Monthly Archives: July 2014

Things Playwrights Do That I Love

Sometimes I open a play and see something that makes me feel like this:

Here’s what you do that makes my heart sing as I’m reading the plays in my stack. Are these subjective? Sure. But I made sure to only include things I’ve heard echoed by other artistic directors. Is this meant to be all-inclusive? Of course not. I’ve written a lot about playwriting already, so there’s a lot I’ve left out here. (Search for the tag “playwrights” if you want to see more.) So here we go– what makes my eyes turn into cartoon hearts when I look at you:

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1. Your play is set anywhere but New York. Every time I talk about this, I get ten playwrights saying, “That NEVER HAPPENS anymore. That’s OLD SCHOOL.” And then I open the next 20 plays in my consideration folder and 14 of them are set in New York. So believe me, this is still alive and well. When I see a play is set in the San Francisco Bay Area, I immediately start rooting for it just a little bit harder. So few plays are set where my audience lives. Stories happen in every corner of the globe.

Mutt: Let's All Talk About Race! by Christopher Chen at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race! by Christopher Chen at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

2. You have a male/female professional pairing, and they do not have sex or even try to. When I see on page one a female cop and her male partner having a conversation about The Important Mission That May Be The Plot, I start tensing up, because I know that too few playwrights will write a scene wherein a penis and a vagina are anywhere near each other without being compelled to meet on page 50. They will write plays wherein two men can do a professional thing without involving their penises, but as soon as a woman enters the scene, her magical hypnotic vagina powers will compel that professional relationship to eventually be about sex. Listen, a vagina is not a rifle. You can actually put one onstage in act one without the audience expecting it to go off in act two.

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I get incredibly excited when there’s a male/female professional pairing and they have professional respect for each other and live the story without sex being part of the story. Which leads me to:

3. I get incredibly excited when there’s a male/female professional pairing at all. Ask yourself: Does that doctor/cop/bartender/psychologist/politician HAVE to be male to retain narrative integrity? Sure, some stories are just about men or the male experience, and that’s totally fine. Not every play has to be gender balanced. But many (probably even most) plays are about stories that aren’t gendered. When I read a play that isn’t about a gendered experience, and half the characters are women, just because women are people who live in the world? I get happy. This also leads me to:

4. You have a female/female pairing and avoid every stereotype. This can be a professional pairing (co-workers) or personal (friends, roommates, sisters). They’re not fighting over the same man. They don’t fall into the hot one/ugly one, or skinny one/fat one, or beautiful but dumb one/plain but brilliant one, or any of the ridiculous, misogynistic dichotomies we’ve invented. They’re both well-rounded characters with strengths and weaknesses like people? HOLY CRAP. I love you.

What Every Girl Should Know by Monica Byrne at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

What Every Girl Should Know by Monica Byrne at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

5. Your play has a Jewish character who isn’t from New York and isn’t whiny, a Muslim character who isn’t a mouthpiece for all religious Muslims everywhere (either a stereotypical terrorist or a gentle soul whose main function is to condemn terrorism), a Wiccan who isn’t a punchline, a Buddhist who isn’t there to provide WORDS OF WISDOM to the main character, etc. Basically, when I see diversity of religion or religious heritage in characters, and those characters are well-rounded people whose identity isn’t entirely about that religion or heritage? I’m surprised and thrilled.

6. Collaboration. You’re specific about what the design should feel like (“a rundown motel room,” “a beautiful high-rise apartment,” “an open field that stretches for miles”) and what the needs of the action are (for example, multiple levels, or specific pieces of furniture around which action takes place), but you don’t dictate every aspect of the design. I’ve seen playwrights get as specific as the color of a character’s dress or the kind of flowers on the table, when neither of those are part of the narrative or the action. A playwright who creates a world and then leaves room for others to play within that world is a gift. I also love responsive playwrights. I love sending an email or a text with a question and getting a timely response, even if the question is “Can I change this?” and the answer is “No.”

