Zarathustra Said Some Things, No?Complications Ensue
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Saturday, March 29, 2008

I saw my friends Lina Roessler and Brett Watson appear in ZARATHUSTRA SAID SOME THINGS, NO?, at the Théâtre La Chapelle on Friday. Lina's a real find. I met her on NAKED JOSH, where she was up for three totally different parts and nailed each character. (I'm still bummed she didn't get a bigger part.)

The play is a cheery psychodramas about a pair of deeply messed up people trying to find a perfect day to do themselves in. Okay, maybe not that cheery. But unlike so much contemporary theatre, there was a play there. They each wanted something from each other, and they needed something, and those two weren't the same things.

Most contempo plays I see these days, if they're about anything at all, this play was about backstory. It was not that hard to figure out what the secrets were that were going to be revealed, and it is a disease the contemporary theatre seems to have that you are just waiting for the characters to aria their Deep Dark Secret.

I try to keep character arias out of my screenplays because I find them annoying. I'd rather watch the behavior and guess where it's coming from. I especially try to avoid character arias in TV. One of the characters in the show I'm writing now starts off doing something seriously self-destructive. Why does she do it? Was she abused? Or is she just angry at her father setting a bad example? I'll let the audience chew on that for, I dunno, maybe the whole series. Once you reduce the character's pain to "my uncle raped me," the character seems smaller and less interesting somehow.

I liked how throughout THELMA AND LOUISE, it becomes clear that Louise was raped in Texas, and didn't get justice. But she never tells Thelma that.

A lot of the fun of a drama is figuring out what's going on with the characters. Why spoil the audience's fun by telling them outright?

But if you're trying to write an hour and a half of two characters talking to each other in one room, it becomes awful attractive to make it about the backstory. Otherwise, aren't they going to run out of stuff to talk about?

Of course, one can cite a kajillion counter examples of not-so-contemporary theater without backstory arias. WAITING FOR GODOT, for example. SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR. [I think. I haven't seen it.]

I don't think theatre built on a cathartic revelation of backstory is a function of what theatre can and can't do. I think it's a function of what film can do. If you have a romantic comedy story about two people that takes place in a room, you can write it as a play and make hundreds of dollars, or write it as a movie and make tens of thousands of dollars. (Or, if you're very successful, you can make hundreds of thousands from the play and millions from the movie.) I suspect the movies suck up all the ideas that can be movies, leaving situations that are all about character arias.

The movies' effect on theater strikes me as similar to photography's effect on painting. Photography nudged painting to become less representational because what is the point of spending days painting a scene photorealistically when someone can shoot a picture in a few seconds? Plays have to leverage the advantages they have: essentially, the ritual of the actors being in the same space. (And, I suppose, the relative cheapness of a theatre production; but in the age of YouTube, prosumer cameras and FinalCut, theatre is no longer cheaper.)



Brett was AWESOME in his role. I couldn't believe it was the same actor I'd seen before.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 7:31 PM  


I think you're misrepresenting what theater has going for it over film a bit, which you say is "essentially, the ritual of the actors being in the same space."

One thing that theater does really well is deal with symbolism and ambiguity. This difference with film can be clearly seen when plays are adapted to movies.

For example, the play Equus, the main character stabs horses in the eyes. The blood from the eyes can represented with streams of fabric; the horses can be shiny metal horse heads. This does not work on film, because of the audience's expectations of realism. Having actual horses and actual blood makes the scene more about gore and emphasizes less the ritualistic aspect of it. I'm not saying film can't find this meaning in other ways, but it has a hard time doing it in this way.

Very few films try to do what theater does in this way-- "Dogville" is one example. And it's so weird to see it on film, but it would not have been at all weird in a play.

I think this is the reason that the diagetic/non-diagetic concept is basically absent in theater. There's too much symbolism, which walks the border between them.

Of course there is symbolism in film, television, and in novels, but it's of a different kind. The sword in a film might symbolize ambition, for example. That's easy to do in film. But in a play, you can have a broom represent a sword, or a wheelchair represent a car, or a two actors holding hands represent a door to a saloon, a piece of masking tape can be the horizon. These choices have effects on the meaning of these things in the mind of the audience. You can get these beautiful, subtle flavors of meaning.

As a playwright, I try to ask myself "why does this need to be a play?" If it's better as a book, or a screenplay, or a painting, then I'll try to do that.

I think there is no better demonstration of the differences than Julie Taymor's DVD commentary on "Titus," which she adapted from a her stage version of the same script. You hear her say "well, we did this in the play, but that wouldn't work in a movie, so we..." Fascinating!


By Blogger Jim Davies, at 6:23 PM  

I think you've seen some very bad plays. Or excellent plays with very weak directors.

