with split scenes and drunk characters, etc. I just see these tropes as escapes, more often than not.

I've done a lot of readings as an actor so the list above represents the serial offenders. You've done a lot of readings as a writer, I take it, so your patience for the process is similarly thin in other respects.

What to do? I was trying so hard not to launch the Development Hell discussion again! None of these are rules or even gripes ... just symptoms, I guess.

joshcon80 said...

Yikes! I didn't mean to start a topic I shouldn't have. Consider it dropped.

Anyway, I think you make a lot of valid points and obviously any of the things you listed can be symptomatic of lazy writing. I just wanted to point out that they can also be awesome. Bad theater is bad theater, no matter the aesthetic realm it lies in.

Sorry. I'm a little sensitive to the criticisms against young playwrights, largely because I'm a young playwright, but also because I think the criticisms are sometimes symptomatic of an unconscious desire to maintain the status quo.

To me, some of the things people criticize about young playwrights' work aren't actually problems at all, but trends that are shaping the future of theater whether the critic likes it or not. Sometimes it just sort of reeks of "you crazy kids and your rock and roll music!"

Other times young writers' plays are just shitty, of course.

Ken said...

While the cliches and overworked tropes you highlight certainly exist in most young (and many not-so -young) writers' work, their existence doesn't automatically justify the excesses of new play development. There is nothing wrong with readings, staged or otherwise--that is, if they are in the service of moving the play toward a full production. All too often, they seem to be a realm within themselves--a mystical land, where dramaturgs and invited audiences reign supreme, where people are encouraged to suggest changes, to promote their own particular stylistic preferences, to discuss what they liked or didn't like, and not what worked and what didn't work. Writers don't learn how to be better writers as much as they learn how to please these specific people, or others like them who might be in a position to one day "help" the writer.

dramadaily said...

Fantastic post full of insights. Glad I found it.

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