The Why of Theatre
a Playwriting Class
Lauren M. Gunderson is the Playwright-in-Residence at Marin Theater Company through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about her residency experience here, and learn about the impact of the program at large here.
I consider a large part of my National Playwright Residency Program residency at Marin Theatre Company to be the continual asking and answering of this question: Why theatre? This series of videos will be a collection of asking and answering that question in myriad ways. I will ask myself, my fellow theatre artists, social scientists, and community leaders. Sometimes the answer will be cultural (because art is good for you!), sometimes technical (because story has universal dramatic structure!), sometimes biological (because narrative is an ancient element of our human evolution!). I believe that it is the energetic and open asking and answering that keeps our art form relevant, responsive, and inspired.
In this class, I delve into the essential heart of what makes theatre so distinct and powerful as a storytelling art form: Why is theatre so different from television or filmed storytelling, how can those distinctions help us create unforgettable drama, how do we turn those limitations into strengths, and why does live storytelling still matter in the age of screens in mobility?
Video editing by Jeff Berlin.
What I want to talk to at first is a kind of generalized, super generalized structure for story. Like, what happens in a story? This can be true in smaller forms, like short plays, but mostly we're going to be talking longer plays. You can accomplish more and thus the layers are a little bit deeper, richer, more complex. We're gonna think more Shakespeare than ten-minute plays. What I want to do is kind of do it together, so we can have a shared language. We're gonna fill up this board with moments and elements of a story, and then we're gonna figure out why they're there so that we can have a reason for why, let's start with why we have one main character.
The first thing we need for a story is a protagonist. Notice that is singular. You can have group plays where there are many important characters but there is one character who starts the thing, who sustains the thing, whose actions and the risk that we're following, so I will be speaking about Romeo and Juliet soon. It is Romeo's play. Juliet is very important, however it is Romeo's play. Can't do it without Juliet. This is why she's in the title too, but the protagonist of that story is Romeo.
That's a big one, right? So, protagonist. Why we have one is because we are one person. The entire world is filtered through our brain, one brain at a time, so yes, you can learn a ton about other people. You can empathize with other people. You can know other people really well, but everything goes through your perspective, not ten other people's perspectives, so really, a play is one brain, right? So, we have one protagonist that we follow because our life is about us following us. Again, we can try to disassociate, which is actually what theatre wants us to do, is to go, "OK, I'm gonna go in somebody else's brain for a minute," but it's not somebody else's brains.
We can only do one at a time, so that's part of why when you have an ensemble, that is important, but I would say it's something like Humans, which is the most ensemble play that I've seen in a long time or something like August: Osage County. Great big, beautiful plays and everyone in that play is so important, but we're really, in August: Osage County following the oldest sister. In Humans I think we're following the dad, because he has the most to lose and he has the biggest reveal, if any of you have seen this play.
So, there's a lot at stake for a lot of people in it and everyone's wires are being crossed, but there's one central goal. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo's the first one. He's heartbroken when we meet him. Girls suck. They won't call me back. Goes to the party, right? Sees Juliet. That's when the play begins. Juliet's fine. She's just hanging out. She doesn't have any care in the world. Just hanging out at a party and then it is when he sees her, "Who's that? Somebody tell ... Who is he? I'm sorry, she's a Capulet? Shit. I'm going in anyway."
So Romeo is the one who overcomes the political bias, the family bias, charges in and it's like, "I don't care, I think you're awesome. Dance with me." Thus, all tragedy. It's all his fault, basically. Again, we spend a lot of time with Juliet on her own, too, so we've come to know her and we care and know how her journey is, specific, but still we're following that Romeo train. So, again, it seems like a lot to focus on, just like the first word of our definition, but it actually is important because often times we do think, "Well, my play is about a lot of people, actually. It's about a family more than a person." I'm sorry, no, no. One person who has that central part to it.
OK, so, a protagonist. One. One protagonist. There is a new dynamic that occurs, that happens to this protagonist. That new dynamic, Aristotle often ... There is a catalytic comment in the beginning of a play. For Romeo, the new dynamic is Juliet. Juliet shows up and he's like, "Everything is different. I can't stop thinking about her. Must go, can't stop." For Hamlet, the new dynamic is the ghost of his father, which shows up and is like, "So, I was murdered. You should do something about that."
In our stasis beforehand, that there is a thing that changes, and it's not a new person necessarily. It can be, of course, like Romeo and Juliet, but a new dynamic or something that is irreversible. It has changed the waters. The river is bending differently. There's new weather that's happening. Whatever metaphor you'd like, but it's something that is impossible to ignore for our protagonist. That new dynamic sets in motion a new goal. Again, these are important. The word "new." That's why we're writing this story right now. It has to be something ... It can't be something that Hamlet's father has to show up today, not ten years ago and Hamlet's been thinking about it for a while. That's not why ... No. I want the day that the ghost shows up. I want the day when you meet the love of your life, not the week before, or you met them 400 years ago and [inaudible 00:05:40]. That's a terrible example.
So, there's a new goal now. This dynamic prompts a new goal, so it's not just there ... Romeo's content to be like, "Oh, new dynamic. Juliet. I'm just gonna watch her from afar." No, it's a goal now. I want her. I want her to love me. I want to touch her and talk to her and kiss her and marry her, and I want all the things. So, it has to be a new goal, and again, an overwhelming goal. Something that is impossible to not sit with. Romeo has to have it. Hamlet cannot stand that somebody got away with murdering his father. He thinks he knows who did it too, and that guy happens to be the current king, God dammit. You can't sit with it. It's not enough to ignore.
So, OK, protagonist, new dynamic, new goal. All of these are, by the first 30 pages of a full length play, are easy to write because this step is easier. Just throw in, be like, "Cool, I'm gonna throw in murder and a love story and awesome, let's go." The rest of the play is what's hard to write. We get into that 30, 40 pages and you're like, "Now I don't know what to do." That writer's block is because I think we haven't thought of the end. For me, we'll talk a little bit about this. I mean, a lot more about this, next class, but a big part of my process is going ahead, once I have this, jumping to the end as far as I can think, "Where are we going? Why are we doing ... Where is this headed?"
If you're on a journey to climb a mountain, you know where the top is. You know the point is you don't want to stop in the middle. You were like, "Yeah, no, I'm going to the top. Cool." That's why you have the journey laid out for you. There may be reasons that you can't get there in the end. Various Mt. Everest-like stories. Death, mayhem, but you know where you're going, so similarly, for writers, I feel like we think we're gonna get to the end when we get to the end instead of, "No, you've got to know the end so you can get to it."
I will release you from the pressure of having a perfect ending all mapped out before you even start writing. That's not the point. It's to have an idea of where we're going, and we'll get to this in a little bit when we talk about uber-structures. What kind of play is it? You have to ask yourself, "Is this a tragedy?" Are we going Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet? Are we dying? Is my main character dying? Are his friends dying? There's various versions of tragedy, but often times it's a great loss. Either we lose our own life or even worse in some ways is losing somebody we love.
So anyway, is it that kind of play? Are we going funny? Are we going funny-happy? You could still lose people and die in comedies, but is there hope at the end? What is the point of this? You will probably have to adjust this dynamic and this goal and even the protagonist themselves to accomplish his end, so if your goal is a tragic one, I'm gonna show ... I'm gonna get my protagonist to a place where they lose everything. We wouldn't have to figure out why, because if they're like a super decent person and they lose everything, that's not a very fun story to see. That's just awful. Wait, I'm sorry, they were nice and then they die. Wait, I don't want to see that play.
If they're full of bullshit, if they're a jerk, if they think that they are entitled to everything around them and don't care about anyone and if they lose something, we go, "Yeah, see? That's what happens to jerks." There is some satisfaction in that story, and this is like middle school level psychology, but it does affect us. A couple things to note here is that the end is the most false thing about a story, and I will tell you, that's why we have them at all. Endings. Because life doesn't actually end.
If our life ends, life doesn't end. It keeps going. If a relationship ends, nope, everyone else is pretty much going. Even catastrophic planet failure, the other stars are like, "You know, I'm fine." So that is the strangest thing, and I think the actual reason we write stories at all is to explore meaning. That's what an end is. It's a meaning. It's asking ourselves, "What is the point? What did we learn? What changed? How did we get to this point?" So that at the end we can go ... Again, Primal Reign allows us, at the end of the story, to go, "OK, do I want that to happen or do I not want that to happen?" If I want that to happen, I'm gonna take note of what happened before and go, "Cool, so I will fall in love with my enemy's daughter. Excellent, that sounds like a great plan." If I want [inaudible 00:10:33] too late to save her.
If you're like, "No, that's not ... I don't think that I like that plan," then you will take note of what happened before and go, "OK, cool, so maybe stop civil war earlier. Let's try to peacefully resolve family scenarios so that we don't have a lot of young people dead at the end of a play. Cool, great." Again, the entire point of the story as we are putting it together is a lesson. That's really all it is. It's teaching us something.
Humans are, over here, brainy. Big brains. We're dexterous. We like detail. We like fine detail. We like to explore it. We are very social. The most highly social species on the planet. We are verbal and we are emotional. So all of these things, particularly with our big brains, mean that we are learning all the time. We never stop. We are constantly evaluating everything, and because we are highly social, we mainly focus on people. We want to know how are you doing, what you do? How do you get to where you are? Are you friendly or are you not friendly? How do I tell? How do I apply this, what I learned from you and you, to the next person I meet? So we are constantly, actively going about asking ourselves how to survive and how to learn. Learning helps us survive. So that's what a story is. It is a really concentrated life that we get to see from beginning to "ah-ha," end.
So that's why we pay so close attention to everything in a story and why we apply it and why we want, at the end, to go, "Yeah, OK, so what was the point? What's the takeaway?" There's a lot that you can learn in a story and the reason why we've invented this form is so we can absorb it all in a group and why we like it in a group is because we can tell if other people are learning what we're learning and if it matters to other people. It's why laughter is very helpful, and then like, "Mmm." Kind of sigh in a play, right? That's all of us going, "Well, yeah, see I thought that was important too. Exactly. Yeah, I'm gonna take that. We can talk about that later," right? Or if we're all laughing at somebody's hypocrisy, we go, "Yeah, that is stupid, right? I don't want to be like that guy," so all of these things are reinforcing how can I be a more successful human being? That's what story is telling us.
Cool. OK, so, we have a protagonist who has a new dynamic in their life that makes them attempt a new goal. This is the attempt. Attempting, trying, achieving. Hamlet is like, "I'm gonna pretend to be crazy. I'm going to do a play that reenacts what I think happened to my dad and see if anybody is miffed about it. OK, I'm going to ..." All manner of Hamlet-y things to try to figure out his goal, which is to get justice for his dad who died. He doesn't know exactly what justice means. He doesn't know if it's kill somebody. Perhaps it is just really embarrass them. Perhaps it is out them and ostracize them from the community. In the end, it's killing, which we could've guessed, but that's not the exact tool he starts out with. Avenge. Avenge of father. He says, "Cursed spite that ever I was born to set this right." Set this right. It doesn't mean stab a guy. Set it right. Cool.
So, again, that goal he tries to do in a ton of different ways. Now, the other element is that ... I should redo this. These are metaphorical dominoes because every attempt to achieve his goal knocks another domino over, causes the next version of his attempt. He's not successful until the end. If he was successful in the first domino, then the end would be here, right? It's not.
So, he's got to ... There are elements to a goal, right? It's not, again, because he doesn't say, "I'm just gonna go kill Claudius." He's got to confirm to himself, "Are ghosts real? Because I think a ghost told me this. Should I believe a ghost? I'm not sure. No, no, no, seems real. Cool. So, confirmed one, check. Did Claudius do it? Yeah, yeah, it seems like he pretty much did. Oh, I am hearing him actually confess to the crime. Definitely did it. Great. Cool. So now, I now have the proof that I'm not crazy, that Claudius is guilty. What am I gonna do?" In the end, again, after several attempts, we end up in a scenario where he is literally with sword and hand, sword and poison, two weapons of choice, face to face with Claudius.
Now, the reason why he doesn't kill him up here when Claudius confesses is because that's not good enough. That doesn't satisfy his goal, which is justice, because Claudius is confessing to God about his actions, which means, based on the religious preference at that time, Claudius is gonna go straight to heaven. Clean slate. No justice there. Dude, you go to heaven after you did all this? Hmm-mm (Negative). So Hamlet's like, "No, no, no, gotta wait, gotta wait. Oh, I want to kill him so bad. I'm gonna wait." Whatever you think about that logic, that, to Hamlet, makes great sense.
So, we go along. Now, he does kill somebody. He kills Polonius that time, just for good measure. A couple of other things happen to Hamlet. I should've just warned you that I'm gonna use Hamlet as a big metaphor. Other things are happening at this time. Dominoes don't just knock over one domino in this case, right? We knock Ophelia over. We knock Rosencrantz and Guildenstern over. There's a lot of bodies at the end of this, so mayhem is caused by this.
At the end, the goal is met in a surprising way, so the sneaky thing that we have in here is a revelation. That's the big element right before the end of a play, and again, if stories are there to teach us something, that's why we have this right before the end, because there is some secret. Something is revealed. Something is given over that makes the ending possible. So, for Hamlet, the revelation actually happens. For those of you who know the play, there's a short sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes. There's a lot of reasons that they're mad at each other but mainly it's for show and all of Denmark is there. Anyone who's anyone, because this is like the prince and a son of a duke. Two famous people fighting each other in the palace. The king's watching, the queen's there. It's like Wimbledon or something. It's like the super bowl.
