A bunch of us local playwrights (the same ones you won’t be seeing any time soon at a Seattle Big House near you) are busy working on the next edition of A Living Newspaper. Last fall we produced the very first edition, It’s Not in the P-I: A Living Newspaper about a Dying Newspaper. All through this process we have been working with an actual journalist, Tom Paulson, who in addition to being one of the founders and executive producers of NewsWrights United, also works as a freelance reporter specializing in science and world health issue. Tom was on staff at The Seattle Post-Intelligencer for over twenty years prior to the demise of that paper’s paper edition. Dawson Nichols and I have been bugging Tom to actually write something for the stage, an “article” for this next edition. He says he wants to, seems eager even, but then turns shy, complaining that play-wrighting is an entirely different sort of scribbling and that he does not know the method. (How I wish that a particular subset of the playwrights’ community shared this reticence to perpetrate dramatic mediocrity.) So Tom asked us if there was a book he could read to find out how to write a play. I said I didn’t know of any, smug in my belief that no such book could possibly exist. Dawson said “Backwards & Forwards by David Ball.” So I ordered Ball’s book from the library, and quickly discovered by the first few pages that once again Dawson had smashed my smugness:
A play is a series of actions. A play is not about action, nor does it describe action. Is a fire about flames? Does it describe flames? … Why do you think actors are called actors?
Where had this book been all my playwright’s life?!
Ball presents Backwards & Forwards as "a technical manual for reading plays'', but since its publication in 1983, it as been fully recognized and celebrated for what it really is: a stealthily but thinly disguised treatise on how to write them. And why not? No self-respecting playwright would want to write anything unworthy of the kind of careful reading Ball demands his students give a play. With plain-spoken, clearly articulated admonishment, Ball calls us back to bare bones, reminding his putative readership: actors, directors, designers, anyone involved in actually staging theatre that scripts are nothing but architecture
Play characters are not real. You cannot discover everything about them from the script. The playwright cannot give much, because the more that is given, the harder it is to cast the part. The playwright must leave most of the character blank to accommodate the actor. Scripts contain bones, not people.
Some other gems to tempt you into ordering this book, just as I intend to, after returning this copy to the library:
A character’s self description, or how others in a play describe a character, is not reliable for the simple real-life reason that what people say is not reliable…. Description must be validated by examination of action. Action either verifies description, rending description redundant, or it reveals that the description is wrong. Redundant or wrong: that is all description can be.
And. . .
A particularly insidious trap is the old assertion that character changes during a play. But people in plays don’t change any more than people in real life do.
He goes on to point out that Edmund’s seeming point-of-death conversion to goodness at the end of King Lear--
Edmund: I pant for life. Some good I mean to do. / Despite of mine own nature
--isn’t a conversion at all, but rather yet another attempt to best his brother Edgar.
… By Act 5 Edgar is revered for his virtue, not his land. Now Edmund must appear virtuous to get what he wanted all along: equality to Edgar. It is the same trait, same desire. Edmund’s character has not changed, but a changed situation calls for different tactics. Edmund remains Edmund.
And then there is this, which hints at presaging a theory I am working on, that theatre has a unique line of attack on the collective unconscious:
The good [theatre] artist does not seek a group response, but rather a group of individual responses.
And a particular favorite in light of the struggle for a return to locally grown new work:
Playwrights—even great ones— do not write for the ages. They write for their specific audiences…. Special problems arise when a play is done for an audience other than the one it was written for.
Just this morning I had to scold my 8-year old son. He loves my tape measure, has always loved measuring things, but he also likes to pay the tape out and then let it reel back all at once in a ever-accelerating rush so that it slams back into the housing. This drives me nuts because the edge of the tape is sharp and I’m worried he’s going to cut himself. I said, “This is a real tape measure: a tool not a toy. And some tools can hurt you if you don’t use them properly.” I was instantly reminded of the penultimate paragraph in Ball’s book.
Think of the script as a tool. Before you pick it up to use, know which is the handle and which is the blade—or you might cut your throat.
How many theatre artists are keeping their tools that sharp? How many really respect or even care about the potential danger in what we do? Is there any danger any more? Are museums inherently dangerous or safe places to visit? I think audiences come to theaters not for craft, nor excellence, nor even for great directing nor great acting, not even for important ideas illustrated through words strung beautifully together. Audiences come to be thrilled. Are will selling them that? Are our tools sharp enough to cut us?