Playwrights Notes Part II: A few comments about watching a play

As I mentioned in a earlier post, I attend a local theater group, the Playwrights Collaborative, hosted at the BIT Theater.  The Playwrights Collaborative gets together once a month to listen to staged readings.  It’s a great experience, even if you are not an actor or a playwright.

Attending these readings is a must for me.  The readings are really workshops, a place where the pieces of a play are tested, pulled apart, examined.  Sometimes a play needs to be reconstructed, sometimes just a bit of polishing will do. I find it a valuable experience.  I learn something new each time.

I must confess for most of my life I hardly ever saw a play.  I had no idea at all that Sacramento much of a theater scene.  But it does.  And the BIT is quite an experience — very small and intimate.  (I saw Richard III there recently — the actors were about 6 feet away.  That kind of experience you don’t get by watching television.)  Writing plays has given me a new appreciation for the theater.

So I want to honor the process of playwriting, try to give back a bit to a community of people who have, and are, helping me learn the craft.  But since these are plays are works in progress, I don’t think I want to present a criticism.  I just want to write about the process itself.  The opinions here are my own, they are completely subjective, and they are the musings of someone who has not had a play published or produced.

Last week I attended a reading of a play, and I want to use that experience as a springboard for talking about the theater arts.  I want to relate to you how it feels for me, a playwrite, to attend a play.  To put a fine point on it, I want to talk about what level of investment it takes to experience a play fully from the perspective of someone who wants to write plays.   If you assume, as I do, that that arts are a fundamental part of the moral conscience of society, then going to a play (or attending to any of the arts) is not mundane.  Which doesn’t mean it’s a solemn event, but it does mean you really have to be there.  Fully invested of yourself in that moment.  I find this difficult to do.

Last weeks play was about a family struggling with various levels of post-traumatic shock, alcohol and depression.  There are 2 couples: husband and wife, and the husbands mother and father.  The essence of the story is that the two men (father and son) were exposed to combat (Vietnam, Iraq), and they never quite got over it.   Both family dynamics are rife with dysfunction, and the two families in the same house present a very painful drama. Interesting, but difficult, rather like seeing a car crash in slow motion.

As I was watching the drama unfold, I kept thinking that the men were really weak, and without the women they wouldn’t be able to stand up to life at all.  I sat passively watching, somewhat disturbed at the frailty of the characters.  But the writing was really good, the acting was excellent, the action moved along briskly, so I didn’t have a lot of time for introspection.

At the end of the play there is a moderated discussion; the playwright gets to pose a set of questions to the audience, and there is time for a free exchange from the audience about their experience.

The first question the playwright posed was, “which scene was most impactful?”  I thought, “gee, it all kind of ran together”.  Now that’s a valid statement as a perspective, but it’s not helpful.  As it so happens there were moments that I thought were hugely important, mainly when the lead male character accepted responsibility for his life.  But lesson number one here for me is to pay a bit more attention to what is going on in the play.

Another key lesson for me was a response to a comment I made.  I said that the male characters seems weak to me, compared to the women.  Another audience member astutely pointed out that the men were damaged — their capacity to function had been diminished by their war experience.  Which was the essential point of the play.  Now I happen to think the play would be improved by making the male characters stronger, but the point is this: my comment revealed something about my own bias.  I saw “weak vs. strong”, a dichotomy of thought that is not exactly unknown in men.  Put another way, my thinking was rather one dimensional.   My lesson there was that If I want to write plays, or for that matter, experience life more fully, I need to divest myself of rigid thought patterns.

The playwright offered up the opinion that he wasn’t happy with the ending, but I thought the ending was appropriate.  No fairy tale ending, no easy solution, but a family trying to deal with life.  Which I think is correct.

Well that’s it for now.  Have a great day and thanks for stopping by!

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