My apologies for the seven-month interregnum between my last post and this one–as I warned you earlier, I’m a lazy blogger!
I’ve just returned from Saskatoon where I was a featured writer at Writing North, a writers festival presented by the Saskatchewan Writers Guild and hosted by the University of Saskatchewan. This year’s festival was titled “Playing with Our Selves: Writing, Solitude and Audience,” and I was asked to deliver a talk on playwriting.
Below is the talk I delivered, with some alterations.
The Voice and the Crowd
When I found out that the theme of this year’s festival was “Playing with Our Selves: Writing, Solitude and Audience,” I thought it a wonderful stroke of synchronicity, as these just happen to be the very issues I’ve been wrestling with of late. (Not so much the “Playing with Our Selves” part–more the “Writing, Solitude and Audience” part.)
It’s not that my estimation of the value of solitude in a writer’s life has changed much: I know that, for me at least, writing is simply impossible unless I am either physically alone in a room at home, or alone amongst strangers in a restaurant or café. This was true of me in Grade One and will likely be true of me the day I die, or stop writing (I’ve got my fingers crossed that both will happen on the same day).
Rather, what I’ve been wrestling with is solitude in the more figurative sense, and how this solitude stacks up against the genre I’ve been asked to speak about today: playwriting.
I write prose, I write poetry, I write drama. It didn’t occur to me until relatively recently that there were any discernible differences between the three genres vis-á-vis my writing process. And, in most ways, there are none—whenever and whatever I’m writing, I require a borrowed place and chunks of borrowed time to be alone, completely alone, with my own thoughts and ideas.
But as writers get older, we become more self-conscious (often not a good thing—in fact I would advise all writers against ever becoming too conscious of what they’re doing). In any event, I made a discovery about what it is that makes drama truly distinct from poetry and prose, and how that distinguishing factor enters—or should enter—into my playwriting process.
That distinguishing factor is the presence of a live audience—whether it’s an audience of one or one thousand (and in Canada these days, unfortunately, the number is usually closer to the first number than the second), a play is written almost invariably with the assumption that it will be performed live to an audience, one that absorbs the play via receptors (whether they be sensory, emotional or intellectual) shaped by the conventions, values and expectations (whether they be sensory, emotional or intellectual) of society-at-large.
A play is written almost invariably with the assumption that, unlike prose or poetry, where the reader can read, reread and revisit the piece at their whim, their pace, their leisure, the audience of a play sees it just once, and have just one opportunity to grasp, experience, receive it.
A play is written almost invariably with the assumption that unlike prose or poetry, or film for that matter, where the audience has control over when to start, stop, pause or rewind, the audience for a play gives up control regarding these matters, surrendering almost completely to the tyranny of the playwright. Historically, the best tyrants have been benevolent ones, so the tyrant-playwright must give the audience something truly worthwhile in exchange for their surrendering two or so continuous, uninterrupted hours of their day.
In short, playwriting, perhaps more than any other literary activity, requires dealing with formidable constraints, constraints provided by that without whose sighs, laughter, tears, eye-rolls, disgust, discomfort, anger, adoration—without whose mere presence—no play can exist: the audience.
An apt place to begin when discussing the individual playwright and their relationship with the audience is the actual origins of Western drama. In a nutshell, it began in ancient Greece with what were called dithyrambs, hymns sung in unison by a group of people called a chorus in honour of the wine and fertility god Dionysus. Sometime during the 6th century BC, someone named Thespis stepped out of the dithyrambic chorus and wrote his own lines, put on masks to represent characters and recited lines not with the chorus, but as an individual.
Here, in the tension between the individual actor and the chorus, lies what I feel is at the core of the act of playwriting: the unique, singular, individual voice, setting themselves up against prevailing and received opinion, against the mainline of society, the crowd.
So how does this manifest itself in the playwriting process?
Since I can only speak for myself and not for any other playwright, let me attempt to describe my playwriting process and how it has evolved over the years. When I first started writing plays, my approach was similar to my approach to writing prose and poetry—it was based on elitism, exceptionalism, arrogance. I fashioned myself a High Modernist in the T. S. Eliot mode, so my attitude vis-a-vis the audience was one of sneering contempt: rise to my level or take a hike. I will throw all manner of formal innovation to the audience, and if they can’t access it, or take the trouble to try to access it, it was their failure, their ineptitude, their lack of patience.
