Full-length PLAYWRITING seminar FOR SCCT
Class #1 - 9/10/19
“What we’re trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock it might … travel” - from The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard
“Full-Length Plays are Ideas”
Tom Stoppard is born Tomas Straussler in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1937. His family, whom Stoppard has referred to as non-observant Jews, flees to Singapore when the Nazis invade in 1939, and then, when Singapore is taken over by the Japanese in 1941, Stoppard’s mother and two children go to Australia and then India. Eugen Straussler, Stoppard’s father, stays in Singapore and is killed in the war. Martha Beckova Straussler marries a British army major named Stoppard and the family moves to England. Tom Stoppard comes onto the theatre scene in 1966 with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which is a mash-up of Shakespeare and Beckettian absurdism. It transfers to Broadway and wins the Tony for best play. Over the next fifteen years, his most prominent plays are some combination of absurdism and farce, including The Real Inspector Hound, Jumpers, Travesties, and The 15 Minute Hamlet.
And then we get to 1982 when The Real Thing premieres and wins another Tony. The title is almost a joke on the fact that it’s a realistic play, albeit with a bit of cleverness of the play-within-a-play aspects of it. Stoppard is still able to summon up the wit and wordplay of his previous plays, but he is doing it in a setting about one of the most common subjects of literature. What I ask you, is this play about? Love.
If one-act plays are moments, full-length plays are ideas. We have the room, we have the people, we have the time to explore ideas, and in a lot of ways, the more a full-length is about its idea, the better it is.
Theatre is what happens on stage, so aren’t ideas abstractions? Of course they are. That’s the point. To simply define love or work or connection or racism or fluidity or any of these giant ideas can diminish them and the power that they hold over us. What the full-length play does is allow us to take several different aspects of these ideas, flesh them out in people onstage, in what they do and what they say, and it lets an audience be immersed in this idea, experiencing it from so many different angles.
You still need all the basic tools that I have taught you how to use: conflict, characters, dialogue, plot, but what you need more than anything else is a good idea. How do I define “good?” A good idea for a play is one that fascinates you as a playwright and one, I think, where your feelings are not fully settled. If you have no nuance about an idea, if you have no ability to admit you’re not sure about certain aspects, then you won’t be able to surprise yourself as you write it and you definitely will not surprise an audience. They will see what you’ve got coming a mile away and they’ll get there before your plot and characters do.
Does a good idea have to be complicated? No. Othello’s about jealousy. That’s its idea. Rodrigo is jealous that Othello gets to be with Desdemona, and he doesn’t. Iago is jealous of Cassio being promoted to the position he deserves. Othello is manipulated into jealousy over what he believes is the affair between Desdemona and Cassio. Romantic jealousy, sexual jealousy, career jealousy, it’s jealousy all the way down. The Real Thing is about love. That’s its idea. Everything in the play, everything is about love. Whether it is love for a spouse, for the person with whom you’re cheating, with the new person who has entered into your life, or even for writing and music, it’s all about love.
Can a good idea be complicated? It depends on what you mean by that. It can be more than one word, of course. It can be “can people change and do we let them?” If it’s more complicated than that, though, if you can’t look at any character, any action, any dialogue exchange in your play and frame it in the context of your idea, it might be too complicated, yes. Get it as simple as you can while still being something you care about and want to explore. It’s going to be your idea for a while so you better not get bored by it.
Does your play have to start from the idea? That’s the good news: No. You can, of course, and more power to you if you do, but you don’t have to. It’s okay to start from a conventional way, from a character, or an action, a plot, a line of dialogue, and then, through the process of writing, figure out what your idea really is.
