Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What & Why

The thread in the comments here gets us into the same old familiar places and Isaac very correctly points out the limitations of the conversation that we run into:
WEll, this comment thread is certainly about the How not the What. I think we talk a lot about the What though, particualrly when we talk about diversity which is another way of talking about the Who.

And while the above might have read as facetious, i don't mean it that way.

do you feel like in the blogosphere we talk about the how too much and not enough of the what?
It doesn't just stop at the blogosphere, though. I've been meaning to bring this up, especially in the light of this excellent post from Prince Gomolvilas during his guestblogging stint at Parabasis. Those are perfect tips to talk about the How (as isaac calls it). But how do we talk about the What?

I've had the same experience at two recent writing groups I've attended. We all know the writers group deal, but just in case you don't: you get a bunch of writers together, they read their work and then give feedback. Usually there's some structure to the feedback to protect the writer and keep things civil. I'm a member of a couple of them and I really like them. There is a problem, though, and it's exactly this: the focus is on craft, style, but rarely, if ever on substance. The focus is on the How and never on the What. Or even more importantly on the Why.

Recently, in each group, someone presented work, good, solid, well-crafted work, that I questioned the Why of. It's a hard subject to broach. "Hey, Fellow Playwright, your play is fine, well-structured and all of that. I just think the entire subject matter is pointless, trite and unengaging." Not a good way to remain civil. But we don't have much of a vocabulary for it. If my grad school was like all the others, and all of the writers' groups I've ever been in like all the others, the focus is exclusively on form, not substance. We help each other write clearer, stronger plays, but not necessarily better plays.

And what was wrong with them? Well, avoiding the specifics to protect them (and me, just in case), they were plays that the authors felt deeply about, mostly drawn from peronsal experiences and perspectives that were all about the troubles, travails and issues of upper middle class urbanites, mainly white (or color-less). Of course, most of the writers were upper middle class urbanites. Write what you know, right? Those are the limitations.

Sitting in the circle, I was of two minds: how to frame useful, productive feedback and what could I say about the content that wouldn't be offensive or pointless. And I came up with nothing.

Can we talk about the content? Can we ask ourselves which stories are we hearing? That's the real question. Irony v. sentimentality, linear v. non-linear is all a sideshow. Even diversity is a sideshow. The real thing we have to figure out is what stories are we telling and why.

Why and What. Why are we telling stories we're choosing to tell? In a way, we know why theatres are programming the way they're programming. But what effect is that having on the work we're all creating. Whether we want to or not, we should be asking ourselves those questions.


joshcon80 said...

God knows I complain about plays focusing only on boring rich white folks all the time. It's a bore and a big problem.

That said, I think it's dangerous to ask "why?" If the play is good then why not? Not every play has to be about genital mutilation or the crisis in the Middle East, does it?

The director who worked on the first iteration of my play asked the question, "Why this play now?" It was kind of a retarded question because:

1. It's a comedy, and it's always a good time for comedy.

2. Although not explicitly political or deep or anything, it's a play about four 15 year old girls questioning things like mortality and the universe and justice and love and God for the first time. Just because it's about teenage girls doesn't make it trite.

It reminds me of an interview with Kate Whoriskey about taking over The Intiman, where I had my first professional gig in theater. I wish I could find it, but Whoriskey makes these bold statements about how theater got small and plays be about epic things and how she wanted to bring more international artists to Seattle and take more of the Intiman's work to New York and blah blah blah. It kind of made me barf. Suck it, "Raisin in the Sun"! eat shit, "'Night Mother"!

On the other hand, I feel you on the dearth of diversity in subject matter. I really, really do.

99 said...

I think a playwright should be able to answer the question of "Why this play now?," at the very least for themselves. Because an audience has to answer it, too. I'm not advocating for only "serious" plays, though. That's when you get into questions of style and the "how."

joshcon80 said...

Touche. Good points, all.

Well, my answer will always be, "Shut up. GOD."

I mean, I could go into the reasons why people should produce "MilkMilkLemonade", and there are many, but the real reason is because it's funny. Does there need to be another reason?

99 said...

