Neil Simon On Playwriting V

August 1, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

I learned from watching Chaplin films that what’s most funny isn’t a single moment of laughter but the moments that come on top of it and on top of those. I learned it from the Laurel and Hardy films too. One of the funniest things I ever saw Laurel and Hardy do was try to undress in the upper berth of a train—together. It took ten minutes, getting the arms in the wrong sleeves and their feet caught in the net, one terrible moment leading to another. I thought, there could be no greater satisfaction for me than to do that to an audience.

You don’t know where the laughs are until you get in front of an audience. Most of the biggest laughs I’ve ever had I never knew were big laughs. Mike Nichols used to say to me, Take out all the little laughs because they hurt the big ones. Sometimes the little laughs aren’t even meant to be laughs. I mean them to further the play, the plot, the character, the story. They’re written unwittingly . . . strange word to pick. I cut them and the laugh pops up somewhere else.

It started very early in my life—eight, nine, ten years old—being funny around the other kids. You single out one kid on your block or in the school who understands what you’re saying. He’s the only one who laughs. The other kids only laugh when someone tells them a joke—two guys got on a truck . . . I’ve never done that in my life. I don’t like telling jokes. I don’t like to hear someone say to me, Tell him that funny thing you said the other day . . . . Once it’s said, for me it’s over. The same is true once it’s written—I have no more interest in it. I’ve expelled whatever it is I needed to exorcise, whether it’s humorous or painful. Generally, painful. Maybe the humor is to cover the pain up or maybe it’s a way to share the experience with someone.

Generally I’ve gone into analysis when my life was in turmoil. But I found after a while I was going when it wasn’t in turmoil. I was going to get a college education in human behavior. I was talking not only about myself; I was trying to understand my wife, my brother, my children, my family, anybody—including the analyst. I can’t put everything in the plays down to pure chance. I want them to reveal what makes people tick. I tend to analyze almost everything. I don’t think it started because I went through analysis. I’m just naturally that curious. The good mechanic knows how to take a car apart; I love to take the human mind apart and see how it works. Behavior is absolutely the most interesting thing I can write about. You put that behavior in conflict and you’re in business.

If you’d like to read what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

Part VI of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.

Theresa Rebeck On Playwriting

October 26, 2011

Adapted from: Playwright Theresa Rebeck likes to tell stories

The Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2009

Here’s a plot: Two guys are waiting for somebody big and important to show up. That guy never shows up, but somebody else does. They go back to waiting, and then the tree grows. Here’s another plot: A lonely guy lives on a farm for a long time. He gets bored with his life. He gets a crush on his sister-in-law, and she gets a crush on his friend. Eventually, everyone goes home, only now all of them are even lonelier than they were before. Here’s another plot: A king divides his kingdom between two of his daughters. All hell breaks loose.

I think it goes without saying that young would-be playwrights in developmental workshops should be so lucky as to write plays as good as “Waiting for Godot,” “Uncle Vanya” or “King Lear,” none of which would have existed without a decent plot. Obviously a theatrical masterpiece needs more than a plot; many television shows are nothing but plot, and it is doubtful that they will stand the test of time. But I also don’t think that making fun of plot, or acting like we’re all somehow “above” structure is such a good idea.

Is this really a problem? Yes. I seem to be constantly confronted by theater professionals who are more or less annoyed by the prospect of structure. One time I was at a wedding reception, for crying out loud, and I got seated at a table with a really famous genius of the contemporary American theater who had directed a play I admired. He had deconstructed a well-known play but the essence of the original story was still there, and the artistry and strangeness of his interpretation was beautifully balanced within the original tale. When I told him so, he went into a drunken rage. “All that structure, all that story,” he growled, pouring himself more wine. “What a nightmare.”

Structure is not our enemy, it is the form that makes content possible; it is the meaning that holds the image and imbues it with specificity; specificity is not our enemy; intellect without heart is not more, it is less and in the theater sometimes less is just less. Contemporary playwrights don’t need to toss away all that has come before us, nor could we if we even tried.

Sometimes people ask me where my plays come from. Where do you get your ideas? I honestly don’t know where they come from, but I do know that if you start with a few characters who need something simple from each other, pretty soon you will find that what they need is not so simple, and that the play itself needs something larger as well. The writing reveals its deeper subject. The characters reveal themselves as they act on each other in time. Time, innately, has a structure. And a lot of really smart writers who came before me understood how to make art imitate life and reveal those deeper truths in beautiful ways.

It is also completely understood that it is totally fair to steal from those guys. We are in dialogue with Chekhov and Shakespeare and Moliere and Beckett too, and a well-told story, something they all celebrated, is nothing to sneer at.

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.

Tom Stoppard On Playwriting

July 13, 2011

Adapted from: Is ‘The Real Inspector Hound’ a Shaggy Dog Story?