Quick personal writing anecdote: I heard a story on a podcast a few months ago about a guy in the Netherlands who, in the 1980s, attacked a Barnett Newman painting with a knife. This guy, whose name was, no kidding, Van Bladeren, was in jail for a bit and then in 1997 walked back into the same museum and attacked another Newman painting. Van Bladeren did it because, well, among other things he had some psychological issues, but that story made me think about what if someone had attacked a painting for a different reason, for even a good reason. What if a current artist had been on trial for sexual assault and someone went into a museum and attacked one of his works. And so I wrote a play. The play's called “Separating the Art” and it’s the story of the museum curator who was there that day and the fact that this is her favorite painting in the world, in fact the reason she studied art and became a curator. It’s about whether we can separate the art from the artist, whether we should. I got the plot concept first but the play didn’t start working for me until I made the choice for the curator to love this painting, for it to mean so much to her, and for it to come from a man whom we learn later in the play has sexually harassed a number of his former students and assistants. I made it difficult for myself, because I don’t know how I feel about every aspect of this. I have no plans to see a Mel Gibson film in the future, and I’m fine with that, but also, I love the film Chinatown so what am I supposed to do with that? The spark gets you started, but it’s the idea that will take you through to the finish of your full-length play.
IN-CLASS WRITING ASSIGNMENT:
Take five minutes and write down what you want us to know about your plays, and if you think you know the idea of your play, tell us that. Even if you’re unsure, you can at least tell us some of the possible ideas that your plot, or situation, or whatever might lead you to.
The Real Thing
I chose this play as our first one to read because I think it’s an exceptional example of a play being about one idea: Love. Every scene is about it, but almost none of the scenes are purely: Ain’t love grand? It’s not. It’s difficult and complicated and messy and that’s the point of it. For some it’s tied to sex, and for some sex is independent. It makes one do equally stupid and wonderful things. Sometimes just the hint of it does it, and perhaps emotional affairs are worse than sexual ones. And it may be the only thing that matters, ultimately.
Possible Topics of Discussion:
How does the hoodwinking structure of the play mirror the subject matter? Are we led down a path and then we learn we were wrong much in the same way that the characters who are cheated upon do?
What does Stoppard feel about love? What does he wants us to feel?
What works in the play and what doesn’t? Is the deck too stacked in the favor of the erudite English playwright? Or is he taken down enough? Some things that were not questioned (“rape” as a playful thing) don’t work anymore, but is anything else dated?
What does the ultimate revelation of Brodie as a boor mean? Or is it all about Annie?
Does this play absolutely depend on the charm of the actors? Is it just about arrogant jerks otherwise?
What would you change if Tom Stoppard asked you to rewrite this play?
Does the act break work? We’re going to talk about act breaks a lot, and what they mean?
Homework: Read Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sara Ruhl. Next week we’re going to talk about plot. I want you to give me at least five plot points of your play. Give me five things that are going to happen that will be absolutely integral to the story of your play. These can be ultra-specific or they can be exceedingly vague, but one of the big parts of writing a full-length play is plot structure. You as a playwright need to know what your major landmarks are so that you can plan on how to get to them. If it’s a sense of I’ll just write until I figure it out, you’re going to wander in the wilderness for too long. Give me at least five plot points, preferably in order, spots you need to hit as you write. You may realize you’re getting to them too quickly, or that it’s taking too long, but I at least want you to know what they are.
Final note: you should be writing a bunch. Even if it’s garbage, even if you don’t like it, you should try to set aside time to write a few pages every day. Between Class #4 and Class #5, I’d like you to turn in the first act of your play. If it’s sixty pages long, and you write 2-3 pages a day, you’re golden.
CLASS #2 - 9/17/19
“Full-Length Plays Have Plots
Sarah Ruhl went to school to become a poet. She studied at Brown and while she was there she took a playwriting class from Paula Vogel, who sees talent in Ruhl, but Ruhl says, no thanks, I wanna be a poet, and goes on with her life. Until a few years later when she figures out that what she likes to write seems much better coming out of the mouths of actors than just standing on the page. She says in a New Yorker article, “Plays provided a way to open up content and have many voices. I felt that onstage one could speak lyrically and with emotion, and that the actor was longing for that kind of speech, whereas in poetic discourse emotion was in some circles becoming embarrassing.”
Her first big notice comes about with her play The Clean House, which was a Pulitzer prize finalist, then Eurydice, which received all sorts of acclaim, Passion Play, and then Dead Man’s Cell Phone.
