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