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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How to Write a Play or How to Enjoy Repeatedly Banging Your Head Against the Wall, Lesson 5: Making a Contract With Your Audience

Hello, my name is Bobby Keniston, and welcome to Theater is a Sport.  Today is Tuesday, so any regular reader knows that I'm here to talk about writing a play today.  Yippie!

Today I wanted to talk about the most important contract a playwright must uphold.  It is not with a producer, though, please be sure to check the fine print, and it is not with a publisher even though I readily admit you should read it carefully before you sign. 

The contract I'm talking about today is the contract you make with your audience. 

When a person sits down to watch a play, this viewer enters into a contract with the playwright (and the production in general) within the first few minutes.  Children's audiences can be both the easiest and the hardest audiences to have a contract with--- easiest because if you have your character say, "Hi!  I'm Paul Bunyon!", the kids will most likely respond, "Hi Paul!"  This is a good thing, because children are much more in tune with their imaginations than adults and will accept a given circumstance at a word.  However, they can be the hardest to maintain the contract with because they seem to have an inherent, visceral understanding of storytelling--- in short, if you have characters behaving in ways that don't ring true, a new plot development that feels false, and they will tune out and let you know they have tuned out. 

It is the same with adults, only perhaps adults are not as exuberant in their praise or disdain (I should say, "some adults", as there are others who are pretty exuberant).  Generally, though, I would hypothesize that adults take a little bit longer to accept the given circumstances of a play, but will also give the author a tiny bit more leeway when things may seem to be going awry, whether in a plot or in a character.  Perhaps adults are more accustomed to what seem like non sequiturs in real life.

All right, let's talk about some different types of contracts.

Let's take a look at this short exchange from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf:

GEORGE:  Just don't start on the bit, that's all.
MARTHA:  The bit?  The bit?  What kind of language is that?  What are you talking about?
GEORGE:  The bit.  Just don't start in on the bit.
MARTHA:  You imitating one of your students, for God's sake?  What are you trying to do?  WHAT BIT?
GEORGE:  Just don't start in on the bit about the kid, that's all?
MARTHA:  What do you take me for?
GEORGE:  Much too much.
MARTHA:  (really angered)  Yeah?  Well I'll start in on the kid if I want to.
GEORGE:  Just leave the kid out of this.
MARTHA:  (Threatening)  He's mine as much as he is yours.  I'll talk about him if I want to.
GEORGE:  I'd advise against it, Martha.

All right--- aside from giving us further ideas about how these characters interact, the great Mr. Albee (and his is very great, in my humble opinion) is also making a contract with the audience in this moment.  Because so much energy is spent by George in this short passage to not bring up the "bit about the kid", and Martha returns the energy with forceful assurances she will "talk about him if I want to", Mr. Albee is telling the audience that "the bit about the kid" is very important.  Now, like any other good playwright, Mr. Albee will proceed to lay in even more hints about the kid throughout this very long play. 

So--- imagine, if after this exchange, "the bit about the kid" was never brought up again.  That this detail was never discussed again for the entirety of the show.  This is the kind of detail my playwriting professor, Gladden Schrock, would have called an 8-foot bear, meaning, you, as a writer, have to address it later on.  You have to.  Why?  Because by bringing it up to the audience in the first place, you have made a contract with them.

Make sense?   (Sorry---- that's something I say to my actual students quite a bit in the classroom--- "make sense?")

Let's look at another example of a contract a writer makes with the audience, though, this time, not about plot, but about overall aesthetic and tone. 

Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, another favorite play of mine, is a family comedy/drama (I'm not saying that it is "for the whole family", I'm saying it is about family, as well as other things).  Throughout the play we see the conflict between Vanya and the Professor, Vanya's flirtations with the young wife of the professor, Vanya's growing disgust not only with himself, but with the Professor, a man he once admired.  At the end, there is a big blow-up when the Professor wants to sell the estate, ultimately kicking Vanya, Vanya's mother, and Vanya's niece out into the cold, after they had worked for years keeping the estate and sending all of their money to the Professor.  Vanya has a bit of a breakdown, accusing the Professor of ruining his life.  It is a powerful moment, and a somewhat inevitable one.

Let's say, just for argument's sake, that all of a sudden, here in late Act III or a four-act play, Chekhov decided, as Vanya was breaking down, to have him turn into a giant cockroach.  Out of nowhere.  Boom, suddenly Vanya is a big cockroach.  And then, amazingly, in act four, Vanya was back to being human and no one even mentioned the fact that he had turned into a cockroach at all. 

