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


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.

  • August 24, 2011
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