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.


Pookie said...

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.

You asked so here we go.

For the purpose of this response I will concern myself only with the post-show discussions that often accompany readings/stagings of new work. Not those that exist as "talk backs" following actual production performances.

The Post show discussion exists in two worlds. The first world-- and it should go without saying the world that I am most interested in- is the world that concerns itself with the needs of the playwright. It is a unique opportunity for the playwright to actually hear what an audience thinks/believes/ holds dear etc. instead of intuiting that information. This is extremely valuable information (more on that later).

The second is the world of marketing and promotions. The theater that hosted the reading and subsequent "Post Show disc" is in the business of cultivating an audience for new work. Therefore the theater wants to get the audience to believe in/support this play, and ultimately all plays that the theater wishes to develop/produce.

Here is were the the collective nod and wink occur. People like to believe they are intelligent --and knowledgable about just about everything. In truth we are often only one of these but seldom both at the same time ( I know- another essay for another time). The Post -show disc is where the theater says to the patron "you matter" and so we want to hear what you think. (This is a truth)- and if it stopped there -no harm done. But the nod and wink come in when "we allow" the perception that the patron is directly helping to create/shape the work. That we are infact in partnership in developing this work.

The patrons ego often seeks this validation, and the theater rarely sees an upside to modifying this assumption.

Back to the "first world". What is valuable for the playwright? In practical terms in each play the playwright has created an elaborate manipulation of the audience. How they should feel at any given moment? What are they anticipating and when? Have they invested enough to suspend disbelief? Are they wrestling with the greater questions of the work while they are watching it, or does that come later?

The "Post show" is where you hear the answers to these questions? This is where you discover if "they" (The Audience) feel what you wanted them to feel when you wanted them to feel it? Was I clear enough? Are the connections being made? Are they fulfilled? Does the work aspire to be "fulfilling"?

These are the playwrights questions? None of the answers require you to personally sit on the stage and be "interesting" and "emotionally available" to the theater patron(s). If however you enjoy that kind of thing- go for it.

Problems with the dicotomy.

For the playwright.

When a playwrights seeks validation from the audience s/he is no longer looking to see what worked and why? or even what did not and why? They are now concerned with "Do they like it/me". This is ultimately a toxic place to reside. They don't know you (usually), so they're opinion about you/ your work carries no value beyond what you assign it.

The question of do they like the work seems valid, but it too comes from the needs of the ego. The Manipulation (The play) has a purpose-- A collective experience. When that collective experience is introspective/ or profoundly mind expanding , perhaps even refreshing insightful we might even call it "art".

The point of success in this "Art" is ultimately a question of have you-- the playwright- gotten the audience to where you wanted them to be when you wanted them to be there. (whether they describe that place as enjoyable, fun etc is only relevant when fun was "your" goal.

As a playwright you have to learn to listen for the evidence of the relative success or failure of the Manipulation. This success should be based upon what the work aspires to be. This is the only valid criteria. What do you want this work to do/be? Not what does some one else want it to be.

If it aspires to be a political thriller, and the audience member sounds disappointed that it wasn't a romantic comedy, you can safely assume that you are being evaluated on what they ( the patron) wants for your work, and not what you want for your work.

In this area only one opinion matters. What does the artist want for their work. If you don't want it, it shouldn't happen.

If the play is missing Points of view that a patron wanted but are not part of what the work calls for. encourage the patron to begin writing their on plays since they have no shortage of ideas. (On second thought don't do that it might piss off those theater folk that were kind enough to stage your reading.)

Problems with the dicotomy.

For the Theater/audience.

We have touched on the notion that the audience has an opinion and a reaction to your work. An they are intitled to one. Hell they have even been encouraged to openly discuss their responses. This does not however empower the audience to become your co writer, or for that matter to tap how "true to your life" the work is.

Few theaters will correct this behavior. And it's unreasonable to expect that the patrons have studied liz lerman's technique on critical response.

So in the end the patrons get to feel smart and creative, and the playwright gets to sift through all of that bull to get to the heart of the matter. How effective was/is "The Manipulation (play).

Now the short version

Post shows mostly suck, but there is some useful info for you if you can get past all the people telling you what you should have written.

Listen better and develop a thick skin.

David Moore said...

Aaron, I'm going to be lazy and quote myself, from a blog entry ( that I wrote a couple of days ago, about constructive feedback.


Don Hall says, in two short sentences, what I was trying to say here.

