For Consideration: A Response To A Critique Found In An Essay On Theatricality

08.24.11 | 8 Comments

CATEGORIES collaboration, playwrights, rabble rousing, the process

I’ve been trying to fully digest the recent HowlRound post On Theatricality by Lydia Stryk. With a slew of comments (15 at my last count), it’s generated quite a bit of conversation.

From the get go this blog post got stuck in my craw. I’m not the only one. Playwright JC Lee took issue with the blog post’s lack of evidence to back up its assertions. I myself wanted more clarity on the terms being used. For example:

“…our own theater tradition is too playwright-focused, and our current discussions about our crisis are too limited to the playwright/artistic leadership relationship while ignoring the collaborative potential of the art form as practiced in traditions like the German.”

I’m not sure exactly what Stryk means by “too playwright-focused.” Perhaps that our scripts are honored so that the play we see on stage matches what we see on the page? Or, that playwrights are the only ones who have a say during the production process (which may be the case if the playwright is directing and producing their play)? But most importantly I wonder what collaboration is forsaken or “ignored” as a result of this.

I won’t speculate (further) on what she meant or try to respond to those particular points, because: a) I myself need more clarity [read specificity] and b) I’m more interested in what she has to say about playwrights and their stage directions.

I infer from the rest of her post that it’s those pesky theatrical stage directions that are the “forsaken collaboration” alluded to in the above quote. That playwrights are stepping on the toes of directors and designers when they incorporate surreal or magical moments in their plays. According to Stryk,

“…this new scripted theatricality beats directors and designers into submission, leaving them little room to let their own imaginations soar.”

…I disagree.

First it’s important to note that Stryk describes these theatrical stage directions as “stepping outside the bounds ‘realism’…[as playwrights] let their imaginations take flight.”

Perhaps she means something like this:

MIQUEO ascends into the sky with DALILA. In the place of memory stars appear around them, a constellation of a tree or a tree outline of stars comes into view, the Heart and Soul Nebulae appear stage left. It’s MIQUEO’s mural appearing above the motel room…

DALILA and MIQUEO transform into stars, they are a constellation, a new version of Gemini: the two lovers.

JC put it best in his own response when he asserted that these theatrical stage directions are “an invitation to collaboration, not a limitation on it.” And what greater challenge could your imagination have than to figure out how to put a mural in the sky, or how to have your characters jump into the ocean at the end of the world?

A Slight Tangent Is In Order

Before I go any further, I need to explain a little about where I’m coming from. I’m a poet turned playwright and I hail from the Imagist poetry camp.

“A play is a poem standing up.” -Federico Garcia Lorca

I love that line. It sums up why I transitioned to this genre.

I was drawn to playwriting because it married my narrative tendencies and allowed my imagination free reign.

You see my first (and almost only) class in playwriting was a survey course taught by playwright Christine Evans. We started on Tennessee Williams and moved our way through Bertolt Brecht (love him!) and ended the semester with Sarah Kane and Nilo Cruz.

Sarah Kane’s plays were a huge early influence on me (as was Christine’s own writing). I was blown away by the idea of allowing my imagination to run wild on stage, that those imaginative moments could in fact be represented (obviously requiring some creative solutions) on the stage. A sunflower bursting through the floorboards, growing and blooming. I saw the possibility in creating a theatre experience that to me felt like a poem coming to life before your eyes. A living, breathing poem made up of bodies, limbs, words, images and narrative.

I often say that my poetics are very much present in my playwriting.

Plays come to me first as images. And when I write I consider the visual world of the play and, at times, even the soundscape.

In my first plays I explored how the emotional world of the characters impacted the physical world. The results would be moments of theatrical magic, if you will. Pomegranates bled. Missing posters wept ink. Paintings melted. A desert floor was covered in marigolds instead of sand.

But I didn’t add these elements ad hoc. They weren’t included to “seduce” anyone into producing my play. Nor was I doing it because others were, because it was en vogue.

You see, as a poet I’m a big believer in Form = Content.

What I mean is, when I write a poem, the form it takes on the page is informed by the content. Content is the driving force.

I’ve carried over this Form = Content credo to my playwriting. Therefore, I don’t incorporate those surreal or magical moments just to “pepper” up my script. They’re part the narrative, included because the narrative demanded it. They arise organically because that is how I tell my stories.

The World Of The Play

What struck me as odd while reading the HowlRound post was that it seemed that Stryk was arguing for playwrights to get out of the way, or stay out of the play’s theatrical construction. What I mean is, it seemed like she didn’t want me imagining the entire world of my play.

But…Why shouldn’t I?

First of all, there is no one way to write a play.

It’s okay if you want to concentrate only on the dialogue. If you want to, as Stryk puts it, “abandon the ‘theatrical’ imperative and think about what [you] really want to say,” then by all means do so.

But it’s equally okay for playwrights like me, JC Lee, Christine Evans and many more to attend to dialogue AND the visual world of the play. To let our imagination take flight.

The poet in me would argue that a poem is more than just words. It’s rhythm, line breaks, white space on the page, sound, the images evoked in the readers mind.

And the playwright in me argues that a play is more than just dialogue. And I want to attend to all of a play’s components when writing. And I would argue that me doing so doesn’t prevent collaboration, doesn’t prevent others from using their own imagination. My stage directions are a jumping off point for collaboration.

Directors and designers will always be co-creators in a play’s production, just as each time a poem is read it is the reader who then brings their own imagination, their own understanding and emotional baggage to the reading experience.

