The Problem with Play as Performance (Part 1)

Plays exist both on the page and on the stage [Please shoot me now. –ed.] and because of this, plays often change over the course of production.  Probably not in many of the plays you’ve read (especially if they’re Samuel French performance editions) since those plays have been around for a while, around the block a few times, around the world and back, and what they’ve learned, if nothing else, is how what was originally written by the playwright needs to be adjusted to survive actual staging in front of an actual live audience.

Only two of my plays have had more than one production.  One was a re-staging of the one-act “The Burning” so that it could be a part of my senior thesis, which was called “The Burning Cycle”, naturally.  That was directed by an actor who played the lead in the original, and I remember the re-make (to use current Hollywood parlance) as different from my vision, but not appreciatively so.  But Rory (the actor/director) was coming at the play from having already been in it, not from only having imagined it on the page.

On the other hand, the other play to be re-produced was “Exodus”.  I think that happened my senior year as well, but all I did was provide the script.  I remember not being overly impressed with the play – but that isn’t necessarily a slight to the production as much as it is to the fact that I’d written it a number of years before during my senior year of high school.  It was loaded with heavy-handed imagery (as you might guess from the title) and contained loads of dark and portentous mystery without any alleviating humor.  I’d written it when I’d yet to really grasp on to Durang or Stoppard and though I loved Ionesco, I didn’t truly see the humor in his plays.

But the beauty of plays existing on both the REMOVED FOR YOUR SANITY is that the written version exists completely independently of the staged one.  The script is a Platonic ideal that the performed versions take their cues from, but just as a chair that you sit on can never be the Platonic ideal, the play you see can never be what was scripted.  Even when the writer is the director (assuming equivalent skill in both) the play will not be as it was in the writer’s head.  It can’t be, not the least of why is because so much is left out of the page.

There was a point in writing plays where I tried to approach the clarity of Shakespeare.  Not the art – though I’ve tried to use him as a model since there’s no point in shooting for the mud when you can just trip into it, no problem – but the minimal use of stage directions.  At some point, I believed this was a conscious choice of his, to save Exit, pursued by a bear for the truly important moments that needed concrete clarification and leaving the rest of the staging up to the director, actors, etc.  It was only later, when studying Shakespeare in college and grad school, that I learned the lack of stage directions was more a convention of the time rather than an artistic choice.

Still, the desire remained: I would convey as much as possible through dialogue and let the chips fall where they may. (Though I probably would have to include the chips in the stage directions.  Yet, I could also have them introduced thusly:

Horatio: Lord, am I hungry.

Brutus: What ho, Horatio.  You open a bag of chips?

Horatio: And I will let the crumbs fall where they may.

Or, perhaps, I’ll leave out the chips altogether.)

I still try and do that, though the joy in such an approach is seeing what directors and actors come up with when given a script they’ve never seen before.  It’s one thing to produce Hamlet since you’re instantly influenced by and competing with all the versions of Hamlet you’ve seen before.  It’s another entirely to produce a play you’ve no familiarity with whatsoever.  And even more so (i.e., another other thing) when that play hasn’t been produced anywhere.

Now we get to the crux of the matter:  For which crux you’ll have to wait after the intermission (until tomorrow).  Please now enjoy complimentary food and drink (from your very own refrigerator!).  Remember, no re-entrance without ticket stubs.

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2 Responses to The Problem with Play as Performance (Part 1)

  1. Brendan says:

    I wish those two were in a play together. Call it “Horatio and Brutus at the Circle-K.”

  2. Andrew says:

    Is that a commission? Cause, you know, I might be able to make that happen.

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