May 2010

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Night Thoughts About Theatre

by Jonathan Wallace

These are dangerous times in the U.S. and the world, and I really should have written something about growing political hysteria, disregard for truth, or prejudice against immigrants. Instead, I am taking a break from opining about hells and handbaskets, and want to share some ideas about theatre.

The mystery of acting

I am not an actor and never could be. I was raised to be very nervous in my skin. I have seen people on stage who looked as if they would break out in a sweat in a second, glancing sidelong at the audience, giving very constrained and fake line readings, and thought: that would be me.

I admire what good actors do. It is a truism that versatile actors must be chameleons, must disappear; but there is much more to it than that.

Actors acquire a huge encyclopedia of tropes and mannerisms. When they play a role, they search that encyclopedia for appropriate ones. Since the theatre illusion is complete when we don't realize an actor is acting, this methodology may not be visible except in plays where one actor is called upon to play very different roles. I remember two performances in which an actor thrilled me with this versatility.

One was a ten minute play reading during a theatre conference in Valdez, Alaska. The first line of this memorable play was "Fuck you, you skanky whore!" The couple accusing each other of the most dramatic sexual proclivities and indiscretions proved, in a last minute twist, to be a minister and his wife role playing, for fun. The amazing actress went from a convincing "skanky whore" to a modest, thrilled minister's wife. She was completely convincing, and it was magic.

I saw a similar performance in my friend Elisa Abatsis' wonderful play "The Hanged Man". An actress forming part of a sort of Greek chorus was called upon to be an irritated schoolteacher, a Disney princess, a popular high school girl, and underwent a subtle transformation each time.

Part of the art and mystery is not to select the over-used mannerisms and tropes, but to use the less obvious ones. Meryl Streep's entire career is based on making unusual but natural choices. The risk is always that an actor trying not to be cliched will chew the scenery. Great actors mimic real life by not behaving exactly as we would expect.

Against dramaturgy

Playwrights follow a rulebook: There must be conflict between the characters; every character, even secondary ones, must be transformed in the course of the play ("follow an arc"); etc. Most playwriting classes, and reading groups, spend almost all their time deciding the extent to which the students or members have obeyed, or ignored these rules; and advising them how to do a better job of following them. There are sub-rules which can be extremely specific. For example, if you have a play with two characters (a "two-hander"), it is traditional for them to seize control of the situation from one another. If your play is about an interrogator and a suspect, it is better theatre if your suspect overpowers the interrogator at some point.

Someone very intelligently said that in the theatre, there is really only one rule: never bore the audience. Everything else is negotiable.

Great plays break the rules. My nominee for the greatest American play is "The Glass Menagerie", which disregards the following received truths of playwriting:

1. "The stakes must be high." The most often repeated and highly annoying advice in classes and groups is to raise the stakes. I was told, about two different plays of mine, that a friendship between a man and a woman should be changed into a love affair for this reason. If everyone followed this advice, every play would hang the fate of Western civilization in the balance, like a penny dreadful novel. In "Glass Menagerie", all that is at stake is whether Laura gets a date with the Gentleman Caller--and yet the life of a family is also on the line.

2. "The protagonist is the character with the most to lose." The play is viewed through the brother, Tom, but Laura has the most to lose. The debate about which character is "Menagerie's" protagonist will probably never end.

3. "Reminiscence is not an action." Of the three rules quoted here, this is the one I am most concerned with in my writing. In general, a play where two or more people remember their childhood or their failed relationship, is static, and my mind wanders while watching. However, "Glass Menagerie" is a powerful, moving, memory play about something the narrator, Tom, tells us happened long ago.

The professor of every class, the leader of every group, various people for hire, or good playwright friends, all play the role of "dramaturg", the individual tasked to read or listen to your play and tell you that there is too much reminiscence, the stakes aren't high enough, and your secondary characters have no arc. I have worked with a number of these people, some of them incredibly knowledgeable and detail oriented. I have stopped working with dramaturgs. Ever.

Some of the people who criticize your play are mean, jealous or misguided. Every group in particular has one cruel blowhard (this person should be disinvited for the good of the commonwealth, but is almost always tolerated). Even friends may have trouble overcoming their own ego when giving advice. As any playwright or novelist who has read another's work knows in her heart, the best service you can do is to forget your own ego entirely, for a moment. However, even ego-less dramaturgs miscarry much of the time.

The reason is that most dramaturgs unwittingly, and with the best intentions, have either or both of the following overlapping missions. They are transforming your play into one they would have written themselves, or into a work best calculated to succeed at a higher level of theatre reality (such as Broadway, every playwright's secret wet dream). In fact, the latter is the announced goal of most professional dramaturgy. The problem is that the dramaturg, without the least malice or self consciousness, usually then operates as a sort of theatrical blender, homogenizing your work into some kind of palatable smoothie of the kind served to old people without teeth. This is the impulse which leads to the advice to turn a drama into a comedy, soften the ending, even change gay couples into heterosexual ones (unless its a farce).

