Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Screen Play

I was at a writers' group the other night, reading a snippet of a new play. Afterwards, one of the attendees came to me and said, as a compliment, my scene was "filmic." It was a scene set in a kitchen, with four characters coming in and out. Huh. I've been thinking about this a bunch lately, about how we in the theatre critique things and talk about writing and how we compare what we do to other dramatic writing. And it kind of bugs me on a couple of levels.

I recently read Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson. It's pretty good. One of his basic premises is that what is often thought of as "junk" culture, particularly television and video games, are actually quite complex; in fact, they've grown exponetially more complex over time and that our brains are growing more complex with them. He notes that even reality shows involve a pretty complex understanding of human behavior and relationships and strategy, and that people crave and need that complexity, maybe more than ever. It's a good read. Check it out.

But it got me thinking about the way, in theatre circles, we talk about television shows. In particular, television writing. Isaac does it here (because what post is complete without a link to Isaac?), when he describes Theresa Rebeck's play The Scene as a "teleplay." Well, what kind of teleplay? Are we talking a Lifetime Nora Roberts movie? Or an episode of 30 Rock? Those are both teleplays, but one is not the same as the other. What made my scene, which strictly adheres to the unities of time, place and action, "filmic?" Apparently, it was the quality of the dialogue and the speed of the scene (lots of overlap and not a lot of clearly spelled out exposition).

It seems to me that we use these kinds of words to talk about quality, not content and that's inaccurate. Just because something has jokes, or topical references, or a certain kind of polish to it, that doesn't make it television, not any more. Sometimes, I think we're mired in the intellectual, academic approach to our work and to the world. Pop culture is bad, simplistic and commercial. When we don't like something, we compare it to television, as opposed to saying it was flat, cliched and uninteresting. And I think we do this at our peril.

Television isn't all Two and A Half Men and bad movies of the week. There are complex, interesting, dramatically engaging stories happening. And not just Lost. Plus, smart people like it now. It's no longer just the province of middle of the road tastes. In Johnson's book, he quotes at length a television executive talking about their corporate philosophy in the '60s, which was offend as few people as possible, the Least Objectionable Programming. It's not like that any more. And I think there are lessons to be learned about the ways people are used to seeing dramatic entertainment.

Obviously, there is one major significant difference between television and theatre: the time factor. A television show can dole out information, keep some details hidden, draw out the drama because it has so much more time. At this stage, a television show has infinite time to make its points, since between DVRs and DVDs, you can watch them over and over until you get it. We got our two hours' traffic on the stage. If someone misses something, they turn to their neighbor and whisper just loud enough so everyone can hear, "What did she say?" No rewind, no pause. So we're used to hitting the points hard and often. The gun in the first act and all.

But our audience might have evolved a little bit more than that. They might be used to getting their information doled out more stingily, more subtly and they get annoyed if it's all too clear. If things are spelled out. We do a lot of lamenting in the society in general that attention spans are so much shorter, but also might be a sign of quicker deducing. We might need to think in terms of more complexity. But I digress.

My point is that TV isn't the province of idiots anymore. And it isn't enough just to say something is like TV or like a movie, because it moves at that speed. And it certainly isn't enough to say those things as a criticism of quality. Here's a storyline: A mob boss goes with his teenaged daughter to visit colleges as she prepares to graduate high school. Along the way, they, for the first time, have a frank discussion of who he is and what he does and how that relates to her life. As they look at one college she really likes, he sees a guy he put a hit out on years before, but has been unable to catch. He has to decide if he wants to pursue this right now with his daughter so near. Pretty compelling story, yes? And it's an episode of The Sopranos. Could that be a compelling play? Hell yeah. What's wrong with that?

Now I'm not saying that all plays should be just like an episode of The Sopranos. Or even that all television is on the level of The Sopranos. Clearly not. But we should be clearer in our criticism. And not be so quick to say that a writer who writes smart dialogue, realistic situations and throws in a joke or two wants to be a television writer. Maybe they wanted to stay in theatre, but got told, over and over, that their plays were "like television." As a pejorative. I'm just saying.

I want to leave you with this. This is one of my favorite pieces of writing, ever. If you ignore the walking and change of scenery, wouldn't you love to see this in a play?


Slay said...

Great choice of clip, and way to reference S. Johnson. I certainly gave TV writing (if not actual TV watching) some more considered thought after reading that book.

Now, if only Aaron Sorkin's theatre-writing was as punchy and fun as his television writing.

99 said...

That book really did some eye-opening for me. I've kind of reconsidered by long-standing ban on reality shows because of it. I don't think I'll be tuning into American Idol anytime soon, but maybe the Amazing Race.

I wonder what kind of plays Sorkin would have written if he'd been working at a time when it was a bit easier to be a playwright AND a television writer. I could be wrong, but that double success seems like a more recent development. It seems like fifteen, twenty years ago, the talent immediately fled for L.A. after only a successful play or two and then never returned. In the last few years (and possibly with the return of television production in NYC), it's much more possible to be Warren Leight or Craig Wright or Theresa Rebeck and have real success in both mediums (media?).

macrogers said...

I love this post. The idea that theater can claim any kind of superiority over television is just preposterous.

I think what Isaac was referring to with THE SCENE was Rebeck's not using the tools specific to the theater medium in her storytelling.

99 said...

That's probably true. To be honest, I didn't catch or read The Scene so may really have felt like a "teleplay." I guess I'm just getting at us being specific as to why.

isaac butler said...

Hey 99,
Just to be clear...(and not to get defensive) I wasn't deriding television when I said the scene felt like a teleplay. There's plenty of TV that I love as readers of my blog'll know, I just meant that it in no way took advantage of theatre's strengths in either its writing on production values and instead had a very presenational, television-on-stage feel.

THis is a very good post, BTW. I've read some of Johnson's book when I was visiting my parents (my dad was reading it) and the section on the evolution of the cop show from Starsky to Hill St. is really masterful.

99 said...

Defensiveness totally understood. I KNOW you dig TV and get that there's a lot of complexity and I know you're no enemy of "realism" on stage. And I do get what you're saying. I just think that kind of criticism (and even the compliment that the woman gave me at the writers group) can be clearer and treat theatre on its own term. I think saying that it was written (and produced) in a "presentational style that didn't take advantage of being live theatre" is clearer than "it was like TV." No offense meant, brother! I hope you know that...

Austin Barrow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Austin Barrow said...

Great topic! There is a growing movement I have noticed in producing "TV-like" shows in the theatre. Established theatre seems to have accepted this transition and even rewarded it (i.e. Linsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole). I personally don't like working on shows that do not allow the opportunity to utilize the tools that theatre has exclusive to television and film.

Anonymous said...

great post. I actually think a lot of the theater artists who say they don't want to make film onstage are in fact the very artists who are most trying to emulate film.

Often this route to "not making film onstage" becomes about creating exciting visual images. Exciting visual images are great, but tv and film have us beat on that front! Or it becomes about let me throw some weird shit in the mix. Weird shit, as I believe I've heard it written on someone's blog (can't remember where), equals theatricality. Now, don't get me wrong, I love weird shit, but weird shit is not what separates theater from TV/film. Weird shit does not equal theatricality.

What separates the two is liveness, making use of the liveness, creating an actual event. Now, this is all very heady and ethereal, but perhaps you know what I mean.

All too often the shows that attempt to be "theatrical" are the ones that for me fall flat--they become a presentation, a museum piece about bodies in space and not an event with action.