I know this is a ridiculous example, of course, but it is also a clear one of a playwright breaking an aesthetic contract.  Yes, I know, I threw in some Kafka, and you might say, "Well, if it works for Kafka, why not for Chekhov?"  The answer is simple--- Kafka sets up a very different contract than what Chekhov does.

The same is true for an absurdist like Ionesco.  He can have people turning into rhinos because that's the contract he sets up from the beginning. 

There is a movie out there called From Dusk til Dawn that I know a lot of people like.  It was a movie I was looking forward to when I was in high school, because I was a big Tarantino fan.  However, when I saw the film, I was disappointed.  The first half is a very serious crime drama, where you get to know the characters in a certain way.  I was very entertained by it.  Suddenly, in the second half, the movie becomes about vampires, and relishes in a B-movie cheesy aesthetic, the characters too, suddenly becoming B-movie cut-outs.  I happen to like B-movies.  I also happen to like crime dramas.  So why was I disappointed with From Dusk til Dawn?

Because it cheated.  It did not write or direct itself into a B-movie from the crime drama.  It just went there.  The characters did not naturally transform into B-movie heroes and heroines, they just went there.  In short, a contract was broken with me, the viewer. 

I'm not saying you can't have tonal shifts in your play.  I'm a fan of tonal shifts, and a fan of genre-bending.  But you have to EARN it.  You have to WORK FOR IT.  You can't just plop the audience there and say, "hey, it's still fun, right?"

It may still be fun.  But that doesn't mean it's still good, or, even worse, still satisfying. 

Your audience, if they've stuck with you for any length of time, deserves to be satisfied. 

To go right to PLAYWRITING LESSON NUMBER 6, simply click HERE

Okay, that's all we have time for today at Theater is a Sport.  If you want to learn more about me, please feel free to follow the links at the end of the post.  In the meantime, this is Bobby Keniston reminding you to respect the contracts you make with an audience, and please remember--- theater is not only a craft and an artform... it is also a sport.!/TheaterIsASport!/pages/Bobby-Keniston-Playwright-Page/148232788536601


  1. one thing I will do when someone reads one of my plays is ask them what stood out to them in the script I haven't had a performance yet of any of my plays but I always keep the audience in mind when I am writing plays

  2. I think that's very important, to keep the audience in mind.
    When I finish a play, I like to invite a group of friends over and have it read out loud, just so I can hear the words spoken. I have found this is very valuable as well.
    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Hello Mr. Keniston, I came across your post in the r/playwriting subreddit over at, and posted my response in the comments. I had a feeling you may not come back to actually read the responses on Reddit - So I am posting it here for you and your readers:

    I enjoyed reading this blog post. I did not find it to be particularly groundbreaking in subject or how the subject was presented, but it clear and fairly concise. However, I suspect it is most useful to the young or beginner playwright.

    A few things...

    I would be very curious to hear a negative example, as you did with Dusk til Dawn, but from the world of the theatre and playwriting. Though both forms are dramatic writing, and share many similar philosophies Screenwriting is a very different form. Plays and screenplays do not always play by the same rules, and I think you may do your reader a bit of a disservice by not keeping the points of your argument within the same form.

    The other thought that occurs to me while thinking about your essay, is a question around why you chose to call it "a contract with the audience". As you referenced in the essay, and I completely agree, there are many "contracts" that the playwright creates with the audience, as well as many contracts that the audience arrives having already signed - by no choice of the playwright or anyone else involved in the production. However, when I saw "contract with the audience", and began reading your blog post, my fear is that what your point really tries to communicate, is a bit lost by some of the examples you chose to use in defense. I think the idea of a "contract" is really clear throughout your discussion, but when you get a little more focused with examples, I think it becomes difficult for the reader to discern the specificity of the contract for each example you present. In other words you focus in on specific plays, but your language around the technique of each play stays broad and is only called a "contract".

    For example, when presenting Edward Albee's Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf (which is an incredible play), you talk about the "contract" as setting up an idea/character/image at the top of the show, grabbing the audiences attention enough to say "this is important", and then returning to that idea/character/image later on in the play. If one has read Albee's Virginia Wolf, they know that the idea and character of the "son" is incredibly important to the crisis and resolution of the play. (Arguably it is also important to the reversal/recognition as well, but I'd have to read it again and really break it down to be confident of that...) If the audience does not hear Albee's very clear framing of the "son", the impact of the entire play could easily be lost.

    My issue becomes how is this a "contract" and not a specific use of craft? Albee could have neglected to mention the son until halfway through the play, and although a lot less effective, the play would have been the same play. Mentioning the son towards the beginning allowed Albee and the audience to play a game throughout, and eventually receive a great payoff with the crisis and resolution. But, again, that's not about asking the audience to do anything but pay attention. I don't see where there is a specific contract happening within that structure of set up and pay off. As I said, it was more effective, but as long as the son is mentioned before the end, the play doesn't change, and more importantly, the audience would not stop their ability to suspend disbelief. They would simply be less satisfied. My question becomes, with your definition, what is "contract" and what is "craft" when it comes to playwriting?

