Showing posts with label plays. Show all posts
Showing posts with label plays. Show all posts

16 March 2020

Talking About Dialogue II: Dialogue and Character


Last time, we talked about linking dialogue so the characters interact with each other, and that's especially important in drama because it helps actors remember their lines. But dialogue isn't just "people talking." It enhances your story-telling by deepening your characters and enriching your plot.

Today, we'll look at characterization.

Screenwriter Tom Sawyer, who oversaw Murder, She Wrote among other projects, says that if you can give a line of dialogue to a different character without rewriting it, it was badly written anyway.

I use what I call the CAWS test (Hey, everybody's got to have a gimmick):

Would this CHARACTER, speaking to this AUDIENCE, say these WORDS in this SITUATION?
If the answer to any part of the question is "NO," you need to rewrite the line.

Each character talks like himself or herself, which enables readers to "hear" them. Think of old radio plays, where an actor may have been chosen to play a role because his voice sounded appropriate for the character.

That means each CHARACTER needs specific images, rhythms and vocabulary (Another good reason to keep your cast in a play as small as possible) to create his or her voice.

If you treat the person as an archetype (Hero, Warrior, Magician, Temptress, Mentor, Lover, etc.), his purpose in the story will help you find his speaking style. Reformers want to improve things, so they often give advice. Leaders want to appear strong and self-reliant, so they give orders. Mentors/Coaches/Teachers usually start with the good news and move to the problems that need to be addressed.

Shakespeare demonstrates this for us. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice uses more aggressive verbs than other characters, and Portia and Nerissa discuss marriage in terms we might use for a business deal.

Romeo & Juliet presents five teen-aged males. Tybalt always has the subtext, "Wanna fight?" Mercutio is funny and often bawdy. Benvolio reports and tattles. Paris is polite and courtly, the kid moms all wish their daughter would bring home. Romeo constantly moans about love, so over-the-top you want to smack him until Juliet makes him grow up.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Nobles (Blank verse and very logical), Mechanicals (Prose, except for the hilarious Pyramus & Thisbe farce), Lovers (Rhymed couplets and cliches about love), and Fairies (Blank verse with images of power [Oberon] or nurturing [Titania]) all have different speaking styles.

Think about your character's goal, too. If you understand what she or he wants--money, power, love, answers--that can help you decide the tactics she will use, such as demanding, pleading, lying manipulating, or threatening.

Now think about the AUDIENCE. Maybe your character will curse or discuss sex, but not in front of his grandmother. Maybe a child won't understand the issue so he has to simplify his language. Maybe the stockholders want the bad news delivered in a positive way.

WORDS are all we have, and we need to get them right. A character's vocabulary shows his education level, religion, family, ethnicity, socioeconomic level, occupation, and maybe biases.

Many people have favorite expressions or jargon from their jobs: computer, sports, medical, business.
Think of regionalisms. Margaret Maron's Knott family often uses the expression "might could," which has a rhythm that slows the pace and captures their Southern drawl.

Be careful with dialects or accents, though. Most editors tell you to avoid phonetic spelling and think what you're doing. I encountered "oncet" in a speech and it stopped me cold. The better spelling would have been "wunst." I grew up in an area where under-educated people referred to their relative as a cousint, with an audible final "T." Your best bet is to use a few key words to suggest everything, or mention that your character has a French accent and go on about your business.
To Kill A Mockingbird needs the accent and mind-set of the characters

You can give the impression of an accent by avoiding contractions or changing word order, too. American English is all about rhythm, so putting an adjective after a noun or using a participle instead of the verb makes the sentence sound foreign, like Yoda. I have an Eastern European character in one series, and I compare her consonants to scissors snipping paper. Blue Song Riley in my Woody Guthrie series is half-Asian, and when she uses a long word, all her syllables have equal stress. I only mention this once or twice in her first scene and let people fill in the blanks.

Maybe your character has a speech problem. A stutter, lisp, or spoonerism is fun, but don't over-do it. Ellery Queen wrote a short story decades ago ("My Queer Dean," if you can find it) in which the solution depends on the victim inverting initial consonants ("My Dear Queen").

Maybe the character has favorite expressions or cliches, or mispronounces words. I grew up struggling with "Refriger-E-ator," and my cousin (No "T") called those things with two slices of bread "Smitches."

Mangling cliches can be fun, too.

A few novelists and playwrights use profanity well. Years ago, my local theater presented Glengarry Glen Ross and referred to the writer as "David Effing Mamet," minus the euphemism. If you're not comfortable with cursing yourself, don't try it. It will sound fake. If you have to use it, emphasize the NOUN, not the participle. It's an effing FORK, not an EFFING fork.

