When playwrights go to theatre, we presumably go to enjoy ourselves. We may be thrilled, bored, surprised, offended, delighted, so many possible reactions. When playwrights are called on to give feedback on other playwrights’ work, we suddenly become scientists, detectives, housekeepers. Scientist, detective, and housekeeper are honorable professions. Nevertheless, I believe the practice of bringing these outlooks into feedback sessions has become dysfunctional, even harmful in the age of contemporary theatre.
Spoiler alert: This post may briefly give away important plot points, surprises, and endings to 4000 Miles; The Ashes; Circle Mirror Transformation; Clybourne Park; Honey Brown Eyes; In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play; The Internationalist; The Lily’s Revenge; and Se Llama Cristina.
I am a playwright who is interested in new work. I go to living room readings, as well as scene, unrehearsed and staged readings by many different groups and theatres in the San Francisco Bay area. I frequently take part in the feedback sessions that occur following these readings.
Often, one playwright or another, sometimes several, provides feedback objecting to the lack of one or more of the following: a clearly-identified strong, single protagonist who takes rational, active steps to overcome significant obstacles toward their clearly-identified want, a difficult but achievable, significant goal. Whether the protagonist will achieve this goal must serve as the clearly-identified major dramatic question (MDQ) of the play and the play must focus on that question. The protagonist must succeed at their goal or not based primarily on their own efforts, and be changed by this journey, their arc. There is also often an expectation of consistency in form from beginning to end. There is also sometimes an expectation that all information be in the dialog. Sometimes, the commenting playwright takes omissions as an opportunity to deliver a Lecture on Craft.
I’m describing the rules for a traditional play. There’s nothing wrong with a play being traditional, if that is what the playwright intended. However, the insistence of bringing up these rules for any play in development that is not on its face experimental runs counter to what is happening in contemporary professional and independent American theatre. When the rules show up in the discussion of a contemporary play, I call it The Checklist.
Here are my potentially flawed Checklist analyses of rules broken by some contemporary plays that I have seen at Equity theatres or read, typically in American Theatre magazine.
- 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog has no clear MDQ, no plot, two passive protagonists, wants that only show up once or twice, and an ending that follows from a peripheral off-stage character. Conflicts occur, but are often small and are quickly or never resolved. The only arc is of the two main characters – I hesitate to call them protagonists – becoming closer, but one of them leaves anyway.
- The Ashes by Thomas Bradshaw features characters who behave in irrational ways. The play ends with a completely different pair of characters than it began with, and any goals at the beginning are forgotten by the end.
- Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker has no clear protagonist. Wants are mostly small, and characters often seem to not be doing much to go after them. This pursuit is the focus of only a small portion of the play; most of the focus is on acting classes.
- Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris has characters who either face no barrier to their wants or else have wants that cannot be achieved. The goals and MDQ are completely forgotten midway through Act II as the conversation degenerates into off-color joke-telling. There is no clear protagonist. Act I is on its face traditional in style while Act II is a bunch of people sitting around talking. The play ends in a flashback to shortly before the start of Act I.
- Honey Brown Eyes by Stephanie Zadravec features characters who have no control over achieving their goal or who just sit around talking. The only arcs are of two pairs of protagonists becoming closer, but one of the first pair is shot by the other when she turns her back and one of the second pair simply sneaks away, not knowing that the one they are going to seek has been shot.
- In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl is realistic until the very last minute, where it springs into magical realism. This moment is specifically written into the script.
- The Internationalist by Anne Washburn features a character with small wants and poorly equipped to reach them nevertheless reaching them without spending much of the play pursuing them, and the success comes off-stage and unheard. The play is as concerned with discovering the intricacies of the culture as with pursuing any goal. Much of the dialog is in an invented language; actors have the translations but there are no supertitles for the audience.
- The Lily’s Revenge by Taylor Mac is a four-hour-plus work in which each act is completely different from the others.
