I was thinking about this whole "flat writing" thing and something struck me. The reason I left the playwright circle local to me was because they kept talking about me toning down my work.
The first play I read in this workshop was very political and not in a mainstream political way. "Largesse" is a play about size acceptance. The readings of the play really riled up the workshop. One of the women in the group looked like she was on the verge of tears, she was so offended by my portrayal of a thin girl as a villain. And the group spent the better part of an hour just talking about the subject matter of the play.
The second play I read in the group received more kudos but the group really wanted me to remove the fowl language in the play. When we read the first play I wrote, I expected a reaction to the content. But, with the second play, I have to admit I was a little putt off, a little offended, and definately disapointed that they wanted me to take out the curse words. The cursing in the play was very situation appropriate.
I guess I came into the playwright game with this romantic idea that, unlike working in film or even writing books, that playwrighting is about sparking dialog. I thought that its about making people think and pushing their boundaries.
I've been really let down by my experiences with the world of theatre so far because I keep feeling like the experts are telling me to be more commercial. To write more mainstream. To aim more towards entertaining my audience and less toward expressing my message.
I have to admit that the plays I keep hearing by new playwrights either don't push the boundaries enough to make me think or they're entertaining without a message. They're flat becasue they don't offend or contain enough conflict.
I come from a school of thought that believes a segment of the population is eager for smart entertainment. They want stories that will make them think. I'm one of those eager people AND I want to write those kinds of stories.
Maybe its just me. But I don't think so.
Last edited on Sun Apr 20th, 2008 02:37 pm by LadyBug
Arguably, every play should make us think (even if minimally.) As a director and writer of high school plays, I tend to shy away from certain kinds of thought provoking plays because they are derivative or awkwardly thought provoking. They announce in an overblown manner their social significance, wear their feelings on their sleeves, and go straight for the lump in the throat. The story is often lost in the message. I prefer an issue to be part of the story, not the story itself.
As for the subject of profanity, I've never found that profanity adds much to my appreciation of a play. It's rare that I leave a theater thinking, "They should have cussed." On the other hand, when it's overdone it strikes me as gratuitous and juvenile.
I am not fond of anything that tries to give me a message, no matter what the genre. It reminds me of those awful stories about the ant working so hard to prepare for winter, while the grasshopper chose to laze around. Even banks send out such "message filled" stories in their literature; a term which I use loosely here, to be sure.
Any message should be inherent, there because it is part of a very good story. A message is just another way of moralizing, even if we are speaking of amorality, or railing against the politically correct. Further, something that is entertaining should not be cast aside as a frivolity, unless one sees laughing as less worthy than feeling angst. Personally, I see more of the angst ridden ones being lauded, rather than the "feel good" ones. Dark comedy is another over used genre that seems to give import to written works. Most "dark comedies" I see, or read, are labeled that way because it allows the writer to get away with writing cliched characters whose stupid motives are excused under the guise of the ridiculous. This is not an indictment of dark-comedies, but an indictment of those who would hide shoddy writing under the skirts of the genre. Writing should be about one's own experience, or about a truth one feels within, and then should be crafted as well as one is able. Moralizing, lesson teaching and boundary pushing are mere contrivances if they do not spring from the need of writing, and the joy to which that brings; even if it be tortured joy.
Provoke me first with your skill as a storyteller, and if that leads to cursing then...fucking awesome. :D
Last edited on Sun Apr 20th, 2008 03:14 am by Basso
Some random, middle-of-the-night thoughts inspired by this thread:
Before I started writing, I was primarily an actor. I was in a 2 character short play that we used as an audition piece. When we performed it for the casting director of a prominent company in NY, she said my emotions were too strong at the end, that she wanted to jump on stage and stop the play because of my obvious pain. I'm not sure how she could separate me from the character, but....I asked the director if I should tone it down at the end. He said, "Absolutely not!" He was right. The same casting director called me a couple of months later to audition for The Seagull and said I should do whatever I did at the end of that play she had seen.
One of my earliest pays had a character whose language was peppered with profanity to the consternation of friends, parents, teachers and ultimately the police. It took me months after finishing it to get my own language under control.
When my niece and nephew were 10 and 6 years old, I gave them instruction on the appropriate use of the word "fuck" during a long car ride. Their parents attempted to intervene to no avail. By the time we arrived at our destination, the 2 kids could not help giggling whenever I said the word. They are now a few years older, and their language is relatively (excuse the pun) profanity-free, for which I take full credit.
As far as readings/workshops, I always have a read-through of a new play, but I carefully select the people I invite. The discussion is moderated (not by me) and the audience is limited to responses to basic questions about clarity, relationships, lapses in logic, etc. Content is not on the table. This procedure has helped me immensely, particularly with my historical plays. I do so much research that I occasionally leave some info out of the play that the audience needs to know, because I am so close to the time period and situation.
