As part of the 14th International Gay Theatre Festival, Momentum Acting studio are putting on a series of three plays by Neil Labute (The Possible and Strange Fruit) and Louis CK (The Morning After). Co-directors Liza Michael & Robbie Byrne tell us what makes great drama and why a play is most effective from their practitioners’ point of view.
In a novel the writer is responsible for providing readers with a conclusion. But plays are a collaborative form. In that respect, dramatic structures are somehow considered a minor element of literature as they are not intended to be read by a wide audience: Only actors, directors and pupils read and study plays. A play is not complete without the characters’ embodiment by the actors nor without the visual creativity of the director of the film. The piece only becomes complete once on stage or on screen with the audience as the last but essential collaborator.
Therefore, the writer’s dialogs should leave space for the take of all the collaborators in the production: from the actors to the audience, via the director but also the light, sound, set and costume designers who all work to complete this “skeleton”. The challenge of the playwright is to avoid any redundancy with these other elements in mind. The actors’ job is to bring the behaviour to complement the text, the designers bring the set, the lighting, the sounds and the costumes that allow the most possibilities for the story to unravel, whilst directors ensure through their vision the coherence of the whole piece.
So how do playwrights create dialog without sinking into exposition, explanations or redundancy?
What makes the story move in plays and films is drama and dramatic writing is based on conflict. Neil LaBute and Louis C.K. master a very specific type of conflict, the one that we avoid more than anything else in everyday life: the one that deals with our internal flaws and vulnerabilities, making us feel uncomfortable. Both their writing offer a dynamic cocktail of human endeavour, desire, limitations and flaws, full of comedic resources.
LaBute and CK have in common an appetite for uncomfortable situations either by tricking us into facing the diversity of truths within our darkest corners whilst we could have sworn we were heading for something else (LaBute’s twists are his trademark) or by making us witness the humourous and yes –tender- fall into discomfort of a hero that reminds us of ourselves (in Louis C.K. instance) – situations that we would not have explored otherwise.
Long ago, classical plays dealt with Gods, Kings and Princesses, out of reach for us, mortals, whilst offering a distraction from our everyday life. Nowadays, contemporary drama –since Ibsen, Chekov and Strindberg, is about people like us. It is grounded in our flawed humanity.
The rules of writing drama evolved requiring less and less expositional dialogs and have become more and more minimalist. Neil LaBute in the vein of David Mamet, produces vitriolic sharp dialogs that keep pushing the story forward in very few words.
It is about creating characters that, once in contact, will clash. Economical restrictions impeding on the reality of producing theatre, most plays now focus on 2 main characters, the hero and its antagonist, following the rules of “conflict”, opposition and positivity of intention (whatever is done by the character is done out of good intentions, sometimes in the wrong circumstances: no character is doing what they’re doing just to be mean). It is about implanting what will generate conflict organically between the characters by giving them clashing flaws and qualities.
Great layered characters always suffer from an internal flaw (something they are impeded by – i.e: shyness) as well as an external flaw (something they make others suffer from – i.e: sexism). The hero is the one who has to go through most changes throughout the story. If your hero is a young woman of 21, pregnant, shy, open-minded, bubbly, allergic to cats, of mixed race, …, by creating and bringing her into contact with her opposite alter-ego -an indignant older man of 62, in your face, closed down, taciturn, owner of 10 cats, and racist, you know you are onto something as those two will organically clash if brought together in the same story world. In this precise case, how about: at the death of her mother Alice decides to find her biological father?
Then it is through the number of obstacles the hero will find on his/her way that will impel the realisation a change has to be undertaken before eventually getting what the hero wanted (comedy) or realising it is now too late and ending up not getting what they wanted (tragedy).
Neil LaBute and Louis CK are both masters of creating defined but still open endings. Great drama doesn’t provide answers but provokes great questions so the story only really ends when the audience questions its own system of beliefs, draws its own personal conclusion and reflects outside of the theatre space. Dramatic structure is indeed the ultimate collaborative form.
How far can you go for love? Is love worth struggling between what the heart desires and what society expects? Should you have breakfast after a one-night stand? These are some of the questions that respectively Neil LaBute ask in “The Possible” and “Strange Fruit”, and Louis C.K. in “The Morning After”. Don’t count on us to spoil it all and take the chance to get your guts massaged through thought provoking challenge and laughters!
(c) Liza Michael & Robbie Byrne
PS: If playwriting interests you, we recommend John Truby’s book ‘The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller’ which exemplifies and explains how to create efficient pieces of drama and is especially useful if ever your story gets stuck.
Order tickets here.