Playwriting and the Pet Peeves of Others


There’s an incredibly useful article over at the Playwrights Center website (not Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, the group I’m involved with, but the national one in Minneapolis), Tips From Artistic Directors. In that article, there are a lot of positive tips: send your best work, follow guidelines, and many more.

Two ADs chose to include their pet peeves. Among these were opening monologues and phone calls. They suggested only using opening monologues if absolutely necessary and keeping phone calls to two or three lines. I’m assuming – I could be wrong – the ADs are referring to those phone calls where we only hear one side of the conversation.

One of my works contains two long one-sided phone calls and several have opening monologues. Do I:

1. Remove them immediately?
2. Make them better?
3. Not send them to these particular ADs?

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I’ve heard anti-monologue, not just anti-opening-monologue, preference before over my years of getting play feedback. Yet, at the Playwrights Foundations’ Des Voix Festival of contemporary French plays in English translation, a common occurrence is plays consisting largely of many long, long monologues, including opening monologues. These plays are getting productions in France, and I was entertained by their translations in staged reading.

So it’s not necessarily that monologues or opening monologues are inherently wrong. As with anything there are issues of taste (others’) and craft (one’s own) involved. So I think I would reject blindly following step one. I have to be true to my play. That said, sometimes I might determine that a monologue, opening or not, was not necessary and remove it, just as I might excise a single exchange here or there. Cutting is often in order anywhere in a play. Monologues, while often in need of some love, are not in my book inherently to be considered suspect.

Playing devil’s advocate, I want to warn against being too tight. A friend of mine who occasionally sees plays says that today’s plays are so tight that if she misses a line she spends ten minutes trying to catch up. This is a creative person who is a ravenous reader. So sometimes there is justification for some looseness and belaboring a point an extra line or two, and for a monologue here and there, even an opening one.

And how does one determine if an opening monologue is necessary? So I go back and look at my full-length works.

Rice Kugel (gay sex farce/racial drama) – Necessary to make the play less realistic, so that when the sex scenes are stylized as parallel monologues in the less explicit version, they don’t seem out of place. Relatively short at 185 words. Broken up by interjections by other characters. Verdict: I think it’s well-written, and look at making it better.

Hemlock (gay dramedy) – No opening monologue.

The Beginning of Grammar (experimental comedy) – Probably not necessary, or could be a lot shorter than its current 2-3 pages. Look at removing it? Treat it as a one-person show? How do you even determine these things for experimental plays? Verdict: Look at it when rewriting the whole play, which it needs.

My Visit to America (alternate history drama) – Necessary. Reading audiences were getting lost when I dived right into the action. Shortish at 280 words. Diegetic, although this is not obvious until the end of the monologue. Contains vivid imagery which gets more vivid as the monologue progresses. Verdict: Necessary and well-written. That said, a play is never complete and I just today made a late image in the monologue even more vivid and cut a few words at the same time.

Evil Fan (horror melodramedy) – Not sure. See what the play would be like without it, or if the monologue was shorter. Devil’s Advocate: Fits with the form. Serves as a marker for the opening of each of the three acts; is interrupted in the third act to break expectations. Monologue is in the form of a letter; there are (a small number of) plays out there consisting entirely of reading letters aloud.

Alex Drove a Red Car (experimental drama) – No opening monologue.

[play in first draft] (ironic comedy) – Opening monologue. Lots of monologues. My attempt to write a contemporary French play in English. Verdict: Fits with the form. It’s a first draft, so it’s a given that I have multiple rewrites ahead of me to make it better.

Now, on to the phone calls. I have to say my own pet peeve surrounding phone calls is the one-sided ones where the caller on stage repeats back things the other side says. This needs to be done judiciously such that it’s only done, at least in a realistic play, when the on-stage caller would naturally be repeating things back, such as making sure one got instructions correctly. Otherwise, it clearly comes across as feeding information to the audience.

One way I fight this in my own plays is to write the other side of the conversation into my script as stage directions. That way, if the phone conversation doesn’t read to me as a natural phone conversation, I know I have some editing to do.

So, as to my plays:

Rice Kugel – One long phone call, both characters on stage. Conflict and plot movement. Stays.

Hemlock – One medium phone call, both characters on stage. Look at making shorter or more dramatic.

The Beginning of Grammar – No phone calls. Yet. Might add some if it would make the play crazier.

My Visit to America – Two long one-sided phone calls, one in each act. Things go wrong during both of the phone calls; the on-stage caller is clearly thrown off balance. I believe I have made the calls dramatic and kept the exposition unheard on the other end of the line. Again, one can always find edits.

Alex Drove a Red Car – No phone calls.

[play in first draft] – No phone calls.

Actually,Ā My Visit to America violates one of their other pet peeves, in that a couple major plot points happen offstage (something that was a major feature of ancient Greek drama). I believe it’s justified here in that (1) it keeps the number of settings to two, one for each act, and (2) the offstage events are political machinations while the onstage events are personal ones.

So, my overall verdict is that my monologues and phone calls are mostly justified and well-written, and where they might not beĀ I have some decisions to make. And the major offstage developments need to be kept offstage.

That said, it would probably make sense for me not to annoy these two ADs by sending my work to them. I assume there are other ADs who feel the same way, and others who do not, but I have no way to tell who is who. Plays do get produced with opening monologues (Richard III or Homebody/Kabul, anyone?), so the feeling is clearly not universal. It would be good if theatres having particular preferences, rather than assuming their preference is universal, were to put those preferences clearly on their submission pages or in their blogs.

That would leave me to make my play the best it can be, whatever conventions I choose as right for that play, and enable me to direct it to appropriate theatres.

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