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.