Saturday, September 15, 2007

Neutral and Graduated Language

I've been inspired this week to assign myself a new mission. Perhaps you will be moved to join me in this mission.

I want to develop new vocabulary for talking about plays. This vocabulary should be neutral and graduated.

The terminology we use to discuss plays is wedded to a particular aesthetic agenda. When we talk about character motivation or plot points that pre-supposes that those things necessarily belong in a play. Similarly when Dr. Paul Castagno uses terms like multivocality and dialogism to describe plays, that terminology arises from the language based approach. I'd like to coin new terminology that is not paired with a particular vision of structure, but rather can be used to describe the structure the play itself is generating.

I've been struggling with a word that can capture this concept. Part of what weds terminology to an aesthetic is that the terminology is used to describe the presence or absence of a particular element. If terminology uses concepts that can be scaled, perhaps we can talk about the amount of an element. Rather than saying a particular play doesn't have a clear through line (a lack with an implied solution) we can talk about the "velocity" of the central action (a graduated or scalable term without an implied solution).

OK, but why?
I believe that finding a way to describe how a work functions is a necessary step BEFORE development (or judgment) can begin. We tend to skip the part where we engage the work on its own terms and jump straight to applying our own agenda to it. That short cut is facilitated by the language we use.

I've been juggling two metaphors in my head. One was provided to me by Reggie Lawrence of MPAACT theater. He suggested that play structure is a balloon, and that different genres are developed by squeezing one part of the structure and emphasizing another part. The basic elements are all there in every play: the differences are generated by what proportion you choose to mix them in. It was this observation that gave rise to the idea of "graduated" language.

The other metaphor that comes to mind is the language of wine. Now, I'm not much of a wine expert, so I'm sure I have a romanticized view. But from my layman's perspective, it seems as if there is a huge vocabulary that exists just to describe what the experience of the wine is. There's the bouquet, and some wines have legs, and there are fruit overtones and almond finishes and the list goes on. All that just to describe what the experience is. Not to mention the whole idea of pairings. And so it seems to me that if we could talk in some similar way about what a play is, we might better be equipped to help it get better. Nobody is going to insist that every wine should start with a hint of chocolate. And yet we do insist that every play start with an inciting incident.

But You're A Huge Believer in Story Structure
Its true. And I probably will continue to be. I've improved my own writing by embracing standard story-telling structure. But I fear that what has helped me now limits me. That what has improved my work now blinds me to more possibilities. The language we use defines our perceptual world - and I'm on a mission to open up my perception.

1 comment:

Erik Ramsey said...

Great idea to try to move analytical language toward a broader scope when discussing dramatic structure. It makes me think of "Rules of the World" (ROTW) again, and perhaps I wasn't too clear in previous posts on what I mean when I speak of ROTW. For me, it isn't just -- for instance -- that nobody in the world of a certain play is allowed to touch each other. Of course that could be a rule of the world, but it describes an element or a single rule, not a process. In essence, it has been my goal as a professional new play dramaturg to use ROTW analysis to broaden my scope beyond any preconceived aesthetic I might hold so that I can best support a playwright's process rather than control that process.

Aaron, I don't know if you remember, but the first time we met, you pushed me on how I view and develop play structure. (Yes, that fateful day when I was interviewing to be one of your professors at OU.) I was lecturing along to the class, pulling the typical structural rabbits out of my hat (MDQ, stasis/intrusion, inciting incident, etc, etc) when you asked me what those specific principles are based on? I responded that they are based on human actions -- essentially human decisions drive the mechanics of each of those common dramatic terms. In a word: psychology. Human behavior as we generally agree upon it drives them. I remember you smiled because you thought you had me cornered. You asked me "so, what if the playwright doesn't agree with the tenets of basic human psychology and writes outside or indifferently to any generally agreed upon psychology?" My answer to you then was: in investigating any script I seek the ROTW first and foremost, and if many of those ROTW as a group point to the normative human behavioral view of the world (as they most commonly do in plays), then we can move to those most commonly bandied vocabulary terms of play development -- the stasis and inciting incident and MDQ and, and, and...

But my method for developing new plays, both those written by my MFA students and by my professional colleagues, is this: if I gather ALL the ROTW into a bundle when I first see a script, and I see there IS a method to this bundle, but it's not the method we recognize as typical human behavior or experience, then I must divorce myself from the normative dramatic terminology and speak to the piece using the unique language suggested by the piece itself. If the bundled ROTW don't suggest the common forms of human behavior as we know it, then I have to discern what engine does cause the story to move, and what articulates its framework. Indeed, as you suggest the "neutral terms" have to fall away. In the absence of those terms I allow the collective ROTW to mentor me into the perception/aesthetic that the play imposes rather than one I impose.

In essence, I'm applauding your attempt to divine new language methodology that does not ghettoize those theater pieces which don't blossom within normative dramatic technique.

And all this springs from the basic tenets that I (and I know you, Aaron) hold most dear in play development: Geothe's three questions. First ask "what is the author trying to do?" Then "how well has he/she achieved those goals?" Only then can you ask "was it worth trying to achieve those goals?" Too often we skip question #1! We get lazy and move to question #2 with the assumption that since most theater pieces do fall within the normative dramatic technique and the normative view of human behavior and experience, then the author is trying to do what most other authors are generally trying to do.

Stepping across the fence from my role as a new play developer, and into my favorite shoes (my playwriting shoes) I have found myself writing from the starting point of my own ROTW analysis and succeeding sometimes. I have found it valuable in many cases to know what I want to write about but not know the plot and not have a metaphor in mind. Rather, I have written on occasion directly from ROTW. I have in the past created a bundle of rules such as "no one on stage may touch each other" and "no one may vocalize anything impolite" and then added 25 more rules (not all of them physical, of course) until I discover that the rules as a whole have a shape and amount to a certain metaphor that I find appropriate to describing the whole of the ROTW.

In any case, I want to make sure I understand your terms here and that I haven't gone completely off the beam; where you use "neutral", is it the same as what I describe above as "normative dramatic technique"? And does ROTW analysis fit within the genre you are categorizing as "graduated"?