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I really appreciate Playscripts and their work toward creating better theater and theater experiences for all. Jay Muldoon Theater Teacher, Fairfield, OH
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Move Me

There’s this thing that happens in new play workshops: at some point while reading and discussing your new play there is this pressure that comes over you to process the play for the audience.  To clarify for the audience what is unclear, to state what your play is about and where you stand on the subject matter.  This is good.  This is also bad.

I feel I write the most exciting work when I’ve lost clarity.   When I’ve lost track of what my play is about, when I can’t stand for anything because I’m knocked under it.  I feel I write the best when I’m deep under the sea with a piece, in a place where that’s utterly terrifying.  If I can allow myself to be lost and afraid and write through the fear, something amazing can happen.   Something that I can’t quite put my finger on, some mysterious feeling or knowledge that I hadn’t known how to articulate is articulated, somehow, quivering and fragile on the page.

When I move from this space of creation, from creative impulse to crafting the work, I’m aware that it’s a delicate business.  I love it, though. I love revising.  I love rehearsing. I feel most alive as a writer for theater when I’m in a rehearsal room, when mistakes are being made and learned from, when everyone is playing. When we’re not afraid to break things.

But lately as I work I’m feeling troubled by a terrible secret:  I almost never feel anything when I watch a theatrical production.  I laugh, I frown, I admire the craft of the script, the artistry of the production, and I think.   In most theater that I attend, I get to think about something pretty interesting for an hour or two, and forget about it by the next morning.

I’m trying to remember: when was the last time I got the emotional wind knocked out of me in the theater?  When was the last time I was caught off guard?  When have I buckled at the knees wanting to love more? When have I ached, wept, howled for the world to change?  I can remember feeling educated about an issue.  I can remember feeling entertained.  But I have to dig way back to remember a time in the theater when I was emotionally impacted.  When I felt changed.

Maybe it’s because I write for the theater; maybe I analyze the work too much to be emotionally caught up in it.  But then I think about my friends and family that work outside of the theater.  I think of my Mom, who is representative of a more  “average” theater audience, in age and etc.  My mom wants to go see shows.  She wants to be entertained and she wants to be moved.  I do my best to take her to productions that will rock her world.   My mom reports being entertained, but it doesn’t last; there’s no impact.  Her world is not being rocked.  Not even a little bit.  Why?  What are we doing wrong?

A few things, I think.  The big theater companies are choosing plays that are pretty safe…but haven’t they always done that?  Not always: in the 60’s and 70’s there was some very explosive theater on our big stages.  Of course small companies started it, producing the work that rocked audiences, creating waves that changed the ecology of the theater, “allowing” the large theater companies to produce risk-taking work that packed an emotional wallop.  The small producers eventually influenced the large producers.  That should be happening today, but I see the reverse: large producers are too often influencing small producers, who aim for the work to hit the big time.

An area where I do see risks being taken is Form.  People are producing new work that plays with structure in bold ways.  But even those productions that are exciting me conceptually are not burrowing into me.   Even work that’s tackling difficult social or political issues does so with a clear thesis, with a clear path out of the tangle of emotions that could be raised, leaving the audience “unrocked.”

Theater today does not seem to want to risk the audience feeling ill at ease.

We feel ill at ease when what we are watching hits a nerve or rubs against our established views of the world.  This creates friction.  Friction creates change.  How can we give our audience an experience that changes them without being willing to risk their discomfort?

Maybe it’s simple: maybe we’re processing too much for the audience.  Maybe we need to give more to them to process.  Maybe it comes down to that well-worn phrase “show don’t tell.”  Maybe we need to allow for more of the human mess and mystery to show itself; to ask more questions and admit being hungry for answers, rather than offering up answers. I bet we’d have a better time.  I bet our audience would feel something.  I bet some of them would be rocked.  And I bet most of them would be glad.

–Trista Baldwin

Trista Baldwin is the recipient of two Jerome Fellowships, a McKnight Advancement Grant, a Saison Foundation residency and a Performing Arts Japan grant from the Japan Foundation. Plays include Patty Red Pants, Sand, Wade the Bird American Sexy, Doe and Chicks With Dicks.  Her short play Falling Up is published by Playscripts in Great Short Plays: Volume 7.

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