Because what says “HAPPY NEW YEAR” better than a judgmental listicle?
One thing I want to say right at the start is that this is a list borne out of my own personal experience. These are things I personally see early-career playwrights do over and over and over. I also expect that there will be people who disagree with me, or who say, “But [name of play] does that and it’s the BEST PLAY EVER.” Sure. A genius can take a tired trope and use it ingeniously. But these tropes, I’m telling you, are tired.
The second thing I want to say is that your play is not irrevocably in the suck pile if it uses some of these. I know you’ll iron these out in development. Brilliant writers make a lot of mistakes early in their careers, or copy what writers of the past did when these things were new or acceptable, without understanding that times have changed. A few mistakes don’t make a writer– or even that play– worthless. Rewrite and keep pushing forward.
All of that said, here’s my list. Dear Goddess of Theatre, may none of the plays I read in 2014 have these characteristics, as precisely ONE FARTILLION of the plays I read in 2013 did.
“Please, please tell me now, is there something I should know?”
1. Making a song a central trope. Emerging playwrights love to make a song THEY love into a central trope. The song is deeply meaningful to the characters; the song has a connection to their past and carries some exposition (“Mom always made us sing this song on road trips before the accident”); the song lyrics are quoted out of context; the song is played or sung at a climactic moment. Apart from the obvious– that this trope is overused– there are a few problems with this technique. Often the song that the playwright loves does not fit well within the world of the play. Sometimes the rights are not available for a certain song. But most importantly, early-career playwrights choose a song because it has a certain emotional content for THEM that other people do not necessarily share.
If you use a very well-known standard that has an undeniably certain context within American culture (Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” for example, or “God Bless America”), generally that context is understood by your audience, even if it is not shared. Personally, I hate “Born to Run,” but every time a playwright uses it, I understand what they’re trying to say. However, when you use a random song by, say, Neko Case, Leonard Cohen, or Joni Mitchell (all examples taken from real plays) most of the people in your audience will have never heard the song before. I know you don’t believe me (“EVERYONE knows that song!”) but I’m right. Everyone YOU KNOW knows that song, but imagine a theatre audience filled with strangers, many of whom are not from your social class, ethnicity, or generation. Most people do not know MOST SONGS, no matter how popular that song is within your particular social group. I’m not talking about every usage of a song in a play. I’m talking about relying on a song to carry a particular narrative function. Before you include a song in your play, ask yourself: “Can someone who has never heard this song before, or who dislikes it, still understand everything I need the audience to understand?” If the answer is YES, then by all means, include it. If the answer is, “No, but I don’t care about people outside of the subgroup who know and like this song,” then include it. Otherwise, find a clearer way to do what you need to do. And either way, you might want to consider a trope that’s less overused.
2. Spelling out accents. This one is highly controversial when it comes to “ethnic” accents, but it’s annoying whenever it happens. For one thing, I have yet to see a playwright do this accurately. No amount of mangled spelling is going to correctly convey all the complexities of ANY accent. Most importantly, you’re attempting to dictate to the actor how the lines are said. While the problems inherent in a white writer attempting this with an “ethnic” accent are clear, it’s a pain in the ass when any writer does it for any accent. It’s awkward to try to sound lines out through the mangled spelling you chose to reflect the accent, and while you may believe you’re accurately reflecting the accent even within the limitations of what spelling can do, you may not be in the context in which the line is said, or due to the position of a word creating elision, or any number of things about how an accent works in practice. Just write the lines out properly and let your actors handle the accent. (And YES, I know some great writers of the past have done this, but that doesn’t make it a good idea for you today. If these writers were writing today, would they still be spelling out accents? I will bet you a box of doughnuts and my Cherno Alpha action figure the answer is NO.) Just trust that actors and directors are skillful enough to handle the accent on their own without you having to painstakingly spell it out for them.
3. The Magical Person of Color and/or Drag Queen and/or Gay BFF and/or disabled person. Many writers will use race, sexuality, ability, or gender expression as a metaphor. You’ll often see this referred to as the “Magical Negro”— a black character with special insight or mystical knowledge who runs around helping white main characters with no narrative or objective of his/her own. I’m saying “Magical Person of Color” because writers will also use an Asian or Native American character (ANCIENT MYSTICAL KNOWLEDGE) or a Latino character (SEXUAL AWAKENING AND ALSO MINDBLOWING FOOD). And now we’re seeing the Magical Drag Queen and/or gay BFF as well (MAKEOVER! SASS! COCKTAILS! HELPING STRAIGHT PEOPLE FIND LOVE!). The Magical Drag Queen is more often than not also a person of color, so two-for-one! We’ve seen disability used this way forever. Two examples: Mystical Blind Person (HE CANNOT SEE BUT HE SEES YOUR FUTURE) and Beautiful Person With Disability That Does Not Impact Their Adherence to Beauty Standards (basically just a deaf Manic Pixie Dream Girl). All these tropes are so common that I’ve seen a number of plays engage brilliantly with them, disrupting them or interrogating them.
If you’re writing a play where the main characters are able-bodied, white, and straight, and you want to include a person of color, an LGBT person, a drag queen, or a disabled person, high five! Now your play looks more like the world most of us live in. But think for a moment: If you have a character who is an active part of the narrative with objectives of their own, excellent. If your white main character runs into a Black homeless man who Imparts Words of Wisdom, or has a drag queen neighbor who appears in one scene to give her a makeover and Impart Words of Wisdom, or goes to the blind Asian psychic who magically solves a problem with Words of Wisdom, you have a tired (and problematic) trope on your hands.
