The National Theater Institute, former program director David Jaffe would ask his new batch of students to envision an apple on a branch just out of reach, and ask them to reach for it.
"Reach for it. Touch it. With one finger tip. Are you reaching as far as you can? Are you?"
They would hold that stretch a few moments.
Then David would say, "Now reach a little more." And they would reach that little bit more.
Then he would tell his students, "I just wanted you to know that even though you were reaching, you could still go a little bit more. Remember that." And so began another 14-week theater study intensive at The O'Neill Theater Center.
Recently I have been reading a bunch of new plays, and one of the most disappointing things is to read a work by a talented writer who has settled for the easy reach. Sometimes the easy reach is the subject matter. Other times it's the careful organization of the play. Many times it's the inclusion of a character who is easy for the main characters to talk to, or it is a character who only exists to provide the subtext and backstory for a main character or to articulate the point of the whole play.
A couple of years ago a friend of mine in a literary office remarked, "If I read one more play about the Duke Lacrosse scandal..." and then he made a growling kind of sound while shaking his head and clenching his fists. Hot topic? Yes. Socially relevant? Yes. Good theater... ummm... well... that all depends.
Hopping on the train of social relevance has as many pitfalls as it does perks. The socially relevant topic will "buy a lot of real estate," as one director friend I know puts it, but there is also a trap. Taking the easy, obvious route into the story is the most dangerous, and the one that most storytellers seem to run into headlong.
With the Duke Lacrosse example - a play that follows the story by presenting the alleged crime in Act I and the trial in Act II - playing it by the numbers... uggg. Socially relevant? Yeah -- as NEWS. Good theater? Only if you think Lifetime Movies of the Week are good theater.
I happen to have a friend who did write about the Duke Lacrosse scandal. He wrote a play that he thought would never be produced - and not because it was a play by the numbers - but because he chose to tell the story without telling that story. He found a completely unique way "in" to the story. His play takes place in the strip club where the women worked, and we never meet the "victim". Instead we watch the whole story from the point of view of the other woman who was there, and how she is being pressured to admit to witnessing a crime. Now that play is going into its second production in two years.
A play that is too careful with its details is just as bad, if not worse, than a play that is reckless. It is certainly almost always dull. Plays that are structured to answer every question they raise, fill-in the backstory, carefully lay out all of the exposition to make it all make sense -- ARE A FREAKING BORE FEST. Wake me when it's over, will ya?
Plays that take the audience by the hand and explain it all are some of the worst things I have ever witnessed. I mean that. And I am a person who grew up with a parent that raised Boxers, and as a child I had to hold the two-day-old puppies while she docked the tails and put a single stitch in each to stop the bleeding. There would be line of disconnected dead tails on our kitchen table, and wriggling puppies pooping in my hands. Yeah, watching your play is worse than doing that.
If you are writing for an audience that you cannot trust THEN STOP WRITING FOR THEATER. Okay, do we have a deal? Trust your audience to have brains and some theater savvy, or just stop now. I'm telling you this because if you write one of these easy reach everything gets explained kinda plays, and I sit through it, and then I see you afterward in the lobby - I will hit you. I am serious. I will HIT you. You've been warned.
I've got a term that I use when watching any form of theater, television film, or reading fiction for the moment when a character starts speaking backstory, or science, or relevant information that will be important later: The Exposition Bomb.
While reading the heap of new plays I was assigned, I noticed an element common to several of them that I learned to recognize as a device designed to deploy an Exposition Bomb. It is delivered by a character introduced around page 16 or 20 who recites a monologue (often to an unseen psychiatrist so as not to disturb our sensibilities regarding "reality") that describes their difficulty with the main character and lists all of the problems said main character is facing with insight, precision, and clarity. BOOM! BLASTASTIC! BLAMMO! Did I mention that this character is usually a beautiful woman in her 20s? Well, more often than not, she is. This character sometimes serves as the understanding love interest who sticks around long enough so that in Act II the main character can speak their deep hidden truth(s) to an understanding ear. Oy.
This "understanding ear" is a more insidious vehicle for an Exposition Bomb attack. Any character that exists in a play-world for whom it is "easy" for any (sometimes all) of the other characters to speak truthfully is an exposition bomb catalyst, and will suck all of the drama out of your work. Anything that happens easily is anti-drama, and anti-drama is BORING. There is no fun watching a character speak freely, easily, or is placed in a situation where they jovially reminisce with an old chum, no matter how vital you believe this "information" is to the understanding of your play. WARNING: the phrases "Remember when..." and "The truth is..." are red flags for this sort of exposition carpet-bombing.
Last week in my own work the latest scene written seemed flat. I realized that the scene was an easy reach. The nerdy guy didn't know what to say to the pretty girl. The pretty girl was eating salad and giving him the brush off ... exactly what you'd expect. Bleck. But I've got a DELETE key, and I'm not afraid to use it. This week I'll be trying some new strategies for that scene, things far more inappropriate, strange, and probably more interesting.
Remember, both you and your characters are reaching. Surprise them, yourself, and us -- reach that uncomfortable, ragged bit further.