Out of the Box
and Into the Magic
Stage & Screen Moderator
The stage is a magical playground,
yet very few new playwrights take advantage of it. Raised on television, or perhaps on revivals of You
Cant Take it With You and The Odd
Couple, they tie themselves to linear structure, to realistic sets, to
character types we recognize from every second-rate TV sit-com.
Wheres the magic? Its
there, waiting to be used. The
magic of language, the magic of vision, the magic of unconventional story
telling -- all of it waiting to be tapped.
I served on the board of a
playwriting organization for a number of years, and during my involvement in
workshops, readings and script competitions I began to notice an odd similarity
between the dozens and dozens of scripts that passed through my hands.
Mother - daughter relationship plays, Father - son reunion plays,
strangers trying to fit into a small town, university couples meeting on a
weekend and threatening affairs. All domestic or kitchen sink dramas, almost all
of them lacking in magic.
Granted the write what you
know principle is pounded into young writers with alarming intensity, but
there must be more to theater than dysfunctional families and caustic couples.
Especially when the beginning playwright clearly lacks the verbal
pyrotechnics of either a Sam Shepard or an Edward Albee.
A friend of mine served as a script
judge for last years Writers Digest competition and had a similar
experience. How refreshing it was,
he told me, to find something out of the ordinary. Something that didnt take place in a kitchen or a living
room and involve a woman searching to find herself, a daughter searching to
break free, a son striving to please his estranged father. Yes, all of these domestic scenarios can lead to fine
theater, but only if they are tackled with courage, a high degree of skill, and
most of all, innovation.
For my own work, Ive a manifesto
of sorts. The short version: No
Kitchen Sinks. I am never satisfied
to stay within the box. Ive
traveled to dreamlands where garden vegetables talk, Ive written in whimsical
rhyme, Ive deconstructed Shakespearean history.
Ghosts and alchemy abound, and Im happy to know that none of my
scripts would ever make a decent TV show. They
Go on, try it.
Step out of the box.
Dont be frightened by poetry;
dont run from a whimsy with words. The
rough beauty of Arthur Millers working-class blokes in A View From the Bridge is not realism, not the dialogue of TV land.
Its heightened, compressed, wrenched from the characters guts.
Read the playwrights who embrace language -- Tom Stoppard, Peter Shaffer,
David Mamet, to just scratch the surface -- then find your own eloquence, your
own rhythms, pauses, explosions of heart and soul.
Forget the unities of time and
space. If youve got a unity of
theme, you dont need em. Tell
your story out of order. Tell it
simultaneously in three locations thousands of miles (or years) apart. Tell it with interludes of shoop-shoop songs sung by a Greek
chorus. Float through your
protagonists memories in the order they come to her, not in the order they
Explore the world of theatrical
magic-- learn about lighting effects, scrims, rear projections, all the nifty
tricks that exist in the world of technical theater. Take a tech class at a local community college.
If you want to write for the stage, you need to know the tools of the
Now, theatrical magic of the
technical kind can sometimes go a bit too far.
This is the real world after all, not Hollywood, and theater companies do
have horrifically tight budgets. I
once read an adaptation of Ramona Quimby
that included a snow machine, falling leaves, and a sequence where in a dozen
reflections of Ramona stepped out from a row of mirrors and danced ballet
across the stage. Beautiful to
imagine, but a royal pain to produce. The
script only gets produced at large companies who can afford that much magic
(and that many little Ramona clones!).
But this doesnt mean you cant explore the magic of theater when
writing for a smaller company. Theatrical magic can happen with a flash of unexpected
costume, a cascade of light and color, a magnificence of sound. It can happen on a bare stage with no effects at all.
Dont be afraid to explore the
unconventional, but remember always that you are still telling a story.
You can tell it backwards as Harold Pinter did in Betrayal,
you can add that Greek Chorus of shoop-shoop songs as Paula Vogel did in How I Learned to Drive, but never let the magic destroy your story.
If you are changing the structure -- tackling the story in a non-linear
fashion -- remember that the structure should either reflect the theme, ask the
story question, or amplify the audiences attachment to the protagonist. Peter
Shaffers Amadeus unfolds as a
confession -- Salieri, the patron saint of mediocrity, revealing all.
He is our window into the world of genius, and the story would otherwise
lack the depth and pathos this unconventional structure brings to it.
Terra Nova by Ted Tally slips
in and out of dreams and visions, not because the playwright thought it was a
neat theatrical trick, but because the plays main characters are dying on the
Antarctic ice, hallucinating, grasping onto dreams to fend off reality.
For the larger non theater-going
audience, look no further than the recent wave of neo-noir films including The
Usual Suspects, The Limey and Memento.
The unconventional methods of storytelling in each film are there for a
reason. They serve a purpose
thats integral to the plot and to the inner-workings of the lead character.
Unconventional structure should not be layered on top as a gimmick. Its part of the meat of the piece, not just dessert to
impress the critics.
Theater is all about words (so they
say), but words are only one of the tools at your disposal.
Make some magic not only with your poetry, but with images and with the
very core of your story. Elevate it beyond the sit-com inspired domestic dramas that
fill the in-boxes of small theater companies across the country.
Write your own manifesto of magic.