What makes the beginnings of great plays great? What gets audiences leaning in from the moment lights go up? What keeps that theatre literary manager (or intern) from putting your script down after they draw it from the slush pile?
Last Sunday, a dozen Playwrights’ Platform members explored these questions in a workshop with Kate Snodgrass, Artistic Director of the Boston Playwright’s Theatre. We read the opening pages of Death of a Salesman, Hamlet, and Arcadia. After each line or two of dialogue or stage direction, we discussed all that was packed into them.
Monomoy Theatre Production Photo, “Death of a Salesman”
In these opening pages, we saw worlds in balance thrown out of balance, hero’s set on their journeys, and great urgency unleashed. At one point, Platform president, George Smart offered this synthesis, “Don’t waste a moment!”
“That’s right,” said Kate. “In the opening pages, you set the tone. You establish the world. Everything in drama means something – especially in the opening of your play.”
How do you not waste a single moment?
Here are three techniques that rose to the top for me from our discussion:
- Don’t waste the time before: Reading Death of a Salesman, I was struck by all that we see, all that we come to understand before characters even speak. In the play’s opening moments, we watch an exasperated, exhausted, Willy Loman, returning from a journey, entering his house, setting down cases, and heaving a deep sigh. Then, his wife, Linda, hearing him, gets out of bed, puts on a robe, and calls – the stage directions say, “with some trepidation” – “Willy!” From those fraught, unhurried actions, and that first word, the audience knows something is off. The air is thick with concern.
- Illuminate the Larger World: Arcadia also begins with two characters on stage, a tutor and his young student. As he does his clever best to artfully dodge her opening question – “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?” – they discuss six other characters, painting a vivid picture of a wider world entangled in scandal. By the time they are joined, on page four, by the first new character (Jellaby, a servant), we already know about him, and the power he wields. Before we see the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the guards and Horatio are abuzz with wonder and fear over the apparition’s earlier appearances, and what it may portend. Then, just as we think we are going to listen to exposition about the ghost, it appears again.
- Beware the Bottom Effect: After reading and discussing some of the greats, we looked at the openings of some of our own new plays in progress – including mine. I shared a new opening to my play about Prudence Crandall – whose efforts to integrate her private girls school in rural Connecticut in the 1830s became cause célèbre of the abolitionist movement. My new opening was based on an encounter from much later in Crandall’s life. When she is in her 80s, living in poverty on a farm in Kansas, she is visited by a journalist on a bicycle odyssey from Connecticut to California and back. I imagined that his fascination with her would draw the audience into her story. When we read it out loud, I was surprised to find all the questions were about him and his journey. My colleagues were surprised to hear that she, not he, was the protagonist, rather than the catalyst for his adventure. I had imagined the scene to be a clever narrative trick – but forgot the “Bottom Effect.” Like Titania in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, bewitched by the spurned Oberon to fall in love with the first creature she sees, audiences are primed to fall for whomever they first encounter after the lights go up – especially if that character, like mine, is already on a journey.
Thanks to Kate Snodgrass for a terrific session.
What are some of your other favorite great openings?
What do you think makes them so great?
Some good news. The one-act we read at PP in the fall was accepted to the 2014 Arundel Festival in sunny England! It was also accepted to the Last Frontier
theater Conference in Valdez Alaska, but I’m not able to attend. See you Sunday.
Greetings, Fellow Survivors of Winter 2014,
I trust this finds you well and looking forward to warmer days, as surely am I.
I’ve been working with four talented student actors in a production of PROOF by David Auburn.
Winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play
Here’s a description of the play in case you’re not familiar with it:
On the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday, Catherine, a troubled young woman, has spent years caring for her brilliant but unstable father, a famous mathematician. Following his death, she must deal with her own volatile emotions, the arrival of her estranged sister, Claire, and the attentions of Hal, a former student of her father’s who hopes to find valuable work in the 103 notebooks that her father left behind. The discovery of a mysterious notebook raises the question: how much of her father’s genius – or madness – did she inherit?
WHERE: Yamawaki Auditorium
Thursday April 10 and Friday April 11 at 7 PM
Sat April 12 at 2 PM and 7 PM
Tim Doucette, Dan Fox, Micaela Haggerty, and Jamie Trevino
Directed by yours truly.
Free and open to the public.
On Friday night, there will be a reception at 6 PM with wine and snackage to view the set/art installation.
On Thursday and Saturday nights of the run at 6:30 PM, the doors will be open to the public to view the installation work, and to play with the cool augmented reality effects that are part of the project.
Hope you can make it!
In any event, do let me know how you’re doing.
