Sunday, July 29, 2007

Are Closed Shops Good for Theater?

I don't have a home theater. So I spend a fair amount of time surfing the net, looking for theaters that produce new work. And it seems that more and more of small theaters in Chicago that produce new work have an in-house playwright. In most cases (though not all) that in-house playwright is the only new work that theater performs. I'll admit that I find that frustrating. But I'm trying to work through that personal frustration and ask - is the practice of in-house playwrights good for playwrights? Is it good for theater?

I'll tell you right off that I don't have a full answer for this one. So I'm just going to lay out the arguments as they bounce around my head and see if people are willing to talk about closed shops.

Good for Playwrights
For the in-house playwright, the benefits are clear. Production is the greatest learning tool a playwright has. The more productions, the more chances to become a better writer. And of course there's that incredible satisfaction of seeing something you've dreamed up come to life. More productions means more of your dreams come true.

Bad For Playwrights
For the in-house playwright, there's the danger of becoming comfortably mediocre. I've watched many a feedback session turn into an exercise of group-think where everyone convinces themselves that the playwrights intentions have actually been manifested in the script. We all want to be doing important work, and sometimes we manage to convince ourselves that we are despite all indications to the contrary. It usually takes an outside eye, an eye with a different agenda, to bring us up short and see how reality lines up with our hopes for the piece. I imagine that in a closed shop, that outside eye is in short supply. I'll admit, that's a major assumption - there are plenty of ways of working that will ensure there is outside input. But with an in-house playwright, it seems that the chances of that self-fulfilling feedback are much higher.

For those of us without a home theater, the "bad for playwrights" angle may be too hard to separate from professional jealousy. Outside of the in-house system, it feels like yet another opportunity to get work read or produced has been lost. That frustration makes it easy to feel like theaters with in-house playwrights are more interested in producing their friend's work than looking for new voices in theater. Rationally, I can see that those two things aren't mutually exclusive. But there is an argument to be made that by producing only the work of your in-house writer and then that one Mamet play all the actors want to do, the theater with in-house writers are shutting out other developing playwrights.

At times, it feels like the only way to get your work done is to produce it yourself. Which brings us to the good for theater question.

Grant a premise so that I may continue: the more theaters with in-house writers there are, the more playwrights are going to be interested in starting their own theaters. In other words, the fewer options for someone else to produce it, the more likely it is you'll produce it yourself.

Good For Theater
More theaters means more diversity, right? Lots of different styles, lots of different subject matter. And more theaters means more productions, so writers get better and people can see work about those subjects that they've really been dying to see. A bit rosy, perhaps, but that's the theory.

Bad For Theater
The rosy prediction rests on a couple of key assumptions. 1) That each company is doing something decidedly different - that is, that the number of companies reflects a number of unique worldviews. 2) That each company is creating their own audiences from non-theater going people.

I'll leave it to the reader to decide if each storefront out in Chicago really does have something unique to be bringing to the stage. But I've been around enough small productions to wonder about the whole audience creation idea. I've been to any number of shows where the only folks in the audience are somehow personally connected to someone in the company or cast. And as a result, I fear that the more of us that choose to create our own theaters to see our own work produced, fracture that audience even further, dividing each small theater into its little fiefdom of twenty dedicated audience members.

It seems to me that instead of each of us breaking off on our own, and producing our own work, we should look at ways to bring our audiences together. To cross-pollinate. And it seems to me at least one way to do that is to move our playwrights around from house to house.

Alright - so I have come to a working conclusion. That closed shop theaters stand in the way of nurturing writers and developing audiences. But I'm willing to admit that's just professional jealousy talking.

Anyone willing to help me see beyond that professional frustration?

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

What is a subplot anyway?

I'm working on a new play and I'm considering including a sub-plot. Except I don't know what a sub plot is.

Having never tried to implement one, I've though of a sub-plot as some sort of secondary storyline that somehow parallels or comments on the main plot. But as I've started conceiving the structure of my newest play, I'm finding that definition doesn't help me in practice.

I apologize for the obtuseness that's about to follow, but because the new play is being targeted at a specific theater, I don't want to get into public details at this time.

So - I have a protagonist, and I've articulated his main goal for myself. I've set up a likely antagonist who provides an obstacle to that goal. And then I realized I had left a character out of this central push-pull. This third character causes the death of the protagonist's father, and is central to a major theme of the play.

My carefully constructed framework began to crumble before my very eyes. If I included this third character in the antag/protag conflict, I would water down my central dramatic question. But I don't want to give up this third character and his themes!