Clarity, relationships, and lapses in logic reminded me of a critique I once received from one of the small publishers whose plays are primarily intended for schools. The critique was not meant to be sent, but had inadvertently been put in the envelope. It noted my play was not a great comedy, nor a good mystery, had plot holes, and a weak story. You'd think by the tone of the critique this was a publisher who handled nothing but the finest plays. When looking for plays to direct, I occasionally thumb through this publisher's latest catalogue and order a couple of plays to read. The result is always the same. After 35 years of directing, I have yet to direct a play by this publisher. I have yet to come to terms with what passes for humor lacking wit.
The preceding anecdote leads me to the piece de resistance. In 1973, one year out of college, I took a theatre trip to London. During the intermission of "A Doll's House," starring Claire Bloom, a distinguished sounding man standing behind me said rather loudly to the company he was with, "Not a particulary well-written play, is it?" Young drama teacher that I was, I bristled and turned to the man, fully intending to set him straight. But I said nothing, too frozen to speak. That man was Tennessee Williams.
As it turned out, another small publisher picked up my play. I'm not sure how many writers who post here direct the first productions of theirs plays. But I am always intrigued by the differences between what I put on stage and what a reader perceives a show will be like.
I agree with the idea that plays should be spunky, sparky and full of attitude in whatever ways pleases the writer. So much of what passes for entertainment seems to be dumbed down for corporate consumption, and concerned over not offending anyone.
Generally, I'm always on the look out for plays that challenge me, get under my skin, and give me food for thought. Force me to think.
That's my version of 'good entertainment' in action. Stuff that makes me think.
If I wanted mindless light drivel that follows a well-worn predictable path, I can put on the TV anytime I want.
(I watch maybe 15 minutes of TV a week, and that's usually by accident or around news time, I'll put the TV on, if I'm in the area) - which apparently makes me 'not a normal citizen in the US' :P
Having come from a country where I was making theatre under an overtly repressive regime, where my own work (and that of others) got direct police action and problems, for its political content, the idea of making 'theatre' that is conceptually banal or unchallenging, strikes me as a waste of the stage.
Sure there's a market for the Disney garbage (thats how I see it) - but I'm not writing for 'a market' - I'm writing for the Stage, and Theatre.
Theatre is an Art form.
As far as worrying over 'offending' people with extreme dialog or offensive concepts - I don't see that as my problem - its the problem of those who want their Theatre to be nice, banal, flat, unchallenging, and as insipid as themselves. (Yup, I do 'fightin words' with theatre :P )
Other peoples sensitivities aren't my concern, and - I venture to suggest - they shouldn't ever be the concern of any artist. All that's important, is the quality of the story being told. If its a good story, regardless of how horrific or 'objectionable' some might see it as, then it'll find an audience eventually.
I think good/great Art comes from breaking the rules, or simply ignoring them.
As far as the debate over 'cuss words' goes - who cares. A good play is a good play. Some use lots of swearing and delicious obscenity, others don't. It depends on the story being told, and - more importantly - what the writer feels like doing.
And yes, some writers love using the words they can't use normally - again, there's a poetry in obscenity and cursing, which - when done well, is brilliant fun. Sometimes writers get it right, other times they don't. Often, they don't. I'm a foul mouthed person naturally, so I like to think I get it right :)
That's the nature of Theatre, its not always a sanitised corporate product thats been vetted by committee's and tweaked to make 'quality content'.
Given the growing conservative streak that's rising in the US, it's probably even more
important, for theatre to do its best to challenge, anger, enrage, and entertain, in ways that are unavailable generally, to TV and cinema.
It goes back to a simple series of questions - which I've pitched at students some times, when talking about play writing:
I've always prefaced it by saying there's no right or wrong answer, because the reality and the 'market' is big enough to handle all the different approaches and types of theatre that people want to create.. but..
'What are you writing FOR?'
To get rich? To get famous? To be the envy of your friends and family? To tell a story that's burning in you? To create fodder for corporate America's entertainment industry? To satisfy your ego? To persuade others that you're special or clever?
To pass the time in an otherwise mindlessly dull life?
Why are you writing or want to be a playwright?
Examine your motives, then approach it honestly, and perhaps your work will reflect a sharper quality, based on the honest analysis by you, of what exactly you're doing, and why you're doing it. You never have to tell anyone else what the 'truth' is - but as long as you face up to it yourself, your work will show that inherent honesty..
(okay, I have to get back to writing now :) Sorry about the rant...
I've noticed that most of the time, I'm just looking to write something entertaining. Sometimes it has a clear message, sometimes you have to delve into it to find it, and sometimes I'm not even aware of the statement I'm making until I'm finished.
I've only attempted one "social commentary" play, and it also happens to be my most profane. Personally, I don't think the language adds or subtracts from the enjoyment or from the statement the play makes. It's just... what I see the characters saying. A lot of real people talk like this, so why is it so offensive to hear imaginary people say it?