Great Beginnings

April 16th, 2014 by

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”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?