Fertile Ground Portland

A Festival of New Works Blog

An Actor Weighs in on New Play Development Hell October 30, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — fertilegroundpdx @ 12:32 am

080311-sagnwebreadyActor Karl Miller (foregrounded in this photo from PCS’ 2008 world premiere of Sometimes a Great Notion) has had some experience with new work development. Although, it should be pointed out, not from the viewpoint of the playwright, chewing their fingernails off in the back row of a darkened theater while an audience reacts (or fails to react) to the most recent revision of their current masterpiece.

No, Karl is the guy on the stage who hs been called up, possibly in a panic, by a playwright or a literary manager to read, perform, and occasionally help birth fully staged world premiere works.

Which makes his perspective on the relative utility of  our existing “new play development” process a little different than most. After all, he’s had to read a lot of them. Out loud. In front of people. While trying to look like a good actor the whole time.

And sometimes, depending on the writing, that can be hard.

So when Karl Miller sits down to identify the common things that make a new work difficult  (at whatever development stage the work might be in), there’s a good chance he’ll have some fairly insightful things to contribute. Like, for example, this, from his recent blog post:

I’m an actor, so I know about rejection and criticism and the living death that is the audition process. I experience development hell from the other side of the music stand. After Bacchus-knows-how-many staged readings, I’m starting to think all bad plays were written by the same two playwrights. With that possibility in mind, I offer this list of things that make it hard to respect the writer and his or her self-esteem during a development reading …

Ping pong dialog. Conflict is the essence of drama, yes, but some young writers are stuck on a binary dialog rhythm that sounds something like this:
A: Stop chewing your food that way.
B: This is how I always chew my food.
A: Not since you started eating meat again.
B: I thought you loved meat.
A: You and I both know I’m a vegetarian.
B: It’s news to me.
A: Everything’s news to you.

And so on. So two characters are fighting about everything and nothing and all we learn is that one character will oppose what the other character just said. It’s astonishing how long some people try to sustain this rhythm … like a really boring version of the Question Game, or a really pointless improv activity. It’s undeniably dramatic, but it bars any possibility of dramatic development since no statement can escape the self-canceling pull of the succeeding statement. And it’s definitely emotional, but anger is the only emotion that can sustain this stuff for a whole scene.

The Vocative Tense. A glitch that occurs most often in book adaptations. The vocative should be used sparingly:

A: How’s it going, John?
B: Oh, great, Sally, great.
A: John, is something wrong?
B: Sally, stop asking me that!
A: I can’t help it, John, I love you!
B: We’re not going to discuss that, Sally.

Most people don’t use the vocative in real life. We know the person to whom we are speaking; there’s no need to whip out the proper name, except for emphasis. Book adaptations sometimes import the vocative as a replacement for “he said” and “she said.” But I think the over-reliance on the vocative comes from a failure to touch the character, or to distance oneself from the character. Some intimacy or chemistry is missing and the writer makes up for it by clutching to the names. It’s an easy enough diagnostic to run: go through the script and find them all. Ask yourself if they’re really necessary or natural-sounding, and then find the connection the character really wants to make.

Read the rest of his insights from the new play actor’s chair right here.


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