Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Size matters (but the smaller the better)

I love writing plays. It’s liberating to write whatever I want, characters of any age, and no network executive insisting I make my antagonist more “likeable.” But one issue I have is that because of today’s economics, cast size and production requirements must be minimal to even hope for a production. Yes, Tom Stoppard can have a play with seventeen characters, but I’m not Tom Stoppard.

The generally accepted cast size for lowly playwrights like me is four. Three is better. Two is even better still. And one-person shows where someone discusses their childhood for ninety minutes is best. But the magic number seems to be four.

And that’s restrictive. I’ll think of an idea that might make a great play but realize I’d need six characters to do it justice and decide to just shelve it. Even THE ODD COUPLE, which you think of as a two-character play has roles for seven. Reginald Rose did not write a play called FOUR ANGRY MEN.

Recently I was talking to a New York theater director and he was bemoaning the fact that young playwrights are so used to writing scenes between two people that they find it very difficult to write scenes with four. Keeping all four characters active in the scene is a real juggling act for them. This stunned me. I had never even thought of that.

I come from TV where there are almost always multiple people in scenes. On CHEERS there were usually six to eight characters in any given scene. That was simply what I was used to.

So for me, writing a four-character scene in a play, especially if it’s a long scene, is way easier if I have four voices instead of two. All four can have differing points-of-view and there are way more relationship combinations.

If you’re a young playwright and you’re only comfortable writing two-character scenes you are really handcuffing yourself. You need to be facile in writing four or even eight-person scenes. And where can you go to see good examples of this? I hate to say it. In fact, I better just whisper it.



Roger Owen Green said...

You're an experienced writer, but have you considered the New Play Exchange? Last week, I saw one of the plays that workshopped there, Well-Intentioned White People by Rachel Lynett, which was produced at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA.

E. Yarber said...

You also have to make your characters EQUAL. One of the most common mistakes I found among first-timers was that they would make one character their spokesman and the rest either an echo chamber of the lead or straw men to be easily discounted in favor of the anointed one.

Let's say the story was about Jimmy's relationship with Carole breaking up. At no time would it be suggested that Carole might have reasons of her own for wanting to leave him. Instead, every scene of the play would be devoted to showing us how wonderful Jimmy was and how wrong Carole was, the "good" characters singing Jimmy's praises and the "bad" characters made to look like idiots for not appreciating Jimmy enough.

This approach does not make Jimmy a strong character, however. In fact, there's no real conflict in the story, just a series of arguments taking Jimmy's value for granted. That's because Jimmy is writing the play and can't see beyond his own self-serving perspective. If Jimmy writes about his father, it'll be about how much smarter he is than his parent. If he writes about his job, it's about how he's better than his co-workers.

Just like in real life, however, if you constantly tell strangers, "I am so great," they will ask for some sort of objective proof. The interactions within the play itself are the only way an audience can judge the strength of the characters, and if the field is slanted the viewer will quickly be bored watching a lopsided contest where only one player is allowed to score. What you need is a marketplace of ideas where each character is trying to sell themselves to the audience as the one to follow. The tighter the competition among them, the more interested the spectators will be.

scottmc said...

Turner Classic Movies will honor Neil Simon on Friday September 14th.They are showing The Odd Couple, The Goodbye Girl and Lost in Yonkers.

Mark said...

I understand the economics of cast size n the professional world. However, speaking as a high school theatre director, we need more modern plays with medium to large cast sizes to service our interested students and complete our educational objectives. There must be some middle gound here somewhere.

Mark P. said...

It sounds liberating not to have a studio and network second-guessing you. But I presume that, unless you're writing a one-time play, there are people bankrolling this who will want to ensure the play will get adequate attendance during its run. My knowledge of how the theater works consists of watching "The Producers" (both versions). Whom do you work with that might ask for changes?

VincentS said...

Hm. As a writer I've always thought playwrighting to be the toughest form of writing because of the various restrictions like keeping it in one location and keeping down the number of characters. I'm sure these young writers would make excellent television/screenwriters once they learn those crafts.

Covarr said...

The first (and so far only) play of mine (and my wife's) that's been produced has twelve characters and one set, a diner. Ten of those characters are onstage almost the entire show, sans a few minutes at the beginning for some of the customers as they arrive, and a few carefully choreographed trips to cars/employee smoke breaks/etc., and two cops who show up halfway through. The tables and bar all have different sized groups of people, the staff weaves all around and interacts with everybody... This show was almost more of a logistics puzzle (and even moreso to direct than to write) than anything else.

And even though the actual story, characters, and jokes aren't anything like CHEERS, I'm not ashamed to admit I did end up studying CHEERS quite a bit to help me get a feel for timing and structuring this sort of an "everybody in the same room at once" show, as well as SEINFELD and HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER for group dynamics of three to five people at once. Whisper all you want, Ken, but I'll shout it loud from the rooftops: This show wouldn't be half the show it was if we didn't have decades of great sitcoms to learn from.

