As someone who is not only obliged to read a lot of bad plays but then also to talk about them, I often have occasion to think about bad playwriting in a kind of macro sense. If you read enough of them, you begin to see commonalities that say a lot about the particular challenges of playwriting. You also begin to see commonalities that say a lot about the relationship bad plays have to the rest of the theater world. Bad plays and their writers are part of a larger group banging on the door that leads into the world of professional theater. It’s very hard to get through this door in a sustainable way and the desperation this breeds leads to some disheartening consequences. For example, in a disproportionate number of scripts, I see an author’s note that reads something like this: “The play is intended to be performed on a bare stage. A few chairs and tables may be used as needed.” Now, I’m sure there are many plays where this kind of presentation is appropriate both stylistically and thematically. But I am also sure that there are many writers who have made this choice because they think the sparsity will make their plays cheaper and thus, more likely to be produced. This kind of thinking is sad for a number of reasons, chief among them being that the writer is deliberately choosing to limit our vision of his or her world.
Without that vision, these kinds of bad plays increasingly come to rely on dialogue. They become about ideas and the play’s effectiveness can only be judged on its ability to communicate that idea to an audience. Which means we are now principally concerned with what a play means while disregarding a much bigger, potential question: “How does it make me feel?” To know the answer to that latter question, we have to be immersed in something bigger than just the words the characters speak and the furniture they sit on. We have to have that world to enter into, a recognizable world and yet one that is alien as well. A defined world where our emotions are translated into a story and where a story is translated into our emotions. A world that the writer opens up to us. Instead, we talk at an audience, lecturing them and preaching to them from our tables and chairs while the following groups out-theater theater:
Here’s a partial list of theatrical moments that happen in or around sporting events: Touchdown celebrations. Pre and post-game motivational speeches/prayers. Elaborate high-fives. The way tennis players always kind of crumple to the ground when they win a final. The way a baseball team always creates a dogpile after they win the World Series. Walk-off home-run celebrations. The way the crowd simultaneously jumps to their feet just when the bat makes contact with the ball. The way a crowd simultaneously raises their hands in the air just when the buzzer-beater goes through the hoop. Bench-clearing brawls. The way boxers enter the ring before a title fight. Grown men slapping each other on the ass. Grown men crying.
The complete exertion of both mind and body that sports at its highest levels requires, combined with goals that are both meaningless and yet imbued with such meaning, creates that recognizable and yet alien world and it gives rise to moments of inspired emotion, both in participants and observers.
It may not be the greatest line ever but it is one of the most badass lines ever delivered on any stage: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” It’s glorious. And it’s less about the content of the line itself (which is pretty vague) and more about its context, the way that Bentsen rises up at this crucial moment in both his and his opponent’s life to deliver a world-class punking. That’s what provokes the crowd to yelp the way they do in the clip. Politics, particularly when it comes to campaigning and debates and stump speeches and all that, is about creating energy and invoking emotional responses. It’s all just an effort to make us believe that these aren’t just rich, old men bickering but life-and-death matters that require our attention and support. And when Bentsen reared back and figuratively clocked Quayle, he showed us how much it meant (nevermind that he lost).
Just before the Super Bowl, Jimmy Kimmel had a fantastic idea. He encouraged people to set up video cameras, wait until a climactic moment in the game and then pull the plug on the TV. The reactions, which you can see here, are tremendous. Talk about building circumstances to lead to true emotional payoffs. Check out the impeccable timing at 0:45, right before the game’s final Hail Mary arrived in the endzone. Or the impish quality of the kid at 2:01, pulling the plug in plain view of at least thirty adults. And the reactions! Oh, the reactions. The boy going nuts at 1:47. The dude flipping his Laz-E-Boy over at 3:06. The whole montage of screams starting at 2:26. I learned more about our culture and our humanity—both the good and the bad—in those three minutes and fifty seconds than I did in 90% of the plays I have read in my six years doing this.
What do athletes and politicians and these video pranksters have in common? They create theatricalized worlds. Worlds that inspire their audiences to scream in joy, scream in agony, laugh, hoot, holler, gasp. Isn’t that what we want out of our audiences too?
About the Author: Dylan Southard is the co-Artistic Director of needtheater and previously served as their resident dramaturg and literary manager. Production dramaturgy credits for needtheater include: Fatboy, Mercury Fur, Scarcity, tempOdyssey, and The Web. He also directed needtheater's world premiere production of Guided Consideration of a Lamentable Deed. He is the resident dramaturg for The Robey Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theater Center, where he runs the advanced playwrights lab and helps to oversee new play development. He is also an associate artist with the international, new script development group LoNyLa, and works as a script consultant for theaters, including The Center Theatre Group, The Geffen Playhouse, The Theatre @ Boston Court, and Native Voices at the Autry. He trained for two years under a dramaturgy fellowship at Centerstage in Baltimore and is a graduate of Wesleyan University.
One comment on “The Dramaturg: Out-Theatered”
Pingback: Committing Dramaturg-ery « flor san roman