So everyone's there paying attention. It is at this point that Laertes, when he is poked with the poison sword on the floor, says, "The king's to blame." So, that is a true statement from a mostly neutral party in front of everyone who matters, so suddenly Hamlet's point is proved. That's actually the climax of this play. It is a revelation of truth. Hamlet goes, "I knew it and now everyone else does." That is the satisfactory moment for our hero. Justice has actually been served at that point, I would say. Hamlet, not so much, because he's got to go [inaudible 00:18:23], but it is after, literally after, the moments later from this delivery of public truth to everyone that matters, that Hamlet takes this poisoned cup of wine and to the king says, "Follow my mother." Poison there. All right, the mother's dead too. She's dead too. A lot of people dead.
So, at that point, we are on our way to the end. It's just moments later. So all of this, again, happened. Now, part of the revelation isn't just a true thing or a secret or like "I've been having affairs" kind of secret or "you're secretly adopted" or whatever last minute thing. It is kind of a turn of where we think we might be going also, so there is a kind of story that if we want to learn a lesson, just tell us the lesson. So, earlier stories, a lot of these are Greek. A lot of the Greek plays, they have some moment of revelation at the end, but some just kind of go right in. It's like tragic when it starts. It's tragic when it ends. Tragedy happens to tragic people. That's the lesson.
In Shakespeare we have a lot more subtlety and a lot more human nature. There's more chaos. There's more winds that are tossing us around, which happens in humanity, right? There's things that we can't control, things that come in and show up and occur to us, and our brains are very complicated and we're emotional and everything. So, a revelation is also a bit of a turn from, again, where we think we're going. We think Hamlet will get to stand proudly over the dead corpse of the murderer of his father. I am no king.
No, he's dying too. So, in the end of Hamlet, we have this sea of people, but if you think about it, way earlier on in the very first moment of the play in the new dynamic that occurs to Hamlet. Hamlet says, "There is something rotten in the state of Denmark." He doesn't say "the state of me." The entire state of Denmark is rotten, but at the end, it's not anymore, because everybody's dead. It was rot. We got kings, queens, Hamlet himself.
I don't think at the beginning he would've classified himself as part of the problem. He was, and so at the end, literally a new nation is taking over because Norway is taking over the country basically, at the same time. We have this new military leader coming in to take over Denmark so it's literally not the same country anymore at the end of the play. So that's a pretty big lesson, right? The state of Denmark is rotten. We think it's just one story about Hamlet, but the big revelation, the big turn where we don't think we're going is that Hamlet's gotta die too? I mean, we should've known because all Shakespearean tragedies, if you're in the title, [inaudible 00:21:19] so just know if you find yourself in a Shakespeare play and you're in the title, watch out.
All the comedies don't have names in them. They're Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night. Not Othello. So, OK. Again, we have this switch, and even in this play that you can see on our stages, it's a beautiful version of it because we see someone fighting for something the whole play and then at the end there is ... I won't tell you, but there is kind of a gift given. This humbling release from the main character that is in many ways the opposite of what she's been fighting for the whole time, and yet it achieves her goal. It's really beautiful but it has a similar ... this twist at the end, which, to us, has a more satisfactory feel.
OK, so here this is story structure, and a ...
Ha ha, Elliot. [from the next room]
Dear Elliot. Don't interrupt my class, Elliot. So, this is in a nutshell what every story ... Even Hamlet. This is like seven words total that we have described Hamlet, so really what we see here is the skeletal structure that, much like any human skeleton, is the same everywhere you go, and even comedies have a version of this. Not so sad, but there is a revelation at the end. Perhaps this revelation is, "I was the prince the whole time. I was just disguised as a beggar," or, "I've been a girl the whole time. I've just been disguised as boy," which Shakespeare loves that.
So there's a lot of, even if you think Hamlet and Dumb and Dumber couldn't be less alike, there is a similar structure in that we have protagonists that are dealing with the thing, searching, trying to get this thing that matters deeply to them and each of these words, you can actually spend a whole class on because this dynamic has to be so earth shifting that, again, it is impossible to ignore, and his goal has to be so critically important to them that they can't imagine [inaudible 00:23:35]. If they can, we have the wrong protagonist, the wrong goal, the wrong ... Something needs to shift so that this is the most important thing and the most important moment in this person's life.
Again, thinking back to reptile brain, why would we want to spend two valuable hours doing anything but watching something that is really important? We don't want to watch people just sit around and chat. We don't want to watch people talk about what they got at the grocery store that day, right? No, no. We need something that is really critically important. Again, that's an examination of teaching how to survive. Teach me what is so important. Teach me what I love is worth dying for. Teach me why a rotten state cannot last and sometimes you've got to clear it all out to make ... No, no political references here today. Rotten state. Yeah, it's about time for a Hamlet redo, isn't it? Maybe not so obvious as that Julius Caesar [inaudible 00:24:34] or maybe Lear.
Lear, similarly, right? Oh God, Lear. Lear is just so great, right? The dynamic is so clear. The kingdom is being split up. It's got to be split up three ways. He does this stupid test and with that dumb test where his youngest and most viably decent ... Hello ... of his daughters, dear Cordelia, is the one that, because he is so proud ... God metaphors, just their symbolism is so obvious we can't even talk about Lear without referencing ...
So Lear allows us this great, this exact same dynamic. The goals are so important because this is a kingdom that he is splitting up. It's not like "Here are my gold watches that you get to enjoy." No, this is a kingdom. The future of this kingdom is here. Three daughters, right? Women, procreators. We are there. There next generation. The ones who are going to carry this kingdom forward, and none of them have children in the end and they all die. That is not subtle.
So we have this madness, this pride filled, mad king who, through the goal of trying to save and trying to invigorate and pass on his kingdom does everything wrong based on pride and selfishness and greed, which is echoed in his sisters, all the while, all the goals, all the attempts to fix it, to write it ends with this revelation where of course he dies. The biggest thing that happens is the good person dies too. Cordelia dies as well, so that, again, in a very similar way to Hamlet, has that rotten state of Denmark thing where if you have this poison at the heart of a country, even good things will die, so that's a huge lesson. That's a big, big time lesson, and again, think about Shakespeare writing this in England. One of the most fraught countries of kings taking over and [inaudible 00:26:37] and this is right in the middle of Elizabeth to King James so we're going Catholic and Protestant and back and forth and people are being hung and gutted in the streets for their religious beliefs and something is rotten in the state.
I can talk about Shakespeare all day, but all this is to say, this tiny little diagram covers so many stories across cultures at varied ... with language, with race, with time. We're talking about plays that are hundreds of years old and this is the same structure that you can see in Game of Thrones. So that's why story is so critically powerful, and when we think about it in terms of who we are as humans, this is where it started to click into me very practically how playwrights can use this to make sure that theatre does this version of story so well, so that when we walk away, you can actually use this plus some biology that we're gonna discuss to make something that is so memorable and unforgettable and emotional.
If you think about it from that perspective, old storytellers are going to go, "OK, I want to learn a lesson." Instead of stumbling on a lesson, going, "Oh, well, we'll just start a story and we'll see what it teaches you once I get to the end." No, no, no. They started with, "This is a story about how to share. This is a story about how don't be an idiot with fire." There's lots of ways that you start with the moral. You start with the end and then you figure out how to tell a story that accomplishes that.
Nowadays in modern theatre, often times we don't think of plays like that. We'll start with a character that's really interesting. We'll start with a story in my life or we're gonna start with some fantasmic something. You're gonna have to answer this question eventually and if you can't, your play probably won't have that satisfactory, like, "Oh," right? After a good play when you're like, "Whew, man, I've got to think about that one," or where you want to talk to somebody right away or sit in your chair for a little while being like, "Holy shit," right? So impactful, where you're laughing so hard. "Oh my God, that was so ... I can't wait ... Got to tell people to go see that."
All of those reactions, you can program. It's a dangerous word to say in your Silicon Valley but it is true because in some ways this is ... it is a program for us to say, "I'm gonna tell you who to care about. I'm gonna set up a high tension, high stakes ... I'm gonna make it really interesting. Everything they do," and here's why you make something interesting. Things are not disconnected or random. They are building. That's how you keep an interesting thing, right? Because if we go, "And then this other thing happened," we're like, "Well, where ... I was paying ... OK, now I have to reengage and focus on ..."
That's why too many plot stories become hard to follow and thus we lose interest. Every time you shift, you kind of go, "Ooh." The tension drops, but if you are, as Hamlet is doing, this ... Oh, now I learned that. I've got to do this. Ooh, then I made a mess. I have to go clean that up, which causes this, which this, which this, which this, which this, which leads to me standing in front of the king with that poison cup, everyone hearing that he is guilty and me saying, "Yeah, he killed [inaudible 00:30:00]," right? Whew, that's a roller coaster. If we-
PART 1 OF 5 ENDS [00:30:04]
[inaudible 00:30:00] Right, whoosh, that's a roller coaster. If we suddenly kind of go, and Shakespeare does take a few divergences because he's Shakespeare, he can do whatever wants. But if we were to suddenly go, let's go over to Verona, Italy for a while, and [inaudible 00:30:17] Hamlet and meet people we haven't met before and talk about pottery for a while, it's like what? You lost the entire thing. It goes away.
So that's what keeps our interest, is keeping stakes high, keeping tensions high. Things have to be changing, and our person has to be adapting to those changes still with their goal in mind. They're still going to the goal, but let's say they get pushed to the side for a minute.
OK, now I have to figure, to figure out how to get back on track, still going forward, OK. Now you're pushed over here, still going. That's why this goal has to be so juicy. And everything has to cause something else, right? So we don't stray far from our one protagonist's main goal.
Again there are other, and the expert storyteller that Shakespeare is allows us to investigate Gertrude's story, his mother the queen. We get a little bit of Ophelia, I wish we got more [inaudible 00:31:14], I think he could've done better there. But we need other political allies that are complicating this story. And all of it is really to make Hamlet's life harder.
Things are happening in and around him, but in the end Ophelia's grave is the one that he's standing in with poor Yorick. And Laertes is the one, Ophelia's brother Laertes, again the one who is in the battle in the end, the whole big point leading there, is Ophelia's grave. In which they both find themselves standing, that starts the battle that gets to the end.
So right, Ophelia's creating, even when she's dead, she's still influencing the action that's going on. So it all feeds back in. So again anything that is taking you too far afield is going to not serve the story for being that rollercoaster ride that we want it to be.
OKF, so story structure there. For a second, I want to go over to a little bit more science, to again reiterate and strengthen why this is the case. And give you even more of a literal, practical things to think about.
So this is a book called the Art Instinct by Denis Dutton. Amazing evolutionary biologist and a philosopher of science. And one of the things he talks about in stories that are why they are everywhere on the planet, and why they're valuable, is OK, they're low-cost, low-risk experiments.
They're literally an experiment. So what happens if we take a prince, kill his dad, but the guy who did it is now king, and married to his mother? I gotta see how that plays out. Wind it up, go.
But what it is, is not, there are experiments within the experiment too. So what if we complicate it. Let's see, I don't know what would happen if we use, within this play there is a play, right. So Shakespeare is literally experimenting within his experiment when Hamlet tells the players, so let's make a play that basically reenacts what happens to his dad so he can catch the conscience of the king. The play's thing to catch the conscience of the king.
In general, that is theatre altogether. It's trying to catch a conscience. The whole thing about it is, how do we make something that feels real. Or if it doesn't feel real it's so amazing and you can't look away, so that our consciences are caught up. And we go, "god, I've never thought about power like that, or love like that, or betrayal like that."
So again, one big enormous experiment. So for you as a writer, when you're thinking about which story is worth writing and how to tell it, what experiment are you doing? What is the goal of the experiment?
Now a good experiment, you don't have a super clear agenda. Because the experiment could prove it wrong. So you don't want to make the science, good science, you don't want to say, "I'm going to do an experiment that proves this." No, you're going to do the experiment and see what it proves.
But having a sense of what you might accomplish at the end is a little bit like having a sense of where you're going in the play. The example that I used from Hamlet since I've been deluging you with that is Shakespeare's writing Hamlet, and he's like, "cool, so I know my protagonist Hamlet. I know the dynamic, dead dad says he was murdered by current king. The goal, justice for dead dad. Lots of work. Lots of things happen, lots of soliloquies." But at the end, let's say Shakespeare says OK, I'm just going to say up here when he's thinking about the plan, "I think Hamlet's gonna get justice. Yeah, I think I'm gonna go with that. Cool."
So he can write the play knowing how do I have to set that up so that he learns the thing he's gotta learn, tests himself against the things he needs to test himself to prove that he can do this, that he can. OK, so he gets in that scenario. King, Laertes, Queen, everybody's in the same room, he's done a great job.
But in that moment, this is where the experiment can go, “I don't know what's gonna happen.” Let's see. Because you could easily see Hamlet ending again with Hamlet alive, say. But maybe that's a moment that Shakespeare goes "oh, shit. How much better would this be if he dies too? That's great. I like that."
So even if you have an idea that Hamlet is still going to get justice, yes, correct, that has not changed with whatever happens in this last moment. But what if he's like, "dammit, let's kill everybody. Then that thing I wrote earlier about the rotten state of Denmark, oh that makes so much more sense now. This is great, this is great. Let's go with that. Killing everybody."
So he didn't have to know that everyone was gonna die at the end to still have written a play about justice, and a play about finding justice. So this is where for playwrights going, "I'm sorry, I have to know the entire end of the play before I write it," that would make a lot of us freeze and go "nevermind, this is bullshit."
But what you can do again is know what your play's about. Your play's about finding justice, your play's about being known and understood for who they actually are, not for who they were pretending. Love wins in the end, whatever. Love can still win in the end and still be Romeo and Juliet. Love did win. They also died. But it kind of won.
That just allows us to know in general where we're going, like an experiment. I think we're going to prove gravity, but we'll see. Maybe. Maybe the rock will fly up. I'm not sure. But I think it's gonna go down.
