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
Full-Length Plays Have Main Characters
David Henry Hwang was born to Chinese immigrant parents who met in the United States and got married and raised a family in Los Angeles. He attended Stanford University where he wrote his first play, FOB, which stands for Fresh Off the Boat, and had the first production of his play at Stanford. After that he attended Yale Drama, where he wrote a number of other plays, and then he gets the idea for the play that will become his first major success over dinner with a friend who asks him if he’d heard about the French diplomat who’d fallen in love with a Chinese actress, who subsequently turned out to be not only a spy, but a man? Hwang reads the two paragraph story about it in the Times and conceives of M. Butterfly.
At the center of the play, Hwang puts two compelling figures, Rene Gallimard and Song Liling. I call them “compelling” and not “likable” for a reason. Likable is a nebulous, ever-changing concept. You might like somebody that I might think is despicable.
I don’t think Gallimard is likable. I’m not even sure Song is likable. I think they’re compelling though. I think they contain contradictions, good qualities and bad ones, and when they’re on stage, especially when they’re on stage together, I want to know what they’re going to do next. Gallimard is often arrogant, and racist, and thoughtless, and also he is shy, hapless, and in love. Song is beautiful and talented and devious and wonderful at their job and sexist and thoughtless in a different way, or maybe the same way. They are great roles to play, and they are fascinating centers of this world that Hwang has created.
Your play contains characters, and, much more often that not, your play is going to have a main character or two. Their journey through the idea of your play, how they change, is going to be important. How they experience the idea of your play and what it does to them, that’s what’s going to connect to the audience. In John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, one of the main character, Ouisa Kittredge, goes from being a name-dropping, rich New Yorker who is more interested in anecdotes and moments than in real relationships to someone who genuinely cares about making a connection. We all know six degrees of separation as a concept, but a monologue of hers cements how she feels about it at the end of the play.
“I find that A) tremendously comforting that we're so close and B) like Chinese water torture that we're so close. Because you have to find the right six people to make the connection. It's not just big names. It's anyone. ... How every person is a new door, opening up into other worlds. Six degrees of separation between me and everyone else on this planet. But to find the right six people.”
The Ouisa at the beginning of the play would only be concerned with this as a game, or as a way to drop names, “big names” as she says. Her encounter with a stranger with a shifting identity makes her realize how unconnected she is to everybody around her, even her own family. It’s a play that says, connection to anyone is possible, and, connection to anyone is hard. And it’s all there in her.
Does your main character really need to change? Really really? Yes. But what if the point of the character is how rigid they are? They still have to change, even if they go back to what they were, they still have to change first and then change back. Charlotte Coates in The Censor is someone who wants things done her way. She attempts to set up a new life for herself using the same techniques as her old life, just choosing a different side, but even amidst all this she does change. She sees things from a different perspective, she softens, she is willing to give up power, to cede some control because of the friendship she’s made. And it’s hard for her, and it could be argued that at the end of the play she changes back to what she was, or even worse, she may be a more calcified version of what she was. But she still makes changes.
The reason the character has to change, absolutely has to, is because, and this is a dramaturgical term of which you might not be familiar, if they don’t, it’s boring. It’s the same reaction over and over. Even if you change up the circumstances, the same reaction gets old fast. In perhaps the most famous example of a character doing the same thing over and over again, that of Bartleby the Scrivener, from the Melville story of the same name, the story is told through the narrator, and it’s his reaction to this, his changing moods that give the story its power. If it were just told through Bartleby’s eyes, it would be a snooze.
One of the big reasons for change is going to be the conflict that your characters have with each other. It’s not two big forces just pounding on each other with no give in sight, it’s not communism versus capitalism. It’s two people, with a relationship, who are forced to disagree. Does this disagreement push them deeper into their beliefs, does it make them reconsider, are they forced to give up something that was precious to them because they’ve seen it from another side? Jean seems much more able to honestly connect with people by the end of Dead Man’s Cell Phone. She’s no longer telling people just what they want to hear, she’s really communicating. Instead of admitting his faults, Gallimard cannot live with them and forces the world to fit into his Madam Butterfly mold, even if it means taking the title role for himself.
Let’s talk about the way Hwang introduces his main characters.
Gallimard speaks to us directly. He gives us that intimacy and from the beginning we are guided to feel a certain way about him. He is witty, urbane, and he is someone to be pitied. Everyone makes fun of him and so we are to feel at least a little bad for him. Then we bring in Marc, who’s a definite cad, and we like Gallimard even more.
