Southampton Writers Conference – July 2005
I am pleased to be asked to give a craft lecture, though truthfully, playwrights always feel a little odd in the company of poets and novelists and, you know, decent, honorable people. Because writing plays and musicals and movies feels like a real low down life most of the time, though truly, I wouldn’t trade it. Playwrights are a scrappy bunch, and can be counted on to dance at parties and be very loyal, though not always on time. So maybe we know something. But what. And why have I written this down instead of just talking it. And the answer to that, is another truth about playwrights, we are better on paper. In any case, what do I have to say that might interest you?
Well, there is this odd idea you sometimes hear out in the world, and that is that everybody has at least one play in them. And there does seem to be evidence for this – all the time people come up to me and say, Marsha, I have this great idea for a play. What they hope, of course, is that I will write their idea for them, and make it as brilliant as they would if they only had the time to sit down and get the thing on paper. But alas, I tell them. The only person who can write your play is you. So on the off chance that some of you might be harboring the secret desire to write your play, I thought I’d just hit the highlights, – what a play is, what a play has to do, and what are the mistakes you don’t have to make if you ever sit down to write yours.
For starters, on the simplest possible level, a play is a piece of machinery. Like a ski lift. Like an automobile. Like an airplane. All of which may be beautiful in themselves, but which have a single justifying purpose and that is to take you somewhere. In the case of a play, it must take you from where you are when you enter the theater, to where you are when you leave. A play that doesn’t take you someplace, doesn’t work. Instinctively, you know this. It doesn’t move you, you say. You walk out and you say, “It didn’t go anywhere,” and you call up your friends and you tell them you hated it and they stay away and the show closes. Finally, the show moves, but it isn’t to that great destination the playwright was hoping for.
As simple as this rule is, I cannot state it strongly enough. You can have the most fantastic Mercedes coupe in your driveway, and the finish can be flawless, and the seats can really be comfortable, and you can even have Harrison Ford sitting in the back seat for God’s sake, waiting to go for a ride. But if the car won’t run, it’s going to be a really long afternoon. Nobody wants to come over to your house to sit in the car. Not for two hours they don’t. Even if you’ve got both Harrison Ford and Tommie Lee Jones in the back seat. Sometimes actors think they can make a play move in spite of itself. But they can’t, and eventually, even though they believe in you and your talent, they get out of the car and leave you for some other vehicle, and without actors, you are really truly stuck.
A play has to move. It has to go where it says it’s going. Like a flight to Chicago. If you buy a ticket for Chicago, when the plane lands, you better damn well be in Chicago, or you’re going to have some mighty angry people on your hands. You’re going to have, as Lucy would say, some explaining to do. But more of that later.
Put in still another mechanical way, a play is like a ski lift. What you want from a ski lift is to get in, ride to the top of the mountain, get out, look at the view, say Wow, and go home. What you don’t want, in a ski lift or a play, is to stop, half way up the mountain and just hang there. Nor do you want somebody to pull the shades, come on the loud speaker and lecture you about the politics of Kansas, or tell you about their Aunt June, to whom nothing really happened and show you pictures of their very pleasant children. Finally and worst of all, you don’t want to ride a ski lift where there is no mountain. But it isn’t enough to be told there is a mountain out there. No. If you have paid your money, you want to see the mountain for yourself. You want the ride. You want to go someplace you’ve never been and feel how things are there. And the playwright owes that to you. Now obviously, no one sits down to write the great bumpy ride to nowhere, but that is what way too many plays feel like.
So. What is the mountain? What is a good subject for a play? This is the easy part, actually. Or should be. What are the mountains in our lives? They’re the things we want but we can’t have. I want to avenge my father’s death. (Hamlet) I want to go to Moscow. (The Three Sisters) I want my husband not to call me his little bird. (A Doll’s House) I want to marry this cute guy from this family that my family is fighting with. I want my sons to respect me. I want this guy Godot to show up. I want to be happy. I want to be King. I want to be dead. Etc. Etc. It almost doesn’t matter what it is that the main character wants. It is the wanting that is the subject of the play. It is want that creates drama in both the tragic and comic forms. Not every story will make a play. Plays are not stories in any conventional, literary sense. Plays are stories about need.