All right, so that's our experiment. So, the next thing in Denis's list about why stories are so powerful is because they are vivid, memorable instruction. Instruction. OK. So these are both very important things. Vivid, meaning it's gotta be, I can't take my eyes off of it.
Right, you've been in a play where you're like "oh my god, [inaudible 00:37:01] intermission? Are we there yet?" And that's because it is not vivid. The stakes are probably too low. It's actually not usually the things you might think it would be, like that terrible word likable. "Oh, the characters just aren't really likable." That's actually not why you're bored. You're bored because there's no tension. Which means nobody's doing anything, nothing is changing, one domino is just falling flat and not hitting the next domino.
So you can write, Hamlet is not likable. King Lear is not likable. But they have their entire stories. So this idea that we need to immediately connect and empathize with a character, actually that happens at the end. You realize, “Oh shit, I feel really bad for King Lear right now.” The beginning of the play, I'm like “Fuck that guy,” But at the end, “Oh man, somebody needed to help him. He was sick! He's crazy and sick. Like, oh, come on.”
So anyway, so vivid. You can't not walk away. You can't walk away. Which will make it memorable. You see the whole thing. I will be able to tell people about Skeleton Crew that I just saw, or Glass Menagerie. Or any number of plays. Because I remember them. I can tell you about them right now. That's really good for instruction. That's wisdom being passed through generation, that's why stories were invented, in many ways. Because they are compact, vivid, memorable. I can pass them along.
So then my kid is gonna get the same lecture about Hamlet, poor thing, and then maybe he will tell his friends or kids, whatever. So that's part of it, making it so memorable. And part of what making it vivid and memorable is making it human. We're not writing bird language, we're writing humans.
So we need to write those things that are so common and important and desirable for us to understand. This is why I'm writing about death, I'm writing about love. Every play is about either death or love, basically. Death, love, and justice. Because those are the things that hit so close to almost every human.
We're gonna feel love at some point. It's probably gonna hurt us at some point. But it's also gonna give us incredible joy and meaning and reason. Cool. So go back to that. That's why we keep going back to that subject. We're not done with love.
And we're not done with death, as much as we want to be like "la la la, let's just pretend it's not happening," we can't. So for me, almost every play I've written is in some way about death. Because I since a kid have been really fascinated with it, confronted by it, wanting to approach it with dignity and confidence as much as I can. So I didn't know that's what I was writing about over and over again, but about ten years in to my career I was like, “Oh, yeah. That's what I'm doing. I'm just constantly going back, every angle I can think of, to approach this subject.”
Not every single play. But most of them. And that's fine to do. You can write a ton of plays about one single thing, and it's part of why those of you who are thinking about writing about these big subjects, death, whether it's suicide, whether it's old age. Love, feeling known, being known for yourself, not having to hide who you are. That is evergreen of interest.
And the more specific you write it, actually, this is what makes it vivid, actually makes it more universal. That's that trick of playwriting. The more specific you make this about someone I know so well, and I knew the perfume she wore, and I know the lacy things she liked, and I know this and she used to say this word instead of this word and she used to mispronounce this and she'd sing this song. Suddenly even though I don't know that person, that is every person. Because we're all so specific to ourselves.
Again, this is why that one protagonist thing, because we're borrowing the brain. So I go, “oh, I know, I have very specific things like that.” So the more specific you can give your character, the better. Usually also the funnier. So that's good.
All right, so the last thing and this is really important about our shared brain, is Denis talks about his shift in perspective. Stories allow us, as we've been saying, to jump into somebody else's brain. You can't do that otherwise. There's no way to do that, except through story. Even facts, statistics, history, doesn't do what stories do. Which is make us feels the feels of somebody.
We can learn about Napoleon, but if you saw a play that made you go, "Napoleon, come here buddy. I'm sorry." What? That is powerful. That is strange and dangerous power for a storyteller. We can make you fall in love with anyone.
Yes, exactly. Some of the most interesting plays are the ones where you're like, I did not want to like this person. And yet I'm like, “Ooh. I feel for you.” That's actually the most interesting play.
Because think about somebody like [inaudible 00:41:57]. We know the whole time he's a bad guy. He tells us at the beginning, like "I'm a bad, bad guy." And we love him for it. Every time he comes on, I'm like “Oh, tell me your terrible plans.” And part of it is because we like car wrecks. Part of us as a species, we're like, “Show me how bad it can get. I don't want to see it. I do. I don't.”
But the other thing is he's so charming, and smooth. He is this guy who gets all the things done, and he knows it, and we know it, and we still let him do it.
So all of this is because of this amazing thing that theatre has, well all storytelling has, but certainly theatre. Because it's live, which makes it all the more powerful. And it is empathy. So we get to, in some cases like in Skeleton Crew, many of us are not in that class. None of us are of that race, we don't live in that city, we don't have those jobs. But you are gonna fall in love with those people.
Not just fall in love like "Oh, I wish I could help you." You're gonna know them, you're gonna laugh with them, you're gonna be like, “Oh, that is so Shanita to say that.” And eventually at the end you're gonna know them. You're gonna feel like you spent real actual human time with them, and that is impossible to ignore for you. Your lives changed because you've spent time with these people, much like if you spend time with anybody that in real life. You had coffee with somebody, you're gonna think of that person if you come into contact with whatever subject you were discussing, or somebody else is wearing the shirt they were wearing.
It changes you. That's the entire point. As creatures who are so absorbent of new ideas, new experiences, new facts, it's all about how to survive. And because again we are highly social, all of that applies most highly valiantly to people. Other people. So again, all of this is to say, sometimes people feel like this pops the magic, a bubble about theatre.
Like “Oh, you're making it too clinical.” Literally, you're making it clinical. But it think what that does is help us illuminate. So it's not this mystery that we're like, wait for the gods to inspire me so I can write this play. No, you can show up and go, "How do I make this vivid? How do I make it human? How do I make it memorable?" The way that we make it memorable is we make it extraordinary and emotional.
If you leave a play and you're like, "Yeah. That was good. That was a story." But if you go "Oh, god, I'm heartbroken," or like, "I'm so mad," or you're like, "I've never had more fun in my life." Then, suddenly human beings when our emotions are engaged, we pay more attention. Laughter makes us go not only, again the primal brain goes, "oh, everyone's experiencing this with me."
That makes that, whatever happened, more important. Because it's important for everybody else, so cool, I should pay attention to that, that thing that we've all just said "ha ha ha ha ha." With our ha's, we've all said, "that is important to me." I agree.
So all of our things helps heighten that moment. If something gets really sad, right, we take it with us. It really impacts us. This is why we can't get too heavy with stories. Shaw, as beautiful and funny as Shaw is, if Shaw weren't funny it would useless. Because the emotions aren't there off and on. It's not like people being like, "Wait, listen to me." They're like, [inaudible 00:45:14] witty and funny and witty and funny and true. The end.
So we don't have the heart for it, we don't have this emotional center that makes us go, pay attention. Because man, I went through that emotion once, I don't want to do it again. At the end of Romeo and Juliet, when were are like, "no! If you'd gotten there earlier! No!" I don't like that feeling.
I mean, I kind of like it because I like feeling feelings. We are feeling-y feeling kind of creatures. But I don't want to live in that space. Oh god. Let's try to avoid that. That's the teaching of it. So we get to experience that, and why it feels good to watch sad stuff is because our brain goes, "Learned a lesson! Great. I'm storing that one so I feel good, and I've learned something so I can avoid the fate of King Lear and Hamlet and Othello and Romeo and Juliet." All of the great plays, right, are the sad ones. They're the big, juicy, oh god.
Arthur Miller's plays are like this, Carol Churchill's plays are mainly like "Oh!" They're more scary. I'm often more scared. Tracy Letts, August: Osage County, like these are big, big dramas are often the ones that often we like most. And there's science to tell us this. There's been anthropological, socio-biological studies that are like, we actually like sad things more.
And that is again because what is important to us is to avoid sad things for most of our life as human beings. So if we learn in a low-cost, low-risk experiment, of like, "OK, let's experiment. Show me the sad stuff so I know how to avoid it. But just make it like two hours, in and out, I can have a glass of wine, it'll be great." We go in, we learn the thing, and we can walk away being like, "Whew. Learned that. OK, definitely not going to be King Lear."
So all of this is to say that we want stakes. We want big lessons. So that's why sometimes I am less impressed with plays that are about young people breaking up. Aww. All right. That lesson, I don't go home being like, “Yes, I will never be that hipster couple drinking beer in Brooklyn and being slightly miserable together.” That's not like an enormous lesson than I'm gonna take away.
But how to watch my mother die, and tell her I love her before she does. Face that critical moment, a human moment, in that communal experience. That's one that I'm going to go, "Oh shit, yeah. I needed that. I needed to know that." And even if it's something that is really unique, there's again this play in New York that's about a very sick child, and the mother of a very sick child.
And hopefully none of us have to actually prepare for that. But there is something like it. We're gonna have something that is so hard, that is so emotionally draining that we love something so much and we can't save it. That lesson is going to be something that all of us can go, OK, brace yourself. But I'd rather know what that feels like, than to show up on my door and be like, "I'm not prepared. I don't know. Now I'm scared and confused and I don't know what to do and this is awful."
So all of those things, that's why choosing a subject that has some universality to it. Again, a lesson that a lot of people are gonna want to know. What is the obstruction that a lot of people are gonna want to know? Like how to drive. I don't know what else. How to drive, how to be healthy, how to stay safe. How do you survive these big moments.
So all of that again goes to this big point, of these stories are for a purpose. It's not just entertainment, it's not just fun and beautiful. Those things are of value, absolutely. And some plays you could mainly say do that.
But even plays, there are a lot of Trojan Horses, especially in comedies. Where you're like, "that was just delightful." But really, it's a play about people being accepted for who they. People overcoming their biases and letting someone be who they are. People are often about, let people love who they love for Christ's sake. A lot of Shakespeare is about that.
And so there's a lot of more subtle political things that, for those of us who feel like art has activism in it, which I certainly do, you can do that while making a lovely delicious airy comedy. That's part of why the form itself is so extraordinary. [inaudible 00:49:43]
12:33.OK. Let me back up for a second. First off, quick questions. I talked for a long time, a lot of Shakespeare. Anything that's on your mind, percolating, that we might throw into the mix here.
You mentioned science shows us that we like sad things. Can you give us a book or two? I want to look at that.
I will also send you this article [inaudible 00:50:12]. Some of these fun things, oh yeah yeah. I will do that in one second. So let's see. Where is that statistic? Oh god, this stuff is so fascinating. I'm just going to read some of it to you because it's just so great.
All right, so this is again practical stuff that we can apply to our stories. We are hardwired to enjoy new things. So human beings' brains are hardwired to enjoy them because we're paying attention to them. Our enjoyment is where our attention is really focused, right. Like sex. We enjoy it because of a couple things.
Super focused on it, not distracted. And we know that again primal brain is like, this is good for your survival. So we can do a check, good boxes. One, a lot of focuses, two, we know this is good. I'm doing a good thing. And all of the feels reinforce that.
A new experience has a similar burst of feeling, and it's actually with dopamine. So it's literally a drug when we're doing something new. That's why if you're dating and you're like, let's go for a hike here, and you share that experience together, you're actually doing good work of making that relationship matter more to you than if you were like, “Yeah, I'm just going to go on my regular walk to work if you want me to walk to work.” That's like your fucking walk to work. Nobody's gonna be like, “It was so magical.” But if you do something new, or if you have a stagnant relationship, do something new together, go on a world adventure or go skydiving or something, it'll heighten your dopamine and you're suddenly like, "I love life and I love you."
Theatre accomplishes that same thing, it's a new experience. When you sit down in the dark, going "OK, I don't know what's gonna happen." Even if you do know what's gonna happen, even if you know Hamlet really well and you're gonna see a new production, it triggers that part of us that goes, "OK, I'm going to pay attention. I like these things. This is new, this is exciting."
I think that dopamine falls very quickly if it its super boring, no tension, all that. So at first you have to get that to sustain through the two hours. This other study, let's see. Recent study at the University of California-Berkeley, people who experience more awe in their life, which is surprise that is especially powerful. That is a combination that is what awe actually means.
So it is surprising or startling. But moving and powerful. So Grand Canyon if you're never seen it before, holy shit that's big. Art does that too. Oh my god, that sonnet is breathtaking or this Beethoven's work or an amazing play that makes you feel this way.
People who experience awe are healthier, actually. We have chemicals of awe and surprise like the one we just talked about, dopamine, it makes us feel better. It literally says less inflammation, so there you go. Art's really good for you.
All right, let's see. Oh yeah, this is a great one about the benefit of students who attended live theatre, seeing the same story on live versus on like a movie, a [inaudible 00:53:24]. So field trips to live theatre enhance literary knowledge, like you actually can tell more about the story from seeing it alive than having read it. Tolerance, so we understand each other's perspective a little bit more, and able to more better accept that somebody would have a different opinion or state of life than you.
And empathy among students. You're able to go, "Oh yeah, I really do feel for you." That's not bad. [inaudible 00:53:49] all those things. And again, think about literally those three things combined with staying alive as an early human. Increasing your knowledge so you are able to focus more on important details in the story, that's super powerful on a very complex world where eagles are flying down to eat your children and bears are coming.
So we need to go OK, you need to tell me this quick. Focused, give me the goods. Tolerance, right. We have to understand to work with each other, or else we're literally going to die. Human beings can't survive alone. So something that promotes tolerance, that promotes an understanding, and then empathy, being able to go, "I get you." Also, I can tell if you are not empathetic to me, that is helpful information. Can I trust you, are you somebody I should run away from, or is this Iago or Othello, basically.