Love to catch up with you soon.
Historical documents from the Playwrights Platform past courtesy of Geralyn Horton
Three keys to gracefully getting what you need (without getting depressed)
Whenever I am in the middle of a new project, I can’t help the flights of fancy. I daydream about opening nights, rave reviews, and the answers I’ll give about my inspiration and creative process when I sit for interviews. With that as the typical backdrop, I invariably find a first reading a coming-to-earth experience. Just hearing a piece out loud is usually enough to break the spell, to show me the finish line is further then I thought, and to remind me how much work, and re-work playwriting is. Then comes the feedback. And though, in my daydream reveries, I imagine the only thing audiences will be able to say is, “Wow!” in fact, they say a lot more.
It can be an ego bruising experience.
So, I am happy to share, what have emerged from my experiences sharing work and getting feedback at Playwrights’ Platform, my three keys to getting what I need without getting depressed:
- Ask for the feedback you want: Be specific about the kind of feedback you need (and are ready for). If it’s new and raw and you just want encouragement to keep at it, don’t be bashful about saying so. Ask what they like about it, what they think is working, and what they’d like more of. In my experience, the best moderators always open audience feedback by asking the playwright about their reaction to hearing a piece, and, “What questions do you have? How can we help you?” Even if they don’t, remember this is your time. Frame the conversation in the way that will be most useful to you. Don’t just ever say, “Tell me what you think.” You’ll get that without asking. But you can also steer the conversation where you want, and need it to go.
- Stick to the script: Whether they like it or loathe it, whether they are well behaved and restrict their comments to their reactions (or wade into suggestions about how to rewrite your play), in my experience, the best strategy is to avoid getting lured into defending, debating, or discussing your choices (or possible new directions). This is air time for other’s reactions and feedback. It isn’t pretty to argue with others about their experiences and impressions. Nod your head to show you are listening. And stick to this script (disclaimer – acting sometimes required): “Thank you.” “I hear what you are saying.” “I understand your point.”
- Take some. Leave the rest: At the end of the day, it is your play, and your call about what feedback to heed and what to ignore. Some will hit home, and you won’t be able to shake it until you deal with it. The rest comes and goes and, in time, it’s like it never happened at all.
We already know members can pack a punch in the 10-minute form.
How about 140 characters?
I am pleased to introduce the Platform’s new Twitter profile. For updates about the Platform, member news, and writing opportunities, check it out and follow at: www.twitter.com/PlaywrightsPFM
We are excited to try this out as a profile raiser and network builder for the Platform and its members. Tweet to @PlaywrightsPFM
and let me know you’re a member, and I’ll add you to the member’s list.
We are delighted to have our new website up and running. Playwrights may have a problem seeing their profiles for the next week or so as we are working out a bug in the system. Our thanks to Kenyon King who designed the new site to make it easier for everyone to access it and to post new items and change information on the site. Enjoy
I trust you had a lovely Thanksgiving break, as did I.
For those of you who have noticed that I have been conspicuously absent on the social scene, this project is one reason why. It’s been great working with such a talented cast and crew. Come check it out!
We open this Thursday, November 29 and Friday, November 30 at 7 PM, again on Saturday, December 1 at 2 PM and 7 PM.
Free and open to the public
Musical direction by Harvey Finstein
Vocal direction by Lori L’Italien
Choreography by Jamie Brege
Directed by yours truly.
As the attached flyer states, due to mature subject matter, parental discretion is advised.
Dear Colleagues and Friends,
The Dreamscape Project, under my artistic direction, is presenting a staged reading of “Songs From the Moon” on September 19, 2013. This is a collaborative performance piece I have created with composer Chris Renna and with performers Elizabeth Addison, Chien-Hwe Carol Hong, Laura Kessenich, and Wendy Lawson. Aryn Pryor and Taleen Shrikian are also part of the cast. It will take place on Thursday evening at 7PM in the Bonn Studio Theater of the Robsham Theater Arts Center at Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Ave., Chestnut Hill, Mass. 02467. After the reading, which lasts about on hour, there will be a Talkback with the performers and the audience. The performance is free and open to the public and is within easy walking distance from the Green Line (D).
“Songs From the Moon’ introduces six women of different backgrounds who meet in the South End of Boston. They explore their lives and relationships with each other and the mysteriously absent Wanda through dance, movement, music, and poetry. Richly evocative, this performance piece uses descriptions of the city, nature, food, color, history, and space to give depth to the women’s emotions and struggles. As their connections grow, they create new forms and possibilities through an innovative compilation of word and action.
I hope you are able to come and share your thoughts. For further information, call 617-469-4462.