I’ll be reading 20 or so plays in the next week, and have already read a dozen. It’s a dubiously pleasurable undertaking. These are submissions to a theater conference I participate in, and I am one of the first readers to winnow through everything that comes over the transom. Some of it is dazzling. Some of it is workmanlike. And, any of you who know Sturgeon’s Law can guess, 90 percent of it is crud.
I don’t mind it, really, although I spend a lot of time moaning when I’m actually doing the reading. There’s something encouraging about the fact that so many new writers try their hands at playwrighting, and that so many old writers keep trying, despite failing so definitively and so repeatedly. I don’t know what they expect to get out of playwrighting. There’s no money in it. Your audiences will be small. At least writing for television provides a steady paycheck and you might get to meet Tori Spelling. Who do you meet as a playwright? Local actors? You can do that just by going to a nearby bar.
But it’s a grand form, and I’m glad that people still try it, even if I wonder if they might be delusional. Good for them. If it wasn’t for the delusional, there would be no theater at all. And I want them to succeed. Every single one of them. I don’t care what they write -- I just want them to succeed in telling the story they want to tell, in the way they want to tell it. And there’s something exciting about seeing unpracticed writers trying to script a play. Plays can be so challenging. Just getting somebody in and out of a room is a hurdle, and one that’s easy to fumble on. Writing a scene in which five people must take turns talking, each having their own agendas, each forwarding a plot in their own way? It’s like that non-Euclidean geometry that H.P Lovecraft used to write about, which would drive people made just by seeing its broken lines.
As a result, a lot of the plays I read end up being incomprehensible. This is not such a bad thing -- incomprehensibility is a valid theatrical choice. However, with most of these plays, I don’t think the authors meant for them to be incomprehensible. It’s really a problem of translation, in that they know what they want us to know, but they don’t have the language to tell it. Deciding what the audience needs to know and when they need to know it is one of the great challenges of playwrighting. Tell too much too soon, you’ve frontloaded a script with exposition, and you’ve probably embarrassed yourself by having characters tell each other things they already know. Deny the information for too long and it starts feeling like a cheat. I can’t tell you the number of plays I’ve read where everybody in the play knows something, but they won’t let the audience in on it, and so they say things like “This reminds me of when daddy … well, you know.” “Oh yes, on that awful day when he … well, you know.”
I say to heck with it. Incomprehensibility is the bolder choice. Just make sure you’ve decided to be incomprehensible, instead of doing so by accident. The audience might throw chairs or set fire to the theater, but so what? There’s a noble tradition of that in theater, and it’ll probably get you some press and eventually an Off-Broadway production. So here are my tips on being incomprehensible. On the other hand, if you want your play to be understood, you might consider doing the opposite of this:
1. Jump around in time. You’d be surprised how many scripts include in their stage directions something like “5 years later.” I love this, because the audience can’t read the stage directions, and often there is nothing else in the script to indicate any time has passed. Don’t even bother to put it in the stage directions. Just have the play boldly leap around in time and don’t bother to tell anyone. This is even better when you make extensive use of flashbacks, or, most challenging yet, run an entire play in reverse chronological order.
2. Write an entire play as a way of getting back at your ex-lover. This is generally accomplished by having the main character represent you and you antagonist represent your ex-husband, or a girlfriend who jilted you, or something similar. This would muck up a more traditional play, because usually you’d want the two characters to have their own competing agendas. But there is a beautiful simplicity to this, in that both characters have the same goal: The protagonist needs to yell at the antagonist, and the antagonist needs to be yelled at. If you are an author of exceptional skill, try to write the whole thing without telling us anything about either character except what their relationship is to each other, and make your complaints as general as possible, such as “You never respected me,” or “You were kind of a bad man.” Don’t muddle this up with specifics -- that’s just pandering to the audience. Heck, just call the man “man” and the woman “woman.” Even better still, couple this with my next suggestion:
3. Set the play noplace specific. No, I’m not talking about establishing some sort of representational, limnal space, like the universes inhabited by Beckett’s characters. I’m talking about setting the whole play in a white room. Or a blackened stage where the characters are occasionally illuminated by spotlights. If you really must set it someplace, make it as general as possible: a hospital room, a living room, a hotel room. Remember, if you’re trying to confuse your audience, lack of specificity is your friend.
4. Have everybody talk exactly the same way. This especially useful if that style of speaking is unnatural and mannered. You’re going to be temped to distinguish the characters from each other by one quirk. One smokes, for example, and the other is bitchy, and one is really pompous. If you must do this, drop it midway through the play in favor of having the characters resemble each other. This is where not naming a character becomes important. Even if she stops chewing gum, I might remember that a character is named Cindy. But if you’ve just called her Girl 3, you’ve got me. And, by that, I mean you’ve lost me.
5. Have too much plot. The real trick to this is to have most of the action take place offstage, and to make it very, very complicated, and then have the characters attempt to explain it to each other. If you really want to make this work, make sure that at least one of the offstage actions makes no sense, if you really think about it. But make sure you’ve embedded it into the text of the play as being absolutely essential. So you’re going to have to explain why it actually makes sense. And then you’ll think about it some more, and realize your explanation raises as many questions as it answers. So provide new answers. Here’s where you can get caught in an endless loop of trying to justify your script. Trust me -- a lot of this sort of stuff is far more perplexing than a little of it. Dazzle your audience with too many explanations and sooner or later they’ll give up, and then watch as your Fringe page starts filling up with reviews. Sure, they won’t be good, but while one bad review might drive audiences away, 40 will cause your show to sell out.
Enjoy your runaway hit!