Again, really important, right. This is critical stuff. That's why it's so delightful onstage to see people. That's why bad guys are so much. Because we're like, absorbing all the badness. Tell me all the badness so if that guy shows up on my door, I'm like "No. Nope, not you. I've seen you before. Uh-uh." So that's why we pay so much attention [inaudible 00:54:55] so fun to play.
British people are so good at those bad guys. They're such good actors, so they can really put, and again, if we can love Iago, oh, that takes a good actor. Because he's awful. But if he's charming, knows what to say. Right, OK.
So great, useful. Like primal, like how I make it to the next day kind of stuff. That is what stories are really good at. That's why in our stories, we need to pump it up and really make those things critical, critical lessons.
OK. We like to be entertained in a crowd, this is a wonderful [inaudible 00:55:30], the Washington Post had this article called "This is Your Brain on Art", which I can send to you. It's beautiful to make things, it's everything I want in the world.
Social connection's big. Like for our species we talk about being the highest social species. So we learn together, it reinforces whatever we're learning. If we were sitting alone by ourselves and watching the play, we would take away less because it's not reinforced by everyone else, through laughter, through hms, through the after going "Oh my god, did you see, so interesting. Yeah, and she said that." So it reinforcement, reinforcement, we go, "We are learning a group thing." Which is better.
Social connection is a key function of our brains, so we actually, when we're watching, we're watching people. This goes back to the sense of we like to watch people mostly, because again, highly social. We need to know what everyone else is doing, thinking, are they succeeding, are they lying to us. So we are really keen as soon as some new person comes on stage, we're like "who are you, what's going on, what are you about, what's your thing."
Taking entrances, do not take them likely. Even a servant in the back, you're like "what's his deal, what's his deal, what's his deal." So as a writer we have to know entrances are big deals. When you introduce a person, we are absorbing a lot all at once. So that's just good, don't put an amazing monologue by somebody else with somebody else's entrance. Because then everybody's going to be like, "what are you. I didn't hear what you were saying. What's going on there." So that's important to know.
We love a story, that's what we're talking about. Basically that, their justification is a narrative conveys information from one person's brain to another's in a very effective way. Right? Program. So we just downloaded a whole lesson, a life lesson or a life, and you get to experience it.
Cool, so putting it all together, yeah, yeah, yeah. [inaudible 00:57:09] there's so much stuff in this article. I'll send it to you guys. Cool.
So yeah, the other thing about this, this is just a fun fact, a little thing I like to talk about, is rehearsal. So I quote this little bit, researchers in France have discovered that adding physical movements to mental rehearsal, like where you're like, "OK, this is my mind, get ready for this," if you add physicality, you dramatically improve your performance when you actually do a task.
Now often this is related to sports. So if your like, "I'm gonna throw. I'm gonna throw the toy javelin. I don't know. I'm going to toss something. Tossing it, tossing it, tossing." But if I'm like, "I'm gonna toss it, I'm gonna toss it. I'm gonna do the thing, let me do the thing." Suddenly when I'm actually in the moment, I can do it.
That's theatre, right. It isn't just, I'm going to listen quietly while I tell you a story. You're watching it happen. And there are these things called mirror neurons, which there's some debate about if they are really critical in terms of theatre and live interaction, but it seems that they will be. Mirror neurons were discovered and basically what they're doing is, when somebody else is doing something, the same neurons light up in us.
So that if somebody is cleaning dishes, we go "uh huh, uh huh." Like I'm doing this in my mind. Again, theatre. So if somebody is feeling the feelings, is dealing with this major emotion, is defending themselves, we are doing it ourselves. That's the whole point of how we learn from other people, why we're so addicted to human stories.
Because we're like "I'm preparing, I'm rehearsing, I'm doing this, yeah." Our brains are designed for story. Or they have evolved to coexist with story. Story reinforces what our brains already do well. And the brains take the story and make our brains better, right. So it's this beautiful cycle.
So the other thing about rehearsal is we think about how critical it is for in early human society, the first person that was like "what if we rehearse this time?" Instead of the lion just showing up, and we're like, "Shit! Get the aah! What, who's the, you do that and I'll just run away."
If somebody's like, "OK, so the next time a lion comes, I'm gonna go here, you grab here, we're gonna do this, boom boom boom, then it's gonna be taken care of." It works, right. The next time, you're like, "oh, suddenly I'm prepared and have direction."
It's not always necessary, there's a lot of animals that don't rehearse. They just have instinct. Well we have brains and time and imagination and a verbal center that allows us to go, let's practice. Again, it's all an experiment. Stories are practice, they are rehearsal for real life. Which is why we feel them so totally and so distinctly.
So again, all of this is to say that when you're coming up with your stories, when you're deciding, [inaudible 00:59:56] not working, what about it doesn't feel juicy. Why am I bored, why do I not know where I'm going ...
PART 2 OF 5 ENDS [01:00:04]
-juicy. You know, why am I bored? I may not know where I'm going. You can always go back to trying to think about it in terms of what huge lesson am I parting to? What am I asking people to play out in their own lives? What is something that is going to be so valuable as an experience and so critical to somebody's survival? Often times we're not going to think of every play as like, "This is about my survival." But there are things in it that will be. If it's about love, it is about your survival, it's about happiness, it's about comfort, meaning, connection. If it's about death, it's always about survival. How do you survive that thing physically, emotionally? How do you prepare yourself, how do you understand other people? A lot of it's about knowing who to trust.
For a second, going back to these lovely dominoes. Part of the domino is cause and effect. That's what we're watching, as primal brain animals. Cause and effect, cause and effect, cause and effect. So at the end, when we're looking at the heap of bodies on the stage after Hamlet, we can decide, "Yeah, that's maybe not how I wanna personally end up." So I will reverse that cause and effect and go, "OK, so how do I avoid that?" What caused what so that ... Now if we're in Romeo and Juliet, what caused what to go, "Maybe we can do better next time." Let's go back to that first thing, what's the real cause of that whole ... the whole play, which I will read to you from my phone.
This is literally the prologue, which tells us the entire thing. "Two households, both alive in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene." Great, that. "From ancient grudge," there's your issue, "break to new mutiny." Ancient grudge? Ancient? Ugh, are we not over this? C'mon, let's be better. "Ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From the fatal joins of these two foes a pair of star-crossed lovers," yay, love! And then, "Takes their life." Dammit! That's not good. "Whose misadventured piteous overthrows doth with their death bury their parents' strife." So, there you go, that's the cause and effect. "Doth with their death bury their parents' strife." He's telling us, this is literally the first thing you hear in Romeo and Juliet, and he's saying two young lovers, star-crossed young lovers, have to die? "To bury their parents' strife." Right, that is the cause and that is the effect.
Shakespeare is going, "How many, I'm sorry, how many young people have to die before you guys realize it's not fucking worth it to do this?" Knowing that, that's again the first thing you hear, you're gonna read the whole play, you're like, "Oh, no. Love is happening, they're gonna die. Oh, no." But, for us, because we are problem solving social creatures, we're going, "OK, how can I stop it? How can it be stopped? Maybe he doesn't go here, maybe he doesn't do this, maybe he doesn't do this." Right, that's what I'm doing, certainly when I'm watching him. You're like, "He nailed it." I can't go, "Oh, don't! Wait ... don't drink the poison! Just wait five minutes." We're trying to problem solve. We're trying to fix it, so that doesn't happen, 'cause we don't want that to happen.
All of that is saying cause and effect, cause and effect, cause and effect. The end of any play, which again, he's told us at the beginning, it's interesting from a surgical strategy, is to go, "OK..." At the end of this you should be able to say what happened. What happened and you should be able to say why. Like, "OK, the star-crossed lovers they die, why? Because of their stupid parents' grudge. It's a civil war, we don't need that, we need peace." Last line of Romeo and Juliet, let me remember it, 'cause I think it'll take me a minute to find it is, the prince comes on and says, "A glooming peace this morning with it brings," last line from Romeo and Juliet. The problem at the very beginning: ancient grudge, war, civil war, civil strife. Last line: glooming peace. The point, audibly, the point that Shakespeare's making is war is a problem, we want peace, if you don't learn that lesson early, we're gonna lose a lot of young people and that's what happens in Romeo and Juliet, all the young people are the ones that dies. Paris, Tybalt, Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet, maybe one other, I don't know; all the young people. The old guard and their fancy houses, throwing parties and being mad at each other for ancient reasons, don't die. It's the new, and how sad is that? That's the question.
So, it's beautiful. Isn't that amazing? Right from the beginning, he tells us the problem, cause, and the effect. The death of young people, until you get your shit together. It's great, it's such an indictment, it's so beautiful. It's like, "I'm gonna dump tragic, upon tragic, upon tragic to the point of peace. Peace is worth it." In some way, you can say, "Love. There's a love. Does love win? Does love survive?" The people can't survive, but their love actually does, because it changes an entire nation. They said that the death that is buried with their ... that it's buried with their kind of strife. That that strife, that ancient grudge, is buried now. Well, that's great, good. I wish they didn't have to die, but that means that the next couple of generations are gonna live in peace. That's beautiful. It's that kind of beauty that this beautiful little revelation moment at the end of the play, that's the tingles it should give us. Great theatre should be like, "Oh, I didn't want them to die, but they died for a reason." That's what's so beautiful about it and what's complex and what's human about it, because we're complex creatures.
Making a play that isn't simple, that isn't like 'bad guy' versus 'good guy', 'good guy' wins. That's like, I don't know any just 'good guys'. Frankly, maybe just 'bad guys', unless it's Marvel Comics or something. We're all, we have complexity. We have a reason for how we are. That's what's so juicy about great theatre, is we can give reasons; and good for playwrights to remember, that we can't have somebody that is one note and you can't have somebody that has no reason for what they're doing. We have to have a reason, we have to have more behind us. That's a lot of Shakespeare and a lot of science. Maybe we'll start with this when we get back. We only have a few more minutes until I wanted to break, so maybe we can take the time right now to, kind of ... digest and ask me more questions and things that we can, kind of ... [inaudible 01:06:20]
I can't remember what book I read this excerpt from, but some biologists are now saying that the human brain will remember a horrible event or a bad thing we did much longer. That's part of what all that is written about regret and remorse and ... we really have a brain wiring-
That are easily ...
'Cause they're dangerous. They're dangerous for us, for the people around ... think about it. It's-
It could be a survival-
That's like a life or death ... Those life or death experiences, even if we cause someone else's death or we cause somebody to hate us enough, that we now worry for ... there's a lot of social dynamics that go into our decision making which would be for [inaudible 01:07:16]. Yeah, that's exactly right.
I love thinking about it on a biological level, because it's easy to think about it on an aesthetic level, what's beautiful, what's great. Then a very practical level, what play will get produced or whatever. Thinking about it on this really old-school, kind of, mindset, I think elevates what we do, because it's not just entertainment. This is something ancient, it actually is critical and because things ... human characteristics and tendencies, that are present in every human society, are not there by accident. They are there because they've helped us get to the kind of species we are today. They are part of it. Languages are part of it. War, certain types of battle, are a part of it. Sexual relationships in various ways are a part of it. And art, there's a reason why we create it. It's not just like, "I just would like a blue pot. It would make my life better." Beauty does something for us, it doesn't just do something to us. It triggers, it tells us what's important, it tells us what's valuable. It tells us things like who to trust and all of the stuff that we get to see here. Music does it, too. It's such an emotional exercise. God, music is so powerful, it can turn us into an emotional state in a second. I'm so jealous of it. We have to write full plays to accomplish that, musicians are like, "G minor." Anyway, yes.
You can wake up with a song in your head and it's stuck there all day.
If you're in a bad mood, turn on a certain song and you're like ... It's so powerful though. Or if you listen to Adele, you're like, "Why, God, why? All is lost."
Any other ways that this makes you feel? I hope this is a different way to think about playwriting then you're usually taught. I think it's just like a natural sense to me, too. When you come back it up into that like, "Oh, yeah. Duh, I don't want to die. So let's look at plays to figure out how maybe not to do that."
Sometimes at the end of a play or a book or a movie or whatever, you might have a situation where you're like, "Whoa, what really happened there?" And it spurs dialogue with somebody and you can have a very different opinion of what somebody ... and so is it that it's intentional and that the end is left open? Or is there still an end, there's still a point, and yet they still ... but in terms of the action or [inaudible 01:10:01] left it? You know what I mean? I'm trying to figure out-
I mean, not every play is good. Sometimes we make meaning out of something that maybe would've been better if there was more solid structure. Plays that end with a big question mark for me, I'd rather detest. 'Cause it feels like that asks the audience, not all of them, some of them, because it feels like that's asking the audience to complete the play, instead of the playwright. Which again, we go to the theatre to go, "Tell me, you tell me, how it ends." I should offer you to do that, not to be like, "What do you think happens?" It's like, "I don't know, you tell me." But, in those cases, where we can say, OK, well if ... if he's about to kill somebody, blackout. Perhaps there is use and then there is use. In going, let's play out the rest of the experiment can be in your mind. If he does kill the person, does that mean that he's not who he says he was or maybe ... but if he doesn't, then I still want to know, what happened?
There's a a certain amount of plot that I think we do need to go, "Oh." To feel like the playwright thought it all the way out. It seems like sometimes that's fun and mysterious, often times I find that sloppy writing. That you were afraid of making a decision. You take this character all the way to the edge of something, doing something and then leave them there. Nobody's satisfied with that. If, Game of Thrones or whatever show is super popular now, if that's how the series ended, with somebody being like ... 'end'. I'd be like, "Nuh-uh, you better resolve that." I think all of us want to know what happened. In news, when some terrible shooting happens, CNN, that's why we watch it, to go, "But why did he do it? But what happened? But who's dead?" That first, you go, "What actually happened?", is critical for us. I think there's some way to dance close to the edge of the street and then there's ... it's easy to abandon your audience, which is not right.