The Chalk Boy, by Joshua Conkel at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The Chalk Boy, by Joshua Conkel at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

7. And after I read and love your play? What makes my heart sing? A playwright who’s willing to go to bat for a small company. We don’t talk about this a lot, but it can sometimes be difficult for a small company to get the rights to a play when the playwright has an agent. Agencies don’t make as much money from small companies, and they’re (understandably) much more interested in scoring a LORT or Broadway production. I’ve been denied the rights to plays that afterwards sat unproduced for years waiting for a LORT production that never came. Many playwrights are willing to go to bat for small companies and direct their agents to release the rights to a company they can trust to stage the material according to the playwright’s intent. Sometimes a playwright works with their agent to help get a smaller company into a rolling world premiere (where more than one company in different markets premiere the play on or near the same date), or has the smaller company stage the play as a “workshop production,” ceding the world premiere rights to a future larger company. I LOVE THESE PLAYWRIGHTS.

I see a LOT of excellent work out there. Without your work, my work doesn’t exist. So THANK YOU, playwrights.

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Six Female Characters You Really Need to Stop Writing

Please read Kate Beaton's entire comic here: http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311   It's GLORIOUS.

Please read Kate Beaton’s entire comic. It’s GLORIOUS. http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the stereotypical “Strong Female Character,” based on the CRAZY idea that we need to start thinking of female characters as . . . characters, period. In that spirit, I offer the following six female characters we really need to stop writing.

1. “The Girl.” A big group of people in a narrative that could easily be non-gendered, and yet there’s only one girl along for the ride. It’s Our Hero, Handsome Scoundrel, Crazypants, Toughest Guy, and The Girl, who has no personality apart from BOOBS. She’s probably sleeping with Our Hero, or he wants to sleep with her, and/or she provides a reason for Our Hero and Handsome Scoundrel to have dramatic tension.

“But honey, I really need your opinion on the appetizers for the cat’s birthday party! It’s only a month away!”

2. “The Clueless Interrupter.” Doesn’t she know how IMPORTANT her man’s task is? She’s always interrupting him while he’s saving the world, fighting the powers of evil, or having a SERIOUS BROCONVO about SERIOUS BROFEELS with her frivolous calls about their upcoming wedding, or what she should fix for dinner, or hey, the house is on fire. Our bros just shake their heads in wonder, watch as he lies like a fourth grader caught in the pastor’s liquor cabinet (“I swear there’s nothing going on, now you just go back to your frivolous ladystuff, OK?” “But I hear robot ninjas in the–” “LOVE YOU HONEY, BYE”), or grab the phone away from him and just hang up or throw it out the window. THAT’LL TEACH HER.

3. “The Woman Whose Sexual Desire Is Comical.” So, and you might wanna sit down for this, people over 40 have sex. People over 60 have sex. Women who are not skinny have sex. Women who are not “beautiful” (whatever the FUCK that means) have sex. Whatever kind of woman you’re imagining as undesirable, she’s having sex. So when you write a character whose main function is to throw herself comically at Our Hero because her very desire is HILARIOUS? I want to punch a wall. Yes, I know all about Restoration comedy and Mrs. Roper, but it’s time for that trope to retire.

THE ROPERS, Norman Fell, Audra Lindley, 1977-84. © ABC / Courtesy: Everett Collection

THE ROPERS, Norman Fell, Audra Lindley, 1977-84. © ABC / Courtesy: Everett Collection

4. “Hooker with a Heart of Gold.I’ve written about this before (along with the “Magical Person of Color/Gay BFF/Disabled Person,” another trope that needs retiring, but since it’s nongendered, I’m leaving it out of this particular post). So I’m just going to be an asshole here and quote myself rather than reformulate this entire train of thought:

Sex workers are not a marker for all women everywhere. If you’re writing a play about ACTUAL SEX WORKERS, then carry on, my wayward son. But if you’re writing a play about, oh, a young man trying to find himself, or a middle-aged man who’s vaguely dissatisfied with life, or a man whose wife just doesn’t understand him and constantly asks him to do horrible things like pay attention to her or fold his own laundry, then inserting a Magical Prostitute who swans into his life and shows him The Way to Happiness, or the Broken Flower Stripper who needs the man to save her from herself and show her that college exists, then I am looking at you with crankyface. Are you writing a play with a sex worker in it? Ask yourself: WHY is she a sex worker? Are you writing about sex workers, or do you just want a naked version of the Magical Person of Color? Does she have objectives of her own that aren’t there just for the male protagonist to correct? Does she have a character, or is she just a racktacular vector for Words of Wisdom?

