Thursday, February 26, 2009

"I feel ... I am ... I think ..."

Dr. Farmer, God bless him, just could not convince me that "To Be" verbs were universally weak choices. He is right, but it's the sort of lesson you kind of have to learn on your own, on stage, failing miserably. Playing a state of mind is death on stage. Acting is action, not "feeling," which is certainly not to say you should wring all the emotion out of your performance. I think Mamet is correct on this score when he says (with italics for emphasis, no less!) "Everything you ever feel onstage will be engendered by the scene." This is a quote from True and False, Mamet's exceptional book on the subject of acting.

But this is not an essay on acting. No siree, Bob. It's a brief word or two on the subject of weak playwriting.

I'm still learning. The day I stop learning is the day I hang up my spurs and start making doll house furniture. Because really, what's the point? If you know all there is to know in a certain field, why stick with it? Where's the challenge? So I approach each writing task as a chance to learn something new about how to create dramatic literature.

A lesson recently learned is a corollary to the lesson I refused to learn under Dr. Farmer's tutelage. And here it is:

Statements of personal emotional state are bad writing.

There very well may be exceptions to this rule. Mercutio's pithy "I'm hurt" springs to mind. So maybe I should hone this phrase a bit. At any rate, here is an example of what I'm talking about:

Y
So you're leaving.

X
Yes. I just feel suffocated by you.

Y
You feel suffocated by me?

X
Yes. I need room! Room to breath!

(pause)

Y
I can sleep on the couch ..?

This is just an example, and not a very good one at that. But I am loath to bring in examples of other people's work, and the bit of writing I did on Tracing Sonny that inspired this blog entry is a plot spoiler. So just bear with me.

Here's an edit:

Y
So. You're leaving.

X
Will you please just give me some room?

Y
I want to hear you say the words.

X
I can't breath! Give me some room!

(pause)

Y
Do you want the bigger closet?

So yes, this is a lame example. Hopefully it makes the point. Two hours of people walking around on stage talking about how they feel is at best self-indulgent. The same people speaking words that grow out of that emotional state is compelling. It forwards the action of the scene and engages the audience in the moment.

I reckon it's a lot easier to play, as well.

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