So I thought: subplot.

I'm focusing now on the "plot" in subplot. Rather than being a secondary consideration of the protagonist, the subplot will have its own sub-antagonist and sub-protagonist. There will be points of intersection where the plots complicate each other, and a catastrophic intersection (the death of the main-protag's father).

I think the play will look something like this:

Notice I'm thinking here of plot as generated by the push-pull of the protag/antag pair.

My attempt at sub-plot raises further questions for me. What's the difference between a plot/subplot structure and a multi-plot structure like Crash or Arcadia? What's the difference between plot/subplot and a structure where there are secondary protagonist concerns? For example, pick any action movie where the hero has to save the world and also is marriage is falling apart.

I think I'm going to re-read King Lear and look at that plot structure. How are other (living!) writers working on subplots?

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Telling vs. Storytelling

Playwrights think of themselves as storytellers. We throw that word around all the time. It’s often used to describe the reason we set out upon the arduous task of writing a play.

“Why do you write plays?”

“Well, ultimately, because I’m a storyteller…”

This is all fine and good- most of the time I’m a storyteller, too. Or at least I tell myself that. But every time we put words to paper are we truly being storytellers? We should know for sure- because storytelling is our business, right?

So does anyone know EXACTLY what it means to be a storyteller in the theater? I feel like it’s a word I use often- but I don’t have any kind of tangible definition for it. I feel that I do see work that is NOT storytelling. (Somehow I can’t define the word for myself, but I can definitely pinpoint when a playwright is NOT being a storyteller.)

I’ve sat in a theater and watched plays that I would not consider storytelling, but the audience still loved it. 10-minute plays do this all the time. These mini-plays are often just two characters sitting around talking. The dialogue is humorous and entertaining, but ultimately, there is no beginning, middle or end. The characters are never really in conflict with each other- there are no real needs or wants between the two.

There are full length productions that follow this pattern. “I Sailed with Magellan” that just played at Victory Gardens and “August: Osage County” currently at Steppenwolf are two that come to mind. These productions seem to be collages of scenes. There is no sense of a beginning, middle and end- or a story arch for the entire play.

So I guess my question is this: what makes a play a piece of storytelling? And if it’s not storytelling, then is it just plain “telling?” Is one better than the other?

So far, I have a couple of examples to differentiate between TELLING and STORYTELLING:
- In STORYTELLING, the wants and needs of characters are carried out through the entire play.
- In TELLING, the wants and needs of characters operate predominantly on a scene-by-scene basis.
- In STORYTELLING, there is a clear beginning, middle and end. In other words, there is a dramatic question which is tied to the inciting incident. Once the dramatic question is answered, the play has resolution and therefore ends.
- In TELLING, structure is more a "slice of life," with little concern for structure. The concern seems to be more character and dialogue based, rather than structure based.

Anyone have any thoughts on this??

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U Build It, We Play It

I'm striving to read a lot more non-fiction, and have started reading non-theater blogs like Tantalus Prime. The cross currents have stirred a new idea that I'm looking to develop as a possible late-night interactive form.

It all started as I was reading The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. The book, which covers the history of a cholera outbreak in 1854 London, made a great point about technological and intellectual advances: "Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age." Johnson also made an interesting point about John Snow - a scientist whose work is discussed in the book. He suggested that Snow was certainly intelligent, but his great skill was in the ability to make observations in one area and apply the lessons learned to an apparently unconnected area.

That observation -and a certain feeling of staleness as I've been thinking about playwriting- has led to my leapfrogging through various disciplines, trying to get my sluggish brain churning again. I came across Unit Structures, which in turn led me to the Summer Doctoral Program at Oxford which finally led me to Scratch.

Scratch is a kind of programming language slash social site where you can snap together brightly colored blocks of code to create animations, games, stories and more. Its fun and a little addictive. You should check it out so my concept makes a little more sense.

Scratch got me thinking about story structure and the building blocks of playwriting. And also how writing and theater is supposed to be fun.

So my concept: U Build it, We Play It. I envision having a large bin of giant, brightly colored foam blocks. The building blocks of playwriting. Each block would be labeled with a different function: Surprising Reveal, Violent Refusal, Leapfrog Transition. The functions would be analogous to Inciting Incident, Rising Action, etc. They would just need to be a little more specific so we can create more than five blocks.

The audience comes in and individual or in groups build three to five towers using the story structure elements. The playwrights for the evening have say twenty minutes to translate the story structure towers into playable text. During this time the audience could be entertained by live music or a DJ - if in a bar, ample time to get your drink on.

