The distance between Act I and Act II

One of the things I am interested in exploring as I develop my skills as a playwright is the distance between Act I and Act II.

Often there is no distance: Act II begins exactly at the moment where Act I left off. Sometimes there is a time gap, whether a day, week, month or year later when changes have taken place in the characters’ lives in the intervening time. But what I am talking about is not time distance. I’m talking about structural distance.

In my play Rice Kugel, Act I (“Journey to the West”) covers several months over the course of 13 scenes. We follow the story from when Bill and Richard meet to when they are in a relationship and having a significant confrontation over their roles in their relationship. Act II (“Romance of the Three Kingdoms”) has just two scenes plus an intervening monologue; the first scene covers a fateful afternoon, at least partially triggered by the conflict, just a week or so later; the second scene, set a few months later, covers a crisis point in the resolution of the events of the first scene; basically I put these afternoon/evenings under a microscope.

Interestingly, at the staged reading, friends who were not into a lot of theatre preferred Act I while colleagues who were playwrights preferred Act II. While I wasn’t trying to experiment with structure at the time, this mismatch attracted my interest.

I am just now working on my second two-act play, My Visit to America. In this play, I push the distance between the two acts even further. First, the two acts only have one character in common. Act I has a second character while Act II has three completely different characters besides the common one.

Second, Act I (“Miami”) and Act II (“London”) could each, with a few line changes in Act II, be performed independently as one-act play. The experience of viewing Act II as Act II would, if I do my job as a playwright, be a completely different experience from viewing the London one-act because of the differences in when the audience learns things as they watch that act. Obviously, for that to happen, there has to be some lying and/or concealment going on (and there is).

Third, while I see the common character between the two scenes as the protagonist of the whole play, the protagonist in Act I could easily be the other character. And Act II is more of an ensemble piece.

Fourth, Act I could easily be seen as a comedy-drama, while Act II is more clearly a drama with comedic elements.

I like to describe My Visit to America as an experimental play disguised as a realistic play. Will this experiment work? That remains to be seen. But I think I will learn a lot from trying it and have fun in the process.

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