John Lahr, in the New Yorker, calls her work “non-linear realism,” which is ... okay, I guess. Pulp Fiction is, I imagine, also non-linear realism, not that realism has much at all to do with being linear or non-linear. I think what he might mean is non-obvious realism. Or realism with surprises. One of the reasons I picked Dead Man’s Cell Phone is because of its plot and the way it unfolds. I didn’t pick these plays because these are my favorite plays ever. I enjoy all of them, but I think they all have specific lessons to give us. Waiting For Godot is one of my favorite plays but I didn’t pick it because the lesson it could give us would be ... have a mind like Beckett and you’ll write like him.
The one-act play script is leading to a single moment. The stabbing of Jerry in The Zoo Story. The presenting of the body of the goat in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia. If we’re going with something less bloody and less Albee, the decision by the women to not reveal the evidence they’ve learned in Trifles is not an act of commission, but omission. If you have a one-act romantic comedy, it’s the kiss or the proposal or maybe even the rejection. Whatever it is, it’s the single moment that decides everything. The beginning of your play, of any play, is the moment when the world has changed, and the single moment we’re leading to in a one-act is the one that decides how nothing will be the same.
Are we leading up to that in a full-length? Yes, but it’s not the only thing. We’re leading up to several of these moments along the way. Ideally, you should have one at the end of every act break, with the biggest one being the last one, but you can have a number of these moments along the way, moments that decide which way your plot is going, ways that blow up where the audience might have thought you were going and create a new direction for your plot to go.
Realize also that your plot can simply be the emotional direction a character is taking. How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel is about a woman nicknamed Li’l Bit looking back on her life and recalling the inappropriate attention paid to her by her Uncle Peck when she was an adolescent and a teenager. The play has a non-linear timeline (Li’l Bit talks about how she likes to change the radio station as she drives, and the play’s structure reflects that) but the emotional events that happen to her, her interactions with her family and Uncle Peck, are the things that change her. Those are the plot points.
So how do we write those well? The best advice I’ve heard, and it’s one of those things that makes sense when you hear it though you might never have thought of it in these terms, is to think of “so” not “and.”
What do I mean by that? Well, if I tell you a story, and I say, “There’s this fisherman in Iceland and he finds a ring in a fish’s mouth and there’s a fashion designer in Belgium and she’s creating this dress for a royal wedding and there’s a landscape architect student in New Zealand and they’re considering what they’re going to do for their thesis, and at the same time there’s a hurricane that’s coming up out of the North Atlantic, but nobody’s sure ...” it’s a blur. It’s a bunch of events that are scattered. It’s too much “and,” not enough “so.”
Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a “so” play. A woman, Jean, is sitting in a cafe when another customer’s cell phone starts ringing. He doesn’t answer, so she asks him to answer it. He doesn’t respond so she answers it for him and soon learns he is dead. So she calls 911 and goes with him in the ambulance. He’s dead, and she has his cell phone, so she goes to his funeral and keeps answering calls, including one from the dead man’s mistress, who wants to meet her, so she goes to meet the mistress, who is distraught, so Jean lies to the mistress to comfort her. The cell phone keeps ringing so Jean answers, and it’s the dead man’s family, who invite her to dinner, so she goes and meets them and lies to them to comfort them, and so and so and so.
By the end of the play, Jean has gone to Johannesburg to participate in organ trafficking, she’s fallen in love with the brother of the dead man, she’s visited the afterlife, and she’s watched the dead man’s mother immolate herself on a grill. And it makes sense. Or if it doesn’t make sense, it at least tracks, plot-wise. Each decision leads to the next, which leads to the next. So, so, so.
When you have multiple scenes in a play, each scene should point to the next scene, plot-wise. Dead Man’s Cell Phone is very good at doing this. Jean gets a call from the dead man’s mistress, and in the next scene she is meeting with that woman. A leads to B. But that’s not the only way we need to do it. We can have the specter of pointing without realizing until we’re into the scene a bit that we’re actually pointing.