By Angeline Goreau, The New York Times, August 9, 19982

“Hound” is timeless in the truly pejorative sense . . . incapable of change. It doesn’t lend itself to deep scrutiny. It’s an entertainment, just like a mechanical toy. It waves a flag, squeaks and turns a turtle and carries on. It’s a logical structure with a vein of parody going through it. There’s no reason to write a play like that. It’s an enjoyment. And that is what it is. One hopes it will work out all right, because in the nature of theater there’s this interesting transition between the text and the event. The ball can be dropped in many different ways. Or not dropped.

I don’t trust writer’s who wax confidently about what they do and why they do it. In writing plays, I find that the problems — if that’s what they are — are very mundane, and in a way surface. The wellspring of a play is often curiously uninteresting — it derives from insubstantial stray images and ideas, What it doesn’t arise from at all, I don’t think, is anything like a complete sense of the whole. You know, What am I going to try to achieve here? What is it going to be about underneath?

I seldom worry about underneath. Even when I’m aware that there is an underneath. I tend to try and suppress it further under, because theater is a wonderfully, refreshingly simple event. It’s a storytelling event. The story holds or it doesn’t . . .  The same would be true of a short story or a novel.

The first idea I had was that I’d like to write a play in which the first scene turned out to have been written by a character in the second scene. That was all I started with. There is a strong — not autobiographical element — but a strong editorial element because the man spouts opinions generally which I subscribe to. So in that sense there’s a lot of me in it, more than in most plays, but only by virtue of the fact that the protagonist is a writer in London in 1980-odd.

“Hapgood” has a physicist in it, who talks about physics a bit. But I don’t think that actually is the problem. The intricacies of the spy plot are quite difficult. I think I’m not as good as John le Carré at doing that kind of story. But I find I’m talking about the play as though it failed in some way for me. In fact, I’m interested by it in so far as it succeeded.

One of the built-in ironies of being a playwright at all is that one is constantly trying to put into dramatic form questions and answers that require perhaps an essay, perhaps a book, but are too important and too subtle, really, to have to account for themselves within the limitations of what’s really happening in the theater, which is that the story is being told in dialogue.

(I use) this ill-suited medium (to account for) matters like morality or empire, or the authenticity of romantic love (with the reservation) that failure is almost built into a play if that is its true purpose, its true function. And so one avoids failure if one can, by denying that that is the function of the play. And one says that, no, that was merely an aspect or a sidelight of the play’s function and the primary function is to tell an entertaining story.

My primary delight, which is a good enough word for the fuel that one needs to do any work at all, is in using the language rather than the purpose to which language is put . . . and more than language, I would say theater — the way theater works, through disclosure and surprise.

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.


July 19, 2010

“Ideas emerge from plays—not the other way around.”

Sam Shepard, born November 5, 1943

The above quote is from the introduction by Ross Wetzsteon to the paperback edition of “Sam Shepard: Fool For Love and Other Plays,” published in 1984 by Bantam Books. In the essay, Wetzsteon sets up the Shepard line above by first quoting thus: “I would have . . . a picture, and just start from there.” This impulse to visualize, Shepard went on, “is mistakenly called an idea by those who have never experienced it . . . . I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard the line, ‘where did the idea for the play come from?’ I never can answer it because it seems totally ass backwards.” Then Wetzsteon goes on to expand the idea by using more comments from Shepard and others. He begins with the playwright himself.  “. . . once it goes off into the so-called meaning of it, then it’s lost, it’s gone away.” Asked to “explain” one of his plays, he says simply, “I think explanation destroys it and makes it less than it is.” Or, in the words of Jacques Levy, who directed several of Shepard’s early plays: “Sam is more interested in doing something to audiences than in saying something to them.”

Next Wetzsteon asks what is this “something” he’s trying to “do”? He again quotes Levy who describes what Shepard is not trying to do: he says it, “has no relationship to the purging of emotions through identification or total involvement”; he then calls metaphor to the rescue: ” . . . it is more like the way changing a room’s temperature does something to the people in it.” Others say that Shepard’s genius lies not so much in helping us understand what we don’t know as it is in making us feel what we know all too well. “Symptoms,” Shepard has said, are “things that show on the outside what the inside might be up to. “It’s probably more to the point to say that he provides us not with the symptoms but with the disease itself, not with the outside but with the inside, not with ideas but with the feelings that are their source.

According to Wetzsteon, there’s a quality in Shepard’s work that can only be conveyed by referring to dreams, the feeling that we have entered a world at once beyond rational comprehension and yet utterly familiar. “I feel something here that’s going on that’s deeply mysterious,” Shepard has said of the way he approaches a play. I know that it’s true, but I can’t put my finger on it.” “The fantastic thing about theater,” he has said elsewhere, “is that it can make something be seen that’s invisible, and that’s where my interest in theater is—that you can be watching the thing happening with actors and costumes and light and set and language, and even plot, and something emerges from beyond that, and that’s the image part that I’m looking for, that sort of added dimension.”

