If you follow the theatre news, I'm sure you've heard about the "Broadway Bolter," Joanne Kaufman, a culture columnist (not a theatre critic) for the Wall Street Journal who admitted to something awful: that she often leaves Broadway shows halfway through. Very often leaves plays, escaping at intermission. As Howard Sherman in his great summation of the issues at hand says:
I happen to believe that, for the regular theatregoer, there’s nothing wrong with leaving a show at intermission. You paid for the right to be there and if you’re miserable, it’s probably to your benefit and the benefit of the rest of the audience if you depart. It’s your right (so long as it’s not done mid-scene, which is far too disruptive) and frankly the rest of the audience and the actors are probably better off without your repeated loud sighs, your ongoing dialogue with the person you came with, or your snoring.
Most of our responses as theatre people have been centered on our collective shock that a person who writes reviews and gets free tickets feels no embarrassment (she's "embarrassed by how unembarrassed" she is.). She's been vilified and one press agent has now banned her from these lovely freebie tickets. (I'll take them!)
I wanted to come at this topic from a different perspective. In play feedback sessions, I've learned to listen to all voices and consider their comments and criticisms with weight (some more than others of course), and I believe that even if I disagree with their assessments or their suggested solutions to the problems they see in the play, I realize that they are reacting to something that's present (or not present) in the play that might be worth investigating. And Ms. Kaufman's bolting has given us all quite the criticism.
Here's what I take from her article (which now you can't read without a WSJ subscription):
Are these criticisms valid? Are we being too negative/defensive towards her to see that she might be right? I'm not saying she's right, I'm not saying she's wrong, I'm asking the question. And I think we all should be asking ourselves about the structure, thrust, and action of our plays from the very beginning.
What is a first act? And what is its job?
Even plays without conventional act breaks have first acts. Sometimes, it's the first scene itself, sometimes it delves deeper into the play, but it's there. So, what does it do? How do we use it? Kaufman suggests that most first acts that she sees are treading water until the big payoffs of the second act. I see a first act as doing two things: 1. establishes the world and its rules and gives us what "normal" looks like 2. Introduces what will attack, challenge, transform the world, its rules and the "normal."
If we look at it like a joke, it's the set up. I liken it more to a magic trick. I know I've talked about this before, but I think it bears repeating if for nothing else than to refresh my thinking. In the movie, The Prestige, a magic trick is described as having three acts:
From the film:
The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige."
"The Turn" should happen in a play before the second act. Long before. Some might call it the "inciting incident." I wonder if we're doing them much too late. I've seen plays where the turn is right at the act break or the final line, the final moment. It's the cliffhanger to make you want to return. And I suppose Kaufman doesn't mind leaving the play clinging to that cliff. So, if the turn isn't at the end of the act break, where is it? I don't think that the second act truly begins with the act break. Crazy, right? Maybe that's why I haven't written a play in two acts and have leaned on the "90 minutes with no intermission model." Maybe we take too long to introduce the world disruption.
It's not a question of length of the first act or of the play, Kaufman reports that she stayed through the entirety of August: Osage County and that sucker is long. Wonderful and beautiful and exciting... And long. August: Osage County is told in 3 acts. But I'd venture to say that the first act doesn't end with the first act break. The first act of August: Osage County ends after the prologue. The prologue establishes the norm: Beverly is an alcoholic and his wife, Violet, has mouth cancer and a pill addiction. What the script calls "Act 1" disrupts the norm with Beverly's disappearance. Boom. Off we go with the transformed world, with its new rules and the challenges that it forces the characters to face. In effect, the true act 2 of August: Osage County is the entirety of Act 1 and Act 2.
Let's return to a magic trick analogy: sawing a person in half. The magician enters and shows us a normal box. The first act begins. She invites a volunteer from the audience to get into the box. The magician shows us a huge saw. That saw is the introduction of what will change the norm and when that saw goes through the volunteer, the first act ends. The person splits in two and opens the volunteer's body to show us that she has sawn that person into two, distinct pieces. That's the end of act 2. (ACT BREAK?) And then act three is getting the volunteer from two pieces back into one and restoring a new world where things look the same, but are changed because we now live in a world with magic in which someone can be chopped in half and put back together again.
If the first act ends before the act break, what the heck is the act break for? Why bother having one? To give people a chance to pee? To grab a glass of wine or sip of water? To talk with their friends? To give time for the audience to process what they've seen? We, the artists, have to answer that. The act breaks in August: Osage County allow for the passage of time. The play is told in real time, so when time needs to pass for the characters, time needs to pass for us. On the whole, I believe we've gotten to a place where a second act is added because it's tradition and has been the law of the land for so long that we go so far as even cutting Shakespeare to fit into that model. But is it the right model for now? I'm not going to argue that we have audiences with short attention spans, because they don't. Ask Netflix. It's not about the length of a play. What makes it possible for someone to binge watch 4 hours of "Breaking Bad" or sit through 2 1/2 hours of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but makes that same person unable to sit through a 2 1/2 hour play?
I think we need to use the confessions of Joanne Kaufman to really look into the way we're writing and planning our plays. We need to ask ourselves why we need two act plays and not three act or one act plays? Can a play be 120 minutes with no intermission? How are we telling our stories? Instead of continuing to bash Kaufman, now's the time to take her criticism, digest it, and move forward to make our work better and stronger..
As we go on, remember to enjoy your work and be excellent to each other.
I begin with a short report of the business side of my playwriting career:
For the first time in a long time, I've sent out play submissions. I sent out an electronic one last week, then sent off 2 mailed submissions today. My wife had offered to mail them for me to save me some time, but I told her that it was important for me to send them myself. I'm not sure why, but it felt very, very necessary for me to be the one to walk into the post office, weigh those packets, put the postage on them, and watch them disappear from the chute. They're out there in the world now, on their way to New York City and California. Last week's submission is now living in Chicago. Another couple of electronic submissions I did today are living here in Columbus. In the next couple of months, my scripts will head to different parts of California and even to exotic Iowa.
