Thanks to Bryan Willis, playwright-in-residence at Northwest Playwrights Alliance, for organizing the get-together with Lee Blessing at the Seattle Rep, August 9, 2009. 30-40 or so of us showed up. Lee was personable and accessible and insightful and most important, he inspired me to sprint the final few yards to finish the latest draft of my current play in workshop.
We started with an exercise – we paired off, wrote progressive dialogue that advanced a storyline meant to make the character uncomfortable. The point: characters react to discomfort, not polite banter. That’s drama.
Some recollections (as I perceive them, not necessarily as Lee spoke) from scribbled notes:
Playwrights today are too polite/too timid – Be intense. This is not creative writing. 21st century playwrights are not 19th century novelists. Get to the point, write intensely, make plays transactional with characters who try to get something from each other.
Understand the audience – The audience arrives at 8:00 PM, leaves at 10:00 PM (or so). They bought expensive tickets, drove into town, they are captive, sit on uncomfortable seats, their standards are high and get higher as the play progresses, they want something clear, focused, intense, that culminates in a way that surprises them, is fulfilling. A play can be a landmark in their lives, moves to a climax, characters who make each other uncomfortable, makes the audience uncomfortable. Playwrights overestimate what an audience is willing to wade through. Audiences are more interested in solutions than problems. We have enough problems. In Richard III he thinks – if I just kill all these people I can be King of England. That’s his solution.
Suspense trumps mystery – Suspense is deeply valuable to dramatists, much more than mystery. Young playwrights often mistake mystery for suspense. No time involved in mystery, audience has no control over it. Mystery is evocative, great in novels. Mystery is intellectual and cerebral. Suspense is emotional. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – George and Martha are reviled in the beginning, in the end they prove to have the stronger relationship, they are survivors, we see ourselves in them, they surprise us. Our relationship, our marriage is put under the microscope. In Streetcar Stanley at the opening seems to be okay – he’s employed, has friends, has good relationship with his wife – Blanche is the intruder, unsympathetic.
Go big – What is the biggest statement I can make? What do I care about. Be ambitious. Don’t be afraid to take the last step. In Streetcar the rape did not need to occur – Stanley already prevailed over Blanche but he needs to destroy her. Go where you’re uncomfortable. Confront yourself. Find an issue important to you and explore it in a way that the audience has not thought about before. Identify audience blind spots and attack – show them how much they’re missing.
Humiliation is good in drama – It is harder for audiences to watch humiliation than violence – it is a dramatically powerful, useful tool.
Plays work in people – We sometimes forget that.
Know the climax before you start to write – Audiences want a climax, the explosion. Amazing that playwrights sometimes don’t even realize that there is a climax.