There are always nagging hints of problems with Gallimard though. He seems ... a bit off from the jump. And when you hear him talk about his ugliness, you’re supposed to feel a bit of pity for him, but he condemns himself by saying, “The sad truth is that all men want a beautiful woman, and the uglier the man, the greater the want.” That want though seems to turn quickly into “deserve.” He goes, in his life timeline, from being shy and retiring to putting on the clothes of dominance and demanding submission from those around him. Hwang has almost written the “nice guy” persona without explicitly stating it.
Song is a different character. They are presented to us as not a confidant but a person to objectify, an “exotic” (to use a very loaded word) woman dancing for Gallimard and for us. They are a constantly evolving creature of desire who is at turns strong and weak, contemptuous of Western culture and then desirous of it. They are what Gallimard wants at any given moment, challenging him to fall in love with them.
It isn’t until Act II, after we are chummy with Gallimard, that we finally get a chance for Song to talk to us. Their scene with Comrade Chin is the first true glimpse of them, even though they are still “in costume.” They are even stronger than we might have imagined, never taking a subservient position, and yet still, they never drop the costume. There is something they are clinging to there.
By Act III, Song, in men’s clothing, is confiding in us directly. As the play continues, we definitely like Gallimard less and less, and it makes the end confrontation with Song such an interesting moment. I’m not sure if we’re to root for either of them to win. And I’m not sure who does.
What did you take from the play?
What is the play about? The West’s view of the East? Deception? Self-Deception?
Is there anybody you like in this play? Is that all right to have a play full of unlikable characters?
Do the act breaks work?
What do you make of the ending confrontation?
Homework: Read Sweat by Lynn Nottage. Next week, we’re going to talk about setting. I want you to tell me:
What is the setting of your play, re: time and geographic place?
Is it a vague setting (the present, a city) or specific (330 E. 70th St., NY, NY September 1, 1999)?
How are you physicalizing that space on stage - meaning: if I walked in to see a production of your play, what would I see on stage?
What are the most important aspects of your setting, both place/time and set pieces, that you cannot see changing/what is contributing most to the idea of your play?
CLASS #4 - 10/01/19
Full-Length Plays Have Settings
Lynn Nottage is a monster talent. She was born in Brooklyn, writes her first full-length play in high school, goes to Brown for undergrad and then to Yale Drama for grad school. She works for Amnesty International for four years, and then decides to go back to writing plays. She gets some nibbles here and there from the short works she writes, and then has her off-Broadway premiere in 1995 with Crumbs from the Table of Joy, which gets produced all over. In 2003, she has a major success in Intimate Apparel, and then in 2008 comes Ruined, about women in war-torn Congo, and she wins the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. In 2011, Nottage goes to Reading, Pennsylvania, after reading that it was one of the poorest cities in America. She conducts a number of interviews and then writes Sweat which wins the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, making her the first woman ever to win two Pulitzer prizes for drama.
This play is set in Reading and, for the most part, in a bar that Stan, the bartender and former plant worker, calls “neutral territory,” and at the start of the play it absolutely is, with some caveats. It’s a place that welcomes anyone, but it’s not frequented by everyone. It is a place primarily for plant workers and when anyone who’s not that comes in, there’s tension. This is the spot that anchors us in Sweat’s setting and from it we can learn what the rest of Reading is like.
The setting for your play is two things. It is, one, the time and place in which your play occurs, be it Reading, Pennsylvania in 2000 and 2008, in an unnamed city in the present, on a made up planet in the year 2525. Setting is that and it is also the physical manifestation of what you are putting onstage to tell that story. It’s the bar in Reading where Stan works. It’s living rooms and trains in England. It’s Gallimard’s cell.
A good set can ground us, it can tell us about the characters onstage, and, furthermore, about the world outside. It’s not a film; we can’t have drone shots that show us every inch of a town from above. We only get a glimpse, so the glimpse has to tell us a good deal. There are a number of ways to physicalize the setting of your play. You can center it around one particular place as this play does. This means either excluding every other location, or suggesting them through a bit of stage trickery, as Sweat and M. Butterfly do. You can also set up a dichotomy or trichotomy where you cycle between two or three locations. That can focus your play and give you options without overwhelming an audience. This is something I like to do, and with The Censor, it’s set up in two spaces, and the focus of the audience can switch back and forth.
