Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
One of the more important lessons I learned about playwriting came, I believe, from a book about acting. I can’t recall which book it was or the author. It may or may not have been Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. That lesson, in my own words, is that:
A play is about the most important events in the lives of its characters.
This was one of the tenets I had to repeat over and over again with the high school students I was teaching this past spring, when I watched them stage script after script of two kids talking about the everyday events of their lives while cautiously sidestepping the opportunities to discuss the truly scary and powerful moments instead. I don’t know who we have to blame for the idea that all you need for good drama is sparkling dialogue–I’m sorely tempted to point the finger at Quentin Tarantino, who has made more than one popular film full of lengthy and compelling dialogue about nothing, but I give Tarantino credit in that often the dialogue is acting as an interesting counter-melody to the action onscreen. Not everybody does what Tarantino generally does well, but everybody, goddammit, is going to try, and it’s not just the audience but the fledgling writers that suffer.
Tonight I saw a preview of Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company’s production of Keith Huff’s Mud People, a play about redemption and the will to dislodge oneself from the spiritual muck in which we all attempt not to drown. It’s a very good play, although I felt–either as a result of the script or the direction, I’m not sure–that it didn’t quite earn the ending it eventually receives. The performances are carefully rendered, and the production is rife with the sort of little details that I loved finding in last year’s astonishing Darren Aronofsky film The Wrestler. The hiccups in lines and whatnot were the sort of thing you expect to see at a first preview; I’m sure they’ll all be smoothed out by this weekend’s opening.
I want to call special attention to the set, a recreation of a greasy spoon diner in a “one-horse town,” a place that has been beaten black and blue by both weather and history, a place with scars on the floor and bloodstains on the wall. I want to call attention to it not only because of the depth of the stagecraft but also because it’s one of the best uses of an empty set I’ve seen in some time.
I remember when I was much younger that attending any live theatre meant that when one looked at the stage during the fifteen minutes between house open and the start of the performance, one would stare at a curtain or other barrier. I don’t know when it became de rigeur to instead allow the audience to view the empty set but I rarely see the curtain before the show anymore, and I think theatre as an art form is better for it. Rather than playing with the production as a surprise you pull on the audience, dropping them suddenly into the world of the story, you allow them to experience the landscape in the moment before the most important events in the lives of its characters. If the pain of transition and change is a battle, the set is the battlefield, and like all battlefields it has its own character that we should be allowed to see in order to understand later what the traffic of the play has done to it.
I sat in the fourth row looking at the bends in the blinds, at the streaks on the windows, at the strange cast iron knicknack hanging above the door, the velvet Elvis, the Bill Haley and the Comets album cover in the jukebox, the yellow of the walls like recently unearthed Civil War photographs. I saw a space that had been lived in and died in long before I got there and by itself it primed me to watch what was going to happen when the lights finally faded out and ebbed back in.
That’s the advanced corollary to the above lesson. A play is about the most important events in the lives of its characters, but underneath that is that the play is also about the specific path that led to these events.
Where it gets hard, of course, is deciding how many of the landmarks along that path are worthy of including in the slideshow. I’d argue, however, that if you really care about the story you’re telling, that you will know every inch of the road even if you don’t let everybody else see them.