Of course, Don was talking about careers in the arts and nurturing dreams that don’t jive with the status quo… but I think the thought is transferable to my concerns about working with up-and-coming playwrights. To my belief that we actually squelch greatness by not expecting it, by not assuming that people are capable of it, and by avoiding the sometimes difficult work of demanding it.

I think we do a disservice to a new playwright when we fail to give him or her honest, helpful feedback for fear of hurting feelings. Yes, we should be aware of feelings, especially the often-fragile state of someone who’s just starting out. We should be very aware of a writer’s emotional state, maturity and confidence when framing our feedback. And comments should be delivered with the acknowledgment that it represents one opinion of many. They should be offered in a way that looks toward opportunities rather than claiming to have spotted failures. And they should give the writer a decision to make, an idea to consider, a place to go from here.

Let me illustrate all of this with a recent experience. Please excuse the lack of detail; I think the playwright involved in the story has real talent, and don’t want him to be identified here, too soon, before he has a chance to really nurture that talent:

I went to a music-stand reading of a play-in-progress, by an early career playwright. I was specifically asked to attend the reading, with the expressed hope that I would be able to provide some helpful feedback. The usual suspects were in the audience, which was primarily made up of other, early-career playwrights. The play was read — as I listened to it, I thought that the writer had evident ability and that there was a strong possibility that this script could turn into a really good play. But — in my opinion (and perhaps only in my opinion) — there was one major problem — so major, in fact, that it was as if one had built a house on a cracked foundation. A flaw that no amount of paint or decoration or beautiful furniture would correct. A flaw that — if the play were presented to an even moderately sophisticated audience (and most Chicago theater audiences are much more than moderately sophisticated) — would, could sink the show.

So the “talkback” began… and, as guided by the moderator, it was full of the usual pablum. You’ve heard it: “This image was really strong.” “I liked that the [blank] did [blank] to [blank].” Etc. But what was also fascinating was that everyone was clearly having trouble answering the questions being asked (”What was this play about?” “What did the main character want?”) because the major flaw made answering such questions virtually impossible. But as far as I could tell, people either hadn’t put their finger on the problem, or were having trouble coming up with a way to describe the problem, or were worried about giving feedback that might be perceived as being too harsh.

Basically, it was like people polishing furniture in a house that was about to collapse.

Before raising my hand, I asked myself some questions: How valid is my opinion? Would this be the kind of thing I’d want to hear, were I sitting on that stage? Did the playwright appear able to handle substantive feedback? Did the playwright appear to be at a place in his career where he could get beyond polishing the doorknobs and into some deep work? Was there a way that I could phrase my comment so that it pointed toward opportunities and did not come across as a value judgment about the work or the playwright?

When I finally satisfied myself as to all of the above, yup, I raised my hand. And said my piece in as concrete, specific and encouraging a manner possible. And I obviously must have hit on something, because the director of the reading immediately sat up straight and — for the first and only time during the discussion — tried to pursue it further.

And the conversation was immediately squelched by the moderator. Who, I believe, for whatever reason, made the decision that this was not appropriate subject matter for this particular playwright. And who turned the conversation right back to: “Images? Images? Anything else people liked?”

Now, maybe the moderator knows more about the playwright than I do. But I know the director of the reading, and that director doesn’t take on projects or work with playwrights who don’t have the chops — there’s just too much demand for this director’s skills. So, I sat back and thought to myself, “For how long is this playwright going to be told to re-arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic before someone finally comes back and says, “Here’s some “hard” feedback… but it might help you turn this play from an interesting exercise into something really, really good.”

The squelching of the conversation was not an insult to me. It’s no skin off my teeth if the moderator didn’t like what I had to say; I’ll happily shut up. But it seemed as if there was an assumption made that the playwright couldn’t handle an in-depth conversation about his work. It felt, to me, like an insult to him: “You’re not capable.”

Not that I’m Einstein. Not that I might not be wrong. But even the exploration of my comment could have proved useful — and, in my not so humble opinion, more useful than being told that a particular image evoked memories of one audience member’s mother.

After the reading, I approached the writer. I didn’t beat a dead horse (like I am here) by trying to re-phrase my comments or “make sure” he understood what I was saying. I simply said, “It’s nice to meet you. Thank you for bringing this play to us. Please don’t take my comment as a value judgment or as a prescription for what you ought to do. I hope you have the chance to continue working on this piece; I think it has great potential.” And then excused myself.

So, back to Don Hall. Is there a way we can tell the truth, stop blowing smoke up people’s asses, and offer playwrights real feedback? Yes, we should be concerned about people’s feelings… but not so much that we actually hold them back from achieving the greatness of which they are capable.

My soap-box speech for today.