I didn't see the play, Doubt, but I saw the film. The film's really ambiguous, at the end it seemed like. I think, I heard the playwright had said that he wanted people to come up with their own conclusion. I think I read that or-
Yeah, I think he did.
What do you think of that-?
That play, with the ... it's so beautiful. I think he did an excellent job, because everyone of us thinks he did it. People don't actually walk away from that thing like, "No, I think he's innocent." No, they don't. They absolutely do not, no. Because the world, I think it's telling us, with all the stories, all of this ... When he wrote it, we were a few decades in of priests doing bad things to young boys. I think we're going to assume. Now, the fact that we never get an answer, feels accurate to me, because frankly of how that institution scrapes so much of the history away and a lot of people got away with it.
It's so mind-boggling.
It's so mind-boggling. [crosstalk 01:13:13] I think a lot of us are gonna walk away being like, "I think he did it." Even if you're not sure, the play's called Doubt, so it is actually about doubt. Do you have enough doubt to excuse him or do you have just enough to be like, "I'm pretty sure he did it, I mean, I guess I don't know, but I'm pretty sure." You know what I mean? That's ... I think that's one of the most well known of the ones where you, kind of, leave going, "I don't have a full answer." But the truth is, we mostly do have an answer.
Right, right, right.
I was gonna say, the play that ... or the story, to me, that embodies this issue is Life of Pi. In the end, when I first saw it, I was a little upset, because I wanted to know. Was the fantasy real or not? I kept talking to people ... it's a good example, I think, of creating that sort of situation where there's some conflict and there's some doubt, there's some wonder and you just don't let it go. Because I have continued to talk to people about that for a decade. Although, at first I was disappointed and I wanted more clarity, I think in the long run, stories are so interpretive and the fact that I've been dealing with this for another decade says something. As I evolve, I really believe in the fantasy and it's really interesting to talk to people and see who they are and how they feel.
It's also interesting because in something like Life of Pi, where it is often disappointing if it ends with, "And it was all a dream." Like, "Why didn't you tell me? Why'd you make me go through that? This was totally bullshit. Wait, what?" The fact that you enjoyed that journey, if you blocked off the last little bit, where it's ambiguous if it was true or not, that's a great journey. In some ways, I'm like, "Why'd you put that at the end? Just let me enjoy the ..." Through a play, a movie, a novel, we are experiencing the fullness of it and in some ways it is real, 'cause we went through it. Whether somebody shows up and is like, "This one's a dream." No, it isn't. I was there, I saw it. In some ways, it can't not be real. If you've made an experience for all of us to go on. He kinda shoots himself in the foot if he was like, "Could be fake." I'm like, "It's in the theatre, it's all fake. But it's real, but I don't know." Moving on.
[inaudible 01:15:43] I was really moved by that story, too. What I got out of the whole purpose of that story was coping. This is how the purpose was, all of this amazing fantasy was to cope with this horrible situation.
And in that case, who cares if it's real?
The book says it very, very clearly that it was [inaudible 01:16:06] is why, the Babu symbolizes this, this symbolizes this, this is coping.
In some ways, that is beautiful. Speaking in gulps, it can be real or not real. To the end of having somebody have the book described. It's pretty beautiful.
It's so interesting, 'cause I really thought the priest in Doubt, I had a doubt that he wasn't ... I thought he did it, at least a couple times, I saw in the play, where he said, "Starting rumors is like tearing a pillow apart at the top of a building and now you have to go gather up all those feathers." To me, it was, 'cause I have too much of a nun in me, "This is how it is. [inaudible 01:16:53]," and I have to stop sometimes and say, "Well, maybe there's a little more gray areas." For the play to end with that hardcore mother superior type saying, "I have doubts," was what, to me, really opened up the whole thing of what stories of other people ... how we make decisions when we hear stories or ... anyways, that was-
What's so interesting in that play, too, is those characters are so rich and so specific and we are talking about something fundamental, which is having belief. Anybody. How do you trust anybody? Can you believe, can you trust authority figures? Especially religious ones. Wow, this is complex. That has universality to it, but with such a specific world, that's not a world that we get to hang out in very much. Even if you are a Catholic and you go, you're not on that side of things, usually. There's a bit of special, secretively inside a world you're not supposed to be in. Which makes, again, the science of new experiences, the science of surprise and awe, kicks up our dopamines, so that we're like, "Ooh, something distinct. I'm not supposed to be here, who knew?" And characters can feel that way too, somebody who's like the wildest character you've ever seen, Shakespeare has a lot of those, the clowns that come on, they make us go like, "Whoa," 'cause we don't see people like that very often. That kicks in our pay attention, laugh, bright colored something. All of that is science at work, our biology going like, "I'm designed to pay attention to that, I've evolved to take note." Similarly, with characters like that nun, who's so mean. She's got that great strictness about her and yet we learn there's a lot more under the surface that we can see, but aren't told.
Back to your ... is she the ... was the nun the protagonist in Doubt or the priest?
I think so, yeah. 'Cause at the end, it's her. She's what's changed. At the beginning ... and we'll get to this after the break, but everything is about change. Protagonist has to change, through the search everything changes, and then at the very end of the play, even the change changes. So, that we end in a place that had changed from where we started. This is, again, what makes it interesting, what makes it important, what makes it fun to watch, is the changes. Stasis is not. Stasis is not fun to watch, because frankly it's stiff. Safety for other humans, like, "Oh, good. I don't have to worry about anything for once. Awesome. I feel good, let me sleep, rest." It played out. Easy things is like watching goldfish in a tank, we're like, "Lovely, I can just close my eyes." But we kick in when we're like, "Oh, I should pay attention. This should be good."
I was thinking, I feel like you just explained my entire life. We strive to get out of the stasis.
It can be really hard to maintain stasis. There are plays about people trying to keep things OK, but really that is they're on the verge of not stasis and that's where the tension lies. In that potential energy, of like, "I'm on a cliff." We can feel that in our bones, when we watch someone going, "You're about to make a bad decision, you're on the edge of death." That's that breathlessness. Even going into the dynamic, anatomical sense of what it's like to watch a play pay attention next time you're in a play or watching ... it happens more viscerally to me in theatre, but all kinds of storylines. Even when someone's telling you a tense story. What are the things that make you go ... when you stop breathing and your heart rate gets a little ...
This happened to me just this week. I was called into jury duty. Sounds like the most boring thing ever, and it was, like seven hours. I was brought into the court room as one of the bunch of people they were picking from and they tell you the, I'm sure y'all have been there, but they tell, the defendant was there, it was an older guy, middle aged guy, and they were telling us the charges. I'll never forget this, because this is crime. Reptile brain, story-telling, like that's how I know this shit is real. He was accused of, he was arrested for robbery, which I learned I did not realize the distinction between burglary ... burglary happens when no one is there, robbery is when you take it from someone, more aggressive, didn't know that. Now I do. Was accused of robbery, of assault, which is ... battery is if you actually hit somebody, assault is if you go for it and they dunk, duck, move out of the way. It's still an attack, but it's not a physical battery. Again, things I didn't know. Then the last one was he was accused of domestic violence. When they said that, my entire body just went like ... I got, heart rate started beating, my eyes were open, I was like starting to shake.
It's amazing the feeling ... and this was like the most boring delivery of exciting information, ever, in the history or storytelling. This judge being like, "Here are the things we're talking about ... and the final charge is of domestic violence," and I was like, "mother fucker." I got so mad, I was Wonder Woman. That was really interesting for me, calculating and cataloging that sensation in me with those two words. Big words, huge, valent, electric words. That was able to do that to me in the middle of a 'crappily' lit courtroom and a terrible chair. Where I was like, "Just can't wait to get out of here." I've never felt more prickly, in that moment.
That is something that didn't actually happen on stage and you can design that reaction. Imagine if this is a normal Thanksgiving dinner play and there's people all coming in ... and some body mentions that, the character bringing in the turkey was just arrested for domestic violence or has a gun in his pocket or whatever. Big huge information, you could drop two words in the middle of your play and suddenly it's a different play. Half of the audience or more is gonna be like, "Judgment has been made about that character." This is very real information for writers like us. You can take something and the way ... I think if it was delivered in a "(singing) domestic violence", I would be like, "Oh, God." But because it was delivered in this way, "And the last thing was domestic violence," just the simplicity of it, the throwing it out there, it was a normal Tuesday and he beat up some lady. I was like, "Ahhh."
Then they said, "Excused."
I was like, "Ask me a question. Ask me one fucking question." I had stats, I was like, "Actually, domestic violence is a precursor of mass violence, and it is ..." I was ready to go, but they didn't ask me any questions. I had my intersectional feminist shirt on, [inaudible 01:25:04] they didn't want me. They took one look at my pink hair and were like, "Mm-mm." All that has to say that they are very charged words, feelings, emotions. I was ready to exact some revenge, but that's exactly why I should not be on that jury. 'Cause maybe he didn't do it. I have doubts, I have so many doubts.
Anyway, that is to say that there is a ton of material and tools that we have that, again, go into this really base level of our human interaction and our emotional capacity and that's great theatre. When we walk away feeling like it's here that we saw the play, not here, then that's good theatre working. I'm having to think about that moment a lot, just one word and the way you put it out in the world suddenly makes this enormous ... it could've been just a little ripple, it was like ... good to know. Put that in a play somewhere.
Any other question that we can think about before anything else? OK, so let me take a half hour break. There's a Whole Foods across the street, there's some yogurt and milkshakes and things around, so if you want anything.
What I'd like you to think about on our 30 minute break, is to come back in and talk about whatever story is in your mind right now. If you haven't written it yet, you can just start. This is time for you to start to try to articulate maybe one version of how you can tell this story, using what we've just talked about. Very basic thing and the way you can talk about it, this is useless to actually make a conversation around, is who is your main character, who's your protagonist, and it's totally fine if you're like, "I don't know if it's this person or this person." We can perhaps help with some interrogation to figure that out. So, who's your protagonist, new dynamic, what is that new dynamic? What happens to and what is their goal? And then I'm gonna actually make you tell us what happens in the end. Part of this will be ... who's your protagonist and let's add, tell us about settings, is it 1920's, now, is it 400 years ago, whatever. And, if there's anybody else of importance in the story that you think should be ... the importance of the setting, character, I'm not making this any easier writing like this.
You can just start to list this and in general, what is very helpful, is eventually when you're writing a story, to be able to in a few sentences, tell what your story's about, it's really hard. I say that it gets really easy and it is never easy. The more you've written your play, the harder it is to sum it up. 'Cause I'm like, "I wrote the damn thing, it's one hundred pages, that's what it's about. It's about every sentence." But everyone, including the marketing people at the [inaudible 01:28:04], require that and it is a great test and a challenge for our writers, such as ourselves, to do that. Even in early ideas, the more I talk about my play, casually, with my husband, the more it clarifies for me when I go back to writing it. I'm like, "Yeah, I keep saying that it's about justice. Why don't I just write about justice." If I think about writing it, then it's about all these other things, then every time I talk about it the first thing I say is, "Well, she's in love with this guy. Oh, it's a love story, OK." So, the more we can talk about it sometimes, it actually helps with the writing, when we're talking casually.
We'll talk about protagonist, setting, any other main characters, what has just shifted, and then the main character's place, if you know that yet. What their goal is, if you know that. Again, you can like, "I think it's kinda, maybe this," and sometimes the reaction is, "Yeah, that sounds really passive. That doesn't sound like a goal, that sounds like a landscape." If that can help you, maybe try to up the stakes. If you can all share something about the story that you're writing, we can start to practically apply some of these science-y things to it. We'll also talk about what art does, which is really helpful as well. Which I'll give you that paper when we get back. So, take half an hour.
This is from a book called Art as Therapy, it is by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. It's a beautiful book, mainly about visual art, it has reproductions of gorgeous paintings, all different kinds, all across the history of art. Its entire purpose is, like our thesis today, there's a point to art. It's not just pretty, it's not just decoration, it's doing something for us. This was their list, which when I came across it, I just ... I love it so much. I use it all the time, to kind of, again, this is a little bit more of an aesthetic-
PART 3 OF 5 ENDS [01:30:04]
... all the time to kind of ... Again, this is a little bit more of an aesthetic, philosophical understanding of art, or this is a more primal, biological ... But for me, it opened up a couple of different avenues to ask myself why I'm writing at all, which helps me answer the question what to write, how to write it, how do I know when it's done, what is the point of it. All of that kind of started or can start a conversation for me, is looking at this.
It actually starts on this page that says, "What is the point of art?" These are failures of human beings or things that are challenging to us that on the other page are correct or art allows us to remedy.
The first one is we forget what matters. We can't hold onto important but slippery experiences. This is everything from really impactful thing happens to us, and we black out. We can't recall it. It's too much. It's too sensitive. It's too hard. It's too beautiful. We can't even describe how beautiful it is, so we therefore fail to remember it accurately. All of those reasons that we forget big and small things.
Art is a corrective of bad memory, just not memory, but a corrective of bad memory. Art makes things memorable and renewable. These [inaudible 01:31:23] of experience, it makes them memorable and renewable. It's a mechanism to keep precious things and to keep our best insights in good condition and makes them publicly accessible. That's awesome. We can collect our important things that teach us how not to die in Denmark and beautiful things, how to love, what it feels ... that first rush of love ... that feels like. What it is to be a hero, to stand up for somebody and do the right thing. We celebrate those things in great plays and great [inaudible 01:32:00].
OK. Number two. We have a proclivity to lose hope. Isn't that interesting? I think that's interesting. We are oversensitive to the bad sides of existence.
That's what your detail's saying. We really retain how hard something was, and it's hard to remember the joys of things.
