Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The art of want

I saw All's Well That Ends Well at Shakespeare in the Park last night.  It is really quite a lovely production, excellently directed and with some very strong actors (including John Cullum, who just has to be in my play Breaking Pairs someday).  It is probably one of the more simplistic plots of the Shakespeare canon, with the characters not nearly as complicated and/or intriguing as say in Midsummer Night's Dream or Macbeth.  And yet is has something that makes it live on, that makes it satisfying and enjoyable to watch: in pretty much every scene, it is very clear that each major character in that scene WANTS something, and they either get it or they don't by the end of the scene.  Most of these little wants build up towards the major "want" of the play (Helena wants Bertram to love her); some of them are subplots (the soldiers' desire to humiliate Parolles, the "clown" of the play) -- but each of them is a little nugget that helps you follow what is going on and feel the satisfaction of something being completed.  Characters who want something specific are far more interesting to watch than characters who don't (or who might but it is not clear).  I never noticed this before about Shakespeare, but now that I have, I would not be at all surprised to find this true of all of his popular plays.  I am sure that has a lot to do with why they are still done hundreds of years later and the stories retold over and over.

The presence of a character's want (or "action", as it is often referred to in theater) is something I have been noticing a lot lately.  Or rather, its absence.  I have seen a lot of theater in the last couple of weeks, from readings of brand new plays to small-scale productions of existing plays to short plays to Shakespeare, and every time one of them leaves me unsatisfied I notice the same reason: I am watching the play and not engaged and not caring about the characters because I don't know what they want from each other.  I don't really care about watching two characters talking about global politics -- as interesting as that conversation might be -- if I don't know what they are trying to get from each other by having that conversation.  It seems like such a simple thing, really, to set up what your characters want and have them fight for it during the scene, but yet it isn't always so easy to make it happen as a writer.  I have been guilty myself of not being clear on this, for sure, though I always strive for it.  But I honestly think a lot of current writers aren't even aware of this and thus aren't striving for it.

This is a very traditional view of theater I have, and I am sure many people would say it is old-fashioned and that there are great new forms of experimental theater that don't require this basic building block.  I say have at it, to those people, if they enjoy that kind of theater.  Personally, I don't.  Or very rarely.  Even Waiting for Godot -- which is supposed to be a play that breaks all these conventions because "nothing happens" -- has a very, very strong want at its core: they want to see Godot. 

My dramaturge pointed out this problem -- the lack of clear action -- with the first scene of my recent rewrite of my play, and I am especially eager now to go back and fix it.  Because I do honestly believe that this is what makes theater compelling to watch.  After all, isn't that so much of what life is?  Don't we as people always want something, even if it is as simple as "I want to eat ice cream"?  There can be a whole little drama in that moment, one of internal conflict if you are watching your weight or lactose intolerant so perhaps ice cream isn't the best choice, or external conflict if the ice cream you want is currently being consumed by someone else who wants that ice cream as much or more than you do.  

Damn it, now I want ice cream.   But it's only 10am and I already over-indulged last night on cheese.... Will I have it?  Stay tuned to find out.
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