Flag on the Play

You dodged a bullet. We recently welcomed a new dog into the family, and I could write 1500 words about how cute and smart he is, easy. Easy. Maybe another time. I get the feeling that here in Blogland, “My Dog’s Awesome” may already have been done.

My blog is not often what you’d call timely. Stories about dead ancestors seldom are. It takes me a while to write a post. The rough draft only takes an hour, tops, but then I need three or four months to sit on it and let it bake and wonder if it’s worth anything. Then there’s at least one full week of obsessive wordsmithing and a couple of hours taking or finding photographs. It’s a good thing I have nothing else to do.

But right now there’s something going on in my chosen field that’s got me mad, and it’s the only thing my colleagues are talking about, so I’d better get this out there. If you are not interested in the current state of the art of theatre, stick around anyway: there’s football.

The disturbing trend: we are halfway through the season, and nearly every play at every theatre has relied heavily on narration, often to the exclusion of almost everything else. What happened to playwrighting?

Art forms change and grow. The theatre is a different creature from what it was fifty years ago. We have so much more technology than we used to. You can do a lot of fancy tricks with it to keep people awake if you haven’t got a decent story.  I am very leery of our dependence on/obsession with all these lights and projections, all that show-offy electrical bullshit, and the fancy sets that look like real rooms. These things are hideously expensive. We could use all that money to hire artists. Yes, let’s be visually stunning if we can, but the sparkly package can’t be the only thing going on. When people leave the theatre talking about nothing but the set and the lights, we are in trouble. Don Hannah (novelist, playwright, dramaturg) says “couches should be banned from stages.” He is partly talking about the kinds of unnatural blocking they cause (“get off the back of that thing!”), but his comment makes me think: I have a couch at home. I can look at it anytime I want. It fails to enlighten me.

(Football fans: a dramaturg is like a coach for playwrights, or a midwife for plays. The person who tells you when to push, and when to breathe.)

Scenes are getting shorter all the time. Some people justify this by saying our attention spans are getting shorter. Does that mean we should never challenge them again? That’s like saying a person with a vitamin deficiency should never be given the vitamin they lack. If a child can’t read should we therefore never give the little darling a book? People will pay attention if they are interested. Accident scenes come to mind.

We go to the theatre because we want to see something happen, live in front of us. We want to sit in the dark with other people, even if they wear too much cologne and unwrap candies at inopportune moments, and have an experience. The audiences continue to get older. What is going to get the youngsters into the seats? It’s not flashing lights. They’ve seen those.

We want to see stories made alive by human bodies moving through space. We can use words, or not. Any way you choose to tell it, we want a yarn, a good one, written by someone who’s gifted that way, performed by actors of great presence and magnificent technique. I want to see profound and subtle and moving and funny moments between and within people, directed and performed astonishingly well. I don’t want to see some poor Equity member standing in a special telling me about how they felt or – god forbid – about a dream they once had. Good actors are magic. Why waste their gifts? Please don’t just make them stand there in the semi-dark telling me about some experience I’m not having. If I wanted to listen to an audio book all by myself, I would do it. On my couch. Spare me your explanations and your pretty pretty words. I want your goods. Playwright and dramaturg Colleen Murphy says “leave some blood on the stage.” Show me the thing so I can feel it. This is preposterously difficult to do well. Tough shit. Try.

Narration can be a handy device and I’m not saying it should never be used, just that we are relying on it too often. Is it laziness or a lack of imagination or some kind of fear? Nor am I saying theatres should program conventional plays exclusively. We see a lot of different kinds of things we might call theatrical events or presentations, and many of these are wonderful. But if we say we’re doing a play, let’s make sure it’s a play. Narration can be done well. Very good playwrights can write narration in which something is happening. There is internal movement, the narrating character is performing actions and undergoing change. It is so hard to do well it should only be attempted by playwrights under special license. Playwrighting licenses could be graduated:

  • Beginner
  • Probationary (can only attempt narration with a fully licensed playwright present)
  • Fully licensed (like a bar!)
  • Genius. There are almost no geniuses.

img_2996Playwrighting is a discipline. It is a craft, a trade. Note how the word is spelled. It is not “writing” at all. It truly is more like being a shipwright or a wheelwright. You’re building something. It should turn like a wheel and float like a ship. There aren’t that many kinds of “wrights” left. There used to be something called a sievewright, for instance. Met any cartwrights down at the Union Centre lately? Ploughwrights? Spellcheck doesn’t even think “playwright” is a word. Is playwrighting a dying profession? It will be if we don’t build things people need.

