At the end of Stephen Sondheims Sunday in the Park With George the artist is alone on stage, staring at a blank canvas with an intensity that reveals both anguish and joy. His final words? So many possibilities.
No comparison to Sondheim or Seurat intended, but I do share the same mixed feelings of anguish and joy from my own experience of staring at the blank paper, fully aware that it's up to me to fill it.
I started writing plays during my years at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, where at first I was an actor and director, and then also in charge of the theater for young people, the Playhouse Jr. Under this banner we produced five plays a season which were mounted with a professionalism rarely seen at that time in theater for young people, offering our audiences a splendid introduction to the world of make-believe.
Published plays that met our standards and needs were limited. Childrens theater was just emerging from the Enter two daisies dancing era, and was trying to shake off its traditional overly moralistic tone. After a few seasons we had performed our way through what I felt were the best of them.
Up against the need for material to fill our heavy schedule I dared to think of myself as a possible provider. Well, I reasoned, Ive got a typewriter and a stack of paper. There was the hungry audience and the merry band of players waiting, and, very encouragingly, a producer and board of directors who understood the importance of taking the long view in creating a theater where eager audiences will fill the seats long into the future. So, why not? Why not indeed! Hard to believe that at the time I didnt realize my great good fortune, my unique situation. I was blessed that I worked in an environment that supported my mostly self-instructed education as an author of plays for children, where the exceptional ability of the company made up in our productions for the weaknesses that I had to learn to avoid as I wrote my way through my first efforts.
What did I have to learn? Lots. I enrolled in a graduate theater survey course, and discovered something more about dramatic structure, other than what I had instinctively understood, starting with the Greeks, but really seeing the light, ironically, turned on by Ibsen, not famous for his influence on authors of childrens plays. Ibsen taught me the constant that transcends catagories of theater, there is a theory of structure, which adhered to or departed from is the basis upon which plays should be built. Seurat could open himself to find new ways to build his profound canvases as long as he had a real understanding of the traditional craft of the artist and of optic and color theory. I had to learn the dramatists equivilent of that grounding in my craft.
Our troup was flexible, and readily available, which offered me the opportunity during a long run, to contemplate, as I observed audience response, changes in the script. I could write the new material, rehearse the cast and see the result at the next proformance. We all enjoyed improving the play and were reminded of the old saw A play isnt written, it's rewritten.
Exposure of my efforts to a wider audience occured through publication. The Playhouse started a publishing arm but before too long turned my scripts over to the Coach House Press in Chicago, whose catalog gave my work much wider distribution. Again I made changes in the scriptsdressing up for company, so to speak.
About this time the Playhouse years came to an end. I found myself in mid-coast Maine where I very soon helped establish an Artist in the Classroom organization, new to Maine schools then. The program gave me the opportunity to explore the use of theater techniques as teaching tools. At first I kept an imaginary procenium arch for protectionYoure there and Im here. Then, in spite of my fear of being so close to the audience in these explorations, I found myself having fun. Occasionally I used one of my own scripts as the basis for a program. We read scenes, we acted them out, we cast people as scenery, we ad-libbed our own dialogue. In effect, the audience and I co-authored our own new version of the story. I was inside the play along with my young audiences, a very good prospective for the playwright. And thats where Dramatic Publishing found me when they acquired my output. By then I had hundreds of one-on-one programs under my belt, which gave me the opportunity to use this new prospective from the inside out in rewriting those scripts and, subsequently, a string of new plays. I still today ask friends and relatives to act as sounding boards, replacing my young audiences, for a play in progress. Helps me give voice to the play and every character in it.
Through all these opportunities I learned some rules, mostly the hard way: a) When in doubt, simplify! b) Best if you know how to end your play at the beginning. Sounds awfully basic, but its surprising how many plays that hold your interest go limp at the end. c) Construct the narrative so that the play progresses logically to the final mark. Reversals, coincidences and other surprises can happen along the way in a constructive manner and lead to a satisfying conclusion. They shouldnt just be dropped into the play because they entertain on their own. Check out Ibsen. d) Make up a fairly long speech and then write different versions of it, one for each character, a good way to learn how to give a separate voice to each of them. e) Introduce your characters and show them a tree (Act I). Chase them up the tree and throw apples at them (Act II). When they have learned their lesson and promise to be good, let them come down (Act III), a process considered basic to a farce. I expect that if you knock them out of the tree with the apples and watch them wrestle over who got them up the tree in the first place, youd have slapstick. If they sneak down when you are not looking and discover the true meaning of what being treed together was all about youd be heading toward melodrama. What if they wont come down and go mad up there because no one understands them? Tragedy.
And anguish and joy all the way.