A play is our journey through the main character’s life from the point where we know what he wants, to the point where he gets it or not. How he goes about getting it, what stands in his way, whether he deserves it or not, and whether he’s happy when he gets it, these are all secondary issues. When you are thinking of writing a play, you should first fill in the blanks in this sentence. This is a play about a blank who wants blank. Force yourself to summarize your idea in one sentence. This play is about a King who wants his daughters to prove that they love him. This play is about an ex-con who wants to make something of herself. When you have this sentence, write it down on an index card and tape it to the underside of your computer, so when you wonder what the hell you’re doing, you can just read the card.
But the main character doesn’t just want something. He really wants it. He wants it now. I mean in the next two hours. I am not exaggerating this urgency thing. One of the ugliest sights in the world is watching thirteen hundred people, trapped together for two hours, all of whom have paid seventy five dollars for the privilege, and came in hopeful and happy, watching those people turn on a character whose problem is that he maybe wants a little something sometime or other. No. We all know what it feels like to want things. What we want from the theater is the chance to see what happens if we ask for what we really need.
Plays are about survival. If turtles wrote plays, and risked coming together in the open to watch them, the plays would not be about the joy of crawling in the sand, or memories of the happy days before mommy died. Plays by turtles would be about things you had to know if the species was to survive, where to bury the eggs so that more turtles would stand a chance of hatching. They would be about what not to eat, when to fight and when to back down. They would be about what happens if you break the long-established rules of turtle life. Plays by turtles would contain the things the species must remember, even if they are forgotten by individual members. Anything else would not be worth your turtle time, and you would probably swim off in the middle of the show and go eat dinner or get laid.
So. All right. Plays are about need. The main character must be aware of her need, and she must be active in her efforts to get what she needs. Given those two things, the end of the play is a snap, and a very satisfying one. The main character must either get what she needs, or deal with how she can live without it.
Now occasionally, some genius writes a play about more than one character. But not often. Most good plays are about one person, and what that one person needs. Anybody who has ever tried to satisfy two needy children at once, knows it is very hard to pay attention to two sets of needs. In life you sometimes have to do it, but in the theater, you have the luxury of just considering, for two hours, the longing of one heart.
We care about the needs of one person because that is how we go through life. As one person. And when we see what someone else wants, and hear what she has to say about it, and see what she does, then we know who she is, compared to us. Which is how we learn most things, I think, by comparison. Character develops by comparison too. Moment to moment, we watch the main character as if she were us. As if we wanted to be king, as if we wanted to marry Romeo. And if the writer has done her job, at the end of the play, we haven’t just watched, we have actually felt what it was like to be Juliet, to be Blanche DuBois, to be Mrs. Antrobus. The playwright’s task is to give the audience the experience of being someone else, of living the crucial moment in someone else’s life. So good. How do you do that.
Well, after you identify the moment you’re going to watch, then you pick the perfect place to stand and see the thing. Going back to the ski lift analogy, if you build one, you don’t take people around the back of the mountain. You don’t take them to a little cave about half way up. You take them to the top. If you’re going to show a whole life in two hours, you have to pick the moment from which the whole life is visible.
My play, ‘Night, Mother, is about a woman who wants to kill herself. I could have set it in any number of moments. I could have set it at the funeral, and told the whole thing in flashback. I could have set it in her imagination as she was deciding to do it. I could have set it at her brother’s house when he was trying to get dressed for the funeral. But no. That would be the solemn version. Solemn is deadly. Serious is what we want. Dead serious is good on the stage.
‘Night, Mother is about suicide. Suicide is a terrible thing. We want to know what to do if somebody we know tries to kill themselves. We want to see somebody try to stop them. So I set the play in the hour and a half before Jessie kills herself, and put with her, the person who had the greatest claim on that life, the person who stood the best chance of saving her. And watched what happened as Jessie tried to explain herself and make sure Mama would be all right after she died. And watched as Mama tried to find something that would work. I made it Saturday night so no one would come and interrupt them. I had Mama try to make a phone call for help, but had Jessie threaten to kill herself more quickly if she did. I set up an underlying three act structure, with Mama searching first the present, then the past, and finally the future for the solution to this puzzle. I made sure that it got harder and harder for both of them, the action escalating, the stakes getting higher and higher, and I kept the clock ticking.