Watch this if you like: http://mini.melvinthemachine.com/

This nicely sums up  some theories I have about playwrighting. Note that the machine has a purpose, every part of the machine is essential to the function of the whole, and note that the charming gentleman is NOT EXPLAINING ANYTHING TO YOU. You are watching something happen.img_3010

They are called plays for a reason. It’s not because it’s like a VCR, and you can press “play” and the magic happens. And making theatre can be fun and a “play”-ful kind of work sometimes, but I think it’s called a play because in order for us to be entertained by what’s on the stage, there has to be something in play. It might be a bit like playing a fish, letting it out, reeling it in, increasing and decreasing the tension until you land the sucker. But it is probably more like football.

The ball is in play. Therefore something is happening or about to happen. Both the teams really want to get that ball and do something with it. We are watching to see if they will get the first down, or if the pass will be intercepted. Who’s going to win? The ref is blind! Why did this beer cost eighteen dollars? Do they design the uniforms on purpose so the player’s butts look good? I wonder! We have not driven all the way to Investor’s Group Field to freeze our asses off in the post-season to watch someone talk about football. “Look at this ball. This ball means a great deal to me. It is a very important ball. Me and these other guys played with it one time. Later I’ll tell you how it went. One time I dreamed about the ball. Let me describe to you my dream, and what the field looked like in the mist, and about the many many feelings I had.”

I know some Fully Licensed playwrights. Some of them have been marathon runners, or used to play football, or play hockey on the weekends. This cannot be a coincidence. Rick Chafe played rugby. He says that in his mind, he still does. Rugby. Me, I find card games can be a little rough.img_2999

I’m thinking I might close down my theatre company. The Bug Circus has the distinction of being the World’s Smallest Theatre Company. If you’ve never been, it’s at the top left of this page you’re at. You don’t even have to get off the couch! But it’s time for me to evolve as an artist. I am going to start a company called “Just Narration.” Our slogan will be “Just Narration: Where Talking is the Only Thing That’s Happening.” Our season will consist of provocative theatrical triumphs like “Chatting About the Death of a Salesman,” and “Twelve Angry Men Tell us About Their Childhoods.” “Top Girls Discuss What Happened in Another Room.” “Romeo and Exposition.

The game is over, and your team won. In overtime! You and your friends head for the parking lot, high fiving each other, feeling like you won the game yourselves with nothing but the purity of your belief that such things are possible. You’ve screamed yourselves hoarse. By god, that was a great game. That steady charge down the field. That pass, and the leaping catch. That dive into the end zone. It was worth the eighteen bucks for the beer, and the numb ass. Did you see that play?


Seriously. Awesome.

©2016 by Ellen Peterson.






5 thoughts on “Flag on the Play”

  1. I agree thoroughly. I’ve groused and grumbled to a patient few but am proud of you for saying it out loud.Now to do it. Oh boy.

    Sent from my Samsung device


  2. Awesome, Ellen; you that is. I remember when my son Neil was eight years old (no, this isn’t a cute kid story: not really). We had just come home from an MTYP production he didn’t like. He said ” “I like plays with action, and I don’t mean sword fighting. I mean plays where someone is trying to DO something.”


  3. Me again. Regarding short scenes, I think a lot of playwrighting comes from people brought up in television where scenes are short and fit around commercial breaks. I remember one year when my daughter Eileen complained that she’d like to see one new play, one time where the action took place in just one room. My Blizzard was an attempt to satisfy that request. Next post I will try to include one of son Brian’s insights. Can’t play favourites.


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