This “something”—this added dimension—is what Sam Shepard gives me in his early plays like Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, and especially his one-act play, Action. The following blurb is from the October, 2004, University of Maryland at Baltimore County production of Action as staged by the UBMC Theatre Department (as are the two production photographs). “Action takes the audience right into the living room of a post-apocalyptic holiday. Liza, Lupe, Jeep and Shooter are trapped in a cold, isolated cabin after a mysterious “crisis.” Time has passed since the days of mass-media and indoor plumbing and they are struggling to pull off a holiday meal. Limited food, an uncertain future and overwhelming boredom begin to take their toll with disturbing and absurd results. In this hilarious marriage between the realistic and bizarre, Shepard offers a stirring look at the unplugged American mind.”

Action, which is included in this collection of Shepard plays by Ross Welzsteon, sure did something to me when I first saw it 25 or 30 years ago. It is a perfect example of his approach to play writing as stated in his introductory quotes. Back then, I attended a local production of the play and was powerfully moved by the experience. But I came away with no idea what it was that triggered my strong emotional reaction. I couldn’t even figure out what the play was about, and certainly had no idea how he had pulled those feelings out of me. That intrigued me and I spent many days after the performance thinking about the play and talking to people about it. Even to this day, when I find someone willing to listen, I do that. At some point along the way, though, I finally realized that what the play is “about” isn’t important, aside from the fact that it exists to somehow involve me in the playwright’s creative process, which is manifest in how, after all these years, the work continues to intrigue and mystify me—as do the best so-called “classic” plays such as Death of a Salesman and Our Town which have the same effect on me, albeit in less intensive doses.

What I take away from this is that it’s a huge mistake to try to figure out what Shepard’s best work is “about.” Try to dissect a Shepard play and you drain away its life force—you kill the power of it, in the same way you destroy the effect of a perfect joke if you have to explain the punchline.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

Marginalia #2

September 4, 2008

The Tale of the Hare

If I were playing the part of a movie pulp fiction detective (think Bogart’s “Sam Spade”), and a leggy blond perched on the end of my desk asked me to take the “Too Happy for Words” case, a mystery in the form of an essay, the first question I would have is: Why in the world did someone (me, in real life) doodle a guy chasing a hare (or is it a rabbit?) on the last page of an otherwise straightforward essay about marriage, motherhood and fiction writing? I’m sure of one thing, the real me didn’t unconsciously doodle the image as an audition to illustrate the text. If by some chance I were to get such a gig, a rabbit would be the last thing to occur to me. I just re-read the McDermott essay (excellent, by the way), and there are no rabbits or hares in it; and discounting human babies, no small animals of any description. So far, then, my investigation has dead-ended.

The “Too Happy for Words” essay by novelist Alice McDermott (“A Bigamist’s Daughter, “That Night,” “Charming Billy”), is collected in the book The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work, a paperback published in 2003. From the rereading I’ve concluded that the essay is concerned mainly with the different attitudes to marriage and motherhood held by some wary young feminists and their older “sisters,” many of whom have married and are, on the surface at least, happily raising kids. It seems the question the younger women are asking (and some of the older women are asking themselves), is to what extent, if at all, does familial devotion stunt their ambition and creativity. Here’s how Ms. McDermott puts it: “I wonder if it’s superstition: if we feel that to admit to such contentment in life would compromise our status as artists—perhaps recalling the poor actress in The Portrait of Dorion Gray who fell in love and lost her talent.” And Ms. McDermott goes on, “As a writer I recognize that much of this can be accounted for by the demands of plot—no doubt all happy mothers are like happy families: alike. And as Tolstoy warned us, sustained joy doesn’t make much of a story.”

This final McDermott quote I marked provides the clue I need to solve the case. On the last page, just above my doodle, she writes: “Fiction requires the attendant threat, the dramatic reversal, not only because these are the things that make for plot and tension and a sense of story, but because without them any depiction of our joy might appear overstated. We hesitate to include in our fiction what so often strikes us in life as something too good to be true.”

Put another way, Ms. McDermott is talking about conflict, the device that drives all story telling. And with that I think I’ve found my little insight, the knowledge which logically leads to a solution of the original query. Rabbits are famous for having lots of babies, right? In fact, they are the very symbol of fecundity—motherhood squared, so to speak? And is there anything cuter than little bunnies hop, hop, hopping in a field of flowers or down the road? But what happens when you add a man pursuing the bunny with something else in mind, perhaps something sinister like dinner? With those questions in mind I think I can say that the mystery of the connection between and among marriage, motherhood, fiction writing, and my doodle, is solved. My unconscious illustrator seems to have come up with an idea my conscious mind would have surly missed, or rejected: The “attendant threat” of a man on the hunt, and the joy he finds in that, contrasted by the sheer terror felt by his prey. Case closed.

“The Tale of the Hare” is the second in a series of occasional posts under the title Marginalia. In these posts I will display and comment upon a full-page scan from one of my personal library books on which I’ve doodled and/or underlined—or, as some would claim, otherwise defaced a scared text (to the true bibliophile all text is scared). These folks, shocked by the desecration, predict (and seem to wish), that I will suffer some vile punishment for my transgressions. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.