So, with regards to solitude, I not only extolled physical solitude, but intellectual and aesthetic solitude as well. My work sat perched on a mountaintop, and the onus was on the audience to ascend to it.
Those of you who value modesty and humility will be happy to know that my view on this matter has evolved. I have not done a complete 180, mind you, and I will return to this later. But it took sixteen years of writing professionally to fully acknowledge, accept and see a truth that was sitting right under my turned-up, High Modernist nose: that a play, perhaps more than any other genre, cannot exist without an audience.
I believe my evolution began when I was commissioned by Vancouver’s Green Thumb Theatre to write a play for young audiences. The play was called People Like Vince and focused on a twelve-year-old girl’s close relationship with her bipolar uncle. It took writing a play for young audiences for me to realize the critical role of the audience, by virtue of this one incontrovertible, indisputable fact: that children are the most honest audiences one will ever encounter. That is, if your play sucks, children have neither the ability nor the interest to make you think otherwise.
As mentioned, People Like Vince deals with what is for many a difficult and thorny issue: mental health. The play’s social objective is to promote empathy and compassion for people dealing with mental health issues. The way to achieve this is not by writing a dramatized pamphlet about bipolarism, but rather by engaging the audience via two old-fashioned means that too many of us playwrights and theatre-makers, in our never-ending experimentation with form, too often forget about these days: character and story.
So, People Like Vince is not about bipolarism, but about an intelligent, offbeat girl’s close relationship with her loving, eccentric uncle, and how, to gain the approval of her schoolmates, she ultimately betrays her uncle in the cruelest of ways.
Friendship, approval, betrayal: these are themes that audiences of all ages can relate to. By drawing the audience into the play with these hooks, I can in turn enlighten them about bipolarism, and about the larger issue of accepting people who are different.
Character and story: these, I have come to fully accept, are the fundamental building blocks of a play. I like to liken them to the role shapes, patterns and external reality play in the visual arts and in particular painting. No matter how formally experimental and innovative were Cezanne, Picasso, Kandinsky and Matisse, their work was still anchored in clear patterns and references to external reality. Even the uber-abstract grids of Mondrian have as their basis actual objects from the real world. Similarly, character and story are the anchors without which a play will drift in a sea of anemic technocracy and pretence–or, to use a metaphor more in keeping with the theme of this year’s conference, self-serving quasi-artistic ejaculate.
So, when I speak of constraints, this is what I mean: the constraints imposed upon us by the audience, who demand that their attention be sustained, their intellects awakened, their emotions stirred. In my sophomoric snob days I maintained that these constraints were without exception to be annihilated; but now I see them as beautiful, necessary and as an integral part of the dramatic form; and the negotiation of these constraints as the playwright’s bread and butter.
Which brings me back to the statement I made earlier, which is that I have not made a complete 180 on the position I previously held. Meaning: abiding by these constraints does not equate to currying the audience’s favour. I believe that once you acquiesce and give in to the audience’s demand for character and story, you are free from that point on to fuck them over however you wish. Twist chronology; versify the dialogue; stunt their expectations for some grandly satisfactory denouement. Again, the playwright is a tyrant, but the best ones are ultimately benevolent: they will give audiences not necessarily what they want, but what is good for them. Often it’s good for audiences to reevaluate their notions of narrative structure and plot; and very often it’s good for audiences to question underlying assumptions about the world they live in. Challenging constraints, challenging the audience: these are often the trademarks of the greatest plays. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot did exactly that and caused an apoplectic public reaction; but in the end no play of its century caused a more seismic shift in the playwright’s art, and no play of its century captured or made a greater impact on the Western public’s imagination.
Which brings us back to that fateful day in Greece sometime in the 6th century BC that changed Western drama forever: the day a man named Thespis separated himself from the chorus. By doing so he created a space for all playwrights and theatre artists after him—a free space for the solitary individual from which he could present a counterpoint to the Crowd, a counterpoint to prevailing opinion, a counterpoint to what is deemed “normal.” As playwrights, we must first abide by some of the Crowd’s constraints, if only to ultimately pull the rug out from under them. The constant negotiation of these constraints, this perpetual push-and-pull with the Crowd, is, I believe, not only our bread and butter as playwrights, but our soul work, our primary reason for being.