It took me some years to figure it out, but I think the best solution is to listen to others, apply some skepticism, and trust yourself.

People whose comments matter

As opposed to a professional dramaturg, who has no stake in the success of your play, you should listen carefully to your director. First, you must pick your director very carefully, because some directors will bring the same blender philosophy to their work. Once you've picked someone who "gets" you, and has interpersonal skills which allow her to communicate with living playwrights (there are brilliant directors who should only do Shakespeare), you should listen to your director very carefully.

Unlike a dramaturg, who exists in the ivory tower world of the "rules", your director should be concerned with your play's viability as pure stage spectacle. Thus a director may tell you a scene drags, or that a character's motivation is murky, in the play as performed (as she sees it in her mind, and via readings with the actors, as rehearsals commence). I have had directors who treated my text as sacred almost as if I were a dead playwright (asking to change the name of a neighborhood bar, or to delete half a line). Others ask for extensive rewrites (add a character to replace a scene reminiscing about that person). Some (bad) directors cross the line into dramaturgy, and should be avoided.

However, there is no dramaturg like an audience of people who love theatre, but don't know anything about the "rules". Were they fidgeting, looking at their watches, reading the program? Or leaning forward in their seats, watching the actors raptly? If the latter, that is worth a million comments of the "raise the stakes" variety.

I wrote one play in which, in the second act, an actress delivered the following line as a nonsequitur, irrelevant to the argument two married couples were having:

"My husband and your wife had a thing."

Every night, I heard the audience gasping at this moment. That gasp was better than any illegal drug known to humankind.

There is one qualification to this rule that audiences are the best dramaturgs. During talkbacks, the same people will often say things which may be un-useful: There should have been more props. An older actress should have played the sister. Why didn't they have Brooklyn accents? I tend to take the audience's expressions during the play a lot more seriously than what is said afterwards.

Trusting yourself

It is good if you can reach a plateau at which you know your stuff is good. It is part of the artistic temperament to be desperately insecure and seek the approval of others. At its worst, this turns into willingly putting your play through any blender available, in the hope people will love you, and it. After a while, I reached a level of self confidence where I could say: This is a story about friendship between a woman and a man. If I make them lovers, it would be a different story. Before I stopped attending groups, I told people a couple times, "Why don't YOU write that play??"

An occupational hazard of any art form is what I call the "Ed Wood" phenomenon: Thinking your stuff is amazingly great when it sucks. There is no way ever to know for sure. Given the arbitrary nature of criticism, an argument about the quality of the work is morally indistinguishable much of the time from an unwinnable argument as to whether vanilla or chocolate ice cream is better. That is why we often deflect away from discussions of subjective quality, to focus on the easier questions of whether a play has followed the rules of high stakes, character arcs, etc.

In the end, what you fall back on, if you have been lucky (or hard-working) enough to have productions, is that an audience leaned forward raptly, and even gasped.

Managing expectations

Every playwright (and actor) needs to ask herself early on what her goals are. If your goal is a Broadway production and nothing else will do, you will have a very different set of challenges and disappointments than the ones I face. I met one 75 year old playwright who had only had two productions of ten minute plays in twenty years, because his standards were so high that most off off Broadway productions just wouldn't suffice. I have had thirty or forty short plays produced, and six full length ones, in five years, because my goals are increasingly just to get the audience and watch them watching the play. I will put my work up in the cheesiest available black box theatre, or even in a retaurant or bar, just to see it.

As such, I am the equivalent of a fifty-five year old bar band musician, who knows he will never have Eric Clapton's career, but who loves the music. I will play any gig I can get.

I work with actors who in many cases, have become old friends. Some people chiefly perform when I offer them a role; they are not out there auditioning, trying to make a TV career, but are also bar band musicians, happy and fulfilled to keep their hand in. Others outgrow me, reach a point at which they don't want to perform in ten minute plays in cheesy black boxes any more. I'm not offended, as long as they are honest about it, and don't leave me hanging by dropping out of something at the last moment.

Some actors would rather work a lot for no pay. Others will hold out to play a corpse on "Law and Order", with the hope of getting something better.

One actress who stopped performing in my stuff some years ago has stayed in touch. A year or so after she quit, she told me that a character in a 45 minute play of mine was the best role she ever had. Some years later, she said that a surprisingly large number of the gigs she got afterwards, came from actors and directors she met doing my plays. Those are two of the nicest theatre compliments I ever received.

A parting thought

Writing plays is one of the ways available in this world for ugly people to be beautiful.