This summer I participated in a crazy, challenging, exciting night of theatre called the Mad Dash, produced by Interim Writers and Fresh Ink Theatre.
Check out the whole story of how it was organized, written, directed, acted and produced in just 24 hours. What a wild, wonderful ride.
Unlike Edward Albee, who famously doesn’t write a word of a play until he’s perfected it all in his head, I often write things that don’t end up in a play. A monologue to get to know one of my characters better. A scene from before the play begins. A scene that the audience won’t ever see but hears about in another scene. The “bad” version of a scene. Raw materials – all the things I need to work through, explore, practice, build before the polished version emerges. Most of this stuff is happy to live “in the drawer” forever, never intended for an audience. When I am just starting to write a new play, I sometimes don’t know which stuff will end up in the official first draft, and which stuff will end up getting cut. This month, some of this unpolished, in-process material will be getting public readings. So if you want a window into my process, or if you just like to hear new pages hot off the old inkjet, and you live in the Boston area, check out some of these exciting events:
Bostonia Bohemia’s Fly On The Wall Festival will feature a couple of my site specific monologues
Interim Writers’ Have You Read? on November 16th at 7:30pm at the Democracy Center in Harvard Square – Reading of raw materials from play-in-progress Forever Home
And for a reading of a full-length play a little closer to polished, but still in process check out: Wax Wings Productions’ Reading of Mad Props on November 17th at 7pm (also at the Democracy Center)
One of the many amazing things to come out of the Freedom Art Retreat back in 2011 was that one day, somewhere in between swimming in Pea Porridge Pond, eating grilled corn, drinking cocktails, singing along to ukeleles, hiking mountains and making group projects, I asked the group a question that had been on my mind for a while. Actually, no, I tried to ask the question, but it was a barely formed, half articulated, bizarre mumbling thing in the general tenor of a question.
It was something like: ”So guys, I’m working on this 8-character play, Mad Props, and it’s a lot of characters! But I was wondering, if I have 8 characters in a play, how many, um, if I wanted to know, like, how many different scenes are possible, with you know, different characters in different configurations, um, how would I figure that out?”
Now I used to be a math person, back when being a math person meant basic multiplication and division. So, essentially, elementary school was when I peaked. But I’m still a person who likes to figure things out, even if it’s not something I know how to figure out. That’s where the amazing powers of friendship and collaboration come in handy. Thanks to the help of my fellow retreatants, particularly Jason Weber, we figured out what my question was, and then he even came up with the answer in the form of an amazing excel spreadsheet that figures it out for you using formulas. Formulas! On a theatre-in-the-woods retreat!
The key was remembering a math concept called “combinations (without repetition)” – just coming up with the right concept took a little while. Did I mention I was having problems articulating the question?
It turns out what I was asking for was the total number of possible scenes, depending on total number of characters in the play, using different combinations of characters. So, for example, if there are 8 characters in a play, then the total number of 1-character scenes possible in that play is 8. The total number of 8-character scenes possible is of course, 1. The trick is figuring out all the combinations of 5-character scenes and 3-character scenes, etc. In an 8 character play, there are a total of 255 unique combinations of different characters on stage. The only thing is, the formulas only give you the number of combinations. You would have to figure out yourself what each of the unique combinations are.
For example, here are the 28 unique combinations for 2-character scenes in an 8-character play: ab, ac, ad, ae, af, ag, ah, bc, bd, be, bf, bg, bh, cd, ce, cf, cg, ch, de, df, dg, dh, ef, eg, eh, fg ,fh, gh
Here is what the basic formula looks like in my fancy spreadsheet (thank you Jason Weber!!):
with B7 containing the total number of characters and A10 containing the # of characters in a scene
Ah, math. Sometimes you are so helpful.
When should you let your audience “in” on what’s happening? When should you keep it a big, heavy, elephant-in-the-room secret? All plays have some elements of both – one of the jobs of the playwright is to measure the balance between what the audience knows and doesn’t know, and how and when to withhold or impart information. Sometimes when you want the audience to know something, the quick and dirty way to accomplish that is to just tell them. Why bother with fancy tricks to get your most important exposition across? Want your audience to know that one character thinks the other one is crazy? Just tell them!
[Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.
This is a nice little essay about the use of direct address in a few contemporary plays.
A couple of my favorite examples of plays that use monologues spoken straight to the audience (aka an aside or in a slightly different sense, a soliloquy) are Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. These plays are a story being told and acted out for the audience. The play is aware of itself being a play, and the characters consistently break the fourth wall. Like a Greek chorus, they narrate story as it goes along. So, yes it is an old contrivance, and a very effective, if blunt, instrument. And yes, sometimes blunt is an excellent thing.
Elizabeth Streb takes a look at the everyday movement of walking. Reminds me to look at performance from – literally – new angles, and to think about context and the value of looking at commonplace things out of context to see them anew.
Painting Music with Andy Strain