So now. Getting back to you and your play. Once you have your subject, you need your structure. – In the first ten minutes you must announce your subject, you must tell the audience what the main character wants. Do not count on them to get this by ESP or common sense. Tell them. I’m really getting mellow in my old age here. I used to say that this had to happen on page 8. But now I say page 8 to 10 is O.K. The audience will give you ten minutes to get going, to fill them in on where you are, to show them you can fly this thing, and let them look at the actors. But then you have to do it. Announce the destination. Brad wants the family piano. Macbeth wants to be King. Whatever.
When the audience knows what the main character wants, they relax, they know when they can go home. The next thing they need, in order to feel comfortable and be able to follow you, is a grid, a kind of map for the world you are taking them into. They need to know how to store the information you’re about to give them. Who are the main characters, and who are the observers, and how are they related. Where are we, the country or the city, the past or the future, and how do things work here. Are we looking at years here, or days? Is it a sane world? How do people usually solve their problems. When we know the world, we begin to anticipate things, to fear what will happen. We begin to live in the play. We move forward in our seats, we gasp and laugh and dread the terrible end we fear is coming. Hamlet won’t really kill everybody, will he? Emily isn’t really going to die, is she? Dread is a fabulous thing to feel in the theater, and you can only dread the trip up the mountain if you know how high it is, how cold it is, and how unprepared you are.
Now, finally, character and plot. And how they are related. Good Characters have some or all of the following: a particular way of speaking, things they think are funny, personal history, including grudges and passions, an occupation, size, gender and age, failures, secrets, ways of wasting time, delusions, weaknesses and dreams. They have a name, and you should not start writing them until you know what it is. They have things they know how to do, and things they don’t. They take steps. They make mistakes. There is nothing more deadly than a passive central character. Except maybe a whole stage full of people who all talk alike.
I have the idea that you should be able to erase all the character names in a play and still tell who is talking. I have the idea that you shouldn’t write the first page until you know how everybody talks. A composer would never write a sonata and then decide which instrument should play it. And in the same way that composers write for specific instruments, playwrights voice their plays. How characters speak is your first and maybe your best clue as to how they think. What they do with their ideas and their time, how picky they are, how dull, how determined. Once you know how your characters think, you know who they are.
And when you know who the characters are, then you know what will happen. Plot does not come from above. Plot comes from who these people are on the stage. They do what they do because they must. Or they can. Or they feel like it. But it is the characters who act, who cause the thing to move forward. The plot is nothing more than what the main character does and what the other characters do back. We try to make it look more complicated than that, but it isn’t. And if it seems like a sport here, well, it feels that way some times. Each move the character makes takes him closer to his goal, or puts him further behind. As his problems arise, and as he solves them or is defeated by them, the play moves toward its resolution, which, when we get there, must come just when we are ready for it, and must not be a surprise. We arrive at last at the top of the mountain. And it is as glorious and terrifying as we thought. The end must be what we feared would happen from the start. Unless it’s a comedy, of course, when the end must be what we feared would never, could never happen.
Plays seem to unfold on the stage, effortlessly, humorously, carried along by the ticking of the clock and the tendency of people to keep talking. But they are anything but accidental. Good plays answer the audience’s questions as they ask them, but not before, they don’t burden the audience with information they don’t need, they do provide information, relief and amusement, as necessary.
The language cannot be exactly as it is spoken in the world. But must be slightly larger than life, so that when the actors speak it, slightly louder than normal, it can shrink a little on its way out to the audience and arrive on their ears sounding just right. Furthermore, the play is not simply what is in the lines. The play is also what is not said, what lies under the lines, and what the audience imagines during intermission. Plays are best written quickly, are derived from things that happened at least ten years ago, and if you’re looking for a good idea for a play, think about some time when you were really scared. Remember that the audience doesn’t care about ghosts, that if you want to cover your exposition, a good way to do it is in a fight, and a good cheap trick is to put in a character who doesn’t know what’s going on. Don’t let the characters just stand around and talk. That’s as boring on the stage as it usually is in life. If you can’t figure out anything else for them to be doing, have someone spill a cup of coffee. There are certain subjects almost no one is interested in onstage. One of those in incest. Another is religion. Don’t give two characters names that start with the same letter. A big speech works best if the character doesn’t want to give it.
Don’t write big roles for child actors as they are very hard to find and they can’t rehearse a full day. When somebody wants to direct your play, the important question to ask them is what they like about it. Don’t sign a contract without talking to the Dramatists Guild, and
Everything else will be covered in the advanced course. Thank you very much.