In The Real Thing, we begin with a scene from the play within a play, but we don’t know that yet. We go to the second scene, and it seems like Charlotte, whom we thought was our female lead, is with a new man. This makes sense to us because the first scene is about Charlotte cheating on Max. We soon learn that Charlotte was acting in a play written by this new man Henry, who is in fact her husband. So what’s the point of the first scene? Well, what it’s pointing to, really, is the fact that Henry is cheating on Charlotte, with Annie, who is Max’s wife and who is actually our female lead. The fake cheating is pointing to real cheating. We have to reset ourselves in that second scene, but the first scene definitely points to it thematically.
Another way of having the plot move forward is to move sort of sideways. There may be a main thrust of your story, a main spine of it, but there are also corners of the world that you want to explore. The Censor does this in Act I when it takes a diversion to introduce the character of Lauren. She is mentioned in Scene 1 in her boyfriend Daniel’s office, she is mentioned in Scene 3, again in Daniel’s office, and when we return to the office in Scene 5, she is there. The structure of The Censor is such that it bounces between locations, and so we are expecting to be back in Daniel’s office, where we have heard about this character. The plot has been pointing to her presence as this hidden figure, so when she finally arrives, we have been waiting for her. In Waiting For Godot, there is nothing that happens on stage that immediately causes the Boy to arrive to explain that Godot will not be coming, but the constant invocation of Godot’s name and that they are, in fact, waiting for him, means everything has been pointing to this. If Lauren had arrived out of nowhere, without any preparation, it would be an “And” moment. Because we’ve been set up for her, it is a So moment.
When we are plotting, we need the audience to understand why we are going to this part next. They need not anticipate it, and it may take them a minute or two to fully understand, but we can’t just dump them into the middle of nowhere.
EXCEPT where? Beginnings of acts. This is our reset button. We can do whatever we want at the start of a new act. Will we have to start tying things back to the plot we’ve established? Yeah, we should. But we can do time jumps, place jumps, plot jumps, whatever we want, and the audience will give us some leeway. Because they’ve gone to the bathroom, checked their phone, talked to their friends, and had a drink. They are ready to get immersed back into your world, and you can put them back wherever or whenever you want. I have had plays where the new act begins seconds after the previous act ended. I have had plays where a giant thing happened during the act break and everyone’s dealing with it now. My most recent play had a two year time jump during the act break and I gave my main character a new job. I had to sort it out during that scene, but I’m allowed to because it’s a break.
Once the new act has started, though, you’ve got to go back to writing “so” material. And, with very few exceptions, I think you need to do some work on tying it back to where you were in the previous act. A work that does very little of this that comes to mind is Sunday In The Park With George, the musical about George Seurat. The only character that carries over is Marie, who is a baby in the first act and a woman in her nineties in the second, but Sondheim and Lapine begin the second act with a direct sort-of So moment. The characters are in the painting now and they close up shop on Seurat’s story and that takes us into the life of Seurat’s fictional great-grandson, who is played by the same actor as played Seurat.
REVIEW OF HOMEWORK: Let’s go over your plot points. Are they “So” items? If not, bridge the gap for us.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone
What is the play about?
Tell me about the character of Jean. Is she knowable? Why does she do the things she does?
What works in the play and what doesn’t?
What do you think of having the Dead Man (Gordon) speak in the second act? Do you think it works better if that character is doubled with his brother, or no?
What would you change if Sarah Ruhl asked you to rewrite this play?
Does the act break work?
Homework: Read M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang. Next week we’re going to talk about characters, in this case main characters. Give me who your two main characters are. Might be protagonist and antagonist, might be lovers, whatever you want. If you have a big ensemble, choose two prominent ones with a relationship to each other.
Take these two characters and tell me:
Three facts about who each one is
What is their relationship to each other?
How are they alike? How are they different?
Whom do you think wins in the end?
How does s/he/they feel about that?
CLASS #3 - 9/24/19
CLASS #4 - 10/01/19
CLASS #5 - 10/08/19
CLASS #6 - 10/15/19
CLASS #7 - 10/22/19