5. “The Girl Who Doesn’t Know She Wants It.” This is the character who spends the entire piece rejecting Our Hero until she finally “gives him a chance,” or realizes she wanted him all along. Apart from being annoying, this trope is DANGEROUS. He deserves her! What she wants is irrelevant! He’s a nice guy so her lack of interest in him is her fault! Stalking is adorable and romantic! What he wants is more important than what she wants! This character has a sister character known as “The Bitch Who’s a Bitch Because She’s Not Interested in the Main Character,” which is the same thing except she never “gives him a chance,” therefore, she’s a “bitch.”

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6. “The Fantasy Feminist.” This woman is a misogynistic caricature of a feminist. She’s very vocal about hating men, not shaving, and blaming ridiculous things (like the lack of her favorite yogurt flavor at the grocery store) on “the patriarchy.” Her function in the work is to impede the main character’s love interest from “giving him a chance” or to act as comic relief. Or both.

7. BONUS ROUND: Male character you need to stop writing: “Guy Who Has No Idea How to Do Normal Stuff.” This is the guy who ends up putting a diaper on a baby’s head, or just sitting the baby in a bucket instead of diapering it. This is the guy who sets the kitchen on fire because he’s watching the game while cooking, or uses his kid’s doll carriage as a beer cooler. Believe it or not, there are tons of men who are actually quite competent at simple, real-life things.

This is happening right now somewhere on your street.

This is happening right now somewhere on your street.

I know there are more! I invite you to comment with the sexist tropes you’d most like to see fired into the sun.

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Why Forced “Audience Participation” Doesn’t Work

(UPDATE: I tweaked the title a bit due to the number of people confusing me with the recent Chicago Trib article. If you’re here to read something against all forms of audience participation indiscriminately, you’re in the wrong place.)

There’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about “audience engagement.” It’s partially been driven by a few big grantors requiring some form of it, and partially driven by the psychology of trends. Because every new entertainment technology sends people right to the THIS IS THE END OF THEATRE box, frightened by the popularity of the internet and its DIY culture, some grantors and theatremakers have been scrambling to create theatre that borrows some of that mojo in order to glean a portion of that success. The problem is: It doesn’t work.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. It CAN work. For starters, “audience engagement” need not mean “audience participation.” That’s just the most prevalent (and problematic) form. There are other ways to engage your audience. Shotgun Players in Berkeley, for example, has created several excellent theatre pieces based on interviews with members of the local community, telling their stories and telling the story and history of the area. The most recent was Daylighting, for which they set up a recording booth in the lobby for people to tell their own Berkeley stories after the show, which were posted on their website. That’s what I’d call excellent, effective audience engagement that should stand as a national example for how to get it done. Interrupting an otherwise traditionally-structured performance to haul audience members onstage or force actors to put individual audience members on the spot by making them perform actions or engaging them in conversation– not so much. A recent production I saw, otherwise traditionally structured, actually had an actor begin a benign conversation with an audience member at the top of the show and then suddenly verbally attack her, shouting insults. I had enormous sympathy both for the woman being attacked– women are verbally assaulted by male strangers all the time, and it’s an extremely unpleasant experience– and for the actor forced to perform the attack. While that’s an extreme example, that kind of “audience engagement”– audience participation as surprise, forced interaction– is by FAR the most common kind. It just doesn’t work, and I have a theory as to why.

But first let me say that there are very specific ways in which audience participation works very well. One great example is the new trend toward what people are somewhat misguidedly (I’ll get to that in a second) calling “immersive” theatre– the kind of theatre partially based on narrative gaming (especially video games) and partially based on narrative ride-through or walk-through experiences (think haunts or Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean)– which works very well. The most famous example of this is Sleep No More. This is better titled “interactive theatre,” so that’s what I’ll use.