You can also have a number of locations, the way Dead Man’s Cell Phone does. Sarah Ruhl adds in her notes “transitions are fluid, space is fluid, there is not a lot of stuff on stage” and I would advise that if you’re going to have a large number of locations, you might want to add in something that tells a theatre company what you envision for this, before they throw it in a pile of scripts that are more like films than plays. Plays like and including Angels in America sort of opened up the stagecraft world to be bigger, almost filmic but representational as well. You can have a lot of locations, but if you do, it’s worth thinking about if what you’re writing is more of a film than a play.
If you’re lucky enough to have a play of yours produced and you’re included in designer meetings, you’ll see the interpretation of what you’ve written and it’s a fascinating part of the collaborative process. They will look at all you’ve included in your play to get a sense of what kind of furniture would be here, what kind of things could the characters afford, what taste would they have, and so on and so forth. The richer your characters (depth-wise, I’m saying), the clearer your world, the better the work of your designers, costume and set.
Another thing that will inform them, and your actors and director, is the place and time you’ve set your play. Like anything in playwriting, what you choose to mention is as important as what you choose to leave out. Lynn Nottage is very specific that this takes place in Reading, Pennsylvania in 2000 and 2008. She has not made up a city in Pennsylvania, she has chosen an actual place and is giving her future directors, set designers, costume designers, and actors a grounded start. Deviating from those would rob the play of what makes it powerful.
But you need not go as specific. You may just choose a city in America in the present. This narrows it down, but also opens it up. A theatre in Boise may choose a different color palette than a theatre in Miami, and if that’s great to you, cool. Congratulations, you’re not Andrew Lloyd Weber. The more you leave up to creative teams, the more liberties they will take. Pick your battles and figure out what is most important to you.
And when I say that, I mean it. Figure that out. Make choices because what you’re choosing should lead you back into your idea. I made up a country, an empire really, for The Censor, and I did that because I wanted to be able to choose the laws that existed and didn’t for the world of my play. I didn’t want anyone to say, “Well, I lived in ... Martinique, and that law or custom doesn't exist there.” I got to make up the Commonwealth to fit my needs and I set it up in an island outpost where the rules are encroaching. That it’s a group of islands gets me things like isolation, distance, fluidity, and heat. Also, in the production in Pittsburgh of it, the director chose to cast people from the mainland as white and the people who are Islands natives as people of color, which tracks. I also made the setting the present because I wanted information and changes to travel and happen quickly.
When you make choices for your setting think about:
How is this contributing to the idea of my play?
What is going to change about your setting over time? If it’s one setting, is it going to change? If it doesn’t change, what does that tell us about the world of your play?
What is the relationship of my characters to this setting? This will be different for each character, but how they feel in these places matters. Setting a play in an apartment, as Stoppard does for The Real Thing makes the owner of the apartment feel one way and the visitor another.
Why a bar for Sweat? Why not a restaurant? Why not the homes of the characters? Why not the plant itself? Let’s talk about what this setting does for Nottage:
It’s a meeting place. There’s a good reason for people to be there or drop in, whether they’re getting off a shift, celebrating a special occasion, looking for someone, or working. There’s not much heavy lifting to give characters motivation for being there.
It’s a place of celebration and relief. The play begins with a birthday celebration, and there are a couple of them as we go along. People go to bars to get away from their work, and they can let their hair down. That’s how we begin the play, and as the play progresses, we can see the bar get to be a tenser and tenser place. How a location changes, whether the look of it or the use of it, can contribute to the idea of your full-length play. We’ll talk more about The Censor next week, but the way that Daniel’s office deteriorates is important to the play. It goes from a vibrant, decadent place in the first act, to a sparse, empty location where the hot chocolate has run dry. In Sweat, though the mood of the setting changes, the setting itself doesn’t, and that’s an important fact as well. Much of this play is about nostalgia and the desire for things to stay steady, so the fact that the bar remains is important.
The bar is also a place where inhibitions are lowered. The things you say at 2am in a bar are not the things you say at 6:30 in a restaurant, or when you’re over at someone’s home. You can say what is truly on your mind and truths will come out.
The bar is separate from the plant. The plant defines the town, but it’s not the entirety of the town, and once the plant closes, we need to see what happens to the town, and the bar setting shows us that. It’s not a play about the industry, but about the people in it.
What did you take from the play? Possible discussion topics:
What is the play about? Work? Poverty? America?
What do you make of Nottage’s notation of each character’s ethnicity at the start of the play?
What works in the play and what doesn’t?
Is this a play too stuck in memories, or is that the point of it?
Does the act break work?
Is this a play that can communicate to people beyond America?
Homework: Read The Censor by David L. Williams. Turn in your one-act plays this week. By 11:59pm on Saturday night.
