Playing with Plays

Perhaps more than any other form of creative writing, plays have tentativeness built into them. The process isn’t a matter of writing it, drafting it a few times and sending it off into the ether. I’m sure you could do that, but I don’t know how good the finished product would be. Insofar as “finished” is what you would call it. What I’ve always liked about playwriting is the sense of a deferred finality. Unlike some writers who tend to despise writing and love “having written,” I prefer creation itself as its happening. I like working on things. I enjoy the problem-solving, the tinkering, the rejigging, even the editing process. To my mind, that’s all part of creativity.

Other forms of work are immutable when you send them off for publication. Usually. You write a final draft of an article or a short story or a novel and you can’t really change anything, no matter how much you’d like to. Plays (and screenplays) are another beast altogether. Nah, let’s not go with the beast metaphor. Plays are like cute little robots that haven’t got their polished chassis bolted on yet. Yes, that’s much nicer. They work on some level (usually), but they need a bit of love and attention, a spit and a polish.

No, not cute enough

That means you need to bring in other people. Doesn’t matter how good of an ear you have for dialogue, you need to hear it performed by competent actors. You can speak it aloud to yourself, but it’s not going to open up the possibilities to you, or to identify what is working and what’s not. A good actor can quite clearly signal to you how a phrase, a word or a monologue will work as performed. It’s not just a matter of how it sounds, it’s a matter of how the sounds build into something viable, audience-friendly, and meaningful.

I’ve had a couple of plays workshopped through performed readings and every time I need to remind myself to not clutch the baby so close to my boob. I think it’s because writing is usually a solitary effort, where no one else but you has a controlling hand. Everyone else only has a hand in interpretation. Plays have this element too. But what’s special about the workshop process is that performers can be both interpreters and co-creators, in a sense. Things that never would have occurred to you can come out in a performance. It can send you back to the script to explore something you might have overlooked.

The collaborative nature and the capacity to improve, sculpt, refine over a fairly short period of time is one of the form’s strengths. Also, as the form’s name suggests, it affords a playfulness connecting your words with other people in an immediate sense. You get reactions and interpretations in a live, real-time context. This helps to sharpen the focus of the sort of feelings, moments, and pacing you want to generate on stage.

In a couple of  weeks, I will have the first performed reading of my latest play, Madame Bast.  I began writing this while I was in the midst of the novel I just finished. I wanted to write something short, so it’s a one-acter, but I also wanted to explore death, belief, grief, guilt, and ridiculous spirit mediums. While it has some dramatic moments, it is broadly a comedy. Or at least it intends to be. This is probably the most nervous I have been before a reading because the other plays I have worked on have been experimental or dramatic, definitely not comic. Comedy writing comes with all sorts of baggage, especially in theatre. Chief among them is: “what if nobody laughs?” HAND ME A LEXAPRO AND A GIN!

But this anxiety stems from applying particular expectations about other forms onto playwriting. No one really publishes a work-in-progress novel. Nor should they. But the procession of workshopping and deliberation and PLAY informs theatrical writing until the piece is ready to coalesce. Presenting work isn’t necessarily finalising it. If you write things other than plays, this can be hard to come to terms with.

By the way, if you’re in Melbourne on the 16th December, 2015 and you’d like to attend the performed reading of Madame Bast, here is a link to tickets. They’re 5 bucks!

Here’s the synopsis:

Jaz is a university student and she’s also a rationalist: she doesn’t believe in god or ghosts or any of that new age mumbo jumbo. But when she jokingly attends a séance hosted by the outrageous psychic medium Madame Bast, Jaz becomes increasingly haunted by a voice from her past. While her friends succumb to the medium’s tricks, Jaz struggles to maintain her rationality in the face of the dead not quite staying dead. Madam Bast summons the spectres of belief, scepticism, and grief to explore the baggage we all carry from adolescence into adulthood.

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