I'm surprised to hear that some writers struggle to write more than two characters at a time. I find three to four much easier than two, because more people offer more opportunities to naturally shift the subject and the dynamic of a conversation. Two people talking requires a writer to be careful the conversation doesn't deadlock itself with either opposing or agreeing views. A third person can provide a right angle out of such a deadlock, or create a 2v1 scenario that is as much about who agrees with whom as it is about the actual subject matter, etc. Two people can be done very well ('NIGHT, MOTHER), but I feel like it's far more difficult to do properly.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I know that this example is T.V. and not theater, but I'm sorry to say that a lot of this has to do with the influence of Saturday Night Live. They've had so many two person sketches over the years including "Wayne's World," the "Roxbury Guys," Weekend Update, et al. The goal for many young writers is to work on that show. Therefore they tend to think in those terms. In one of my writing classes we were taught to write characters that had an individual voice and point of view. However, we were also restricted to what would fit on our stage. And I've also seen examples of what E. Yarber was talking about. I suppose the question is, should one work on writing large cast plays even though they may never get produced? Or should you concentrate on writing what sells?

E. Yarber said...

You don't want to be painted into a corner, but also have to be careful not to bite off more than you can chew. I'm typically brought into projects already in progress, so I have to deal with the hand the client gives me. In one case, the producer had not planned very well and kept telling one actor after another they were in the production, so I was handed a play with seventeen speaking roles in a space as tight or even tighter than the Ruskin. It left me feeling like an air traffic controller, bringing characters on and off stage in seemingly natural motion while trying to mix up the voices in dialogue. Everyone had at least a couple of moments to shine, but there was a lot of grousing among the cast since each member had assumed they'd be the star.

flurb said...

It's a horrible sort of balancing act, writing plays for production in this modern age. Producers at non-profit Equity houses balk at cast sizes that used to be easily acceptable. (One of my local theatres has two 70-minute monologues scheduled out of its six-play season.) A modern-day George S. Kaufman (and name your collaborator) would rarely, if ever, get any of his plays produced today. It takes a writer who has been smart (or lucky) enough to light on a clever concept to plausibly limit the character traffic on stage and still manage to tell a coherent, interesting story, and not just a string of scenes. To extrapolate out E. Yarber's observation above, an awful lot of recent "plays" seem to be two-hour justifications, or worse, lecture demonstrations.

The problem in such economizing is that audiences tire of such repetitive intimacy, and they stop wanting to pay $75-100 for them. A friend of mine once joked that the problem with a two-character play is that when there's a knock on the door, you always know who it is. But credulity and storytelling suffer too. Where are her parents, and workmates? Doesn't he have any friends, and what do they think about his situation? Even the loneliest weirdo comes into contact with several other people, if only long enough to be tagged as a lonely weirdo. It's hard to bring a world into the theatre when there are only two couples up there representing the whole of humanity.

My friends and I ran a play-reading group for a few years, and we did script-in-hand performances of great works from the past, and the bulk of them had (judged by today) huge casts. Shaw, Rattigan, McCullers, Bagnold, Hellman, Behrman, Giraudoux, Coward, Elder, dozens of others. Were they dated? Sometimes. But there was, in the best of them, an undeniable narrative motor humming away from the first line, because it wasn't just three people arguing about the latest issue, it was ten or fifteen or twenty people affecting each other irrevocably. (To pick just one: You want to have an experience, read Sidney Kingsley's "Dead End" - lively and gripping and hugely influential for twenty or thirty years afterward. Roles for forty-five actors. 45! And the movie of it is good, but the play is better: just plain genius.) Anyway, reading and performing and directing these plays ruined me, because there isn't much out there that doesn't disappoint me by comparison. As Ken says, a lot of the first-rate Neil Simons and Alice Childresses and Arthur Millers are writing for television, not for the theatre, because they don't have to limit themselves as much - think of how many active characters "The Good Wife" had.

I haven't seen your plays, Ken, so I can't speak to them, and I mean no criticism of anybody trying to make a living or just express themselves creatively in the theatre. But nothing excites me more than sitting in a theatre while a dozen or more actors unfold a great story, and except for "event" programming, I don't think that's coming back in the normal way that it existed during the first seven decades of the twentieth century. Our culture (whatever that means) is the poorer for it.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

flurb: A couple of years ago, I discovered that all this time I've been living in a hotbed of amateur theater. Within biking distance there are at least *six* different groups, all with different missions in life (Shakespeare Society, a light opera group, two community theaters that are open to members' productions, two more general play production groups). There's a lot of swapping around, and many of the actors belong to more than one group, and they all support each other. They're different sizes, so the one closest to me is too small to do plays with much more than 6-7 characters, but others are large enough to fully populate Shakespeare plays and other larger casts with enough left over to fill the audience. *That's* another place where these plays with large casts are being produced, and even though the actors aren't paid, production licenses for the plays certainly are.

So, Ken, my guess is that someone caring to write modern plays with larger casts would find a ready market in amateur and, as Mark says, high schools and colleges, for them - and while the playwright doesn't make a Broadway salary they still get license fees. And if the play works and develops a reputation as a good vehicle for these groups, that adds up. The last time I was in Samuel French's London store, they had an entire bookcase dedicated to plays that were appropriate for schools, so I'm guessing it's a steady business for them.


cadavra said...

Hate to be a pedant, but THE ODD COUPLE has eight characters: Felix, Oscar, four poker pals and the Pigeon Sisters.