Monday, August 28, 2006

Stakes and Playwriting

I'm going to start out by quoting a far better playwright than I:
The "work" you do "on the script" will make no difference. That work has already been done by a person with a different job title than yours. That person is the author. The lines written for you should be said clearly so that the audience can hear and understand them. Any meaning past that supplied by the author will come from your intention toward the person to whom they are said.
-- David Mamet, True and False
(If you haven't read True and False you really owe it to yourself to do so immediately. It was published the year I graduated college, and I wish it had been published four years earlier. It would've saved me a heap of grief and student loans to boot. There's a link for the book on Amazon to the right under the heading "Required Reading.")

The playwright is god, literally and figuratively. The universe created on the printed page exists within the boundries set by the author, and contains only those things he or she puts into it. Directors can add things on and take things off, Actors can "tweak" things and alter lines. Well, guess what: The play lives on to be taken up again by other directors, other actors.

Quick: Who wrote Hamlet? Okay, who originated the role of Hamlet on stage?


That's the good news. Here's the bad: as Spiderman learned, with great power comes great responsibilty. Nine times out of ten, if the play is really good the performers will absolutely vibrate and glow and the audience will have an enjoyable time. If the play sucks, it will take heroic efforts on the part of actors and audience alike to make it through the damn thing. "The play's the thing" to quote the Bard out of context (just like everyone else who quotes that line).

So how do you write a really good play? I'm still working on the answer to that. There is a formula of sorts that I use that I believe shows the way to a really good play. Here it is:
Act I, get your guy up a tree; Act II, throw rocks at him; Act III, get your guy out of a tree.
-- Julius J. Epstein, playwright and screenwriter
Or as my dear, former acting teacher Lynette McNeill would paraphrase "run the lovers up a tree and throw rocks at them." The idea is to never give your characters a moments rest. Just when they think their luck is turning for the better, beat 'em around some more. In other words, UP THE STAKES.

We have this lovely thing called a "classical paradigm" first elucidated by Aristotle some twenty-three hundred years ago. Basically you have an introduction, inciting incident, building action, climax and denoument. From this we derive our "three-act structure" which any fifty cent paperback book on writing can tell you all about. Any two-bit hack with a laptop loaded up with Final Draft can follow the paradigm and tell a decent story. But we don't want to write a decent play, we want to write a really good play.

"Throw rocks at him."

Let's take a decent plot-line: An American cyclist defeats all odds to win the Tour de France. Yay. Let's throw some rocks: A promising, young triathelete and amateur cyclist is diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer. It's spread to his lungs and brain and his chances for survival are slim at best. He undergoes surgery and chemotherapy and miraculously, the cancer goes into remission. The cyclist resumes training, in spite of being abandoned by his sponsor, and goes on to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times.

Okay, it doesn't have to be a dramatic, underdog tale of Lance Armstrong proportions. It could be as simple as a psychological/semantic word game that escalates to violence (Ophelia) or a tale of two brothers who get under each others skin to wild and unpredictable extremes (True West). How about a couple of nutty Broadway producers who keep digging themselves deeper and deeper (The Producers) ?

Heaping on the troubles makes life easier for the actors. They don't have to "work" so hard, they simply have to commit every ounce of their being to the journey the playwright has mapped out. That's fun; that's playing.

"Throwing rocks" makes life easier for an audience, as well. Look, we don't go to the theatre to witness the mundane and everyday. We can get that at home for free. We go to the theatre for drama. We go to be moved, to be shook-up, to laugh, to cry, to be appalled, to be delighted . . . we go to experience a life we can't (or don't want to) experience in the real world.

"Throwing rocks" aligns with something I wrote in an earlier post about commitment. It's about raising the stakes. Do it, and we'll all vibrate and glow.

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