Remember your SITUATION or setting, too. People talk differently at a funeral, job interview, a first date, or in a bar. Are there props at hand: a pool cue, salad bar, golf club, or AK-47? Setting involves mood, too. Someone might be excited, remorseful, sad, jealous, terrified, or confused. Let their words convey this. Situation or setting involves time, too, so beware of anachronisms. Servants in Regency England did NOT say "No problem."

Lastly, dialogue can help you show how a character grows or changes. This is common late in a story, maybe in one long scene. If you want to show it with minimal narration, try having your character paraphrase, change, or even contradict something he said earlier in the story. If her opinion has changed, she has, too. Louise Penny does this in her Inspector Gamache novels, where certain characters will repeat a line, often a literary allusion, that gathers or changes implications throughout the story.

Next time, we'll look at how dialogue can advance your plot.

17 February 2020

When They Say It's Not About Politics...


by Steve Liskow

My daughter gave me The Last Widow, Karin Slaughter's newest novel, for Christmas and I tore through it in about three days. Slaughter is one of my favorite writers, and the first half of the book felt like a freight train with no brakes careening down a steep hill. I turned pages quickly enough to leave a trail of smoke and risk uncountable paper cuts.

I seldom pay attention to online reviews, but when I finished this one, I looked on Amazon out of curiosity. Slaughter is one of several authors I read who gathers mixed reviews because she takes chances and doesn't adhere to the standard template. Sure enough, The Last Widow had 795 reviews, 63% five-star, and 9% one-star.

The one-star reviews often complained that Slaughter let her politics get in the way of the story. Well, a group of white nationalist kidnaps Sarah Linton, the female protagonist, as part of their deadly plot, and, given that premise, it's hard to be apolitical.

That's why I usually ignore online reviews.

In one way or another, MOST art is political because artists deal with important issues in life.

Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King as a reaction to the contemporary debate about predestination. His play takes the issue head-on, and his opinion is clear. Euripides leaves no doubt what he thinks of war in The Trojan Women. Nice people don't throw the child of a vanquished rival off the battlements and turn the surviving women into sex slaves.



Shakespeare's 37 (or 40, or 50, depending on whose count you believe) plays constantly involve politics.
Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear discuss, among other issues, who succeeds to the throne. Measure For Measure asks tough questions about women, love, sex, and relationships, and offers no easy answers (The main "good guy" has a creepy voyeuristic streak, too).
All the histories involve kings and, usually, war. Even comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night discuss the roles of women in society, and the misuse of power, still timely as the Me Too Movement and Roe vs Wade are still crucial issues.

Jane Austen and Emily Bronte present the situation of women in the 1800s, unable to vote, own property, or inherit. Pride and Prejudice features Mr. Bennet with five daughters who will starve if he can't marry them off to husbands who will support them. Wuthering Heights is built around the British Law of Entails, a devious way to control who inherits property if no sons succeed.

In America, Twain looks at slavery through bitter eyes in Huckleberry Finn, one of the most banned books in our country's schools, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, which looks at the same issue from 80 years later...although we haven't advanced much. Uncle Tom's Cabin, far more racist than either of the others, was a blockbuster best-seller before the word existed.

Robert Penn Warren gives us All The King's Men, a fictionalized vision of Huey Long, the Louisiana Governor who used graft and kickbacks left and right...and used the money to build highways and hospitals. Alan Drury won the Pulitzer in 1960 with Advise And Consent (102 weeks on the NYT Bestseller list and later a film with Henry Fonda), and that's all about politics.

Other novels, off the top of my head: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (if you haven't read these, do so before the second of the three books appears next fall on HBO.)

I know almost nothing about painting, but even I can point to Picasso's Guernica.

Plays: Lee Blessing's A Walk In The Woods is about two arms negotiators meeting to talk during the Cold War. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible (maybe my least favorite play of all time), All My Sons, A View From the Bridge, and Death of a Salesman. Miller always looked at the shafting of the little guy by big business or bigger government. Lawrence and Lee's Inherit the Wind, which the Religious Reich should go see sometime.

Films: Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.

The classic western High Noon asks if we deserve freedom and law if we won't fight to defend them.Many in that production were blacklisted because of their involvement, and I still don't understand why. What about The Grapes of Wrath? Steinbeck dodged a death threat after writing the novel, and the film, made on an 800K budget, still gives me chills when I listen to Henry Fonda deliver
Tom Joad's farewell speech in that flat monotone.

Beethoven first called Symphony #3 the "Bounaparte," but changed it to "Eroica" after Napoleon became Emperor.
Where would American folk music be without Woody Guthrie,Pete Seeger, and the Weavers?  Or their descendants, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Doors ("The Unknown Soldier") and Country Joe & The Fish (I Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag--remember "Gimme an 'F'?).