I think funny is a style thing and I do think we need more funny plays. With your play, at least for me, underneath the funny and the silly, is a very real experience that we don't see a lot of onstage. And that should be the guiding factor. NOT for playwrights, who write the story they want to write, but for theatres and audiences: have I seen this story? Do I know this story? What's new here? That's what was great about Raisin and 'Night, Mother: when they were new, they were new. Sometimes I think that all of our theatre is stuck hovering somewhere between 1981 and 1986.

RLewis said...

"Does there need to be another reason?"
As an audience member, I'd say: YES. Definitely. Always.

Why this play now? is the most important question to ask of any play. The theater is a place of Ideas, if you don't have one, you could write for film/tv, but even there having something to say is coming more paramount. And it doesn't mean that something can't be funny as hell.

Isn't this what we're talking about when discussing the writer's Voice? As in, what does this writer have to say that is worth my time, attention and the price of admission. It's the What, and if you ain't got a What, who should even care about your How?

joshcon80 said...


But everything has a "what" and who gets to be the judge of what is a worthy "what" and what is not a worthy "what"? I just think it's dangerous is all.

RLewis said...

"who gets to be the judge of what is a worthy "what" and what is not a worthy "what"?"

The Audience.

99 said...

But there's an audience before the "audience" I'm assuming you're talking about: the audience of gatekeepers at the theatres. It's their job to decide what is a worthy What before any audience sees it at all.

That's where the danger lies. But we're already there. It's one thing for me to sit in a writers' group and say, "God, haven't we already heard enough stories about X." It's another thing for an artistic director to say that about a script.

Part of what stymies this conversation to is that we leave the Why and the Who out of the equation. Why are you (or me, or anybody) writing about X? And, in a perfect world, Who is the audience that you want to see it. Without a grasp on those issues, it's all just talk.

Tony Adams said...

The first questions that I ask are: why should we care about the characters (or about watching them)? What is the script trying to say? Of all the stories that could be told, why tell this story?

For me, those are the most important questions about every script we read.

When I'm evaluating scripts, everything else is secondary.

Now granted, that will never guarantee a great play, there's a lot of shitty plays about important issues and ideas--but if we can't answer the why, there's no sense in us producing it.

There's a lot of really bad scripts about great ideas, but I don't know many great scripts that can't answer the "why". There's a lot of really well written and polished scripts that have nothing to say.

We may not think it matters, but a lot of us are also clueless as to why audiences don't love our work.

(Note, I think a writer being able to answer and the script itself being able to answer the why are two different things.)

Ed said...

Posted this comment originally in response to a post on this on Don Hall's blog, but here's the essence of my opinion:

The reason people never ask Why about a play is because the Why for writing a play should be a given, ideally. I.e.: "This story is tremendously important to me and wouldn't leave me alone until I got it out of my head and onto paper, and ideally also onto a stage where it can connect with my fellow humans."

The hard part is owning up to the possibility that the story that was so tremendously important and meaningful to you, only resonates with about .000001% of the human race in general.

Yeah, I'm definitely in the "reaction to any piece of art is deeply personal and subjective," camp. Don't assume that what you see as trite was equally trite to the writer- one man's trash=other man's treasure, etc. I think that if one really has an artistic hardon for a project, one has to get really good at saying "fuck off" to the certain percentage of people it doesn't connect with that feel the need to actively attempt to convince you it's pointless and stupid.

To sum up: the Why question is indeed one that shouldn't be asked in the writing groups 99 attends, because if a playwright's truly been inspired by a story, unless he's completely spineless you will NEVER be able to convince him that it's not worth it to try to get it onstage. The groups he attends are right to internally shrug and at least help the guy craft his play about fluffy bunnies (or whatever) as skillfully as possible. Trying to convince the guy that the fluffy bunnies play is a stupid idea seems to me like a spectacular and frustrating waste of time on the part of the people doing the convincing, doomed to eventual failure. Let him write his play and try to get it produced, or get it produced and then see how it flies with an audience. Then he'll find out who he connects with- and he'll have a much better sample size of opinions than just a 5-10 person writer's group with their own subjective tastes and biases.