Making Stuff Talk

This past week I was invited to give a talk to the high school writers involved in Boston Playwrights Theatre’s Young Playwrights Project, and while I was trying to think of a topic the inestimable Kate Snodgrass pointed out to me that I have a veritable trunk full of plays that feature non-human characters in them. Socks, Polar Bears, Dinosaurs…apparently I think regular people are boring or something, because I can’t resist the allure of making things talk that shouldn’t talk.

So, being confronted with that particular proclivity, I put together a talk for the YPP writers examining why theatre is such a great medium for non-human characters. It featured a few readings of ten-minutes interspersed throughout, and discussions about their specific methods, but a few parts were generally applicable enough that I thought they’d make for an interesting post (and one that I’d already written most of! Yay laziness!). A few excerpts of the talk, wherein I try to explain my habit:

Non-human characters are something that you see a whole lot of in theatre. Especially in ten-minute or shorter plays: short-form seems like it’s particularly good for non-human characters. But even full-length plays are full of them, they’re all over the place, because a lot of dramatists and playwrights have realized something awesome about theatre, and the awesome discovery that they made is this: a play is not real life. It is not a real thing that happened in the real world. This is probably my favorite thing in the world about plays, because real life is, honestly, pretty lame most of the time.

Plays are not real life. This is true of plays with talking dogs in them, obviously, but it is also true of plays that are more “realistic” and just have people sitting around drinking coffee with one another. Even in those plays, the coffee-drinking ones, you will never be able to replicate real life, because think about the process of putting on a play, which is part of what we’re working on with this festival. We, the playwrights, write down a bunch of words that we think sound pretty, and then we round up a bunch of pretty-looking people to memorize them and speak them back to us in ways that sound at least kind of spontaneous and natural. And then we bring in even more people to tell the pretty people where to move while they say the pretty words and to make sure that they are saying it in front of a pretty backdrop under pretty lights with maybe some pretty music underscoring it, and we rehearse it and rehearse it and rehearse it until it’s just the prettiest thing anybody’s ever seen, and then when it’s finally ready and we just can’t wait to show everybody how pretty it is, we bring in a couple hundred (hopefully) pretty audience members, and those new people walk into the pretty room that we’ve created for them and they sit down and they spend the next ten minutes or hour and a half or two hours quietly sitting in their seats and pretending that they’re invisible. They are sitting five feet, ten feet, however close to the action on stage, there could be a murder happening on stage, and the audience is just pretending that it doesn’t exist. And it’s totally normal!

Which is to say: audiences don’t expect reality when they go to see a play. They expect something a little bit different, even if they think that they want to see real life. Even if they think that, it’s our job to be smarter than them, and it’s also our job, as playwrights, to create a new world for them. They’re not coming to see the world they live in: they’re coming to see a different one, and we’re giving it to them. And that world could be a world filled with people who look and act just like us, but it still won’t be the real world, because if nothing else the costumes and hair design will be better and the comebacks will be wittier, and the blood will be fake. Thankfully. But you can also create a world where things operate very differently, where the gravity is different and things that shouldn’t talk talk and if it all follows some sort of identifiable logic then the audience will totally go along with the ride because they want to. And what that means is that there are a lot of plays whose writers embrace the fact that they can do essentially whatever they want, as long as it makes sense, and so you get a lot of non-human characters.

But the key to it is commitment. You have to commit to the world ou are building. The audience wants to go along with the world that has been created; they want to play the game; they want to pretend they’re invisible. So don’t make that harder for them. Don’t point out the logical inconsistencies in your premise to them. Don’t have your characters argue with each other over whether polar bears can talk, or whatever, because that’s not what your play’s about. Just go with it, and as long as you tell a convincing story, the audience will go along with you, because that’s what makes theatre fun in the first place!

Which, I think, is especially true in ten-minute plays, and the reason why, like I said earlier, so many ten-minute plays use this device of non-human characters. Ten minutes is a very short amount of time, in the grand scheme of things. You know it, and your audience knows it, and that means that everybody is ready to just get dropped into the world of the play. There’s not enough time for anything else. So when you’re writing one, make sure you’re using absolutely all the time available to you. Get all your characters on-stage before the end of the second page. Limit your settings as much as possible. Don’t have anybody question why the house-plant is yelling at them all of a sudden.

You have a story you want to tell with your play; you have a thought that you want to share and a discussion that you want to have, so cut right to the chase, start mid-conversation and just have it. Use the ten minutes to build a brand new, shiny world for your audiences, and once they’re inside let them look around and see where it’s like ours and where it’s not like ours, and then show them some deeper truth with it, and I guarantee they will love you for it. Because you will have surprised them, and that’s something that’s really hard to do, but you’ll have done it, because you’ll have given them that moment where they’re sitting in their seats and watching something totally unfamiliar and then suddenly they recognize something of themselves, in that sock or that tiger of Hamlet, and it will click and it will be lovely. Because we go the theatre to see the familiar through the lens of the unfamiliar; to be surprised by ourselves and the world around us. It’s a gift you can give to the audience, as long as you’re committed and passionate and excited about the world that you’re building.

There was a lot of other stuff, too, about secret humans and serious ideas and also Pixar, but it was a bit more tied into the specific plays we were discussing. All in all I think it went pretty well, and I was absolutely ecstatic to have had the chance to pontificate for a while about it.

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