Bridget Carpenter, Part ThreeComplications Ensue
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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Bridget Carpenter is a writer-producer on FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. Her episode of FNL (#108, "Crossing the Line") was named #19 on The Futon Critic's "50 Best Episodes of TV in 2006."

Crafty TV: How much do you find the characters are evolving from their original formulations? To what extent is that motivated by the evolving story, and to what extent is it inspired by the actors playing the roles, or the chemistry between certain actors?

Bridget Carpenter: We definitely pay attention to actor chemistry, though we're not driven by it. I suppose the most truthful way to talk about how characters evolve is to admit that a writer in the room will say something like "I'm bored with having ___ do that! I've seen that already! Can't he/she do___ for a change?" So we are looking to surprise ourselves, and to watch the characters change, and at the same time stay within the realm of believability. You know, Julie Taylor isn't going to decide instantly day that she loves football. But she might get more interested/tolerant as her relationship with Matt evolves...and she might also be surprisingly good at playing football herself if she gets a little attention from her dad...
(That's a tiny spoiler re: an upcoming episode.)

Crafty TV: It seems to me that you have a show about small town Texas folks who probably vote Republican that's having its greatest success among urban Democrats. (I'm going by the low numbers and the rave reviews.) Does this affect your writing at all?

Bridget Carpenter: No. We have been given an amazing amount of support from both the studio and network. They have said from the beginning, and continue to say, "we love the show. Keep doing what you're doing." It's unprecedented, in my experience.

Crafty TV: Technical note: You're writing a lot of Texas dialect. Obviously you're writing "y'all"s into the scripts. But do you drop the 'g's off words? Or is that understood? (In English scripts, I noticed, Cockney dialect keeps it's 'h's -- the actors drop it off.)

Bridget Carpenter: Most people don't drop the g's, not that I've noticed. There's no real rule, though.

Crafty TV: You mention that you got to TV writing through play writing. There's something I don't quite grasp about modern theatre. Mostly I don't quite grasp plays after the invention of film. The same thing seems to have happened as with painting when photography came in. Since film did "representational" narrative better than theatre -- "can our cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?" -- theatre became this sort of magic ritual space. But beyond that observation -- which is to say no more than I don't quite get it -- I'm not sure what a play is any more. Certainly I've seen any number of plays that didn't seem to me to "play." They're just a lot of impressive dialog, or we get to watch an actor act a character for a while but nothing actually happens. As a playwright, what would you say you are trying to do in a play that you can't do in a TV episode or a film?

Bridget Carpenter: That's a gigantor question. THE question, really. When I teach playwriting, the best question to ask students who are beginning to write a new play is a version of the Passover question: Why is today different from any other day? Your question is sort of a larger version of that...

As far as plays vs. TV goes, that's easy. Plays end after about 90 minutes. You won't see those characters again. So the story that the play tells has to come to some conclusion, a resting place--you want to feel satisfied, that you've experienced something, be it large or small, with these people. TV, you want your audience to fall in love with everyone you've introduced them to, to be so engaged with the characters that they HAVE to come back and spend more time with them, they NEED to know what will happen next?! So that's a very different architecture. Not to mention that of course on network television you're writing very specifically for act breaks (in our case, FIVE of them) and in a play it's freewheeling. Thank god.

I have written very little for film, so I'm going to ignore the film aspect of your question except to say that when I write screenplays, I write to sell. I don't (yet) write indie films, simply to please myself. But when I write a play, I write entirely for myself, an audience of one. Later, I take the theatre audience into consideration (during previews, you pay attention to how quickly the audience 'gets' things, etc; whether jokes land, all that stuff) but I make changes according to my experience WITH the audience, not whether they "like" it or not.

When I write a play, I write something that would delight me to see onstage, live. So in UP, my last play, I had a character who was a wire walker. He was also a figment of another character's imagination, so you experienced something pretty magical. If I saw wire walking in a movie, I'd be, ok, fairly engaged. But onstage? Your breath is taken away. You're captivated! I like to always attempt to exploit the live-ness of theatre. We're all in the same place, at the same time, watching these people who are also alive, in front of us. So things like singing, dancing, and other spectacular performances are especially effective, because on tv and film we're kind of blase about that, because of the nature of effects, and also those people aren't breathing the same air as us.

I tend to try to combine spectacle and story. My plays are ways of asking questions. I take your point that sometimes contemporary playwriting seems like something else--performance art, or just dialogue, maybe--and I, too, tend to be impatient when there's no story --but I also think that this is a golden time for amazing, radical, resonant plays. I'm thinking of Sarah Ruhl's magical realism wonder THE CLEAN HOUSE and her EURIDICE, Julia Cho's DURANGO and THE ARCHITECTURE OF LOSS; of Nilo Cruz's ANNA IN THE TROPICS, Paula Vogel's THE BALTIMORE WALTZ and THE LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE HOME. Lynn Nottage wrote INTIMATE APPARREL, the most produced play in the US last year, and it uses characters speaking the letters they write to one another to great effect. I love George Walker's plays, and in his play HEAVEN he has people killed, and then they come back onstage from 'above'--awesome, funny, surprising. I think few of those things would have been true on film. August Wilson was a master storyteller, and while no doubt more plays of his will be turned into movies, I bet they will always be best as plays: just people telling each other stories. Going back to the campfire. I'm most moved, thrilled, and excited by contemporary plays. I'm interested by Shakespeare (reading) but I'm often bored in productions and I rarely find myself caring.



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