So, you’ve finished your play. More importantly, you can actually write. Let us begin with that second premise before going any further, shall we? We will grant you skills that would allow you a shot at an actual production provided you shake the right hands, exercise the necessary discipline and remember there is a business side to this equation. For the sake of this argument, this essay will grant you talent, because without it, none of what is about to be laid out here will make any difference.
So, you’ve finished your play, and it is obviously the work of a talent. And you did it exactly the way the workshop, professor, or how-to-book laid it out. You kept your cast limit under 7, confined it to one location, and controlled the language to the point where its running time came in under two hours. And because you know the dynamics of theatrical reality you made sure your cast has a 3 to 2 ratio of women to men, or something akin.
Essentially, you are a Capitalist Neoclassicist: an adherent to a format that would’ve taken Eugene Scribe’s breath away. You know the score. Equity contracts, declining arts budgets, and a provincial navel gazing sensibility has compacted non-musical theatre into a size 6 shoe box. Convinced by those around you any other option is professional suicide, you have positioned yourself in the bushes next to a suburban home’s window, on top of the earth where André Antoine is buried, and dutifully crammed your laughs or your tears into someone’s living room, kitchen or bedroom. If you do change locations, you make sure the multiple spaces have minimal furniture or geographic details and can be achieved by the whisper of a light cue and an exiting actor’s dutiful chair pick up. If you have something profound to say, you mute its politics to the point of generic, and that message you save for the conclusion of both acts. That’s right, both acts, because you know better than adding a third.
After all, this is what the book/teacher/seminar told you. The economy of playwriting is such that if your work stretches the boundaries of the producible a wee fraction beyond the bottom line, you can forget about it moving past the reading/workshop stage. And if by some willful act of ferocious talent it does move past that stage, it comes with the caveat of having to limit settings, reduce cast lists, and shrink the time frame to a point that makes a futurist drama seem like The Ring Cycle.
So, you’ve finished your play, it is of some quality, and you’ve done your duty by appeasing the modern equivalent of a benign French Academy. You make the rounds with this clever solution of a shell game, get some really great feedback, and make it to the final rounds of selection or consideration. It is only a matter of time before your slavish adherence to the rules of this game pay off with the undoubted aves vehement you rightly deserve.
And you cannot get it produced.
Often you get the second, better, more encouraging rejection letter that has the personal touch, edifies your belief in your talent, and encourages you to keep submitting. Yes, they’ve got their eye on you, but this particular play is just missing a little something. They cannot put their finger on it, do not want to be prescriptive, and certainly do not want to question your talent. Therefore, since you have not been selected, you will get nothing more than silence for your play’s rejection.
But the truth of the matter is that you know what is wrong. You know what is missing, don’t you? There were the two characters you had to cut that prevented you from not only showing your full chops as dialogist but also thematically balanced the dour message of your central character. Or the backyard next to the kitchen that you could not bring yourself to include in the landscape of the play. You cut it out of fear the description of that fully realized world would make a theatre’s managing director your biggest enemy at the selection table. Finally, you know if you could just restore that gorgeous midpoint monologue in the second act, people would see the importance of what it is you have to say about current conditions in our country.
But you had to sacrifice one of those three things to slip through the gates of Capitalist Neoclassicism. In fact, you sacrificed all three: time, place, and action. You became so subservient to form that you forgot what interested you in telling the story in the first place. A vibrancy of life more characters offers, a more detailed world to be found in multiple locations, or the breadth of vision that can be alluded toward with an extra twenty minutes evaporated into your desperate need to produce. All gone in an effort to win over some regional theatre version of Cardinal Richelieu.
Your Capitalist Neoclassicism has led you into an artistic recession of sorts. You’re like Greece: doing exactly what it is the experts have told you to do only to find your circumstance more untenable. Your austerity program of cuts and contractions is only proving to be counter-productive to your stated goal of theatrical growth for your artistic imagination. These are desperate times, and if you don’t want to simply withdraw the play from circulation, you may have to engage it what seems to be the most reckless course of actions. Since Paul Krugman is not a dramaturg and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is dead, you’ll have to settle for me, allow me to synthesize their ideas and accept the advice I am about to give.
Expand the play. You can do it by employing what I like to call Keynesian Romanticism. A combination of fiscal expansionary policy and Germanic dramaturgy, it allows you to inject the economy of your play with stimulus measures and create something capable of sustaining your growth as a playwright. The act of playwriting, like running a government, is not the equivalent of managing a household or businesses. Therefore, concerns about the bottom line in rough times is contradictory to the health of the organism of which the playwright is in control. Belt tightening might put food on the family table or please shareholders, however, when employed by governments or theatrical creators it strangles vibrant growth.