4. Writing a play like you’re writing for film. There are some things film does much, much better than theatre does, and vice versa. I don’t get my knickers in a twist like some do about the difference between “theatrical writing” and “cinematic writing” when it comes to things like realism, or certain kinds of narrative. I don’t mind if you write a play about a family that primarily takes place in their living room and has a linear narrative. A play can be all those things and deeply moving, brilliant, and transformative. I’m talking about technical or structural things that can be done easily in film but present enormous difficulties in the theatre. One thing I see quite often is the use of microscenes of a line or two (or fewer) that shift back and forth from place to place requiring a detailed set change or a massive playing space. Here’s an example inspired by every play I’ve ever read that does this, and before you think I’m exaggerating for comic effect, I assure you that I am not.
Lights up on Josh in his hospital bed, sleeping. The phone rings. He wakes up and struggles with his IV as he attempts to answer it. He is too late– the line is dead. He sinks back on his pillow. Sung, the ancient and wizened former Kung Fu master in the next bed, slowly rises and looks at Josh thoughtfully. Lights out on the hospital as lights up on Katie’s office, a drab but busy downtown cube farm. Katie is sitting in her office cubicle, staring at the phone receiver in her hand as Terrence, sitting in the cubicle next to hers, leans across the aisle between them and hands her a piece of chocolate. Janeen, sitting in the desk behind Katie, slowly appears over the wall of Katie’s cubicle, shaking her head, while through the office window we see a delivery truck arriving. Terrence sees this and jumps up, crosses to Mr. Taylor’s office door, and opens it, through which we see Mr. Taylor in a compromising position on his desk with a young woman whose face we can’t see. Blackout.
And of course this is the only time in the play we see either the hospital room or Katie’s office. The next scene takes place on the bench outside the hospital or in the office break room. I’ve seen examples like these dozens of times, and while there’s a way to do almost anything if the playwright is fine with stylization, more often than not a play with this kind of writing is filmic in many other ways as well.
If you’re requiring on onstage fire that must be set, rage out of control, and then get put out, for example, or a character who “suddenly transforms into a glorious angel of light” onstage, please at least throw in a sentence or two somewhere about how realistic you need this to look. If you’re imagining actual fire, or an actual being of light, you’re imagining a film.
5. Older characters whose sole purpose is to impede the awesome young characters from whatever the hell it is they want to do because old people JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND. I can get all I need of this trope through Scooby Doo and 80s movies.
6. Prostitutes, Porn Stars, and Strippers. 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?
I could write an entire blog post on this one.
And now . . . to end on a positive note, FOUR THINGS PLAYWRIGHTS DO THAT I LOVE.
1. Send me their own work and recommend other writers to me. I have had excellent luck with writers I know through the theatre community, social media, or other channels who know what we do, understand our aesthetic, and send me their work. But I have had even better luck with writers who send me SOMEONE ELSE’S work. I think this is because playwrights are out there marketing themselves as hard as they can, and will send their current play to a wide variety of theatres in case something sticks, even if the play may not be the best fit for that theatre, because who knows? Maybe they’re looking to branch out in some way. But when a playwright sends me someone else’s play, it’s because they believe that play is a particularly good fit for my company. They read the play and it made them think of my company. This is THE BEST. When I get an email from a playwright saying, “Have you read [title of play]? I think you’d love it” I get The Tingles.
2. Pull no punches. The highest compliment I have for actors is “fearless.” I think there’s an aspect of that in writing plays as well. I received a play last year that was so fearless, so completely full of its unique approach to story and theatricality, just SO INTENSELY WHAT IT WAS, that I had to get up and walk around the room for a bit in excitement before I could finish reading it. Is it a perfect play? Fuck no. What is? But I fell in love with it because it’s 100% what it’s meant to be. It is not “nice.” It is not concerned with soft-pedalling its world view. Its unique voice jumps off the page and sits on your face. Either I will stage this play one day or I will make someone else do it.
3. State in the character list that they are open to diversity of all types. Look, sometimes a play is about race, ethnicity, sexuality, or what have you in a way that demands a certain kind of casting. If you’re staging Frances Cowhig’s GONE (AND YOU SHOULD), you really need Asian actors. But often a play isn’t about race, ethnicity, or sexuality; it’s about friends who help each other escape an abusive situation, or people who work in politics, or a family trying to get over a death. When you put on the character description page something like “Please feel free to cast these roles with diverse actors. I’m open to a mixed-race family, a disabled lead, or actors of size. We don’t live in a world full of skinny, able-bodied white people, so I have no need for my play to be filled with them,” I LOVE YOU. I would have done it anyway, but when you state that openly, I just freaking LOVE YOU.
4. Believe me when I ask for more work. Most of the plays I read, like seriously 99.999%, aren’t right for my company for the current season I’m slotting. However, many of those plays are still excellent, or intriguing, or display a style or a voice we find compelling that might potentially be a good match for us. We don’t ask everyone to send us something else, so when playwrights believe me, and then ACTUALLY SEND ME SOMETHING ELSE, I am excited. We staged a play this season that I received for just that reason. “Please continue to submit to us” is not a polite brush-off. It means we’re keeping an eye on you because we think you’re worth keeping an eye on.
And PS, you magnificent bastards, I’m in the middle of season planning, so right now this minute (like seriously in the next few days) is an excellent time to send me your plays. Our wonderful literary manager can be reached at lynda (at) impacttheatre (dot) com.
Happy New Year!