Art is purveyor of hope. I totally believe that. I really do think that even in the hardest plays, we're learning how to hope because even if all this happens to Hamlet or King Lear or Romeo and Juliet ... again, Romeo and Juliet, the last line is, "It's over now. A glooming peace." It's gloomy, but it is a peace, and that is progress. There is hope from this. Even if it just goes all to shit like Hamlet, in the audience, we are going, "Now that I've seen that, we can avoid it. We can try our damnedest." There is hope in that. We are learning. There is hope in learning. That's why I love that. [inaudible 01:32:56].
OK. Number three. We incline towards feelings in isolation and persecution because we have an unrealistic sense of how much difficulty is normal. Isn't that fascinating? Such an interesting way to think about it. We think everything's super hard because it's happening to us. We feel isolated like, "Oh my god, I'm the only woman who's ever had a two-month-old baby, and it's up at 3:00 AM." That's the only woman on the planet who's dealing with this. "Poor me. Help me, Facebook."
That's the light version, but [inaudible 01:33:29] every breakup, every death, it is so powerful to each of us. It can make us feel like we're the only one in the world that ever been through this. What does art do? Art's like, "Yep, I gotcha. Not only has this happened before, it's happening right now and will happen in the future. Come feel." At minimum, you will feel like you're not alone, which is number three. Art is a source of dignified sorrow. Wow, right? Art reminds us of the legitimate place of sorrow in a good life, so we panic less about things as they're happening to us. Isn't that beautiful? This makes me so happy. I love it.
Good people, bad things can happen to good people. It is how you recover. What is resilience? What is hope out of those bad things? That's the greatest lesson because there's a lot of things, chaos and stuff, that we can't control, but how you recover, how you have that dignified sorrow so that not all is lost and the only thing to do is to die yourself. No. There is reason to get up in the morning. [inaudible 01:34:35] didn't know you [inaudible 01:34:36].
Four. We are unbalanced and lose sight of our best sides. We aren't just one person. We are made up of multiple selves, and we recognize that some of those selves are better than others. All right. Then the four here, a balancing agent. Art [inaudible 01:34:51] with unusual clarity the essence of our good qualities and holds them up for us to see. That took me a minute to kind of sit back and get that. There's a part of me that's super selfish. There's a part of me that is a jerk. There's a part of me that is quite noble and generous. This can all happen in like 60 seconds in interaction with my three-year-old. I can be all of those things if [inaudible 01:35:17] his mood to mine.
What art does, and even in something like Lear where there's a lot of bad things happening to bad people, it still holds up Cordelia. We all know who should be running that damn country. It's Cordelia, who is generous and understanding and [inaudible 01:35:33] and honest. It's like, "I know this is not what you want to hear, but it's the truth. I love you as much as I'm supposed to. That's good, right?" Well, it's not good enough for King Lear, who's selfish and prideful.
We, even if see that Cordelia dies in the end, part of our reptile brain can be like, "OK, so don't be like Cordelia because I don't want to die." No. She's the reason why there is any hope at all for humanity is that in this sea of tragedy, even though she dies, we learn, "Yeah. I knew all along. Trust her. She's the one."
Go to France. Don't come back.
Go to France. That's the message.
Don't come back.
Indeed. Just don't come back. Don't do it. That's the message. That would be great, like what are the really odd lessons of all of Shakespeare's plays. Yeah. Stay away from Verona.
I love this, this [inaudible 01:36:21]. OK. So where were we? Balancing ... Oh yeah. Number four. Balancing agent. Yeah. It tells us. We know. [inaudible 01:36:28] doubt. We know. OK. I feel something weird about that priest. I know I've not been told exactly. There's the nobility of that nun to take that boy's claim seriously and to doubt herself and her faith. That's part of what it's about. She's supposed to believe her superiors, her priest above her and the archpriest above that. But that's what she's doing, is going, "There's nobility in saying, 'I need to doubt this.' I have to."
Anyway. All of these plays, there's things that we hold up, those moments of generosity, of sacrifice. Those are the ones that we're treasuring. That's part of what [inaudible 01:37:05].
Five. We are hard to get to know. We are mysterious even to ourselves, and therefore no good at explaining who we are to others. I think that's great. Art is a guide to self-knowledge. Art can help us identify what is central to ourselves, like what's really important. If we're watching a play, we're going, "You can't lie to people," it helps us go, "Yeah, man, that does make me mad." Like when I was sitting in that courtroom and I heard "domestic violence," I was ready to battle. That was a very clear, visceral, heartbeat-based level indicator for me that that really matters. That really matters to me, which is how I'll know what organizations to donate to now very clearly. Donate more to those because that was very really interesting thing.
Guide to self-knowledge. Much that is human is not readily available in language. We hold up art objects and experiences like this, emotional experiences, and say confusedly but importantly, "This is me." There's so many times, even with plays, that seem to not be about anyone like you or yourself that you walk away going, "Yeah, there's a little Hamlet in me." Yeah. Like, "I've totally been Juliet. God. I love that guy."
There's a lot of those things that seem very distant from us, or something like Skeleton Crew, which does not seem to relate to a lot of us here in [inaudible 01:38:26] in the center of Bay Area, California, privilege that it is. Seeing that play, we're going to go, "Yeah, that was my mom. I know that woman," or, "Yeah, I would do that, or I would hope to do that," that there's engagement in it and opening up to who we are.
OK. Six. We reject many experiences, people, places, and eras that have something important to offer us because they come in a wrong wrapping. Isn't that great? Six is a guide to the extension of experience. Art is an immensely sophisticated accumulation of the experience of others. That is the entire point.
Again, this whole ... we have a [inaudible 01:39:00] protagonist because we need to share the brain. I will take my brain out for a minute. Put on Hamlet's brain. Cool. Tell me what it's like in your brain, Hamlet. That is an amazing experience, and it is a transformative one. It continues our learning process so that when we come across, again, primal people, come across somebody, we can say, "I recognize in the way that you care for your little kid that I think I can trust you, or at least we can talk about kids. Cool. That's a place where we can start even if we appear like we might be enemies or we have nothing to talk about, based on these little social clues, how you talk about this, how I share this, how we whatever."
That's the kind of primal experience, but the kind of joy of art is feeling like you walk away with new friends or new family. You walk away going, "I know those people now. I feel the people." Certainly, politically now, this is an article I wrote just a little while ago in the San Francisco Chronicle talking about the difference of social media vs theatre, how they work differently. Social media just truncates everything and makes it so hot and short that we can't connect. We think we're connecting, but we're just shouting into the [inaudible 01:40:06], where theatre actually goes, "You want to talk about politics? You want to talk about class in America? Go see Skeleton Crew right now. See this play now, and you will have a way better understanding than anything you're going to watch on Fox News or on CNN or on following some crazy person's Twitter or whatever." Because that is so empathetic. You learn so much about what those lived experiences are like that you can't. In that way, I would define theatre as the true social media because it is actually social and we're actually together, not just shouting.
Anyway. Yeah, so [inaudible 01:40:40]. The last one is: We are desensitized by familiarity and live in a commercially dominated world that highlights glamor. Hence we often end up dissatisfied that life is humdrum, that we are gnawed by the worry that life is elsewhere. I think that is a bit of a privileged point of view that we can be like, "I'm bored."
But it does. Art does allow us to have a radiant rollercoaster emotional experience in a safe two and a half hours with a break in the middle to buy a cookie. In that way, he says that is a re-sensitization tool. Art peels away our shell and saves us from our spoiled, habitual disregard of what is around us. We get really selfish. We focus on work. I gotta go to work, and I gotta get the kids, and I gotta do this. I don't have enough time for anybody else.
Art says, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. Just sit down for like an hour or two. It's OK." Then you feel the feels. You can fall in love again, and you can get mad and justice and rage and all the things that theatre can give you. It re-sensitizes you to those things that going, "Wow, if I just listened to NPR all the way home, I probably wouldn't have felt this new sense of purpose or understanding or reason or energy."
That certainly is what happens to me when I go to de Young or when I go to MOMA or when I come see [inaudible 01:42:03]. One or all of these happens to me. I think it's a great thing. I think about it sometimes when I'm in a bit of a hole with the play. I'm like, "I think it works, but I just don't feel much." I kind of go back to here, and I kind of go, "What are these people telling me about me? What are these characters telling about me?" What is the dignified sorrow of the play or the hardship that I can come up right next to and instead of looking at it like, "Oh no, train wreck." I can look at and see, "Well, what is the dignity? How is that person being resilient? How are they being empowered out of something hard, even if it's not easy for them?"
It may take the whole play for them to find dignity in their own sorrow, but that is part of it. It's corrective of bad memory, makings things ... like again, going back to ... Well, it's under here now ... but what was vivid and memorable in Daniel Dennett's purpose of a story. What is vivid? Vivid means memorable, so if there is a corrective of a bad memory, we need to make something that's so powerful that people will walk away feeling shaken by it. [inaudible 01:43:02] all this for you to think about. [inaudible 01:43:07].
We're going to get to your stories for a second, but I wanted to do one more douse of science for you about structure, about story structure. This is a study that came out I think a year or so ago. I find it so fascinating. What they did was they took certain words, emotional language, in about 1500 pieces of fiction including plays and fairy tales and [inaudible 01:43:34]. They ran them through this very sophisticated computer program. They came up with six graphs. These are the emotional trajectories of over a thousand stories, the stories that are big, like Shakespeare's in here, and like Cinderella, the big, iconic stories.
Now what this is ... This will be different than this. This will be the tension, the structural and dramatic structure of a study, which some of you who had my classes before will recognize this. But this is emotional. This is the emotional valance of a story, meaning: Where do we start emotionally? It can be just happy, sad. Where do we go?
They came up with six really distinct patterns. There were not many outliers. Really complex stories like Hamlet and Harry Potter and Star Wars and all that stuff can fit in here too. It may not seem that this is Hamlet. It actually is. It seems a little too simple. There are moments, like if we zoomed in on this little section, we would see of course the spikes of, "Well, I'm really glad that I punched that guy in the face, but now I'm sad because I'm scared he's going to punch me back." That could be five seconds of emotional rollercoaster. But overall, this is what we're doing.
Again, what I take from this is my stories are going to fall in one of these. I can either know that and decide, or just end up in one of them. I think looking how this, looking the simplicity of these emotional arcs can actually help me answer some of these questions so that I control the ending. I don't just end up there, but that I get to say, "No. I actually want to write this way. I want to write this one. I want to write that one." To know that if things aren't going as ... You're running out of ideas. Maybe you're writing this one, but you actually want to be writing this one. There's a way to own it, so let's talk about that for a little bit.
This is ... High is happy, low is sad. You probably [inaudible 01:45:34]. This one is the rags to riches story. It's just everything is terrible, and then yay, I'm the Prince of England. You might know that this one certainly is not that satisfying, remembering that we like sad things. This is too easy. Everyone's like, "Where do I sign up for that?" What? Come on. That's too easy. What happened? You just won the lottery, which is kind of like, "Cool!" But it doesn't have this juicy, unctuous satisfaction to it.
Bless you. Tragedy can, even though it's just the reverse. Romeo and Juliet, all of those tragedies ... What this is is we start off ... King Lear is king. He's in charge. He's got all the things. Slowly, one thing pisses him off, then the other thing. Then his daughters are in control. Then they kick him out. Then he's crazy on the heath in the big storm, and he has [inaudible 01:46:26]. Then he's this and that. Then he's dead, and he killed his daughter too. Well, shit. That's awful. We really don't have too many peaks there.
Hamlet has a little bit. There are some moments of triumph when he ... I think there is satisfaction when he finds out that Claudius ... when he's listening to Claudius confess to the crime that he knew he did but couldn't prove it. There is satisfaction to that, but it's not happiness. It's kind of like motivation, which can feel close to it, but that's a little bit different.
Anyway. There's a lot going on here, but this is where we start with like ... Hamlet's the prince. It's not great. He's not the happiest guy, but he is the prince. He gets anything he wants. It's fine. His would probably start a little bit more like here, and it just tanks. That's something to think about.
This is the [inaudible 01:47:18] in the whole story where we're like, "We're doing fine." Then like, "Oh my god. Everything is awful." But then you find a way not just to get back to where you were but to even achieve more. This is where you're a normal person. Oh, you get sent to war. Oh, shit. It's awful. All of your friends are dying. Everything is terrible. Oh my god. But you finally make a way back. Then you're elected president or something. I don't know. So you get-
Yeah. Yeah. Something like that. Yeah. You have ... This teaches what you need to get even more than you had before.
Cinderella story. The worst of the worst [inaudible 01:47:58], so we're starting opposite now. [inaudible 01:48:00] really bad news. Then we get to the ball, and everything's freaking awesome. But then, oh dammit, we have to run away. She thinks that nobody likes her, but she knows that the guy, the prince, liked her. She can't tell anybody. No one's going to believe her, and her sisters are mean to her. Then oh my god, the prince finds her, and yay. Great.
Yeah. OK. Now Icarus, he's like most ... He's not super happy, but he's fine. Then oh my god, this is the best news ever. Super [inaudible 01:48:31] bummer. Yeah, bad news.
Then Oedipus is an interesting one. Similarly, we're starting to good news for the king, and then really bad news. We're going to learn that we have this fate, but we try to outsmart the fate. We think we've done it, but then not so much. You are bad and gross, and everyone hates you, and you're dead. Bad news.
So again, this seems super simplistic. I kind of get a little nervous by this because it makes me go like, "I don't know which one I am. I don't know." I just think recognizing the trend in how our stories are told, the emotional curve of most stories, I think that's empowering because we get to look at this and try to decide. Mainly, we decide where we're going to end up. Again, it's all about figuring out. Are you teaching by the party at the end? Look what happens. If peace is accomplished, and everybody is honest, and all the good things, we get a party at the end. This is a Shakespeare romance or comedy. Big marriage, big party, big song. Hey, nonny nonny.
