Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Playwriting - "It's Die Hard, But...In a Building!"

There is an anecdote told by the original creator of Die Hard, the 1980's action movie starring Bruce Willis as an off duty cop who must fight terrorists who have taken over a high-rise building.

After the runaway success of that film many imitations began to pop up in story meetings all over Hollywood. For the next decade, hopeful creators would give their best high concept pitches: "It's Die Hard on a boat." "It's Die Hard on a train." "It's Die Hard on an island."

The original producer of the movie jokes that he knew the concept had played itself out when he was sitting in a meeting and heard a pitch that started this way, "What we've got is Die Hard in a building, a really tall building!"

Roland Teco, writing on the blog ExtraCriticum, talks about how he sees the "high concept of Hollywood having an effect on playwriting:

I think the Hollywood addiction to "high concept" stories has slowly infected the new writing being produced on the stages of American theatres and the result is that our theatre is dying a slow death by asphyxiation.

First of all, it may be helpful for me to define my terms. By "high concept" I mean those stories that are easily summed up into a two-sentence promo. "High concept" generally means there will be some unusual take on a ubiquitous storyline. For example: "A former Mosad agent fulfills his life dream of becoming a hairdresser" or "A group of heads of state have to dress as women in order to save the world" etc. etc. "High concept" is Hollywood shorthand for two characteristics:

1. easily summarized

2. provocative or unusual—offering up some new take on an old formula

Personally, I don't much care for this sort of thing anywhere—in movies or television either. In fact, I'd argue that if we were to assemble a list of the movies from the past 25 years with the longest shelf lives, few, if any, would be "High Concept" stories.

The problem with this for playwrights is that, perhaps like no other form of storytelling, the play lives or dies by the authenticity of its characters. If the dialogue coming out of the character's mouths rings false, the play fails. And one of the surest ways for a playwright to get in the way of letting his/her character's authentic voices emerge is by a rigorous adherence to a "high concept" in the birth of a new play.

I am of two minds on this. On the one hand, I agree with Roland about high concept and playwriting.

I call it the NPR effect. I don't know how many fellow playwrights tell me, “I have an idea for a play!” They tell me the idea, but the "idea" is actually one of two things:

1. An inciting incident or catalyst
2. A concept that is very archetypal.

For instance:

1. "I had an idea for play: This uptight business woman is on a sales conference and she meets her sister there. Turns out her sister, whom the family hasn't seen for years, actually went undercover as a drug informant years ago is now hiding out."

2. "I had this idea for a play: Our country is so paralyzed with our need to consume that we don't realize our liberties are slowly being taken away."

Now, I am not saying that a good, or even a great play cannot be written out of those thoughts. Sure they can. But I would argue that those thoughts are not yet "ideas" for plays.

In my experience, when playwrights then rush to their keyboard and write these plays, they almost always turn out this way:

1. The Two Sisters Play: We spend the first ten minutes of the play getting loads of exposition about the business woman. Then we meet the mysterious sister about ten minutes later. Then we spend about 90 more minutes with the two sisters talking it out in a hotel room until we finally get the revelation from their childhood that unlocks the mystery. There may be a few other characters thrown in here and there, but basically we progress with no incremental incidents, beats or even wit.

2. The Consumer Culture Play: Unfolds just as Roland points out. The play has no structure at all and the characters don't seem to want anything and make no choices that come from any type of organic place. They serve as a mouthpiece for the thesis that the playwright wants to present to us, and their dialogue sounds like it. As an added treat, the theme is usually telegraphed in the first ten minutes, so we don't even have any suspense of wondering why they took the time to write it.

So, to that extent I agree with Roland. There is this expectation that the logline or the kernel will allow the play to write itself. It is as if the playwright, in their mind, can already see the listing in the subscription brochure. Why spend a lot of time writing the play when it is already sold?!

However, I attend many play reading festivals also, and I sometimes find myself DYING to see something with a concept or story like the ones Roland mentions.

Oh that just a few more playwrights could have some FUN, for goodness sake!

1 comment:

Rolando Teco said...

The feeling's mutual. Love your blog!

And thanks for your interesting comment, most of which I agree with. I think NPR is a good way of thinking about these sorts of plays. The sales pitch is hatched before the play. Never a good thing.