Friday, May 9, 2014

"What kind of plays do you write?"

Whenever I introduce myself as a playwright, there is one question that I will always be asked, whether it’s by a theatre person or a mundane.  That question is: “So what kind of plays do you write?” 

In the beginning, this question used to annoy me.  “Plays are plays,” I wanted to say.  “Serious plays can have laughs; comedies can be dramatic.  Why this urge to pigeonhole?  Is it because writers are supposed to only be able to write about themselves, so if I say ‘Comedy,’ you’re going to think I’m amusing, and if I say ‘Issue plays,’ you’re going to think I’m political?  Plays are like people—they can be more than one thing, y’know.”

I never did say anything like that, though I did think it a lot.  Instead, I tried to answer the question cleverly and accurately.    Mostly because my original answer, “I write all kinds of plays,” usually prompted either a follow-up question or a glazing over of the eyeballs, like I just tried to sell somebody what he didn’t want to buy.


So then.  I have just introduced myself to you by saying: “Hi, I’m Matthew Wells.  I’m a playwright.”   You immediately refer to me as Matt (which is a whole other thing I have a theory about) and you say, “Nice to meet you, Matt.  So what kind of plays do you write?”

In reply, I will give you one of the following answers.
“The kind of plays that my friends say are brilliant but the world ignores.”  This is completely passive-aggressive, as well as totally true.  I tend to say this whenever I’ve just come out of therapy, and when I haven’t been to therapy in ages.
“Idea plays.”  100% accurate.  Also the kiss of death.  In a world where plays more and more resemble Saturday Night Live skits, sitcom episodes, and therapy masquerading as creativity, a play about subatomic physics which is both entertaining and educational is about as out of place as feminism in an internet troll.  And since most readers and producers equate “idea play” with “message play,” they wind up scratching their heads at what I write, which I always attempt to construct as a two-hour engine which asks hard questions rather than a two-hour circle jerk that repeats easy answers.
“Plays that ask questions instead of preaching answers.”  See above. 

“Plays that don’t flatter the right people.”   On one level, this is another facet of the questions-instead-of-answers theme.  On another level, it means that I have failed at Marketing 101 by creating plays that do not (a) appeal to the lowest common denominator, (b) tell those with the money what they want to hear, (c) uphold premises in the culture to which all successfully produced entertainment bends the knee, or (d) make producers and directors (and critics) feel smarter than me.  Guilty on all four counts.  And yes, there are exceptions to this, but like all truly threatening outsiders, these renegades are immediately embraced by the church they rebelled against and canonized as saints, thus making them reassuring and harmless.  Y’know; like Broadway.

“The kind of plays that make people stop and think.”  Please note: think; not feel.  Which leads directly into the next answer.

“Plays about hyper-intellectual men who have to be dragged kicking and screaming into an emotion.”  This is what I call the Cassandra Medley description of my work.  A couple of years ago I was talking with Cassandra at the Players, and in the course of the conversation I described a couple of modern playwrights with a single descriptive phrase that summed up each one’s entire body of work.  (I wish I’d written them down; all I remember now is that they were not only very clever but very accurate.)  Cassandra looked at me for a moment and said: “That’s very perceptive.  So what about your own work?  Can you be as perceptive about your own work?”  Which was an excellent question, and one for which I had no immediate answer except “Of course not!  I am so talented that I simply cannot be summed up in anything less than a book-length critique!  And even then!”  And of course, 24 hours later I came up with the clever-and-accurate answer above, which is exactly the summation she was looking for.  And when I use it, I always make to sure to add one further sentence:  “Which has absolutely no basis in autobiographical fact.”

“Smart plays which never make it past stupid literary assistants.”  This is what I say whenever there’s another playwright in the room.  When it doesn’t get cheers, it gets cries of “Amen, brother!”

“Plays that need actors to make them come alive.”  Sad but true.  Reading one of my scripts is not the same as hearing it read aloud, never mind seeing it acted out.  The reason I got an agent is because she came to see a staged reading of one of my plays; the reason I no longer have an agent is because she kept telling me that every new script I sent her wasn’t a play.  Well, that and the fact that she wanted me to be Arthur Miller.  (A direct quote, by the way.)  Lesson learned on that front.  I mean, let’s face it—anybody who’s known me for more than five minutes knows that the only way I would ever try to be Arthur Miller is if it involved Marilyn Monroe.

“The kind of plays that will never get produced in my lifetime.”  In my optimistic moments, I like to tell people that my only goal as a writer is to be famous fifty years after I’m dead.  In my pessimistic moments, I’m totally certain that it will happen five minutes after I’m dead.

“I write plays the way Thomas Berger writes novels.”  This is the writer equivalent of inside baseball.  One of the things I try to do is suit the style to the piece, instead of producing each new play in a consistent house style.  Which is what Thomas Berger has been doing for years.  He doesn’t have a style; everything he’s written is in a voice appropriate to the story.  He never does the same thing twice (except maybe that sequel to Little Big Man) which is why he’s not as famous as writers who talk in the same voice over and over again.  But boy, is he good.
“The kind of plays that, if I’d been born in 1552 instead of 1952, you would have studied in a college English course.”  To which I always add the words “No brag; just fact,” like I’m the playwright version of Will Sonnett.  It may be highly egotistical of me, but it’s an accurate expression of my inner conviction that I would have made a great Elizabethan playwright.  The reality is that I probably wouldn’t have made it past 1593, like most of Shakespeare’s rivals, so forget the past 20 years of my creative life, which have (so far) been the most productive.
“Plays that are as heartfelt as Shaw and as intellectual as Neil Simon.”  This is when you know I’m fucking with you.

“The kind of plays that only I can write.”  This is probably the truest answer of all.  It’s what I tell myself, over and over again, whenever I ask myself what I should be working on.   It immediately narrows down my ever-growing list of ideas into the things I care about most.  The Christopher Marlowe Play.  (Now.) Jackson’s Island, the Twain Melville mashup. (Next.) Not For Hire, the women in the workplace play.  (Soon.)  The King Of Snow, about Shakespeare and the Essex Rebellion.  (Later.) The Aaron Burr plays, My Dinner with Massah Tom and Weehawken. (Soon, I promise.)  (Yeah, I know, this is all beginning to sound like the opening of Little Night Music.)  The verse adaptation of Sophocles’ Ajax; the mashup of Trojan Women, Hecuba, Andromache, and Helen; My Love Is Vengeance, the ultimate femme fatale play—you get the idea.  These are all things nobody else in the world would even think of writing.  Except me. 
“The kind of plays that are not quite bad enough to get produced.”  This is my current go-to answer, except when there’s another playwright in the room.  Unless that playwright is Annie Baker, in which case I repeat it as often and as loudly as possible.



Horvendile said...

Seriously--does anybody at Goldman Sachs get asked "So what kind of investment banking do you do?"

amanda said...

I know this isn't the point of your post, but whenever I am asked an insipid question, I get back at them by turning it around on them with "What do you mean 'what kind of plays'?" then they realize how dumb a question it was. except no one asks me questions about the plays I write.