Then at the end of tragedies, of course we're teaching by like, "Look how bad it can get. If you don't be nice and listen to Cordelia, you're going to be [inaudible 01:49:53]." Again, this is super simplistic, but I think that there is some interesting math-iness to it. If we're looking at where we want to end, there's basically two options. If you're going to end high, you gotta start low. If you're going to end low, you gotta start high.
Now, this has the complication. Again, nothing ends where it starts. Everything is different, so there is change. Now, in all of the ones that have a dip or a hump in the middle, we learn something through this middle chunk. We have to go really low before we can get even higher. This is the thing in your play. If your play is a straight line, boring. That's again when we talked about stasis. Stasis is not interesting. It puts us to sleep because it should because thank god, you don't have to worry about anything. As like [inaudible 01:50:49] on the plains in savanna, just sleep. Everything's good. Get rest.
But if there's something important happening, if change is happening, we have to survey it and pay attention, so that's what this is all about. It's about change, which is what I was going to write here [inaudible 01:51:04] change, change, change. That's what plot is. Plot is change. Somebody asked me ... I solicited some questions online, and one person was asking tension, dramatic tension. That's all it is. It's things changing and people having to adapt in an instant to what's going on.
You as the writer have to change things. You have to keep throwing things at your protagonist, watching them duck and falling for their lives. Not to be hard, because we get them in where we want them. Now we're [inaudible 01:51:38] them. We need to figure out the small changes that can lead to this big change. That's why looking at some patterns like this, it can go, "OK, so I know that we're going to end here. We have to go through something. What is this? What is this moment?" Because basically, dramatic tension-wise, for a moment, we'll switch over to something different.
That's emotional language. This is basically how happy, sad people are. This is dramatic stakes. Aristotle talks about this. He didn't draw this. This was some other dude. I can't remember. A lot of dramatic structure looks like this. Stasis at the beginning. Before the play begins or as it begins, we are in some sort of stasis. This is where Hamlet is when he's just kind of being bored in the castle. This is the critical moment we talked a little bit about here, the new dynamic. This is the catalyst of the play. This is the new dynamic being when Hamlet's ghost dad shows up and is like, "Been murdered." This is when Juliet is met, and we see the stasis is now broken because there is a goal. For Hamlet, justice. For Romeo, love. They both work.
The reason why it's shaped like a triangle is because you try the low-hanging fruit first. If you're in love, just go up and you're like, "Hi. Want to dance?" That's not a super big ask. [inaudible 01:53:01] takes a lot to approach somebody, but he doesn't know that she's Capulet. He doesn't know how hard this is going to be, so he tries the easy stuff first.
Hamlet tries the easy stuff first too, being like, "OK. Let me just make sure that the ghost whole thing ... Did I actually see that?" That's a pretty easy thing to ask yourself. "Am I crazy?" That's not an easy thing, but, "Did I see ... I think I saw it. Horatio, did you see that? You saw it too. OK. Great, so I'm not totally cray, just a little crazy. Cool."
Again. What this is is as the tension rises and the stakes rise, this is that critical moment of climax in a play. This is what we're building to. This is that moment of revelation where all this has been leading to, this moment of revelation, the meaning of the play, the big action that defines everything.
The difference of course between emotion ... This has nothing to do with emotion. You can be really sad or really happy at this moment of crisis, but things have to escalate in your story. This is why, that whole plot change thing. We are wired to go, if things start to ease up for your character, we're like, "Oh, good, so they're fine. OK, don't have to pay attention anymore." Our lizard brain goes, "I'm just paying attention for the exciting things."
I'm here for the lesson. I'm here to be taught something important. That's why you have to keep elevating and making it harder. They have to do bigger, riskier things to accomplish the goal or give up. Of course, your main character is not going to give up because then the play would be over. You should write another play. Your character has to go all the way to this [inaudible 01:54:37] point. This [inaudible 01:54:37] point is the moment that you really can't turn back from.
All of these other moments for, say, Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, you can turn back from. You can kind of go, "Well, I heard Claudius confess. Ah, fuck it. I give up." Right. Now he kills Polonius. That's a big moment. You can't turn back from that, but that's not actually the goal that he was after from the beginning. You should probably pay for killing that guy, but it doesn't have anything to do with justice for your dad's death. Or it kind of does, but not directly.
Anyway. All of these other things can be [inaudible 01:55:13], can be the turning-back moments. It's this one when Romeo and Juliet, they could die. That's the moment they're deciding, "Am I going to kill myself? Which I have this poison. I have this dagger. Yeah. Yeah, I'm going to do it. OK. Here I go. One, two, three. This is thy sheath."
That's the thing again, finding that moment. This is the hardest thing about playwriting is what is this moment. What are you leading your characters to that will test them so thoroughly, test them so critically, so fundamentally, and oftentimes in opposition to where they've been the entire time? For Romeo and Juliet, the whole point is, "Life, love, life, love, yay." Here they are choosing death, death and love instead of life and love, which is the big shift for them and is the most critical one. "I would rather die than not be able to be with you." A lot of things have to be made true for them, which is your job as the playwright to make them critical, to make them immediate, and to make them that important so that they can't turn back. There is one action that will define them.
Hamlet, in a psychological way, Hamlet at the beginning, the whole "to be or not to be" thing, well this is Hamlet wrestling with, "Can I kill somebody? Can I do that? I don't know if I can. To be or not to be, OK. That seems to be the option. OK. But am I a killer?"
To back even further in the [inaudible 01:56:48] brain, "Am I the part of the rotten State of Denmark? Am I what's making it rotten? Am I a part of that? Oh shit, I am. At the end, yes. Yes, I am. I am." Because he is the person that he murders. He kills Polonius, but that's like a pass for some reason. But Claudius, he defines himself, or because he doesn't know that Polonius is there, so it's kind of an accident. I mean, he definitely shoves his sword into a tapestry thinking it's a rat. I don't think he thinks it's a rat, but anyway.
It's not quite like, "I'm looking at you in the eyes as I'm killing you," which is what he does with Claudius at the end, which makes him a bad guy. He's a murderer. Regicide. Straight-up murderer. Yes, he deserved it by some measure. You are a murderer, thus you are what is rotten in the State of Denmark. Thus the end where we've now de-rottened the State of Denmark by the end of the play.
Anyway. That's that critical moment where he has to decide even though he doesn't have to kill the king. The king's already been outed. He's going to get dethroned. He's going to make all of these people now realize that Claudius is to blame for all of this. Hamlet could have stopped at that point. But that is the moment the playwright gives him to go, "Can you kill him or not? Can you kill him or not? Can you kill him or not? This moment, this is it. Come on. If he walks away [inaudible 01:58:02], you're not going to get this moment again." He's like, "Yeah, follow my mother. Boom." Right? Chills. So good.
Finding that moment that you're driving the play to, that's the real work. Once you know that moment or once you have an idea ... my story, they have to be tested against something that is so hard and so perhaps even antithetical to what they believe or who they think they are. That's the biggest lesson. That's when we define ourselves. Aristotle says that of course it is not the things we say but the things we do that define us. That's what that moment is. Right? There's a lot of talking in this play, but the climax is when Hamlet does it. That's what defines him because no amount of talking can undo a murder. You can apologize when you say bad things and change your mind, but undoing a thing is very hard.
All this is to say these emotional peaks and valleys are brought about by characters going after something that is so valuable to them that they are willing to continue to change, to iterate, to ski and go down the mountain. I don't know the right Olympic-y term. I'm not sportsy. I shouldn't go into sports metaphors. The swerving you have to do to adapt to a scenario ... Again, if it's easy for them to walk away, it doesn't actually matter that much, then you're writing the wrong play. It has to be something that is critical to their self, to their society, to their beliefs, [inaudible 01:59:38]. All of that, this applies about the change. That's why, again, the metaphor of the dominoes is a really good one. It's in this book by David Ball called Backwards and Forwards, which if you haven't read that, it's amazing.
David Ball, like basketball.
It's a book about directing and dramaturgy really, but it's so great for writers too because it describes ... You'll get all the Hamlet you can eat. But describing how a play works-
PART 4 OF 5 ENDS [02:00:04]
Describing how a play works, like very specifically, logistically how it works and use that metaphor of dominoes all over. That even one single word can be a domino that leads to the next word. One sentence makes the next sentence happen. If they're not connected, it's not active. Think about how fun it is to watch those dominoes go, right? It's actually a great metaphor because it's super fun, you can't stop watching. You're like, "It's still going, things are falling." My three year old loves that kind of stuff. I'm kind of a three year old when watching a play and going, "Oh my God. That's causing, that's causing, and that made her say this, made her reveal that, and now this is happening. Oh my God it's all the dominoes." That's the feeling that is addictive to human beings. That's why we have a story, it works like that.
If your story isn't working like that, if there are these lulls, and you think that monologue is so beautiful and true but your audience does not, your audience is like, that's a big bad domino that fell smack on the ground and didn't do anything, cut it. Get it out. Not worth it. The one thing we can not do as storytellers is bore. You can do almost anything else. You can shock. You can confuse for a time, if you eventually ... sometimes you can confuse the whole thing, there's a lot it where I'm like, "I don't know. I don't get it." But, I'm still fascinated because there's author stakes. There's strange stakes to a great kind of play. Anyways, that's one thing you can not do.
So oftentimes, what makes us fiddle with our watches and our programs and move in our seats and feel like, "get me out of this play" is because the plot isn't happening, the tension isn't there, things aren't changing. Nothing is moving. Again, people think it's because we don't care about the characters or we don't care what's going on. It's usually because there's nothing going on. If anything happened, we would start to care, because it's human beings again, when something happens and it's new, we go, paying attention. Even for a second. We have to sustain that attention and good artist, but people pay attention. Have something new happen, even if it's a game of who's on the phone during a call? Who is it? Something changes. Somebody walks in, who is it? Open a present, what's inside? All of those games, writing exercises can often actually work in a play to make something new happen, to disrupt an argument.
The other thing that oftentimes people do, especially in ten-minute plays with teenagers, is the constant argument play where we think it's dramatic because they're disagreeing for ten entire pages of people just fighting and no one changes their mind. That is a terrible play because nothing changes. We agree to disagree. Why did I write that? That's terrible. Unless somebody goes, "Shit, you're right." Now suddenly I'm like, ooh drama. What does that mean? What else are they writing? Now you're changing in front of me. I am watching somebody change their mind. That's a fascinating thing to see on stage if you watch somebody struggle, even it's completely silent. Some of the best moments in theatre are when there's no words. It's just somebody going "Oh no, oh God, oh God, oh God, I'm gonna go." That actually was deeply dramatic, that little freak out, right there, because somethings going on and you can tell, something is changing in my mind. I'm having a little mini-battle, do I leave? Do I stay? Do I leave do I stay? Do I say this? Do I not? Do I have to say it?
This is why the lead up to the kiss, in a great love story, is way better than the actual kiss. The kiss is over, right? Once you actually have the kiss, you're like "Ooohkay." Right? But the lead up is like "Oh my God, oh my God, is it really happening?" That's always, add a love story, that's magically carbonated. It's true because we're waiting for a thing, we know something's gonna change, cause it's just different when you kiss somebody on the lips before and after that happens, things are just different right? We all know that
It's the same with like a punch in the face, just things are gonna be different between you two, after you get smacked in the nose by somebody. Once it happens we're kind of ... you need the next thing to look forward to, that's the domino fell now. So now I'm watching the next domino, I'm not watching that one anymore. I'm like "And now what?" That's where the craft is, and that's why having the thin idea of a play, isn't the actual craft of making every single moment add up.
It's easy to talk about Hamlet like this, Hamlet's the protagonist, ghost dad shows up, gotta get justice for ghost dad, gets justice for ghost dad, done. Alright, but every little thing right? Those moments when we see Hamlet like "I'm gonna play this entire country, I'm gonna use my wiles for this, I'm gonna play this game, I'm gonna use this tactic, I'm gonna try this." The "To Be or Not To Be" that's a gorgeous speech, because he's actively thinking it through, he's not just like "Here's what I've decided and I will share this with you."
No, he's like "I'm actually actively in front of you weighing these things, help me decide, I can't tell. To be or not? I don't ... What do you think?" That's kind of what he's asking, "I'm actually dealing with this right now." That's when Shakespeare sucks, is when it's just like here is my beautiful thought, I'm just going to throw it to you and leave. That's not interesting at all, they have to be actively doing something, that's when dominoes are falling, even within that speech, line to line, word to word. Change, change, change.
All this is very practical and comes back again to that more primal space of we are constantly looking for pattern, we're looking for breaks in pattern, we are looking for people testing themselves. "What would I do?" That's the biggest question we're asking ourselves when we sit down at any play, "What would I do in that scenario?"
If it's a super boring scenario with no stakes, we're gonna go "I'd leave and get coffee? I don't know." If we're not invested ... that's part of your job, is making highly relevant, and you can actually make anything highly relevant, there's plays about origami and plays about gum, things that would at first seem like why write about that? It's all because the goal is so profound and the protagonist is one that cherishes the strange thing, it means something to them actively and because it means something to them it means something to us.
I always quote my grandmother who said ... well, I apply it to creating characters of value, what'd she say "An interesting person is a person with interests."
That's you're protagonist, if you're protagonist doesn't care about anything, if you're protagonist is just like "Eh." If everything is that hipster "Eh." Then I don't care and the audience can't care. Our protagonist has to care.
You can see this playing on our stage right now. There is stakes and there is personality and humor. It's funny and we care about it, because they care about things that are very specific to them. They have goals. One wants to start this garage, one is pregnant and trying to get ready for this baby. The other one is a union leader trying to save everybody's jobs. It's very active and very specific.
