Monday, November 02, 2009

What Type of Play Are You Writing? Part 1

Blogger 99 Seats wrote a post a bit ago that talks about "tricks" and conventions that go in and out of fashion with playwriting.

Others bloggers have brought up the topic of genres.

Screenwriters work within genres. Mastering or having knowledge of various genres is a very important part of their development. These categories are broken down like you would expect: Horror, Thriller, Detective, Comedy, etc.

Then, as discussion goes longer and deeper, sub-genres emerge. Screenwriting "guru" John Truby is often attributed this quote: "When people tell me they are writing a Comedy, my first reaction is to ask what kind?" In Hollywood and independent film the fusion of genres is still a popular way to present a story.

These particular genres, so important to the world of film, aren't all that helpful to playwrights. The film genres like Thriller and Detective have "story beats" that act as principles to help writers structure their action. However, writing for the stage is not as tied to action as the screen is.

David Mamet has said that a primary difference between film and stage is that film is mostly about what happens next whereas the theatre is more about how people deal with what has happened, is about to happen, or is happening.

In the world of playwriting, there are the arch genres of Comedy and Tragedy, then there are their respective lesser twins, Farce and Melodrama.

Important as it is to for a writer to understand those categories, I wonder if they really represent clearly the types of plays we see represented on our stages today? To go further, can we really break what we see into any type of categories?

I see a lot of productions, sometimes close to 150, and I read a good amount as well.
Of course, styles are very disparate when looking at the plays produced and premiered around the country every year, but, if you really think about it, certain "types" start to sort themselves out.

I'll start with the first category today, and then continue over the next couple of days. I am still thinking about all of this though.

1. Actual People - Actual World

Here are recognizable human beings acting in the physical world as we know it. Characters, motivations and actions can certainly be mysterious, but the consequences that loom are sensible and understandable. (Some may use the word causal.) In this type of play, if somebody is stabbed, they bleed, and if they don't get medical attention they will die. The characters generally understand this type of thing.

If a character is threatened in an Actual People - Actual World play, Joan of Arc doesn't pop out of the Frigidaire to whisk him or her away to 17th Century China.

This type of play does not have to take place in the contemporary world. Historical dramas and comedies can qualify, as well as plays set in the future.

There are a couple of sub genres here that end up being mixed and tweaked:

a. Limited Location, Limited Scenes

Usually this is the standard two act or three act, multiple character, one set or two set play. August Wilson and most of David Mamet for example. These plays usually unfold in longer time segments. For instance, two acts, each with two half hour scenes.

b. Multiple Scenes across Multiple Locations

One scene is in an apartment, the next scene is two days later in a Starbucks and the next scene is the next morning at an airport terminal. Usually this is played on a unit set that can stand in for multiple places or, depending on the budget, the sets can slide on and off. These plays can sometimes have 13,14 20 or more scenes.

c. Linear Narrative

Time unfolds in a straight line.

d. Fractured Narrative Or Parallel Narratives

Scenes take place out of order or cover two different time periods intermittently. (Stoppard's Arcadia or Pinter's Betrayal.)

Things to Note:

Actual People - Actual World plays can have imaginary characters in them. These characters and their actions just can't spill over into major dramatic conflict or consequences. Many of these types of plays feature ghosts, tangible memories, or limited effects -expressionistic or otherwise.

Here are some examples:

1. Hamlet is an Actual People - Actual World play. The ghost of Hamlet's father, while providing a catalyst for the story, does not really break boundaries to effect a dramatic change in the actual world. However, if the the ghost jumped in and killed Polonius in Gertrude's chamber we would talking about something completely different.

2. Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller wrote expressionistic sequences and imaginary characters into Streetcar and Salesman respectively. However, Ben, (Willy Loman's brother,) doesn't break the boundaries into the real world, and Blanche's visions are all internal - the other character's don't hear the music in her head.

Chatty Narrators Can Populate Actual World - Actual People Plays. Just because your protagonist, or another character, occasionally turns to address the audience does not mean your play is not still functioning primarily in the real world. This convention has become very, very common. (I'll be posting about this soon.) However, if this convention tips too far over into meta-territory, or starts to affect the drama then we are into another category. (Stay tuned.)

Tomorrow: Boundary Breaker Plays


Thomas Garvey said...

I have a different sort of question, Art - so forgive me for putting you on the spot. But I'm curious about something else about playwriting - why are so many people doing it? The form seems to be dying commercially, yet there are more wannabe playwrights than ever. What gives?

Art said...

A very good question.

As Terry Teachout put it a few years ago: If one of your chief desires is to reach the largest audience possible, playwriting is not probably your best career choice.

Even Young Jean Lee, when she was talking about pursuing Hollywood a bit, talked about how she worked years on The Shipment, and though it was crically acclaimed, it only was seen by a few thousand people.

Talking off the top of my head, I believe playwriting has appeal for two primary reasons: audience connection and prestige.

There is the undeniably unique charge of connection to the audience that the playwright feels. Unlike a novelist, writing to a single soul, or a televison or film writer who is, though some may disagree with me, writing for a camera.

The playwright is very much akin to the storyteller around the fire. There is a great amount of appeal in that.

I also mentioned prestige. Shakespeare is one of the world's greatest artists and certainly the West's greatest Dramatist. To be a successful storyteller in the arena of the great is very enticing.

I'll add two more I guess:

Ideas and Convenience of Production.

Ideas are challenged through argument and testing. The stage is a uniquely place to do this. Traditional drama is all about this. People talking - interpersonal conflict centralizing larger ideas.

Lastly, there is the convenience of production. A play can be put on anywhere. Many people think they can get a play produced faster than they can get a movie produced or a novel published.

Thomas Garvey said...

Not sure about the "prestige," and I'm not convinced by this idea of Shakespeare as avatar; few young people I've met seem to understand or appreciate the Bard. But I can see the "DIY" appeal of playwriting for the new generation. One thing I think you miss is that colleges nowadays all seem to have very luxe theatre departments - perversely, these facilities are much nicer than almost anything the vast majority of students will ever work in again in their lives. I think simply all that new collegiate real estate - the result of competition between liberal arts schools without all that much, really, to differentiate their bucolic campuses - has helped create a new generation of playwrights with nowhere, really, to go.

Ian Thal said...

Besides the DIY nature of theatre that certainly appeals to some playwrights, I think there is also a matter of theatre being a unique medium that lends itself to stories that might not translate as effectively to novels, television, or film. Isn't it always with disappointment when one is describing a new play and one mutters, " was like television?"

Duncan Pflaster said...

few young people I've met seem to understand or appreciate the Bard.

I think many young playwrights do understand and appreciate.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious, Thomas, what makes you say that there are more aspiring playwrights than ever. Just based on your own experience? Or . . .?

Just curious.


Thomas Garvey said...

Actually, however many young playwrights there are, their numbers are dwarfed by the number of people who don't warrant serious attention because they've chosen to remain anonymous.