What makes audience participation work has been perfectly described in Jeffrey Mosser’s 2012 Howlround piece, “The Psychology of the Audience: Rules of Engagement.” In it, he describes how this kind of theatre must be conceptualized and constructed with the audience as a participatory element from the beginning, and that the participation must be completely voluntary. In other words, a successful audience participation piece can’t exist without audience involvement, and the degree and type of audience involvement has to be chosen by each individual audience member. This is why interactive theatre pieces work, as well as HOW they work. A video game’s narrative doesn’t exist until you play it, and in most cases now, the narrative changes according to how you play the game. You’re playing the theatre piece like a video game, and/or being taken through an experience that happens around you, and with which you interact on your own terms. You go to that type of theatre (and other types of interactive theatre structured around the concept of voluntary audience participation) specifically for that experience, and it’s a different experience entirely than traditional theatre. Megan Reilly’s excellent article in Howlround about the gamification of theatre is well worth a read for anyone interested in this kind of work. She describes both the ups and downs of the format– both which I’ll get to in a bit.

People who are fired up about the promise of interactive theatre can be very disparaging about traditionally-structured theatre– a show that’s performed for an audience that sits in the dark and watches it. It’s often touted as the “future of theatre,” as if other (both participatory and traditional) models were useless. It’s an enormously disappointing and short-sighted point of view, especially considering the fact that this kind of experience– becoming wholly immersed in a story someone is telling you– works. It works not only in theatre, but also when you’re lost in a novel or a film, or when you’re spellbound by a storyteller, even when that person is just a friend at a party. And let’s stop for a moment and look at that word– SPELLBOUND. We all know what that means– so rapt, so caught up in the narrative we’re consuming that we have a truly singular, magical experience. People aptly describe it as “losing themselves” in a story. It’s something that we’ve all experienced, and that only happens when we’re passively immersed in someone else’s narrative. That’s become a dirty word– “passive.” The “passive” audience is seen as a sack of potatoes sitting there, doing nothing but having something spoon-fed to them, detractors claim. Au contraire, neurology has discovered.

That supposedly “passive” audience, when experiencing what we colloquially call the state of being “spellbound” by a book, film, play, or story, are experiencing hugely active and unique brain states. Researchers have discovered that while “passively” consuming fictional narrative, the human brain not only experiences that narrative as if it’s actually happening, but also improves and expands the consumer’s empathy. A different study found that when an audience is “passively” spellbound by a narrative, their brains experience neural synching with the storyteller (and therefore, in a group setting like a theatre audience, with EACH OTHER), again experiencing the narrative neurologically as if it’s real and again expanding empathy. These studies confirm what theatregoers already know: there’s something magical about being rapt in a story someone is telling you– something unique and undeniably immensely valuable. That’s the kind of theatre I would be more likely to label “immersive.”

When you’re playing through interactive theatre, you’re very much aware of your relationship to it, even more so than in a video game where your hands are manipulating the controller almost involuntarily as you navigate the world on the screen, losing yourself in your avatar’s experience. In interactive theatre, your physical body is in the game, rather than an avatar, and you become the self-aware center of your own narrative, a narrative you create with the tools the production has given you. In the traditional immersive experience, you’re in someone else’s narrative, experiencing their lives and feeling their feelings, which is the theory behind how that kind of theatre creates empathy. Interactive theatre is about having a magical, self-involved, self-aware experience of your own. It’s no less valuable, but it is different, and there are both gains and losses. The gain would of course be the wonder and magic of being surrounded by, and a part of, a fictional world. The loss, I think, is related to the loss of the immersive experience– the loss of that “spellbound” near-trance state, which loses the neurological synching experience that creates empathy.