When those things come at odds, our protagonist has to adapt and change and surf with everyone else's ... taking into account everyone else's needs and interests, plus her own. That's why it makes such a rich, beautiful play.
So, talked about art, talked about these interesting things. Don't think too much about this, but I just find this study really interesting that there's not eight models of emotion? Why not ten? Why not 400? The fact that we just kind of ... this is as much as we can fit in the story, this kind of arc, like if we had another couple bubbles, it'd be like "Watch I can pay attention that long, or something."
I find it really interesting.
Can I ask one question about this?
So you I know the emotional, the tension of the conflict is different, but just curious about climax? Would it be the lowest low or the highest high in the different graphs?
I think emotion, I don't know. Let's see, very strategically, we'll talk about this more in next week too, but very strategically there's always a moment and it's usually like halfway through a story. It's usually here, where there is a big change in the story it's almost like the first dynamic that really upset things.
We'll say most successful stories have something that happens in the middle here, so my co-writer and I wrote a play called Miss Bennet it's Christmas, Jane Austen-y, romance-y thing. Literally the ending of the act half-way through enters in a whole new character that makes everything go to shit. That is literally in the mid-point. In this way we get news in the middle of the play that disrupts everybody's plans and now it's a whole new, a whole new level of tension that occurs. It's right at the act break. Usually two act plays, that's what the act break is, is us going like "Woo!" Sometimes it's an emotional change in a character and also in August Osage County I will never forget that one act break where the main sister in the act when she's like over her mother and she's like "I'm in charge now!" Or some great line. Act break. It's great!
There's something that happens, it's a surprise, it's a peak of energy, it's a big boom that the next part of the play has to deal with and you notice that of course we don't go back to stasis after the act break, we're right where we were or even higher, because of what just happened. That's how we ramp up to this big moment of definition.
There's strategically what happened ... even if there's no act break, there's something in the middle that changes everything, some reveal, some entrance, the stakes are heightened right there.
The climax, we had this moment where, usually in between these two, there is something really hard for our characters. They get ... all is lost, it's like three-fourths of the way through your story, there's a like "Oh no, I think we're done. I think I can't do this."
This is about when Ophelia dies in Hamlet, her funeral when Hamlet comes back and sees that she's dead, that's "Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well" that whole speech when he's just like, "Well this is just ... we are in a tragedy, aren't we folks?" It's been a very sweet romance, story, but because it is a simpler story, we can analyze it easier.
This is when she thinks they were like, right there, she totally thought they were going to be together. She was like "Yeah, found my soulmate, gonna do it!" The entrance of complicated character means nope, he was lying to me this whole time, screw him, men are terrible, I'm out.
It's harder for her to climb up to this moment, when she does go back to him and is like "You're better than this, I know you're better than this. Do you know you're better than this? Prove to me you're better than this." That's the big climatic moment, when she allows him to say "I love you," and it's very sweet.
We have this and because of this complication things do get harder for our main character, that's actually an emotional moment, it should be the stakes are actually higher for her, tension-wise, because things are terrible. There is this moment usually ... again, if we're ending in a high place, if we are here-ish, that's kind of Cinderella? Maybe it's a little more Cinderella, it's the difference between those, I just want to make sure.
That's if we're ending a high place, which Miss Bennet is a love story so the answer is yes, they do get together. Spoiler.
To earn the high ending, we have to hit a low before that, even if we start pretty normally, she's fine, she's not like the happiest person in the world, but she's like "OK, cool." Maybe it's more of this. "Yay, I mean oh God this really sucks, it's terrible, everyone is ... I'm stupid, I hate everybody. Oh my God, hey! It's all good."
Now if you begin here, bad news, we have to have possibility. That's dashed. In some way. Even in a tragedy I would say there's usually like some movement in here, where even though things are hard, there's still ... even when Ophelia dies, he is now charged to do battle. So there is some good thing for Hamlet out of that, he's like "Ophelia's dead, challenging you to a duel you goddamn piece of." Right? So that there's this energy that leads us into this climax.
Lauren? Like with tragedy, for instance "Death of a Salesman" it kind of starts on a low note, but then we see Willy Lowman and the flashbacks maybe take you to a higher point, emotionally, but can tragedy pieces can they start just kind of low? I mean you really need this movement in order to really have something that is dramatic, is that-
Yeah, Death of a Salesman is definitely tragedy, so I think-
So the flashbacks are what give you the higher lift or something?
I think if we look at this, this one actually says you don't need to go up. To me, those flashbacks make it harder, because they are flashbacks there's no hope in them, because it's memory. To me that makes his journey even ... it's worse, like "You had sons that loved you, you had this affair, like screw you but, she made you happy a little maybe, but you messed that up too, you messed up your son, you messed up your wife, messed up this. So it kind of just goes like 'Wooo.'" You know what I mean? So I would say those flashbacks are more poignant in a way that nostalgia doesn't really make us happy all the time. It does something and it can make us feel warm in some ways, but it has that tinge of sadness, if not outright huge bell of sadness to it, because again, we can't go back to it and we all know that.
I would say we only have the peak in something that is tragic or an official tragedy when there is purpose, because oftentimes a tragedy, like I'm writing a version of Trojan Women right now, which is like half a play basically, but it definitely is this. It's like here and goes down. It's like so tragic, starts off the worst, women that are enslaved after the Trojan War, their entire city is burned down, most of their men are dead, their children dead and there waiting to be shipped off to the people who will now own them who are victors of the war. Awful, just terrible. And it gets worse. That tragedy was like a straight elevator down to Terrible Town.
Not all of them are that dramatic. With Hamlet what's so exciting about it is there is movement, in terms of women, there is nothing for them to really do. They're just sitting and being like "oh, this is getting worse." So there's change, there is investment but it's mainly just non-stop "Well this awful" and in Hamlet we have purpose, he's got a drive. There is some version, perhaps not joy, but meaning in action, doing something about it.
He talks about action and doing things, that's where you find purpose, in doing things. He's kind of committed to being rotten, he's not like "Yeah, things have been going great!" We're gonna end up with a song and a dance in the mirror, it's just not going to happen at this point.
All this going back to what this tells us, so we can start hearing about your stories, kind of bombarding with all this, know that, there is meta-structure in a story. I have small kids and watching them, they understand what a story is, even if they don't think so, when they tell a story, they are terrible. It's like "And this. And that. And a train. And it was train." They're boys, they're three and like one so it's OK, but again they don't know how to tell a story but they know how to watch it. If they bored, done. Sorry I'm throwing things or you know, peeing on things. They can tell you very quickly it is not interesting, so we know even at that age, what is of interest to us. Especially at that age, because they are nothing but sponges of information so anything that has highly valiant teaching to it, they are drawn to. If it's my boys it's trains or trucks, won't change their mind.
Again they don't know how to tell it, so telling the story actually is hard, even though somehow we all know what we're doing. We all know when it's not a good story. We can kind of go "Yeah that one, not great" or like we're all back seat story tellers when watching Netflix shows or whatever, but telling it is hard, so it is not any one failing, this takes a lot of concentration and a lot of engineering. Which is why I think some of the science-y engineering language helps me understand how to build the rollercoaster. When you ride it, you know it's super fun, if you ride a rollercoaster that's flat, you're like "This is just a train. It's not a rollercoaster." So we know that, but to build one, I wouldn't know how to build one. I guess I should go here? I'm not sure how far to go down?
There's a lot of work to this, but again this allows me to kind of see what's underneath it, and so again if we're looking at a story and figuring out what story to tell, what is the most interesting protagonist? What can be at stake for them? That isn't ridiculous, right? That is something that is meaningful, what dominoes need to fall? What situation do I need to put them in? And that's your job, you have to put them in a situation that tests them, again and again.
Part of it is, it's got to be the protagonist's idea, to be in that situation. It's their role. So Hamlet's like "I'm gonna concoct this play, I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna go talk to this person, I'm gonna spy on this person, they're all his ideas. In those ideas, even though it was his idea to get to that place, he is learning something new about himself. He is tested again and again. "Am I a person that's going to kill a guy that's praying? Nope, no I'm not. We can do that later, but not right now."
All of this is your job to design these moments that are in and of themselves, [inaudible 02:18:46] moment, that are experiments. Every one of those scenes is basically an experiment, what's your protagonist going to do? What's the outcome of it? And once you know the outcome, like any other good experiment, you can use that knowledge to do the next experiment, to prove the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.
I do think that it's easy to just get lost in our language, to get lost in poetry, to get lost in "oh, this character is so lovely or funny or sad" you know do all that kind of stuff and we lose the fact that your job is to keep someone's attention, and if you lose it, it's your fault not theirs. So keep those stakes high, keep that tension high and it all happens when things are changing and people are responding to the change. Cause effect, cause effect, cause effect.
This is also why monologues are really hard, although I love this quote "They are easy to write and hard to justify" because it's so easy to get bored in a monologue, right? When somebody does the like "Back in 1945 I was a young girl" I'm dead, right away.
Having an urgent reason, that's why one person thinks they're hard, even though I'm writing one right now, it's very interesting and it's hard, but I'm learning a lot. That is to say, having reason to tell the story, one of the things in David Bell's book is we talk when we need something or want something, that's it. We actually don't talk if we don't want anything or need anything and even if it's I need attention, I need to be the center of attention, I need to you know, then there's practical things, I need something from you, I need you to not leave, I need you to give me this, I need you to understand this.
There's more aesthetic and philosophical things, I need to be understood for my true nature or whatever. So keeping that in mind, that people talk when they need something, helps you avoid those moments that are just pretty or just funny or just you know, really good writing, just sitting there, although up on stage, which again, easy to write hard to justify.
The hard work, unlike a novel, which you know, you need this in novel writing too, but there's more time and space to wax poetically or to engage in a memory that sweeps us away, in theatre we don't do that so much. We can't really because it's live, we can't pause and just wonder if the meaning of things and let something be beautiful. With what? What's moving? Where are we going?
Making sure that's the second hardest thing, besides finding a climax is getting there. Getting there within a reasonable amount of time, feeling like there's a reason that we got there, where it's not totally inorganic, that we just jumped there or that all this is stupid to getting ... like that was more predictable, there's a lot of things, about how we get from A to B that's hard to do.
That's the first hard thing, the second hardest thing is making sure that all those ... there's enough dominoes and they're falling with regularity, so that we again, have that spike of dopamine as we go "Ooh, something happened, ooh this thing is coming next," it's like getting an e-mail or a text that's like actually chemically reactive to our brains, because it is, the same as like "Somethings new, somethings changing, somethings happening, a text, what's it say?" That's what's going on in our-
My son has this funny thing where he has ... it doesn't particularly in Star Wars, when we let him, we let him watch Star Wars, he doesn't do it as much in the animated shows we sometimes watch. He does this thing where when something exciting goes on, he goes "What is happening next?" I was like "Your a great dramaturge!" It's perfect, he's like a baby dramaturge, every time something "What is happening next?" I love it.
I actually think that's great, imagine my son, my little three year old being next to you being like "What is happening next?" As you're writing. He's just on the dopamine, he's like "Cool, now there's a light saber, cool now it's a spaceship, cool that's happening now we're running away from that guy, cool, great, what's happening next?"
So in some ways that's what are plays need to be too. We can go Checkov on this too, we're going all the way from George Lucas to Checkov. Checkov was notoriously, nothing happens, nothing changes. Everything changes in those plays or at least everything is attempted and that is change, because it changes us when we try something, even if we go right back to literally where we are, when everyone is trying to get to Moscow, they don't. The attempt is made, saying aloud what you want is actually hard for a lot of people. Saying who I am to somebody else is hard, saying that you love somebody, that's a big one. Those are things that don't have lots of light sabers to them, but are hugely emotionally impactful.
You have to setup the moment where the person feels organically compelled to have their reason to go "I have to tell you who I really am right now, I have to tell you what's critically important to me, I have to say that I love you" there's a lot of things that either have to be pushed on a person or loosed from a person, so that they get to a place and going "I love you too." So that's what happens in Chekov all the time, and why his plays are so exciting and beautiful for actors is because of the subtleties, so it's not as much Shakespeare sword-wielding and poison swallowing and things like that, but it is equally human. That's why those stories last.
This is again to say that I thought a lot about what Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet and King Lear which a lot of things happen and storms and dying, and battles, but it can also be very intimate and very small. Huge emotional things are happening, huge changes are happening. This is just again to alight your sense to the idea of change and it can be ... small change can be big, on stage and it's about making sure that this person feels compelled and translate that compulsion to us, so that the audience is with them and believes in the lesson.
So all of these things, as I'm writing, I try to step back every now and then and just try to calculate with my little "what's happening next?" son, my heir, to help me figure out that something has to change every scene, every beat, really, beat is a bit of a nebulous term. It is kind of a chorus, a verse of a scene and it sometimes can be a whole scene, but the idea that at least within a scene, something has to change. Something has to be advanced, has to be attempted, has to be put out there and a change can happen.
They cannot get what they want, but in not getting it, you're getting something. Something is still changing, so there has to be advancement or else we are just writing self-serving scene, which again can be beautiful or maybe very funny, but even if it's funny for a moment the audience wants you to cut it, because they're like "I don't care, go, go, go, what's happening next?" That is ... I have to record him, the way he does it is funny, it's just like so "Yep that's actually what we want to know." Noting fancy, artsy about that, but that's literally every audience member is just my three year old.
That's part of what I want to ... the large scale, painting it, kind of approaching it from a bunch of different ways, which I realize is what we've done today, it's not been super smooth, but I think some people need visual, some people need science-y stuff, some people need just give me a bullet list. All of it is the same, then as we move towards talking about your ideas, which we will not put on our camera-
PART 5 OF 5 ENDS [02:26:53]