This is the most I've submitted since 2011. In 2011, I submitted to somewhere between 5 and 10 places. In 2012, I just couldn't get up enough energy to send out any submissions. I was tired of the preparation and energy it took to get those packages or emails ready and then the emotional energy it took to deal with rejections. Last year, I sent out 3 submissions to places and opportunities in town in order to get myself back into practice. Now, I'm on my way, submitting.
My playwriting database, which I created in Filemaker Pro (something I needed to learn for my day job), I wrote a quotation from Walt Disney: "All the adversity I've had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me... You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you."
In terms of the creative side, I just wrote/finished, like, seriously a couple minutes ago, wrote the first scene for my play about Persephone. I had a very clear image of the beginning of the play, helped along by a scene from the pilot of Breaking Bad when Walter White is getting his diagnosis from the doctor. I saw it very clearly in my mind and it was very easy to write. It's helping me establish a tone for the play: ethereal, dark, but very playful. The play might be performed by middle school girls, so I'm thinking that I don't want to make it too dark. But I'm going to write the play as it wants to be written. Right now, the play's theme song is Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones, but performed by a woman. I haven't found the right version to sit in the back of my mind as I write. I'll keep searching.
So, my fellow theatre-makers, how has your writing gone lately? Starting up new projects? Have you been submitting plays?
I'll leave you with one last Walt Disney quotation: "We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."
Be excellent to each other.
I've been at work in the research for my play about Persephone lately. I've been drawing diagrams, searching for a theme song (It's just something I do. And it usually changes once I realize what the play is really about.), and coming up with character surrogates. What I mean by character surrogates is a person or other character from something else that can act as an engine for the characters in my play. Sometimes this is someone I may know, sometimes it's a character from a movie. Right now, Persephone's surrogate is Walter White from Breaking Bad. It sounds odd, but makes perfect sense for the play that's growing in my mind. I don't know which god or goddess is Jesse Pinkman though...
In addition to this, I had a wonderful conversation with a Columbus dramaturg about my play Woman Studies that I'm still developing. We met for 2 hours and it left me very inspired and ready to get to work. The play itself started from an article I read about a Latina arguing against the Republican "War on Women," primarily their obsession with reproductive rights, focusing specifically on contraception and abortion. I didn't want to write a political play; it's just not my bag, but when the political fuses itself to the needs and wants of characters, then it becomes part of the character struggle and not a struggle about the political as something separate. There were two scenes that my new dramaturg friend pointed out in which the politics were not infused within the characters. The worst is the infamous Scene 17. I'm forever going to use "Scene 17" as a code when I have a scene that is heavy-handed, too on-the-nose, and inorganic. It was a necessary scene to write as she and another one of my dramaturg friends noted later; it possessed the kernels of ideas that the characters are dealing with and was important to explore. I have a lot of great notes from the conversation and look forward to the next rewrite (coming soon!).
There was a really interesting question that she asked, one that I've asked myself multiple times about the play and a whole host of other questions that arise from it. She asked me why the main character was Latina. Does she have to be? Or was she Latina merely because of the original source of inspiration? It's a perfectly valid question. Victoria, the main character, and her sister are the only characters with a specified race; everyone else's race is undefined and could really be any race. So, why is Victoria Latina?
Part of it has to do with the sex and politics in the play. What I've noticed in society is that there are two extreme stereotypes of Latinas: one as the "hot," exotic, overly sexed temptress, and the other as a welfare mother with multiple children. Part of the play is playing against and with the stereotypes in the characters, bending and subverting them.
But then what makes a character Latina? By that I mean what are the defining factors that would make her Latina in the eyes of the audience? What would make her "Latina enough?" This is a question I keep asking myself as a Latino writer and keep wrestling with. Does Victoria have to speak with an accent? Does she have to toss in a word of Spanish? Does she have to be brown? If she is brown, what shade? Where does she have to be from? Is she second generation or first generation? Does any of that matter when it comes down to it? My decision, and it was a very tough and deliberate choice, was to have Victoria speak like any of my other characters, to let her not speak a word of Spanish to "identify" her as Latina. I would treat her like any other character, which sounds odd because isn't that what I should be doing anyway, even if she's Latina?
Here's the thing, I've written several plays with main Latino/a characters (4 including Woman Studies). Each one of those plays has been inspired loosely by family, by people I grew up with, by the environment of Albuquerque, NM. What would happen if I looked at a Latina from Iowa? A Latina who didn't come out of the same environment as all my other characters? What if she was like me? What if she was Latino by her family, by her skin, by her upbringing, but not necessarily by her day to day conversations. Honestly, this is a strange concept to speak about, I'm trying not to offend or confuse the issue here or to make me come across as not proud of my heritage or whatever (I made that mistake once by a poor choice of phrase and was unfairly taken to task).
My new dramaturg friend's question is completely valid only because she found that based on her reading of the play, Victoria could be of any race. And that's true besides the character description before the play that says "Latina" after her age. So, if Victoria sounds like she could be of any race, not saying that she's generic by any means, but if she doesn't have something that is distinctly Latina in her language or her experience, is she Latina enough? When I define a race for a particular character, it has weight, it has responsibility. I just hope that the play works and that Victoria is a fully-formed character. That's my main concern. If I do justice to Victoria as a character, I think that's enough.
What about you? Do any of you struggle with race of your characters and the weight that comes with that? How do you handle it? I'd love to hear about it.
I wish you well with your work, my fellow theatre-makers.
Be excellent to each other.