Having cut in vain, there is nowhere to go but out. It feels like something is missing, because something is missing. Now, I am not suggesting that you turn your 5 character kitchen sink drama into August: Osage County, The Iceman Cometh or Jerusalem, but I would guess you would rather be closer to their imaginative economies than the one you are living in currently. You need to decide what it is your play needs to live and inject its economy with those necessary components; rules and regulations be damned.
Plays that lack usually suffer from one of three aforementioned deprivations: character, landscape, or worldview. Here is where Lessing’s thoughts play into your program as well. The dramaturg to end all dramaturgs believed that the French Neoclassical model had cast a shadow over playwriting in Europe, perverted the true meaning of Aristotle’s Poetics into a prescriptive entity and relegated the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries to a place outside of the academy of thought.
Lessing was not advocating a disregard of either style or form. His prescription was not a promiscuity of method. However, in Lessing’s writing, there is an overall program of not allowing structural imperatives to impede compelling dramatic thought. In other words, he sees Aristotle’s project as one of description in the assistance of capturing spirit rather than restriction in the service of results. Unity is a feeling rather than a format, and formula is a tool rather than a program. The destination is a great play not its precise construction.
Writing is an adventure where the journey informs, rather than guarantees, the destination. Writing plotted on guarantees allows for safe harbors, unearned endings and inconsequential arrivals. That might be how we want our own transatlantic crossings to transpire, but it is certainly not what we are hoping for from a night at the theatre. One of my favorite quotes by Lessing bears this out:
They make glorious shipwreck who are lost in seeking worlds.
If this was not the case, then Viola never becomes Cesario, and there is no Twelfth Night. Safe navigation through that storm means stasis in Ilyria, and that, in turn, means Malvolio shuts up the world around Olivia and banishes the cake and ale of Toby Belch. Hearts are not restored, and the only journey becomes pilgrimage to the graves of lost loves. Thank you, but I will not be attending.
Lessing is not suggesting that we drive our work onto the rocks in order to create a spectacular effect. The quote contains the thought that any artistic journey undertaken not containing the prospect of disastrous results is not a journey. It is a trade route, a cashing in on tried and true results. Writing such as that may be pleasant and satisfying in its immediate delivery, but it does not linger, it does resonate. What that writing lacks is the territory with which The Romantics were so obsessed: The Wilderness. For that particular imagination, that place of possibility and truth was the unspoiled country from which travelers could return refreshed and with new perspective. Yes, that journey was with risks, glorious shipwrecks, but those seemed a small price to pay when contemplating the promise of a world from which to begin anew. Savage cultures, threatening natural elements, and a lack of law and order were the dangerous promise for prospective adventurers.
And those three dangerous promises contain the energies your play lacks: character, landscape, and worldview. Taking your play into the wilderness offers all those possibilities, because you are no longer playing it safe. A glorious shipwreck is possible. That Romantic journey is a stimulus measure meant to restore what the rules, regulations and mores of that which your current surroundings have deprived you. Taking that unchartered route will present you with options for reviving the life of your moribund text. You need not draw from the inspirational well of all three to return your play to its necessary course. However, once you rectify one navigational error, you will often find the course correction spreads to all elements.
Imagine the savage culture of New Orleans without Steve, Eunice and the host of sailors, flower women, and ne’er-do-wells that populate its landscape. A Streetcar Named Desire actually becomes The Struggle for the Bathroom Epic that Mary McCarthy accused it of being during its original run. Conceive of The Fifth of July, August: Osage County, or Death of a Salesman set only in the living room of those homes. The damaging, whispered secrets held in the shadowy corner of those landscapes are lost in direct confrontations and rapid fire entrances and exits.
Finally, suppose, for the sake of length, Johnny “Rooster” Byron never tells his story of his meeting with The Giant in Jerusalem, Big Daddy never articulates, but merely alludes to, his former employers relationship in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or the Roy Cohn/Ethel Rosenberg’s subplot from Angels in America is incisively cut. Design the dramaturgy where all all those moments are disposed of in a line or short monologue. All those plays still exist, but they are diminished, lacking a previous grandeur, an articulation of a wider world view.
This is not to say that four people or less in a confined location cannot rise to the level of a full force gale. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Look Back in Anger, American Buffalo, Closer, and countless others have thunderclapped on only a quartet or trio of voices. However, those were the actual chartered navigations of the adventure; those are the journeys those plays wanted to take. It is not a case of a me-and-you-in-the-livingroom concession in lieu of greater designs, but instead, brutal maelstroms of a moment, lightning of insight gone in an instant but unforgettable flash.
So, if your play is a savage confrontation in a lifeboat with nowhere to go but the deep dark, then, by all means, have at it. Just make sure all your crew are equally armed to fight for rations on the waves ahead. However, if the choices you are making are about the survival of your play, stop. You need to remember that it is your characters’ job to survive. It is your job to injure them, drown them, and/or strand them in a glorious shipwreck. They may not be the better for it, but your play will.
Let the imaginative recovery begin.