As soon as the twenty minutes are up, actors receive print-outs of the scripts, have a moment to look over the script and then they are performed. Script in hand, on your feet readings.

I think this could be a fun time. A lot of fun and creativity can go into creating those story structure blocks. And the audience can get a charge out of seeing the relationship between the selected story elements and the performed text. In the spirit of Scratch, I could even see an online version where the structures are built on line and people can go into the theater the day their structure will be performed.

So - what do you think? And what might some story structure blocks be?

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Reveal

The playwright slowly pulled pack layers of craft to reveal...

What exactly is a "reveal?" I use the term all the time - but recently I realized that not everyone using the term means the same thing.

Yesterday, I participated in the Many Voices Project at Chicago Dramatists. During the feedback to the short play written by Tyla Abercrombie, an audience member said something to the effect of "And then we had the reveal that the woman had committed suicide..." I've been replaying that sentence over and over in my head. Because certainly we learned that the woman had committed suicide. But was it a reveal?

Note - the post show discussion at Many Voices Project raised some questions for me about the purpose of such discussions. Consider this an open call for people to hold forth on what post-show discussions should and should not be.

This isn't a critique of Tyla Abercrombie's piece. Rather, the audience member's comment inspired some thoughts on the concept of a "reveal." It also made me wonder if a low threshold for the concept of a reveal could explain why so many writers confuse the introduction of new information with dramatic action.

Tyla Abercrombie's piece was touching and funny. In the piece, two women are discussing the funeral of their friend - a funeral from which they have just returned. We learn much about the woman who passed - she had a fierce sense of humor, she was a lesbian, she was estranged from her family, and yes, that she killed herself. This information is doled out to us as these two friends laugh and grieve.

But to me, a reveal is much more than transmitting new information. A reveal is the appearance of information we have been hungering for. A reveal is, well, a revelation.

In other words, in order for a piece of new information to rise to the level of reveal it must be connected to the dramatic question of the piece. A reveal is closely linked to a perception shift - after the reveal, our understanding of the world of the play completely changes.

For example, in a murder mystery, the identity of the murderer is a reveal. If along the way, we learn that the detective's mother was also a murder victim, it might give us insight into his motives, but it is not a reveal.

Importantly, a reveal is not simply withheld information. We've all sat through scenes in which characters speak cryptically, avoiding directly naming the subject of their conversation. Often, when we finally learn the subject, the circumlocution is groan-inducing.

So a reveal is a piece of information that changes our perception of the world of the play, and answers a question the audience has been asking. A reveal demands action of the characters in the play. Anything else is just new information.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Why is TV Better than Theater?

John From Cincinnati pulled off the one of the most unique scenes I've seen on stage or screen in last Sunday's episode. You can read the text here.

The scene and the speech is probably generating a lot of discussion by fans of the show --I'm not sure I count myself as one yet. But that discussion is going to be about what the speech means within the confines of the world Milch et al are creating. The question that leaps to mind for me is: why isn't theater doing anything this interesting or this confounding?

Sure - there's plenty of the self-appointed vanguard out there doing opaque work. But my exposure to that world has always included a feeling of "Well, if you don't get it, fuck you." The thing that confounds me about John From Cincinnati is how generous it is as it completely runs itself off the rails. Somewhere, somehow, Milch and company are saying "It's OK if you don't get it right now. Hang in there, come along for the ride."

Part of that is in the way they've built John's character. We've been taught in steps that he parrots words and that he rearranges those found phrases for his own meaning. Structurally, we've been prepared to hear and listen to John's speech. We've been taught the rules of John's behavior over the last four episodes and now the writers have taken those rules and built something suprising and unique.

So perhaps that's one structural lesson to take from the last episode: teach the rules of the world, riff on the rules of the world. In the shows of the self-appointed vanguardists, its often step one that's missing.

But what else is this show doing structurally to make it OK to be completely confounded?

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Sunday, July 15, 2007


Lights fade. Blackout. Crossfade. Are these the only tools the playwright has to control the transitions between scenes?

I am obsessed with scene transitions. I can't tell you the number of live theater experiences I've had that have been tarnished by poor scene transitions. If hedge funds exist to exploit market inefficiencies, then I'm the hedge fund manager of scene transitions. Is that a tortured comparison? You bet it is. But its very awfulness should at least lodge this in your memory: we are losing valuable time to communicate meaning to our audience through inefficient scene transitions.

