Excerpt From Eugene's Dramatist's Guide

By Eugene Stickland

Show us, don’t tell us

This is the first holy commandment of playwriting. Of course we go to the theatre looking for actors in the “living moment,” as it is known. We look to the playwright to dramatize these moments. We want to see the action unfold before our very eyes in real time. We don’t just want to be told about it.
Probably the best example of this can be found (at least in this small volume) in Closer and Closer Apart. Melody has tried to express her frustration about her marriage falling apart to her father, Joe.
Her husband’s name is Charles, but Joe has always called him Charlie. He comforts her saying “There, there, it’ll be OK,” and those things we say to people who have come to us for comfort. But as he continues, it soon becomes apparent that in his mind, Charlie is a dog who has run away. It gives the actress playing Melody a real acting moment in her reaction. And of course Joe is oblivious to his own confusion.
This, as opposed to Melody saying, “Gee, father, your brain doesn’t seem to be working very well, I think you might have Alzheimers!” That would be telling us. Don’t tell us. Put those actors in the living moment and show us that he has Alzheimer.

Envision the Space

One of my favourite failed playwriting attempts by a student involved a snowstorm and a parking lot. Two men walk through the snow to get to their car. While one tries to start it, the other brushes the snow off the car. Don’t you love the sound of a car that just won’t quite start? After “several moments” or so of trying to start the car, the driver gets out and opens the hood. They look at the engine but can’t see anything amiss. The driver calls AMA on his cell phone. After being put on hold “for several moments” he gets through and explains his predicament to the unseen person on the other end. He hangs up. They wait in the snow “for several moments.” A tow truck arrives. The driver puts on the booster cables and “after several moments” the driver is able to start the car. The tow truck drives away. The car drives away. The driver and passenger talk to each other, but how we are meant to hear them from inside their car will always remain a mystery. Scene.
I actually love it when such scenes are presented because it gives me a lot to talk about, especially when the writer has done absolutely everything wrong, as in this case. The simplest note here is that he’s writing a film. (It would have to be a “he.”) Sometimes, though, they dig in and want to defend their choices. Fair enough.
So I might have to say, “How do you propose to show a snowstorm on a stage?” He might say something like “You get white stuff and people drop it from above.” I see, very clever. I might then ask, “Is the scene that follows this one also set in the parking lot?” “Probably not.” “So then what happens to the snow?” “People take care of it.” “What people?” “Stage hands and volunteers.” “Right.”
Further, I might ask, “How do you propose to drive actual vehicles on and off the stage?” “There would be a door.” I see. A door to the theatre that a tow truck could fit through. That’s some big door! This is going to be done only in the big theatres.
You get the idea.
Even more deadly though than the vehicles and the snow are the “several moments” intervals that pass when nothing whatsoever happens and nothing is said. It’s been my experience that audiences like it when something is happening and the characters are saying something, to put it mildly. I have never met anyone who would find it entertaining watching someone try to start a car, let alone pay for the experience.
A variation on this film masquerading as a play motif is another of my favourites. It’s a play set in a restaurant. Even better, sometimes an airport! There’s the classic film stage direction, “People can be seen passing by with their luggage,” or “All around them fellow diners are involved with their meals, engaged in subdued conversation.”
At this point (at least by now) I put on my producer’s hat. I pretend I am the parsimonious producer and I have to pay for all of this. I might ask, “Who are these other diners?” The answer, “Actors.” And so I press, “Actors I should pay for eating a meal and having a subdued conversation?” I move on. “Where is the food coming from? Who makes it? What happens to it at the end of the scene. What happens to all the tables and chairs and all those well-fed actors?” “It all just goes away.” “Where?!” “Just away.”
You get the idea. None of these are very good choices for a stage play. Let’s say my producer’s budget is allowing for four actors (of any persuasion), maybe a few chairs and wall hangings and lamps we can scavenge from people’s basements. That’s about as elaborate as we’re going to get. Anything else will have to be created with lights, projections, sound effects, and so on.
But the big shift that needs to happen in the writer’s mind is away from film and television to a simpler space, what the British director Peter Brooke refers to as the empty space. In my play First and Last we needed to depict an apartment. The play premiered in a space that was more of a lecture hall than a theatre. I asked for an 8 foot x 12 foot carpet to be placed on the floor. This was our apartment. This was our stage. This was our empty space that the action of the play would take place upon.
No one is going to think of driving a tow truck over a Persian carpet — or landing an airplane or anything else. If we have a good honest script with interesting characters, we really don’t need much else.

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