After reading Simon Stephens’ play Port, I wanted to write about specificity in a play, but I’m also going to talk about politics. I don’t mean in the sense of “political theatre” or Liberal vs. Conservative or anything like that, but what statements do the specifics of our plays make?
I’ve often been told to be specific with my writing, but what do we really mean by that? Specificity in character? Place? Time? Yes. Yes. Yes. Specificity in stage directions or stage images? The first thing that struck me about Port was the opening stage direction and just how specific it was:
1988. A parked Vauxhall Cavalier in the car park of the flats on Lancashire Hill in Stockport.
Simon (We're all on first name basis as playwrights, aren't we? We're all peers. Let's let the critics call us by last name. We can be on a first name basis.) begins by giving us specificity in time and in place. A year and an intensely specific location. The stage direction goes on to give us specificity in stage image:
We should see the exposed interior of the car towards one edge of the stage. A real Vauxhall Cavalier should be used. The top of the car should be sawn off.
Once we get through this, Simon takes us into specifics of character. We meet Racheal Keats, her brother Billy, and her mother. I won't write out the specific stage directions that Simon uses, but know that they're very specific. I'm not talking about Eugene O'Neill specific in which you might learn about the thread count of a particular curtain or bedsheet, but specific enough to have a very clear Image of who these people are. When you are that specific, especially if you're writing about a very specific and real place, you are making a statement.
There's a great interview Simon gave for the National Theatre about his writing process, (which I found interesting because it mirrored a bit of one of my earlier posts about my process), and in that interview, he speaks about making a political statement with your play by simply writing your play. Here's a quote from the interview:
Every decision that you make in the making of a play will affect the politics that you’re dramatizing. You don’t need to make political speeches. It’s not just in the things that characters say to one another that the politics of a play are defined. It’s in the images you put on stage, it’s in the world you choose to show. For me, with Port in Manchester particularly, suggesting that lives of people living in Manchester then are worthy of drama was a political gesture…Making the heroine of a drama a working class girl from Stockport, growing up from age 11 to 23, regardless of what she says or thinks or does, that’s political.
If we are being deliberate in our choices about who we put in our plays or about who we put on our stages, we are making political statements. When I decide the main character of my play is Latina, that she lives in Iowa, has a Masters degree in music, teaches at a small liberal arts college, and never utters a word of dialogue in Spanish, I am making a political statement. Plays hold power not just in our words, but in our images. And I know that I have sometimes taken that for granted. As Simon said, “It’s not just in the things that characters say to one another that the politics of a play are defined,” but in the worlds we are choosing to show.
There are a great deal many worlds that we can show. There are towns and individuals that haven’t been placed on our stages. There are lives we haven't seen and should see on our stages.
As we continue to wrestle with our plays, let’s keep in mind that every detail we add makes a statement. Keep writing. Love your work. And, as always, 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.