    TO BE CONTINUED – I wrote too much to fit the dialogue box…)


    Albee aside, it makes complete sense to me to use Ionesco's Rhino as a clear argument for making a contract with the audience. If the playwright wants a contemporary audience to accept that in this particular world people can turn into animals, then the audience must be prepped for that and sign the "contract". They must be willing to suspend their disbelief in order to relate to the play and accept it as it is. This particular argument also makes sense with your use of Dusk til Dawn as a script that does not fulfill the contract to the audience. Action occurs in a way that is completely new and not at all grounded in what has been explicitly communicated to the audience up to this point. So Ionesco succeeds because he allows his audience to learn and experience the transformation along with the protagonist, where as Tarantino does a disservice to the script, the audience and himself, by changing the rules of the game in the middle. I completely agree, and those two examples make a clear argument for your use of "contract" and how a script can rely on the audience to simply accept what is happening. They will accept just about anything as long as they never feel like they are being lied to, as you said, or that all of a sudden the author has decided to change not just the rules, but the entire game.

    The Chekov cockroach scenario plays out in the same way as the Ionesco and Tarantino arguments, and makes a clear case for what you are presenting in the essay. My issue simply lies within your use of Albee as an argument, and I just do not see how what you lay out is at all related to the rest of your examples. Since it is the first example, it sends the reader down a totally different path of understanding. It is a disservice to what is otherwise a clear case that is being made.

    Ultimately I think what you are discussing is incredibly important, and perhaps I had this reaction because the blog was not intended for someone like me, but more as an intro into how a playwright can look at their work and how an audience may or may not receive that work? I am not sure, but I wanted to go with you and agree with you. I just wasn't able to because in the end you were talking about a few different ideas but attempting to use the same language to define all of those separate ideas. For me it just did not succeed, but again, I am willing to accept that perhaps I am not your target audience - the essay is perhaps intended to simply point out a few different effective ways to use the craft to communicate.

    I hope that you read this and that I did not just spend an hour writing up a mini critique that you will never see - as I do believe that your essay will make more sense if you either find a different example for Albee, or you completely re-frame the way you discuss "contracts". (Obviously it is easier to find a clearer example from something else. Albee's Virginia Wolf doesn't challenge the audience's suspension of disbelief at all the way your other examples do.)

    At the end of it all, I have, at least for myself, found a clearer way to define what "making a contract with the audience" is for me as it relates to the role of a playwright. I appreciate your work giving me that opportunity. Again, thanks for the essay; I enjoyed reading it and thinking about where I agreed and where I did not. Good luck in all future endeavors.

    1. Hi Kevin,
      Thank you for reading my post. I actually do go back to reddit and take a look at things, though, I do need to start being a more intent and honest reddit user (as in, I want to do more discussing and reading than posting). I have found a great number of interesting reddit posts about playwriting.

      It is true, I intend this blog to be for those just embarking into the world of playwriting.

      The Albee example... nice to have someone who has read the blog and thought so much about that particular example! I suppose, in truth, you are right--- I was looking specifically at what my playwriting professor called and 8' bear, but perhaps didn't explain well enough. As you say, Albee could have waited, and it would still, for the most part, be the same play.

      Perhaps a better Albee example, using the same play and the same plot point, would be in this regard: George and Martha talk about "the bit about the kid" early on; Martha tells Honey about her son; George and Martha argue about who their kid loves more; etc., etc., etc.

      Meanwhile, Albee sets up the contract with the audience that George and Martha are big on "playing games"--- I won't go into what the games are called here, except maybe "Humiliate the Host" and "Get the Guests".

      Thus, when we get to the end, and discover the truth about George and Martha's "little bugger", there is a huge payoff, A. Because Albee established the kid not only early on as something that should have been left private but wasn't, so, something needed to be done, and B. Because we can believe George would expose the truth through the idea of a game, strengthening the whole "truth and illusion" theme that runs throughout the play, and C. We can believe the entire premise of this couple and their "child", because of the games, and the foggy lines between truth and illusion.

      In any case, I do firmly believe it is this attention to the details that allows Albee to provide such a huge payoff for what could have been a play about two married couple's just playing vicious games all night long.

      Again, I thank you for your time in responding to my blog. Please feel free to leave your thoughts on my response.
      (it is early in the morning, so my brain is still waking up, but I appreciate the chance to have it wake up thinking about one of my favorite Albee plays)