Directors and designers will interpret the play so that a production in San Francisco will be different and unique from one in Chicago, from one in Atlanta, from one in New York. Even if the stage directions are the same, each of them will take on the challenge of creating their own representation on the stage.

Theatre is a collaborative art form. It’s one of the things I love about it. And if you’re a director or a designer who prefers to have more control over the theatrical imperative of a play, then I’m sure you’re drawn to working with plays and playwrights that allow you to do that.

Those of you who don’t mind a playwright whose stage directions break the bounds of realism, whose imagination tends to run wild on stage, who is working to make Lorca’s words resonate in each of her plays, well…call me.

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Marisela Treviño Orta

Marisela Treviño Orta

Playwright and poet Marisela Treviño Orta has an M.F.A. in Writing from the University of San Francisco.Marisela’s plays include: American Triage (commissioned by Marin Theatre Company, 2007 MTC Nu Werkz new play reading series, 2008 MTC workshop production, 2011 East LA Rep reading series, 2012 Repertorio Español Nuestras Voces Finalist); Heart Shaped Nebula (2011 Playwrights Foundation Resident Playwrights Showcase, 2011 Impact Theatre reading series, 2012 O’Neill National Playwrights Conference Semi-Finalist), The River Bride (2013 National Latino Playwriting Award co-winner);and Woman on Fire (2006 Primer Pasos: Un Festival de Latino Plays, 2007 full-length commission by the Latino Playwrights Initiative, 2007 Bay Area Playwrights Festival BASH, 2008 Playwrights Foundation’s Rough reading series, 2012 Teatro Luna Lunadas reading series).

Marisela is an alumna of the Playwrights Foundation’s Resident Playwright Initiative, a former member of Playground’s writers pool and a member of the Bay Area Latino Theatre Artists Network. Currently Marisela is working on two new plays: Wolf at the Door and Alcira.
Marisela Treviño Orta
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  • Liz Maestri

    * Applause *

  • Indeed.  Well said, M.

    While I’d hope my dialogue stayed the same from production to production, especially the ones I’m not involved in–that’s part of the point of licensing contracts–the stage directions exist to give ideas and context, not a hard and fast “you will harness the actors and raise them into the air as they put on gold lame vests to become stars.”  You want to see how different productions process the idea of “and they become stars in the sky.”  If you don’t put that stage direction, or if the characters simply walk off the stage without any transformation, then the story you’re telling is changed.

    As Taylor Mac pointed out on the #2amt tag this morning, “Exit, pursued by a bear” isn’t a particularly realistic stage direction, but it’s highly theatrical.  (I pointed out that clearly, Shakespeare had been through the Yale MFA program.)

    I, too, come from poetry.  I’m generally sparing in my stage directions, precisely because I want to encourage more collaboration.  But when I do specify something–“And then, the boxes start meowing.”–it has more weight as a result.  There’s a reason I’m including this detail.

    Each successive production will find its own way to interpret these directions.  That’s the beauty of it.  That’s the collaborative nature of it.  And by leaving such directions in the form of poetic ideas, it allows every future production of the script to collaborate with you and bring their ideas to the table.

    As Liz said, applause.

  • I had to smile…I was agreeing as I read along, and then I realized we both took our first playwriting classes from Christine Evans.

    • Isn’t it a great thing to have in common? Christine was a wonderful instructor and mentor, and she’s a fantastic playwright.

  • Great response! The stage direction you quote supports you so well. It’s beautifully specific and yet totally open. Maybe a director would be scared by a stage direction like that – but limited? Hell no.

  • Elizabeth Spreen

    Thank you for writing this. Stryk’s post didn’t hang together for me either and kinda irked me as well.

    I don’t understand the need to polarize theatricality and dialog as elements. Yes. There are plays that are visual and yes, there are plays that are driven by dialog. And there are plays that do both. You can find a spectrum of playwrights/plays that do any one or all of those things equally well or none of those things with any sort of understanding of how to handle the materials at all. And there’s a variety of reasons for all of those phenomena – reasons that have nothing to do with Yale or MFA writing programs (note: I’m note a graduate of Yale nor do I hold an MFA).

    I do think Stryk was attempting to write about some complex ideas w/r/t comparing the
    German directors approach a play vs American (and even British
    directors) that would make for a good conversation. But joining those ideas to the MFA question and in turn blaming the propensity for
    theatricality as a way to get produced muddied the water unfortunately. And then to disparage magical realism? Whew! Too much territory to
    cover, but all worthy topics for discussion.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth.

      Great points all around. I too don’t understand the desire to qualify and thus polarize different writing styles. Just because one style exists doesn’t mean it does so at the expense of another. And like you, I don’t have an MFA in playwriting, mine’s in poetry, so I guess it’s gone airborne 😉

      I think you’re onto something re what Stryk might have been attempting to discuss/compare (German vs. American), but as you say, “too much territory” was covered. And then because so much of the essay was spent focusing on disparaging theatrical/imaginative/surreal/magical stage directions, it (the disparaging/lamenting) became the main point of the essay.

  • cgeye

    I’m as tired of people who harsh on plays because they’re too “TV” or “sitcom-y” as I am of those who harsh on plays with meaningfully-added and vivid stage directions. Directors who cross them out might as well cross out dialogue too, and stick to staging works in the public domain where their visions can be expressed unencumbered.

    The impression I gathered before Stryk’s article was that the opposite of “theatrical” was “cinematic”. Now “theatrical” should be de-emphasized, too. If we take away the spectacle of theatre, what can be done on that stage that can’t be done on a screen, what’s left?