The Peculiar Joys of a Bad Script
Dramaturgy is a tough game to play. It's never been a particularly well-understood field in the wide world of theater and that, combined with all the belt-tightening going on these days, has made it increasingly susceptible to marginalization. Consequently, those in the game know that a dramaturg's most valuable trait is an unyielding willingness to hustle. Hustle up work, hustle up contacts, hustle up a need for a dramaturg to be present. My own particular hustle, the street corner I slang from, is called coverage. This seems like a pretty polished bunch here at HowlRound so I'll assume most of you know what coverage means and keep the exposition short. Basically, I read scripts for theater companies that can afford the luxury of paying me. For each of these scripts, I write up a little synopsis and a little evaluation and I give each a little grade. Sometimes it's on a numerical scale. Sometimes it's pass/fail. It's almost totally like the book reports you had to do in elementary school.
I started to read scripts in the fall of 2005. I don't keep exact numbers on this sort of thing because it would be crushingly depressing but I'll say that for the first year and a half, I averaged about ten scripts a month. By the spring of 2007 however, I had started to read for a few more places and so my average went up to fifteen scripts per month, which is conservatively where I've been at ever since. Doing the math, that puts the grand total of scripts I've read for coverage purposes at just over 1,000. And that's not counting the two years I spent as an intern doing roughly the same thing. Now, you might assume that this number is par for the course when it comes to dramaturgs and literary managers and those in the business of separating the script wheat from the script chaff. You would kinda be right. The difference is that I've never held a real literary manager position and so one of the joys I have yet to experience is the ability to pick and choose the scripts I read while passing the rest off to bored co-workers in the box-office, wide-eyed interns and hustlers like me.
Actually, given how despondent everyone in theater is about our future relevancy, it's kinda heartening to see how many plays are still being written by such a wide variety of people. But no one really wants to actually read them. And that's my cue.
"The rest" that I refer to is a pretty heady mix. There's work submitted by agents and work that other companies are already doing. But the true bulk of it comes from playwrights themselves, those who have somehow managed to skirt the industry-standard, no-unsolicited-submissions rule to get their work into the pile. Maybe they know the literary manager. Maybe they know a board member. Maybe they're related to a board member. Maybe they simply bothered everyone at the theater enough that they were able to weasel the slightest wisp of a solicitation out of them. These scripts come from everywhere. Actually, given how despondent everyone in theater is about our future relevancy, it's kinda heartening to see how many plays are still being written by such a wide variety of people. But no one really wants to actually read them. And that's my cue.
My sketchy research suggests that I've deemed around one in ten of the scripts given to me to be good (good in the sense that I recommended that someone else read it). Interesting sidenote: I recently discovered that for the first time, a play that I read and graded favorably is going to be produced by the theater that I read it for. So thank you Geffen Playhouse for doing Yes, Prime Minister and briefly validating my existence. Small victories aside, this still means that I have read over 900 bad or mediocre scripts. And not only have I read these 900 scripts, I've also written 900 short evaluations detailing exactly why in my opinion these particular scripts were bad or mediocre. I've devoted an unholy amount of time to the study of bad scripts. I lead a sad, sad life y'all. In order to combat this sadness, I've recently begun to imagine myself as the script-reading equivalent of a World War II grunt, a heroic foot soldier covered in blood and mud and ink from the Xerox machine, crawling out from the trenches to report to my field generals, themselves busy back in the tents, smoking on their pipes and pushing their little plastic pieces around their giant, colorful maps.
So, generals, three trends I've noticed from my spot on the front lines, amid the carnage of a thousand bad scripts:
The Law of Packaging: I made this law up. It states that the amount of secondary material that comes with a submitted script is inversely proportional to the script's quality. This isn't hard-and-fast of course. Just because a script is nothing but printer paper and a binder clip certainly doesn't mean it's going to be good and vice versa. Nevertheless, you'd be surprised how often the law holds up. It's hard to really hate too much here though. You can't really blame these writers. Most of them are at least savvy enough to know that their opus is going to inevitably land on a giant, teetering stack of similar long shots before ending up in the hands of a reader who could probably pass on everything he reads for an entire year without anyone noticing (an experiment I've dreamed of trying out). So they're going to put on the hard sell and cram their glossy folders with glowing reviews and bubbly audience testimonials and CDs and DVDs and lollipops and homemade coupons for a free hour of yard work. It's depressing to think that if they'd taken all the time they spent assembling these packets and instead used it to work on the actual script, they'd probably be better off.
Minimalist Settings For All The Wrong Reasons: Here's an example of a type of writer's note that I see in a staggering portion of the scripts I read: "This play is designed to be performed on a minimal set. Transitions should be seamless and scenes should flow together." Sometimes, the sparsis sparsityeness is appropriate for the story being told. Often, it is not. Often, it is an attempt to make the play more appealing by cutting down on the production elements, thus making it cheaper to produce. The play can be set in Caligula's throne room and apparently the writer still only needs a table, a chair, and a door. This means that writers are now actively denying their own imagination because they think it will help them get produced. This is perverse and it's leading us towards a future of bland, anemic plays.
Meanness: This is the hands-down, runaway winner of Most Popular Behavior in the scripts I read. Now, stories are built around conflict. Conflict often makes people behave poorly towards one another. I get that. But this is different. This isn't meanness as a result of conflict. This is meanness as conflict. These are plays where, when the writer has finished burrowing deep down into the meaning of his or her story, they arrive at this root conclusion: people are mean to each other. Maybe this is the result of an increasingly and inexplicably mean world. But remember that these writers are the same ones who are actively shutting down their instinct towards creating big, elaborate, beautiful worlds for us to realize and instead asking for a chair, a table and a door because they think it will help them. They are consciously designing their plays to please us. They think meanness is what we want.
There's a creepy inevitability to my job sometimes, this mechanized sense of giant factory wheels turning, the scripts churning through, everything cold and implacable. You can't then blame the playwrights for streamlining their work, outfitting it, trying to game this system. You've got to tell your story and you've got to have someone to tell it to. And while their efforts may make the work safe and simplistic and predictable and it's usually completely indicative of why it's bad in the first place, there's also urgency there and that urgency is worth something. I've learned that through 900 scripts.
One other trend I had noticed in my reading is this tendency towards Death plays. It's the hands-down, runaway winner of Most Popular Subject among bad and mediocre plays. Parents dying, kids dying, siblings dying, strangers dying, it kinda doesn't matter who is dying as long as the people left behind are left confused and unsure of what to do with themselves. Frankly, it's kind of a bummer. But the totally grueling way these plays face this subject head on, the way they are just nakedly playing it out, trying to make sense of it all, it's a little cathartic. It's that need to tell their story. They want it heard so bad in fact that they'll twist their plays in knots trying to get them seen. They'll strip them down to make them cheaper, or throw them in glittery folders to make them prettier or rough them up to make them edgier. And I'm not saying this makes them any better. It doesn't. It just makes them worthy.