Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Playwriting 2.0

I've been meaning to come back to this post for a while. I said a little glib thing about it when it first made the rounds, but it really stuck with me, rattling around in my brain. Like Karl, I do kind of hate all of those techniques he mentions and, like Karl, I find I use them regularly. In the play I just finished, during the rewrites, I realized that I needed a nice, big set-piece for my central character, so what did I add? A drunk scene. Of course. It (mostly) achieved what I wanted it to, which is good. But was it totally necessary? I don't know. (There were some other reasons I used it, but that's for another post.)

One thing that struck me about Karl's list is that, once upon a time, those ideas, techniques, they were great. Beyond great, they were revelatory, some of them shocking even. When Mamet busted out the short, clipped back-and-forth of ping pong dialogue, it was like Knute Rockne rocking the forward pass. "Wait, what? You can do that? In a play?" When I first read Angels In America, the split scenes blew my mind. I wedged them into more than a few early plays of my own. Split scenes? Like in the movies? Holy shit. That Kushner's a freaking genius!

But that's the thing. Technical tricks and games become old hat. Sure, something's never go out of fashion, but other things do. Like star wipes. Have we hit a similar place in playwriting? Are there techniques that are just old hat now? How does playwriting evolve? A couple of years ago, putting a live band on stage was the shit. Now? Not so much. What's the next thing?

When we get bogged down in the old buggaboo of "realism vs. experimentalism," how much are just talking about technical tricks that are becoming standard? Is it the hard death knell of something we're seeing? I'm really asking, not just making rhetorical flips here. One thing that surprises me is the lack of focus on actual technique and how it evolves. Playwriting is an evolving, growing and changing art, but it seems to be treated like it's static. A good play is always a good play. Except there are plays that have fallen off the radar, despite great success in the past. How does that happen? And what does it mean to live, as a playwright, through that kind of shift?

I think that posts like Zack's show us that we are living through a change (maybe we always are). What does that mean for playwrights? And what's coming around the bend? I hear a fair amount about what theatre will look like in the future, but what will plays look like?


joshcon80 said...

The next thing is over-the-top, cartoonish gore. I just know it is.

I miss star wipes. I hope they come back.

A.W. said...

The standards used to measure plays are subjective. At the same time that some writers create plays with new structures, other writers will use the old techniques because they are no longer in favor. Whatever the changes in plays at least they don't change as fast as camera techniques in film. Think how fast the camera shot that followed a flying bullet/arrow/canon ball. Went from cool to humorous.

99 said...

I think we see it in film far more readily than we see it in plays. Maybe because there are so many plays spread out over so much distance that it's hard to notice trends. But also, I feel like filmmakers are more able to acknowledge antecedents and influences than playwrights. Maybe it's the closeness with the business side, too. Look at the current vogue for the "bromance." All of those movies could be written by the same person (and a lot of them are). It's just now starting to fade (so quickly). But do the writers take offense when you ask them about working in the same style? Never. They seem happy to be connected to a trend and aware of it. I feel like whenever we start examining trends in playwriting, people get offended, like we're questioning their artistic merit.

Ian Thal said...

I thought the trend, at least amongst male writers, to use a lot of profanity, indulge in the usual misogyny, racism, and religious bigotry, and claim to be "edgy" and "speaking the truth."

But I'm in a relative backwater like Boston.

joshcon80 said...

@Ian Thal

Do you mean like Neil Labute etc? I think that's actually kind of passe now.

On a personal note... religious bigotry? Pfft. Please don't.

Ian Thal said...

Actually, Josh, Guirgis was the fellow coming to mind for me. I'm glad to hear it's passé now.

Personally, I really like using staging techniques that fell out of favor sometime in the 19th century. It's so retro that it's avant-- but I guess that's not really a trend, is it?

joshcon80 said...

@Ian Thal

Ah. I actually don't know his work. I've seen the script for "Jesus Hopped the A Train" and Barnes & Noble, but that's the closest I've come. I'll count myself lucky.

Ian Thal said...

I don't know if Guirgis actually is a bigot, or he's just not smart or learned enough to handle the topics he wants to write about with any subtlety (I'm more inclined towards the latter.) I saw a production of his Last Days of Judas Iscariot back in 2006, and I was struck by the level of unchecked misogyny, hyper-machismo and antisemitism (though he tries to deflect the latter by having the one of the supporting characters charged of antisemitism.)

It was a weird hodgepodge of reactionary theology and "experimental" staging as done by the the He-Man Woman Haters' Club.

But what do I know? The critics loved it.

99 said...

I didn't see Judas, but I loved Our Lady of 121st St, personally. I think I liked the production a bit more than the play, but there are some passages that really got me. Did the critics love Judas? I remember it being dismissed pretty handily, though that might have been just the word on the street.

I don't know if I'd put Guirgis in the same place as LaBute, though I do think that day is on the downswing. McDonough's pretty much wrapped it up and no one actually wants to emulate Mamet anymore.

Living in NYC does give a skewed view of the trends, since we're the "cutting edge" or whatever. Or maybe we're just doing our own thing.

Ian Thal said...

Most of the reviews I came across for Judas were positive. A few complained that the work seemed rushed and unfinished. At least one critic up here in Boston put it on her ten-best list for the year.

99 said...

Unfortunately, Critic-O-Meter didn't exist for its NY run, but the Times review was pretty mixed:

Honestly, I've always felt that was the knock against Guirgis: great dialogue, passionate writing, but sloppy and rushed. I was blown away by Our Lady, but it was also clear that his company let him get away without finishing the play. It just stops, dead. One of the drawbacks of having a company to write for.

Ian Thal said...

One of the drawbacks of having a company to write for.

And that gets into the issue of discipline and craft. Even if LAByrinth had him on a deadline as to when he had to deliver a completed script, for him not to have given it a rewrite before other companies mounted their own productions is simply unforgivable-- and it tells me, as an audience member, that we have a sloppy artist at work.

Carl Benson said...

Great post and really interesting, on point comments. Think you pretty much nailed it with this:

"McDonough's pretty much wrapped it up and no one actually wants to emulate Mamet anymore."

I've got a feeling that one trend you're going to see popping up in theater everywhere is a sense of pop, and by that I mean work that is created to entertain as opposed to shock or create controversy.

When times are tough (recession, war etc), people want to go out to forget about their troubles, not get beaten over the head with them. Neil Simon's a pretty good example of this -- Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park were huge in the early 60's while the country was tearing itself in two over the Vietnam War.

And to be honest, I'm pretty happy about a little more pop in theater. It appeals to a larger audience (which theater really needs to right now), and it's fun. Theater will always be a home for breaking down the issues of the day in a more complex fashion than any other medium, just as it will always be home to experimentation with form and style. But if, for the next little while, we start to see more work which appeals to a mass audience, I am all for it.

Thanks for the post, and keep up the good work.


joshcon80 said...

@Carl Benson

"I've got a feeling that one trend you're going to see popping up in theater everywhere is a sense of pop, and by that I mean work that is created to entertain..."

Fingers crossed. I would love a theater that's more fun. Or fun at all.