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?

1 comment:

David Alan Moore said...

With one clear exception, virtually all of my plays do not feature scene breaks. Are there transitions in time, place, moments, beats? Spaces where an audience can catch its collective breath? Of course.

But I tend to think of scene breaks as being too often the (non)theatrical corollary to the television commercial. I don't write television. I write plays for live theater.

What happens during a transition is as important as what happens before and after it. It is information. It sets a mood. It uses sound and image and action as much as any other -- because audiences will ascribe meaning what they see and hear in front of them, whether that's silence or noise or music, darkness or light or flames.

And sometimes one "scene" starts before the previous "scene" ends. Done well, and at the right time, that's pretty cool!

(And with the exception of the overlap mentioned above, I pay just as much attention to the act break(s). They are elements to be used, as well.)

So, I explore all sorts of things, use all sorts of imagery and action to move the story forward, even during the in-between times. It's a blast!

Now, do I prescribe every single element of a transition? No... but I don't do that for the rest of a play, either. I write what I want to see and hear and experience onstage, and know that a director and actor and designer will add even more to it than I've imagined. That can be one of the joys of collaboration: the lack of hard and fast lines between artistic roles.

And don't worry: audiences can keep up with you. They don't need a "lights rise" and "lights fade" to tell them that we've moved to a new place, physically, mentally, emotionally, temporally. As long as they get enough clues, they're good to go.