Theresa Rebeck mounts a defense in the LA Times of plot and structure. Or, it seems, storytelling. There is a loose use, in her piece, of the terms plot, structure and story, but I think I'll focus on structure. As it seems to me that a plot (two guys want to go see a baseball game) isn't really an issue. The issue here is whether or not a hostility towards structure is a good thing.
"I seem to be constantly confronted by theater professionals who are more or less annoyed by the prospect of structure. One time I was at a wedding reception, for crying out loud, and I got seated at a table with a really famous genius of the contemporary American theater who had directed a play I admired. He had deconstructed a well-known play but the essence of the original story was still there, and the artistry and strangeness of his interpretation was beautifully balanced within the original tale. When I told him so, he went into a drunken rage. "All that structure, all that story," he growled, pouring himself more wine. "What a nightmare."
"I love structure," I confessed. "I think it's beautiful."
"Yeah, the audience loved it too," he sneered.
OK, I condensed that conversation; there was actually more yelling and drinking involved. But the essence of the exchange is accurate: He was a great artist who looked down on structure and managed to admit that he looked down on the audience too."
With this story, Rebeck is making the point that makes me wince. Which isn't to say I know exactly how I feel about it or I'm sure she's wrong. She is equating a frustration with structure and a dismissal of the audience.
That can be true. It can also be a product of trying to give theatrical audiences something they can't find elsewhere. If you want perfect structure, you don't have to look far: it's on every TV screen, and in every film. Films that eschew traditional structure are praised simply for doing so, it being so uncommon.
On stage, the only limits imposed on us are our own. We aren't slaves to a 44 minute episode plus commerical interruptions, or a one hour and forty five minute screen time to maximize showings. So structure on stage is less a necessity of the market. It's a tool.
How useful is that tool? Most of the time...very. And it's also used prominently. I have a hard time thinking of a recent play that doesn't have some version of a two-act or three-act structure embedded somewhere in its DNA. In fact, Rebeck seems to be mounting a defense for the norm.
It seems more complex and challenging to create something successful for the stage and entirely opposes or breaks down the dramatic structure that seems to somehow be a part of "how plays work." Perhaps Expositon - Rising Action - Climax - Fall Action and Denouement are the Golden Mean of drama; that they spring forth from something more fundamental about how human being perceive and accept storytelling. Dramatic structure isn't something that comes from academia. It seems like it was discovered by an unofficial scientific method, proven on stages again and again.
That's why it behooves most playwrights to attempt to subvert or reject it or try to replace it. Because it's there, and we feel it, and we're reminded of it by people like Rebeck, and professors, and Sophocles. I'd guess that most writers feel, deep in their gut, an urge to plainly deny that their work must fall into these parameters or automatically be judged unsuccessful, messy, or less beautiful.
I love messiness. I'm not, though, dedicated to writing plays that fail to work because I've tried to resist structure. That's the dilemma I feel as I write. That tension is a good and healthy one. It's not a need to reject the audience...it's a desire to give them, and myself, something else. Something they can't find elsewhere.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.