CLASS #5 - 10/08/19
Full-Length Plays Take Work
David L. Williams was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and when he was seven, he moved to South Florida, to a suburb of West Palm Beach called Wellington. Wellington was just beginning as a community at that time in the 1980s and it was filled with a number of rules and regulations that seemed strange and off-putting to young David. For example, there was a color-code to the town, and this is not a veiled racial term, it was a legitimate color code for the outside of businesses, so that when a McDonald’s opened there in the 1990s, it was not red and yellow, as per tradition, but coral and aqua.
During high school, David read a number of plays that were by absurdist writers both from the United States and from the Eastern Bloc, like Vaclav Havel, and he felt some bit of solidarity, with these writers who were creating or reflecting worlds with byzantine rules and protagonists often looking to escape. He writes his first one-act in high school, goes to Cornell for college, thinks about becoming an actor, and writes a few plays. When he is a Sophomore, he submits to Cornell’s one-act playwriting competition, he can submit up to 3 plays, so he does (he has written four one-act plays at this point). A few months go by, and he gets a call from the receptionist for Cornell’s theatre department who says, “You've won first and second place.” David, because he is awkward, says, “Thanks. Which ones won?” And from there he knew his concentration in his theatre major was going to be playwriting.
He goes on to write several plays and musicals, of varying lengths and styles. In 2011, his father gives him a book for Christmas called Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris. The author is David King and the subject of the book is pretty much all there in the title. There’s a passage in it that intrigues him about the German censor being fascinated with Picasso and visiting him often.
He cannot get over this idea of a censor who is interested in art, who admires it even. And so he tries to write it. And it keeps coming out wrong. There is a scene where Charlotte Coates, who is an engineer who oversees work on mountain projects, is given a new job as a censor. It’s how the play begins actually. And then the next scene is three years later. Too much of a time jump that early without knowing the characters. Plus the person who gives her a job doesn’t show up again for a while. Also, Charlotte has been on the Islands for three years, so there’s no immediacy to her actions, no disruption of her presence there. In fact, censorship has existed for a while there, so she’s just a replacement for the last person. Even less disruption, lower stakes. Daniel has a wife named Helene, who, yes, did write a book making fun of the now king, but the scenes with her are in shady bars where there’s a kind of cloak and dagger, spy vibe where they have to talk in code, with “bricklayer” evidently being a slur used for the occupying country. It’s distracting and it doesn’t quite work tonally with the scenes with Nellis. Nellis who was at one time Nellis Fort and was at one times a trans-woman and not a trans-man. Also, there’s Hammond. Let’s not forget Hammond, a filmmaker that Charlotte was censoring and sleeping with. And that took us away from the relationship (friendship? moreship?) between Charlotte and Nellis.
It was a mess. But he kept trying to write it. He has old drafts that are abandoned at 40 pages, one even makes it to 70 pages, he has pages of a conversation with himself where he just writes what he’s thinking and he tries to get to a revelation about the play, and it’s a lot of failure. And if there was nothing there, he would’ve quit, but he keeps going back. He starts grad school in 2013, and in 2014 he has to bring in new pages to workshop and he decides to start over with this play for the umpteenth time. He brings in three scenes, the first scene is Daniel at Nellis’ apartment, telling him that his work is going to be censored, the second is Nellis’ first meeting with Charlotte, and the third is a somewhat drunk Nellis (he’s been drinking since he found out he was being censored) in his apartment when Daniel arrives and tells him he brought Charlotte. The only scene that really worked was the second scene. And that’s when he realized the play was about Charlotte. She was the driving force, she was the one who had the power, so of course she was the one who had to change the most, or at least be tempted to.
Charlotte was the focus, and her relationship with Nellis was the spine of the play. He goes back through old drafts and he finds usable things, moments, scenes, ideas, and he figures out what the play is, and it’s the thing that fascinated him in the first place, the relationship of a censor with an artist. He goes to his mentor for that semester and says, “I want to write a play called The Censor, where the main character is a government censor, but the whole play isn’t about condemning her.” And his mentor says, “You don’t like to make things easy on yourself, do you?”
The Censor took work. It took a lot of work to break the back of the story and figure out what it is. You may deal with dozens of drafts of this play and any other you want to write in the future. If an idea is appealing to you, you’ll keep trying. But they take work. And you may lose things you love along the way. That sounds very dramatic, but you may have exchanges you love, your darlings, that must be killed along the way.
Charlotte, in one draft, has grown sick of Nellis’ views on the government and tells him, “We’re not Big Brother, we’re not Alpha 60, we are a government like any other.” At the end of the scene, there’s this exchange:
What’s Alpha 60?
