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
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.