Timing Is Everything

Musings on playwriting:

I am still riding high from an early performance of Wendy MacLeod’s new play, Women In Jep.  Produced through the Arden Theater’s new writer-in-residence program, Jep is a manic black comedy that’s got me thinking both about the value of this residency program and the impossible task of writing good comedy. The Arden has several interesting posts about the program on its blog, including one by MacLeod herself.  She mentions that she had never before casted a play before she’d finished writing it.  And she says that it was helpful to have the actors’ voices in her head as she continued to rewrite so that she could write to their particular strengths.  I wanted to hear more about why it would be good to write a play to the strengths of a particular set of actors.  Shouldn’t a script have more flexibility?  Why isn’t it enough for characters to be consistent in their own internal logic?  What do actors have to do with developing the world and characters of a play?

And yet!  And yet this is one of the best productions of a comedy I’ve ever seen.  Smartly directed and deliciously acted, the play uses this theater company exceedingly well.  There were a number of humdinger lines that had the audience laughing out loud for the better part of two hours, but there were a number of equally hilarious lines that were not, in fact, hilarious in themselves.  (I would love to see how this play looks on the page!)  These actors are master interpreters who wrung every possible laugh out of establishing lines seemingly designed just to advance scenes or conversations.  I don’t know how a playwright could diagram a script’s lines to achieve the perfect pacing and timing on display in this production.  How could a playwright indicate on the page the layered rhythms and pitches of multiple characters in excited conversation?

Earlier this year, I saw a production of Body Awareness at the Wilma Theater.  After the performance, the playwright, Annie Baker, was on hand to talk about the play (her first) and her other work.  She talked about the importance of rhythm (and the effect of silence and pauses) to her plays.  She indicates where pauses should occur in her scripts and notes that if the pauses are dismissed in a production then a different play altogether is being performed.  She likened her plays to a composer’s score where rests are as necessary as notes if the correct time and musical sentences are to be maintained.  This approach would seem to bring some standardization across productions, but it would also seem to regard actors and directors (and, perhaps, collaboration generally) with distrust.  Does such precise direction within a script turn a play into something that can be assembled if the instructions are carefully followed?  How do we build a better play?

I’m fascinated by both approaches to playwriting, but I still can’t understand how either leads to sustained success.  … but I’m more than happy to clock my hours in theater chairs as a willing student and researcher.


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