A well-executed professional production will at least minimize the time between scenes. In a large stage with multiple playing areas, the transition is often an eye-blink. But I believe that the way we move from one scene to another helps create meaning, and we're not using that to its fullest potential.

The problem, I think, lies in the very conventions of presenting plays on the page. Too often we simply write:

I can't believe you said that in front of Sandra!

(Hector exits)
(Lights rise on...)

And we have faith that a director and design team is going to handle that white space between Hector's exit and the top of scene three.

I fully support theater as a collaborative art. But I think that too often we playwrights are looking for our collaborators to solve problems we should be solving. In a traditional production - and by traditional in this context I mean one where a playwright has written a play independently, and a theater has chosen it for production - the play document itself is the nexus of collaboration. We are not doing our job as collaborative partners if we don't suggest clear visions for all aspects of the play, including scene transitions.

So how do we go about that? By developing a more expressive scene transition language. Keep experimenting with ways to communicate your vision. For example, in my play First Words, I envisioned seamless act breaks. Here I pick up near the end of the first scene:

DIANE begins to create a space around her. She walks to a desk. She places testing materials on her desk: a stand-up binder, a collection of sponge pieces. A stopwatch.

The government, the county, the schools have an obligation to serve each child to the best of our ability. And in order to best serve each child, we must determine exactly what that child needs. DIANE walks away from the desk, towards the audience.

That’s my job. That’s what I do.

What I should have done.

Behind DIANE, PAUL, BARBARA and AIDEN enter the desk area.


What do you mean no “significant improvement.”

Paul, please.

Not a quantum leap, I suppose. But detailing the movement I see and borrowing the convention of Continuous from film, I think I've created a more solid framework for collaboration.

What other techniques are people using to detail scene transitions?

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Punctuated Equilibrium

Tracy Letts' August: Osage County has me questioning some of my basic assumptions about story structure.

Osage County is just about three and a half hours long, including two intermissions. And while I personally didn't experience the transcendent "it felt like no time at all" that some audience members have claimed, it was all in all an engaging time in the theater.

There are some production questions I would raise in another forum, but I'm trying to stay on the right side of my self-imposed rules against reviews. What interests me here is the structure of the story.

Despite the dominance of the matriarch of the family, I would say there is no true protagonist. Likewise there is no single dominant story arc, no central spine of action. True, all the action is set into motion by the family returns to the homestead - so it is sent in motion by a single action. But unlike protagonist driven work, each of the subsequent choices do not link together in a chain of causal action.

Normally, I would find these kind of story structure to be flat, meandering. But somehow, Osage County remains engaging.

One of the tactics I see is what I'm calling "Punctuated Equilibrium," to borrow poorly from evolutionary theories. Each of the characters in Osage county are locked in some sort of stasis. Throughout the course of the play, each of those characters takes a stand or makes a choice - and the stasis is broken. This periodic punctuation definitely keeps us engaged. But these choices are not chained together - in some cases they operate almost independently. As a result, instead of story structure that looks like this:

We have a story structure that looks more like this:

There seem to be a fair number of some people call "ensemble plays." I've heard ensemble plays defined as a work were the characters act as a collective protagonist. But I've not really been satisfied with that definition. Could punctuated equilibrium be a valid way to look at ensemble story structure?

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Friday, July 13, 2007


I've discovered a new species of short play: the paralogue.

We recognize a short play that has a dialog structure. Two or more characters talking, each having roughly the same amount of "air time." And of course there is the monologue - be it direct address, poetic, or the interior mental landscape of the character.

But lately I've noticed more and more paralogues. A paralogue is a scene with two (or more) characters, in which one character overwhelmingly dominates the scene. A recent example is Stephen Cone's "We Came Here Because It's Beautiful" present at Collaboraction's Sketchbook.

In Chris Jones' review, he suggests that the pieces juxtaposes an "erotically forward old woman with a nervous new bride." I find that an interesting take: the piece was so dominated by the old woman that I'm not sure it rises to juxtaposition.

Don't get me wrong: I absolutely loved Cone's piece. I'm just wondering what's happening here structurally. In longer works, I tend to view the Character Interuptus as a cheat to disguise a monologue. Character A holds forth while Character Interuptus occasionally interjects to give the illusion of a conversation.

But somehow the same situation seems less artificial in a shorter format. In the paralogue, the domination of one character seems less a trick and more a function of the relationship. What's more, it seems a function of the dramatic structure of the piece. I just can't quite put my finger on what the mechanics are.