- Se Llama Cristina by Octavio Solis has two passive protagonists who make irrational decisions. It adds direct audience address to the mix about two-thirds of the way through the play. The play is mostly in English but there’s a several-minutes-long phone call in Spanish partway through with no supertitles; the character even answers the phone in Spanish without any indication that the caller speaks Spanish. There are about 15 seconds of magical realism and occasional stylized dialog in the otherwise realistic script.
I enjoyed all but one of these plays. I read that play, and expect to enjoy it when I see it, given the difference between reading a play and seeing it in full production and what I know of other works of the author.
These are just a sample of the plays I’ve either read or seen at theatres that do contemporary work. Breaking one or many rules is a trend in modern theatre. It is common. It is – dare I say it – mainstream.
(As a side note, rule-breaking is not new. Going backward in time: August Wilson’s work, which I admire, has often been more about the language and creating the world of the characters than about the MDQ; this is particularly true of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Seven Guitars. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman features a protagonist who has no hope of achieving his want and who takes irrational steps to pursue it. Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, I am told, features protagonists who do nothing to pursue their wants. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is famously inconsistent about pursuing his want, and As You Like It has a direct audience address at the end by the actor playing the Rosalind despite there being no corresponding out-of-character address early in the play. It is just recently that rule-breaking is no longer the exception.)
Thus, it is reasonable for playwrights to want to write plays this way. Yet, during feedback sessions, other playwrights giving feedback are too often too willing to don the traditional rules hat and get out The Checklist.
I’m not even sure calling it rule-breaking is useful. I don’t know how these playwrights set out to write these plays – I’ll have to ask Octavio Solis about Se Llama Cristina as he too is active in Bay Area theatre and our paths occasionally cross – but I suspect that most of them did not start with the thought, “Today I will break this rule, and that rule, oh, and let’s break that rule.” Well, I rather imagine Taylor Mac did. And Thomas Bradshaw, who I’ve taken a class from, said in an interview something to the effect that if we can’t understand half of what our family does, why do we expect characters in a play to behave rationally?
I respectfully suggest two other models as alternatives to The Checklist for looking at contemporary plays, The Toolkit and The Palette.
An electrician wouldn’t bring a carpenter’s toolbox to do electrical wiring. It’s not that they’re rejecting the hammer and nails, it’s that an ohmmeter and wire strippers are more appropriate to the task, while a screwdriver would probably be in both toolkits.
An artist doesn’t use every color in their collection when doing a painting. They work from a photograph or a live scene or a mental image, and choose the colors that are appropriate for the effect they are trying to create to bring that image to the canvas. If this effect requires Titanium White, then they place Titanium White on their work palette for that painting; if it doesn’t, then Titanium White doesn’t even enter their consciousness. It’s not about rejecting some colors, it’s about embracing other colors. And sometimes, Titanium White might actually be there, but in small and intentionally subtle amounts, because the artist wants Titanium White to influence the piece, not control it.
It’s important for playwrights to attend readings of other playwrights’ work. It’s difficult to evaluate a play that’s still taking shape, or to tell when it’s done. If a contemporary play has, as most seem to do, any semblance of a realistic style, it’s easy to mistake it for a traditional play and to bring out The Checklist. I hope playwrights, including myself, will resist that impulse, as that impulse is not serving contemporary plays and can be disrespectful to the playwright’s work.
This is not to say that anything goes, that we are not to pursue excellence in dramatic works. I get bored by self-indulgent work just as much as the next audience member does. I’m just saying that if the writing playwright is to pursue that excellence, they are still free to choose whether to write with The Checklist, The Toolbox, or The Palette. And if we the viewing, listening playwrights are to achieve excellence in our feedback, we need to respect the writing playwright’s choices and learn to give feedback which is appropriate to the play they are trying to write. We have to be more skilled in our feedback than simply applying The Checklist regardless of whether it is appropriate to the play in question.