Joyce Carol Oates On Playwriting

June 29, 2011

Adapted from: A Novelist Finds the Bare Bones of a Play

The New York Times, November 18, 1990

As soon as you begin the task of adaptation, you discover that it isn’t “adapting” but “transposing” you must do. The essential difference between prose fiction and drama, is that in prose fiction it is the narrative voice, the writerly voice, that tells the story; in drama, of course, characters’ voices are usually unmediated, direct. The prose writer’s sheltering cocoon of language dissolves and what is exposed is the bare skeleton of dialogue, action, subterranean-subtextual movement. Suddenly, everything must be dramatized for the eye and the ear; nothing can be summarized.

Drama, unlike prose fiction, is not an interior esthetic experience. It is communal; its meeting ground is the point at which the sheerly (sic) imaginary (the playwright’s creation) is brought into being by the incontestably real (the living stage). Unlike prose fiction, with its many strategies of advance and retreat, flashback, flash-forwards, digressions and analyses, drama depends upon immediately establishing and sustaining visceral tension; in powerful plays, force-fields of emotion are almost visible on stage. When tension is resolved, it is in purely emotional terms.

Drama is our highest communal celebration of the mystery of being, and of the mystery of our being together, in relationships we struggle to define, and which define us. It makes the point, ceaselessly, that our lives are now; there is no history that is not now.

When I write for the theater, I write reaching out in the hope of striking an imaginative chord in a director whose sensibility is as quirky as my own. Which is not at all to say that I am without a deep, abiding, and even stubborn sense of what a play of mine is, or an interior vision with which it is inextricably bound.

When I saw “The Triumph of the Spider Monkey,” it was no longer my play; “my” play consisted of words, a text. This was something else. And it may have been that my fascination with it was in proportion to how much I was surprised by it.

Except for “In Darkest America,” most of my plays have been adaptations of short stories. The linked monologues of “I Stand Before You Naked” . . . began as a form I call miniature narratives, in which character is reduced to an essence, and dramatized in the smallest possible period of time. I wanted to dissolve the distance between speaker and audience — between object (the other) and subject (this phenomenon of personality we call “I”).

In my writing for the theater I always have in mind, as an undercurrent shaping and guiding surface action, the ancient structure of drama as sacrificial rite. Stories are told not by us bu by way of us — “drama” is our realization of this paradox, which underscores our common humanity. Obviously this involves not only performers on a stage but an audience as well, for there is no ritual without community, and, perhaps, no community without ritual. To experience the play, the playwright must become a part of the audience, and this can only happen when there is an actual stage, living actors, voices other than one’s own.

In terms of prose fiction and poetry, one writes, and rewrites, until there seems quite literally nothing more to say; the mysterious inner integrity of the work has been expressed, and that phase of the writer’s life is over . . . Theater is the same, yet different: for the living work is communal, and there is no final, fully realized performance.

I sense that my work is done when I feel, as I sit in the audience, that I am not the playwright, nor even a quivering net of nerves invisibly linked to what is happening on the stage, but a member of the audience. In the theater, such distance, and such expulsion, is the point.

Someone recently asked me, “Doesn’t it upset you to see your characters taken over by other people, out of your control?” My answer was a mildly puzzled, “But isn’t that the point of writing for the theater?”

I am the most agreeable of playwrights. To be any more agreeable, I would have to be posthumous.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

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Today’s Gag

June 27, 2011

To purchase reprint and/or other rights for this cartoon, buy a framed print, or have it reproduced on T-shirts, mugs, aprons, etc., visit the CartoonStock.com website by clicking the sidebar link.

Copyright © 2011 Jim Sizemore.

Hip Shots

June 24, 2011

Cat Nip

By Chad Fathering

 (Click images for larger views.)

The “Hip Shots” series of Doodlemeister.com photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise is to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method the more frames  exposed, the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting—a related series that can be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own pictures, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below. Meanwhile, click the “Hip Shots” tag above for more examples. And for another post in the series, check in next Friday.

Copyright © 2011 Chad Fathering.

Terrence McNally On Playwriting

June 22, 2011

Adapted from: From Page to Stage: How a Playwright Guards His Vision

The New York Times, December 7, 1986

I worry that in the process of developing my new play I lose it . . . An actor will suggest I make a role more sympathetic. . . . Directors will insist on structural changes they are positive will make all the difference to the play’s success . . . A play is lost not on the IRT but when the original impetus behind its writing is misplaced or forgotten during its metamorphosis from typescript to that living organism we call a play.

The Dramaturg

A dramaturg’s job is to find a playwright and help that playwright to find his play. A dramaturg is a critic who is on the playwright’s side. He reviews his play before the critics do.