Right. It’s a supercomputer in a French film. It runs a whole city. Alphaville, have you seen it?
No. Should I?
Well, you can’t now.
I love that bit of dialogue. But I don’t need it. It doesn’t contribute to the play, and it’s mostly there to be a clever quip about ... censorship, I guess, and how it’s bad, which ... no duh. It just sounds cool, but that’s all it does, so off it goes.
I even had to cut something from the play when it was in rehearsals for its production. There’s a whole monologue where Nellis explains why he left the mainland to come to the Islands. He saw a neighbor get arrested for espionage, and the neighbor had a dog, and the soldiers who arrested the neighbor asked Nellis if he wanted the dog, and Nellis said no, and so the soldiers shot the dog. It spoke to Nellis’ growing distrust of his fellow citizens and ... it was a lot. It’s not bad writing, but it was a lot. And it wasn’t working. The director asked me to take a look at it, and I changed it to:
What made you leave?
I, um, I didn’t feel safe anymore.
Because of anything specific or ...?
We knew Nellis enough at that point that that answer was enough, and the audience would fill in whatever horrible thing they think might have happened to him.
Anyway, The Censor gets finished in 2014, rewritten a few more times, and included as part of my thesis in 2015. In 2016, I submit it to Throughline Theatre company for a playwriting contest of theirs, it’s named as a finalist, has a reading of a few scenes, is chosen the winner and is produced that fall. And in 2017 it gets named as the ATHE excellence in playwriting winner. So there’s a happy ending.
But what can we learn from this? If what you’re writing is not coming or it’s not coming out the way you want it to, you have options:
1. What drew you to this? Write more of that. Do you care just about the love story? Great. Write a scene with your two lover characters. Does it need to fit into the plot as you imagine it? Nope. It can just be the two of them having breakfast. You’ll probably ditch it, but you may find something in it to use later. Even if you don’t though, you’ll get back into what intrigues you about the story. Write a scene that doesn’t do things you have to do, like move the plot along or change the characters emotionally. Write to get you in the spirit of it. There’s so many moments of Nellis painting Charlotte that I tossed but I wrote them because I liked writing them together.
2. Figure out where you’re stuck and change what got you there. Are you having trouble writing the scene where your main character is in the hospital having his broken arm tended to? Stop working on that scene, go back to the earlier scene, and make it a sprain that he takes care of himself. Now he has to do something else, while in pain with a janky sling, and all of a sudden that scene is much more fun to write. Don’t do the bidding of your plot if your plot takes you to a boring place. Change it up.
3. Start over without looking. You keep tinkering with a scene and it’s not working. You try moving this line here, this action here, and it’s still not right? Open a new document (or take a new piece of paper from your notebook), and start the scene over, with the caveat that you won’t allow yourself to look at what you wrote before. Without the crutch of the words you’ve already written, you’re forced to use your memory and only the most important things to you will stay in there. You can even try this with a whole act. Just start over and see what you get if you’re doing it without looking. Your mind knows the story, maybe it’s ready to tell it in a different way.
4. Break things down with simple exercises. Start looking at scenes and asking questions we talked about back in beginning playwriting. What is the conflict here? What does this character want? What is the action of this character? You can move on to things we’ve talked about in this class. Is this an “and” plot moment or a “then” plot moment? How are these characters changing in this scene?
5. Write it without dialogue. Start trying to write it as a piece of prose without using any dialogue. If you can’t tell me what someone says, you’ll have to start giving me blunt reasons. The Queen walks into her bedroom. She wants to confront her husband about his affair but she’s worried that he’s trying to kill her. The King wants her to leave so he can be with his ... and so on. If you’re forced to do this without dialogue, you get to the bare bones of your story and you don’t have to worry about your words sounding pretty. This can be done by outlining or you can get granular; whatever you need.
Writing a full-length is a long journey. It takes work. I’ve written a ten-minute play over a couple of days (after thinking about it for longer). A full-length play takes several weeks or months or years to come up with even a workable draft. But it’s worth it.
What did you take from the play?
What is the play about? Fluidity? The ability to change? What restrictions do to people?
What are the responsibilities when a Cis writer writes a Trans character? Is there a difference between populating a world and telling a story?
What works in the play and what doesn’t?
Is there a balance to the plot and the character?
Is the play stacked against Charlotte? Or is it too favorable/deferential to her?
What would you change if David L. Williams asked you to rewrite this play?
Does the act break work?
CLASS #6 - 10/15/19
CLASS #7 - 10/22/19