Monday, May 30, 2011

On Reading Plays

Today, we continue our discussion of artistic mediums.

I usually only read reviews of my work in two instances:

1. If it's posted on a review blog or another writers' site.

2. If it's on a seller site: Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, etc... That's where the money comes from, so I have to be sure they're all on the up-and-up.

But a review of When Cthulhu Met Atlach-Nacha from a site I don't need to check got caught in my Google Alerts and I checked it without thinking, and I got unnecessarily infuriated, which is why I don't check reader reviews. No offense.

The thing is, it wasn't a negative review. I don't respond to reviews, of course (wait, what am I doing here?), but it really got me thinking. I decided that this is an opportunity to talk about an interesting subject, and I'm not really truly arguing against the review.
Wow, what a preamble! I've found that my blog posts are like episodes of The Simpsons. About a third of the show is an almost totally separate plot that's just a setup for the rest of the show. Aaaaanyway...

My problem with the review was that I lost points because When Cthulhu Met Atlach-Nacha would have been better as a prose fiction piece than a play. I think that's actually a pretty good reason to deduct points from something. If a person obviously would have preferred to be making a film rather than writing a book, then it's not going to live up to the medium as well as it could. Another good example is Raymond Carver's poem "Lemonade." The thing is a terrible poem because it's just a short story with line breaks. Line breaks are literally the only thing that makes it a poem. It has a completely linear plot and narrative with DIALOGUE. I've read plenty of prose poems that I have no problem calling poems. "Lemonade" is just a typical Raymond Carver story.

But examples of this weren't given against my play, because the argument wasn't really that points should be deducted because When Cthulhu Met Atlach-Nacha was written in the wrong genre, but rather because the gentleman didn't like reading plays.

Well that's not my fault. It's clearly labeled as a play on the cover and in the description. And plays are a valid genre.

To clarify, for the rest of this article I'm going to use "genre" in the academic sense, where the 3 genres are fiction, poetry and plays. Plays are interesting because--from my perspective as only a writer--they are in the same medium as my fiction. However, I think it's fair to call their true form of a different medium, as what I produce is only the script for the true work that also has contributions from the director, the actors, and many others.

Anyway, yeah, reading a play isn't necessarily the ideal way to experience it. It does take more work than fiction to read. It's less immersive. The formatting can draw you out. You have to remember what the stage looks like, because it's only stated once or as necessary, and not to remind the reader. And the description is usually sparse, because the writer only wants to put down what's essential to his story. The rest can and should be left to others. So it's not an ideal experience, because what you're reading isn't really the play itself, but the script for the play. I know that sounds like splitting hairs, but it's not.
Uh huh...
When you go into reading a play, you should go in with that understanding. It can perfectly fulfill the requirements of its genre and still not be an ideal reading experience. In fact, it's almost impossible that it will be. The good news is that the more plays you read, the more you get used to and able to ignore the drawbacks.

So why read plays? Why not just watch them?

If you want to keep up with what's going on in theater today, unless you live in a big theater city like Cleveland or NYC, you're gonna have to read them. College drama programs put on classics, which is cool. The big play houses that are big dressy events play safe things that won't offend your stuffy aunt. And they're usually classics, too. But if you want to know about what's going on today, you probably need to read.

And what's going on today is pretty awesome. Theater is almost totally self-supporting. That's not quite as bad as with fiction writers who try the same thing. Behind every fiction writer are a few books, but there are a ton of people involved in every play. The pyramid is inverted. So the rest of the theater people in town come to support their friends and spy on their enemies, and family comes, and so you've got butts in the seats and you've got a cool community.

What this also allows for are artists who create for an audience that is very, very educated in the medium. They have to push the envelope. They have to surprise each other. They get to do the wildest things they can think of.

It's pretty freaking awesome.

But, you'll probably only get to enjoy the script.

One good sampler platter is Funny, Strange, Provocative: Seven Plays from Clubbed Thumb. It contains the awesome Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake) by Sheila Callaghan.


  1. I never really considered reading plays, but my curiosity is piqued. Think I'll have to check out some....

  2. Hmmm... I know of one really good one...