In fact, I would say that the interactive theatre experience is more likely to deter empathy. As Megan Reilly describes, slower-moving patrons are literally elbowed out of the way as other patrons, people who are on their second or third playthroughs, are pushing their way through the crowd to be in the right place to trigger certain events or be chosen for certain special content. Anyone who’s ever been in an online multiplayer environment knows exactly what that’s like. And while face-to-face contact could lessen the rudeness one encounters in online co-op, it does not entirely eliminate it, especially, as Reilly notes, when patrons are given masks. I wouldn’t bother to see Sleep No More for that very reason– as someone who is short and has some mobility issues, I assume that I will be pushed out of seeing and experiencing a lot of the best content. It’s something I experience all the time in public spaces, so I wouldn’t expect it to be different in a show. I don’t need to spend $100 to have people push ahead of me and block my view when I can experience that for free at Trader Joe’s.

But that doesn’t mean that people, especially people who’ve never experienced it before, can’t be awed by interactive theatre, or can’t have a fun or even emotionally intense experience. The fact that something isn’t disabled-friendly or favors the aggressive player doesn’t make it a shitpile for the people who have what it takes to be high-level players. Additionally, there are interactive shows that better handle those aspects, as Reilly documents, using an “on-rails” rather than open world structure. There’s no question in my mind that some company somewhere is working on an open world interactive theatre piece that creatively corrects for both. (Reilly herself is working on an interactive piece, and I have every expectation that it will kick all of the ass.) Despite the fact that interactive theatre trades the spellbound neurology for a self-focused one doesn’t make it LESS than traditionally immersive theatre, just a different, and no less valuable, experience. Playing through an interactive theatre experience– being literally within the world of a play– can be a wonderful experience. But so can being in the audience in a traditional performance setting.

So let’s take a step back, see interactive theatre as a TYPE of theatre, not as the FUTURE of theatre, and stop disparaging traditional audience experiences as if they don’t work, because they DO. These two types of theatre do two very different things, both valuable. We’re big enough to value both for what they are, without demanding that one is better, more important, or the replacement for the other.

So to bring it all back home, my theory about the reason forced audience interaction doesn’t work in otherwise traditionally-structured theatre is based in the neurology of narrative: If your piece isn’t constructed around audience interactivity, when you force an audience member to participate rather than observe, you disrupt their neurologically synched “spellbound” state, jerking them back into a self-aware state. In most cases, that’s not just a normally self-aware state but a HIGHLY self-conscious, awkward one. It’s a matter of conjecture how long it would take for that audience member (or the audience members nervously wondering if they’ll be next) to recover neural synching with the narrative and the people around her. And of course, this is just a theory as to why forced audience participation so rarely works. When a neurologist is looking for funding for that project, I’ll be the first to contribute to the Kickstarter (award level: brain candle).

I think interactive theatre, while something that has been in and out of favor for centuries, is really hitting its modern stride with the gamification format, and I expect exciting things from it as they work out the kinks. I would love to see forced audience participation fall by the wayside completely as we explore the neurology of the audience more and more. And despite everything, I still think it’s valuable to imagine the ways in which *voluntary* audience participation can work in some forms of traditionally-structured performance (my guess is that it’s much more likely to work in direct address theatre that never establishes a fourth wall, like Always . . . Patsy Cline or in meta-theatrical and camp performance). Emphasis on VOLUNTARY.

All this boils down to: you MUST consider your audience’s experience carefully. We have more tools than ever to understand what their experience will be like. Avail yourself of them and make your decisions with open eyes.

But really, apart from the neurological experience you may want to create and nurture, and apart from the considerations of what may or may not “work,” understand that forcing someone to do something is never OK, and can sometimes even be dangerous. I’ve seen actors force audience members into conversations or physical actions that would feel HUGELY invasive and inappropriate to, say, an abuse survivor, or physically painful for someone like me– you can see the cane, but you can’t see the surgery scars or the areas of injury. I recently saw an actor climb over the seats and into the audience at a huge professional theatre, and all I could think was, PLEASE ALL YOU GODS DO NOT LET HIM COME THIS WAY, as using my shoulder as leverage (as I could see him doing) or bumping into my leg could cause me enormous pain. I stopped watching the play and started strategizing how to block the actor with my cane should he come near me.

I suppose you could sum up my entire post with “Voluntary good, forced bad,” but the REASONS for that are critical. We have more tools than ever to create amazing audience experiences. Let’s use them all to their best advantage.

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