Unfortunately, I have seen plays so rewritten and improved at the behest of a well-intentioned dramaturg that the actual life force that caused them is stifled. One shudders to think what hoops a structurally minded dramaturg would have wanted Eugene O’Neill to jump through.

Dramaturgs are intimidating people. The very title empowers them. They have graduate degrees. They speak and read German, so they really know their Brecht. They seem to have read and understood Aristotle. They hate the commercial theater. They even have seminars and retreats where they talk about how much they hate the commercial theater. Many of them have been to Russia to observe theater and you know they will beat you to China, too . . . Some of them have even written plays.

I think a dramaturg can do more harm than good . . . A good dramaturg should find a script he believes in, recommend it to his theater, fight for it and then buzz off.

The Actors

The first cast of a play is the most crucial one . . . An insensitive early cast makes development of a play impossible.

Creative actors are the most important collaborators a playwright has. I think that good directors intuitively know this. Their job becomes letting the communication between actor and playwright via the script intensify. It’s called staying out of the way.

An intelligent, feeling actor can make a permanent contribution to the play. If I were to thank every actor who has given me insight, inspiration and just plain joy in creating a character (not to mention a line here and there and some terrific business) the list would include just about every actor I’ve ever worked with.

If directing is 90 percent casting (and I have heard at least one great director aver this), the fate of a play is almost surely sealed when those troops first assemble . . . Even in the earliest stages of a play’s development, the wrong cast can thoroughly derail a playwright’s intentions, often through no fault of their own except that they were not well cast in the first place.

The quickest way I know to lose your bead on your play is to start rewriting to accommodate the actors.

The Director

A director is someone you entrust with the responsibility for the million details that make a production — except for the script . . . A director is not a co-author of the text of the play. He is a colleague in realizing that text. His work is with the actors and technical artists . . . Development does not mean abnegating responsibility for a play.

The Audience

Any play is a dialogue between the actors and the audience. I don’t think a play can be developed without an audience. They are the final cast members to be added. They come unrehearsed but their spontaneous response is what tells us if we have succeeded.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.


Today’s Gag

June 20, 2011

To purchase reprint and/or other rights for this cartoon, buy a framed print, or have it reproduced on T-shirts, mugs, aprons, etc., visit the CartoonStock.com website by clicking the sidebar link.

Copyright © 2011 Jim Sizemore.

Hip Shots

June 17, 2011

Cat Nap

By Chad Fathering

 (Click images for larger views.)

The “Hip Shots” series of Doodlemeister.com photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise is to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method the more frames  exposed, the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting—a related series that can be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own pictures, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below. Meanwhile, click the “Hip Shots” tag above for more examples. And for another post in the series, check in next Friday.

Copyright © 2011 Chad Fathering.

Harold Pinter On Playwriting

June 15, 2011

Adapted from: From Demolition Man

By John Lahr, The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2007

The author’s position is an odd one. The characters resist him; they are not easy to live with; they are impossible to define. You certainly can’t dictate to them. To a certain extent, you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind-man’s-bluff, hide-and-seek.

(Among people) I think there’s a shared common ground all right, but . . . it’s more like a quicksand. We are faced with the immense difficulty, if not the impossibility, of verifying the past. I don’t mean merely years ago, but yesterday, this morning. What took place, what was the nature of what took place, what happened?

To supply an explicit moral tag to an evolving and compulsive dramatic image seems to me facile, impertinent, and dishonest. Where this takes place it is not theatre but a crossword puzzle. The audience holds the paper. The play fills in the blanks. Everyone’s happy. There has been no conflict between audience and play, no participation, nothing has been exposed. We walk out as we went in.

Meaning which is resolved, parceled, labelled and ready for export is dead . . . and meaningless.

You and I, the characters which grow on a page, most of the time we’re inexpressive, giving little away, unreliable, elusive, evasive, obstructive, unwilling. But it’s out of these attributes that a language arises. A language, I repeat, where under what is said, another thing is being said.

(“The Homecoming,” opening words:) “What have you done with the scissors?” I didn’t know who was saying it. I didn’t know who he was talking to. Now, the fellow he was talking to — if he had said, “oh, I’ve got them right here, Dad,” there would have been no play. But instead he says, “Why don’t you shut up, you daft prat?” Once that’s said, there’s a spring of drama, which develops and follows its own course. I had no idea what the course was going to be. I hadn’t planned anything. In the back of mind, I think I knew there was another brother going to come back. I think I saw them quite early in a big house, with the doors being taken down, leading to a stairway. I saw them moving in that space.

It (“The Homecoming”) is all to do with me in some way or another. You’re not consciously looking back to . . . the values, the threats. Not at all . . . But it’s a world related to you, otherwise you wouldn’t write it.

I’m well aware that I have been described in some quarters as being “enigmatic, taciturn, terse, prickly, explosive and forbidding.” Well, I do have my moods, like everyone else.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.