Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Why Make It a Play?

Let's further discuss genre and medium and especially playwriting. Let's.

If you can look at a play and say, "It wouldn't take much work to turn that into a novella," then there's a good chance that it should just be a novella.

When you write a play, you're creating something that asks a lot of its audience. If I don't like a book, I stop reading it. Since I use a Kindle and sample, I probably didn't even pay anything. I click a few times and I'm on to the next book.

Representative of theatre seating.
With a play, you're asking people to leave their homes, sit in uncomfortable seats and then sit through your production. I think a fiction writer should do her best to give her audience an awesome experience, but the playwright should definitely have made all the trouble worth it! If your play could have been experienced just as well on paper or e-ink or lcd in the comfort of audience's favorite reading chair, then just give it to them as fiction.

Plays offer all the benefits of live performance. You can have dancing, singing, shouting, tumbling, sounds, projections, lighting effects. You can and should have movement. As the playwright, you probably don't know the exact performance space, but you should still be thinking spacially.

You might look at that partial list and think, "But what can a play offer that a movie can't?" Do you think that a concert video is as satisfying as a live concert? If yes, then maybe not much. But for a lot of us, seeing the performance live in person can be a totally different experience. Now, a movie can't come charging off the screen and into the seats like actors can, but the difference can also be in the little things.

I saw an example of something little that made all the difference in a performance of The Confessions of Punch and Judy. Despite the title, it wasn't a puppet show, but kind of a re-imagining with human actors. Pretty neat on the whole, but one thing blew me away with its subtlety, and in retrospect, it could only have been done in theater:

The actress gave a furious monologue while chopping a salad.


With a really big (and apparently sharp) knife.

Without looking at her hands.

Salad was flying everywhere. She was looking out at us and going off about Punch's bad behavior, and I'm expecting at any moment for her to lose a finger because she's casually holding the head of lettuce while she whacks at it. The tension this created was amazing, and it all transferred over into her monologue. Getting tickets, driving to the theater, sitting in the incredibly cold theater... Experiencing that one moment was worth all that and more. And I'm agoraphobic.

So I thought over When Cthulhu Met Atlach-Nacha and really asked myself if it should be a play. And I think it's only possible as a play. With every scene I asked myself what was going on that couldn't be done on paper, that had to be seen.

The most obvious is the entire basis of the play, which is the parody of the alternation of interview and scene from When Harry Met Sally. The couple is breaking the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience as if they're being asked questions, then jumping into scenes of memories of their relationship that illustrate what they were just talking about. This would basically be impossible in fiction.

There's dancing. There's screaming. There are pratfalls and slapstick (which, by the way, are much funnier live than in a movie). There are lighting effects and sound effects.

And there's a total focus on the lives of these two characters, Cuthbert and Ashton, and on their memories of their marriage. All of the Lovecraftian stuff is pretty standard. I don't push any boundaries with the mythos. Besides, if I had to write scenes of the end of the world, it would take focus away from what really matters. Instead, the audience hears about it as filtered through the eyes of this couple as they discuss it. Not only would it have been difficult to get away with this in fiction, there's no way I could have escaped the expectation in the reader that I'm going to let them see Cthulhu stomping his way across North America. I'd have to start with some disclaimer that Cthulhu wasn't actually going to appear in the work in order to not disappoint an expectation. It's good to play with and subvert expectations, but very bad to disappoint them. With a play, it's just assumed Cthulhu is going to be offstage.

I could go into more specifics, but I don't want to spoil the play too much for those who haven't read it but would like to.

Ultimately, I would love to see When Cthulhu Met Atlach-Nacha produced. I'm very happy to have people reading it, but I'd love to see what a daring director could do with it. I submitted it in Cleveland, but I haven't yet submitted to the local Kansas City theaters. I will though. I had some micro, ambush theater produced in Cleveland by Cleveland Public Theatre, and it was awesome sitting in on casting and rehearsals, and I'm sure that having a full play produced would be even better.


  1. You know, I'm not much of a play enthusiast (reading them, that is--though I have translated a couple of screenplays), but this post is warming me up to WCMAN. And I know your writing is great, so it won't be a risk that way. Hmmmmmmmmmm...

  2. Doin' that old soft sellllllll! Ratatatata!

  3. And thank you for the compliment :)

  4. I'm taking fast and furious notes as I work my way toward e-pubbing. Planning to release several shorts, a collection, and a novel by the end of 2011. So it's interesting to note what makes me want to pick up an author's work.