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.