Perhaps one way to ask the question is this: in a paralogue, what is it that prevents us from simply cutting the other character and running the scene as a direct address monologue?

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Theatricality: A Definition

Theatricality is a term we playwrights throw around quite a bit. It seems to be a catch-all phrase for describing the degree of "theater-ness" a play or production has. There should be a more concrete definition of theatricality.

Like all good little theorists, I'll start by reaching back to Aristotle. In the Poetics, Aristotle defines drama as a species of imitation. There is a lot of argument about what exactly he meant by mimesis but for these purposes, I propose that imitation is the process of representing a reality in such a way that the audience can make the connection between the representation and the reality.

Support for this definition can be found in the Poetics: "First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood… and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.… The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure... Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, 'Ah, that is he.'"

So there is a distance between the representation and the thing represented. It is this distance that the audience crosses when they learn or infer the connection between representation and reality.

In American Realism, it appears as if the goal is to make the distance between the representation and the object of representation as small as possible. Certainly, mainstream television and film strive to minimize that distance. Even in fantasy and action films reviewers comment on how "real" the effects are.

Note: I am not one of those playwrights who look down their collective nose at television and film. If a television or film producer is reading this: please, back-up a dump truck of money to my door.

In theater - often due to lack of resources or the limitations of live performance - we can't always make things as "real" as American Realism might demand. Too often, we try to get as close as we can, and hope our audience will forgive crowbars that bend when you swing them, lakes represented by trap doors and mis-timed splashes of water, and other ridiculous semi-real attempts to make the impossible happen on stage.

On the other hand, there are productions that engage the physical limitations of the theater space, and implement creative solutions to represent the impossible on stage. In those productions, we start talking about theatricality.

If realism is an attempt to minimize the distance between reality and the represented, theatricality embraces that distance. Theatricality celebrates the distance between the represented and real with a tenuous bridge of creative solutions.

I'm not speaking here of something like the helicopter in Ms. Saigon. Yes, a creative engineering feat was leverage to get that helicopter on stage. But in that case, the creativity was focused on hiding the mechanics from the audience. In a theatrical solution, the mechanics are visible. In a theatrical solution, the visible mechanics help generate meaning in the play.

A recent example would be the House Theater's Production of The Sparrow. In order to represent Emily's trip back to town, two actors sat in chairs as other cast members walked slowly past them, bearing framed pictures of the countryside. As an audience member, I found great pleasure in making the connection between the moving landscape pictures and my own cross-country trips. The motif of framed portraits came up again and again, and the production was able to build a sense of community (and its associated loss) with the used of these carried pictures. In this way a theatrical solution to "how do we get a car on stage?" becomes a way to build meaning in the work.

When I discuss a show's theatricality, I'm speaking of bridging the distance between the represented and the real with creative solutions that 1) do not pretend the distance doesn't exist and 2) use that distance as on opportunity to build an additional layer of meaning into the show.

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What NTFD Is Not

We ask that you follow a few guidelines when considering a posting to NTFD.

  • No Promotions. While writers should feel free to reference ongoing or upcoming productions, NTFD is not the place to advertise your upcoming show. When you discuss a production, please provide a link to show times and location. Do not include that information in the body of your post.

  • No Reviews. We hope that currently running productions will inspire new reflections on dramatic structure. When writing about a current production, please remember that the focus is exploration, not consumer oriented criticism. Questioning if a particular dramatic element worked is appropriate. Giving that approach three stars is not.

  • No ad hominem responses. NTFD is a forum for expressing ideas about dramatic criticism. Some of us feel quite strongly about certain approaches. If someone contradicts your idea, please to do not respond by questioning that individual's worth as a person or a playwright. Attack ideas, not each other.
These guidelines apply to comments as well. NTFD will remove any posts or comments that do not follow these guidelines.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What NTFD Is

NTFD is a community discussion about the theory and practice of playwriting. Theories of dramatic structure are not solely the realm of ivory tower academics. Practicing writers are constantly refining their understanding of dramatic concepts. In many cases, these writers are creating their own terminology to explain how their work functions. NTFD is an attempt to document these theories in process. NTFD also serves as a platform for lively collaboration.

NTFD is an attempt to create a new collective poetics.

Invited contributors write short essays exploring the dramatic terminology or theory of their choice. Essays may be inspired by the playwright's own work or recently seen productions. Anyone can comment on the essays. NTFD asks that the comments be kept to less than 250 words. If a particular essay inspires a longer answer, the reader is invited to contact NTFD to be added as a contributor and post a response in the form of their own essay.

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