This play was never intended to be what it is. I'd had a bit of a dry spell and so I decided to write down just a few characters talking, and throw in some arbitrary "bag of tricks" plot devices, just to get myself writing. It was about a 15 page beginning of nothing, just characters in a farce. Mother and Father (that's their names) are having breakfast. They talk. They say weird, funny things. They have a daughter named Lill, who is a homeschooled arch-conservative with an absurd and impossible disease. Hilarious. There was a bit about a mysterious letter and a red dress. That's about it. I threw in the plot devices as placeholder, to give me something to write about.
The glorious thing about tried and true plot devices is that they come from a tradition that is undeniably effective. False ones, arbitrary ones, they still work, at least to get things moving. A mysterious letter sparks instantly questions like "Who received it?" "Who sent it?" "What does it say?" The stuff of narrative, clunky, for certain, but all narrative is construction, anyhow. "The red dress" is another, because if it's significant, you have both the color and form to deal with. "Why red?" "Why a dress?" "Who is wearing it and where are they wearing it to?" "Is it an old dress, or a new dress?" See? Instant drama.
One of the most engaging things about the alchemy of playwrighting is that it's a mixture of overplanning, happenstance and symbols. Since no one knows (unless you make it clear, like I am) what is abirtrary and what is coming from some deep meaning for the writer, readers and onlookers, for the most part, give you the benefit of the doubt. They want to believe that these things have a meaning that will add up to something and you, as the writer, want the same thing. It could be said that nothing is entirely abirtrary, for example. What you choose seemingly without forethought is often informed by something else you've experienced or taken note of. I always loved the use of color as instant meaning in the story of Bluebeard, and that's probably why I threw in the red dress.
Now, months (almost a year?) after that first 15 or so page ditty came out of my scrappy Dell laptop with the old ashes from when I smoked still caked under the keys, I've got an 150 page, three act comedy, with about 12 or so characters, that I'm trying to cut down to size, make sense of, give meaning to, and believe in.
I love the play, for its humor and it's characters and it's central images, but I'm still baffled by it. I am, to this day, struggling to decide what it is about. I think I've come to some conclusion about it; that it's about what marriage is, and what it used to be, and how that meaning has changed, but all that is not in the draft expressly yet. That's intention. And intention is only as useful as what it produces.
Often, you'll hear about artists' statements (I've talked about this with Foreman, and its prevalent in contemporary art) and I'm not a believer in it personally. The play's meaning and success lies only between the production and the observers. So in a sense, all the writing I do is an attempt to navigate that space. The space between what the audience will experience and what I want them to see. That navigation is frought with issues that are unique to art...because making overt messages is viewed as a sort of incompetence. You don't want to be didactic or to make the "messages" so clear that they are written on a chalk board. On the other hand, you do not what to be lost in a maze of your own meaning entirely, leaving the audience to its own devices. It is an attempt to communicate, like all art, but one that places barriers between making direct contact. They say "show, don't tell." What many people often overlook is that this is a much more tricky tightrope walk than three little words can encapsulate.
In the midst of this issue (how to say it without saying it, how to have meaning while leaving the audience their own percpetions) is the idea that I do, in fact, like the humor of the play. A great deal. And the play can't be divorced from that humor. So as I'm sitting here, reworking scenes and trying to negotiate plot points and ambiguities, I'm attempting to make sure that how things are said match the style of the play, the truth of each characters voice, while making sure that the play contains things like coherence and a line from the start to the finish.
Of course, I also need to know when to throw things that are traditional away entirely. And that is it's own little trick.
One thing I'll say, is that I'm enjoying the sort of broad style of the play, how the characters let loose, say some dreadfully funny things and are all remarkably fucked up and sad and hilarious. At least to me. If I didn't think so, I probably wouldn't bother to write it. Wonderful not to be an elected official or journalist: I'm absolutely allowed my bias.
The more technical things can be easily constructed as a list of notes you might find after a staged reading with a talkback:
- Act II needs to be shorter
- Too much time spent with characters that aren't intrinsic to the plot
- How does [character x] know about [plot point y] if [character z] didn't tell her?
- When does this realization happen?
- This beat seems clunky and needs to be reworded.
- Should this character enter before or after another character?
- Do we need two songs in Act III?
- Who gets to write the music for the songs?
- Should I write that they "get a glass of water?" Running tap water onstage is a bitch.
- Define the motivations of Jessica, or Lill, or Father Comeuppance
- This monologue is funny, and it's my favorite thing in the play...but do we really need it?
Never did take a playwrighting class. I think every day is one.
Here endeth my little internal monologue, at least for the evening. I'll be writing about this process, in more detail and specificity, through the coming weeks.