Honestly, I am not sure what you are getting at in your post. I agree with you that, for the most part, "Big Tearful Admissions of a Painful Past" are tiresome. But why? Because it isn't truthful. People generally don't like to reveal in this way. And one who does is tiresome for the obvious reasons. I could go on about this, but I won't. I will leave you with two simple words on this subject, "The Weir". Conor McPherson's brilliant play, where yes there is a indeed a "Big Admission of a Painful Past" but I dare you not to be riveted to the page. I say the page, because unless handled by a deft director I imagine even this brilliance would come off as lackluster. Then again, read by an unimaginative mind and...but please do not consider that impugning your imagination; it is just a fact.

I like how you say that Thelma & Louise is an example of a reveal you like. Well, I think that is because it is more truthful to her character. She isn't a character who talks about her feelings and to have her weep about a past incident she has struggled to smother would ring false and make her "smaller" as you say. It is better to have it hinted; the audience is almost always 3 steps ahead of a film, so it works. (Again not impugning film, which I love. It is just that a film director can with cutting subplant an audience's natural guessing game of "why" a character behaves as they do.)

I also have just read your post about Ophelia being pregnant. Love that. What is funny to me is, you want Ophelia to be showing in a production. You want her to put her "Big Admission of a Possible Painful Past" right there on the the outset. And make all her subsequent choices (and those around her about that). Now you're making her character smaller and less interesting. Not to mention, sabotaging the production. I have directed Hamlet and the real drama is not why Ophelia loses her mind, but what her losing her mind and eventually dying causes others' to do and what HAMLET does. If she is showing at the get, what does that say about HAMLET? About her father? About HER BROTHER? About the play? Believe me, if she were showing, Shakespeare would have dealt with her entirely differently. Now, that being said, I have no problem with her being pregnant, but it is like an actor who writes a biography of a character...great, fine, wonderful--whatever gets you to motivate your ACTIONS, I'm on board. I would have more to say about this, but basically what I'm getting at, is you are trying to rewrite Hamlet to make it Ophelia's secret story. It's not.

In a very tangential way, I am really getting from your original post that you think theater is just an inferior form that one would do because money and new writing talent are in short supply. I don't know the play you saw, but I do imagine it to be an inferior piece of work, from your description. Theater should be about action. Another play, 'Night Mother is full of character arias. It is basically almost two hours of real time admissions of a painful past. But at the end, will she blow her brains out? If a theater production is done well, audience members are sitting forward, engaged, willing the characters to take another path. We become those characters, there is a CATHARTIC (soul purging) moment. We want to know why they do what they do. We just want writers to demonstrate this in a truthful way to the character. Which brings me to a favorite admonition of mine to actors (and writers), "Character is a little, miniscule amounts, of what you say about yourself. It has a bit more to do with what others say about you. Character is almost solely comprised of what you do." (Not my original thought, by the way. Something I learned in the theater.) So in conclusion on this subject, absolutely let's see more action in the theater...and in film.

Well, one more thing, theater was presentational long before film showed up on the scene. If anything, I think that theater has become more representational because of film's vast influence. And for the record, presentation for just "the fun of it" would come from a very weak director indeed. The play/screenplay should dictate the method of production, not the director. That's just hubris (and very self-indulgent, soporofic theater/film).

I think what is really interesting and somewhat sad, is that because of its ephemeral (only produced one show at a time in a relatively short duration and varying nightly) and democratic (it can be, especially compared to film, relatively low cost and anyone with one person watching can put on a show) nature, there are many terrible theater productions happening at any given time. I can name...24 happening in LA at this moment. And what makes this sad is the fact that theater tickets must cost more and demand more of their audiences than film. In a bad film, I can sleep, somewhat comfortably, and hurt no ones feelings. In the theater, one is expected to be, if not alert, atleast awake. And to be uncomfortable and pay extra for the priviledge of being bored...well, it means not many like the theater. Whereas film, well, best takes are edited and pieced together and if it's bad, well, I'm out 12 bucks for a little shut eye. But with bad theater, it creates reticence with another outing. And that just makes me very p***sed off, excuse me, the offending productions. Because at its best, theater will offer what film never can, a melding of art forms to aid the audience in creating an imaginative, cathartic, visceral journey (let me finish)...where the audience is a part of it, aids it...informs it.

So, I give you credit for being partly right.

Okay, didn't mean to go on like that and I hope you are not reading this as being combative. I just think you haven't seen a play that challenged you. I hope you do. Who knows, maybe you would take up the mantle and attempt to write a contemporary play which would do just that. Wait, there's not money in it, so maybe it's best to stick with t.v.

By Blogger Unknown, at 4:07 AM  

Oh, I doubt I could write a play to save my life. I don't understand the form.

I understand the form Shakespeare is writing in, but I think theater has changed since then, since film came in, and I don't get what it has turned into.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 7:08 AM  

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