Politics should be separate from art. Yeah, right.

Maybe flavor should be separate from food, too.

This list barely unscrews the lid from the jar. What other works can you name?

16 September 2019

The Play's the Thing


by Steve Liskow

Not long ago, I saw an audition call for a production of a play I performed in years ago, a mystery called Wait Until Dark. It's a rarity, a good mystery play that began as a play instead of being adapted from either a book or a film. There are several good mysteries on film, but most of them began as films or novels. My wife Barbara, who still acts in five or six plays a year and impersonates an 1890s British maid at the Mark Twain House, and I spent the rest of the evening trying to think of other good mystery plays that aren't adaptations.

It's a short list, and I don't like several of them for crochety reasons of my own. Obviously, many of Shakespeare's plays involve crime or mysteries: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Lear, Caesar. I won't include them. Aeschylus gave us The Oresteia 2500 years ago, only a few years before Sophocles graced us with Oedipus The King, maybe the earliest detective story. I won't include those, either.

All those plays involve stage conventions we now consider "unrealistic" or "old-fashioned." The mystery form has conventions itself, and some of them are artificial, too. Red herrings, delaying a discovery, the impossible crime, and multiple suspects are pretty much standard procedure. Maybe that's why a script that leans heavily on staginess is effective for many of the plays I include below.

Investigating a mystery often involves moving from place to place, so a challenge in a mystery play is limiting scene/set changes that slow down the action. There are two ways to do this, one a staple of Shakespeare and the Greeks. That's the lack of a stage set at all. The audience has to imagine a different place for the action, often given the cue through dialogue ("What woods are these?"). The other is to construct a play that happens in one location. That's tough.

Barb and I have been involved in productions of most of these plays, which colors my judgment.

Book of Days by Lanford Wilson. Wilson passed away in 2011 after producing a body of work that equals Miller or Williams. He wrote roles for William Hurt, Christopher Reeve, Richard Thomas, Joan Allen, John Malkovich, and Judd Hirsch, among others. I directed this play about ten years ago, and Barb acted in it. In fact, I lost an actor less than a week before opening and had to step into his role myself. 


 If Raymond Chandler had written Our Town, the result might have been Book of Days. On a bare stage, 12 characters interact with each other and the audience to discuss how Walt, one of the small town's leading citizens, dies in a freak hunting accident. Apparently, a tree fell on him during a tornado and his shotgun went off. But there are inconsistencies, and by the play's end, the audience understands who killed Walt, how and why it was done, and that the killer will get away with it.
Book of Days, my wife at lower right, me 4th from right
The play uses a bare stage but has over 90 scenes in 17 locations. We used light changes and a few basic props to keep the story going, just like the Greeks and Shakespeare.

Agnes of God by John Pielmeier uses the same black box strategy and for the same reasons. The artificiality is effective because we don't KNOW exactly what happened even though we understand the broad outlines. On a set consisting of two chairs and a standing ashtray, a female psychiatrist tells of being called in to evaluate the competence of a young nun. Agnes is accused of killing a newborn baby she claims she bore after an immaculate conception. If she is ruled rational, she faces a trial for murder. Otherwise, she will go to an insane asylum. The only other character is the Mother Superior who accuses the psychiatrist of bias against the Catholic Church. Barbara was learning the lines for Agnes as we went on our honeymoon.

I've seen two other productions, and all three had problems. It's hard to strike a balance between the characters and the story, but some scenes--a hypnotized Agnes reliving the agony of giving birth, for example--will keep you awake at night. She's clearly crazy, but does that automatically mean she's lying?

The less said about the film starring Jane Fonda, the better. Why anyone thought that stripping the play of its theatricality and trying to present literal reality on film is a bigger mystery than the play itself.

Equus by Peter Schaeffer also uses several locations with only the barest of furniture, and for the same reasons. Schaeffer passed away in 2016 at age 90 after writing many other acclaimed works, including Amadeus, which is also sort of a mystery.

The play gives us another psychiatrist treating a young patient, this time a teen-aged boy accused of blinding several horses in the stable where he worked. My wife played the boy's mother and a mutual friend played the psychiatrist (Shrinks are big in mystery drama: at least one of the plays I left off this list also has one). Actors wearing elaborate wire-frame heads play the horses. The nightmare moment of the play comes on a completely dark stage when all the horses' eyes light up, little red pilot lights across the back of the stage...and advance to surround the boy. Unlike Agnes, this play answers all our questions. Lucky us.
Equus cast & crew. Horse's head at bottom

Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott appeared on Broadway in 1966, and Lee Remick earned a Tony nomination as the blind woman who knows killers will break into her apartment that night. She smashes all the light bulbs in the apartment so she can fight them on equal terms. Robert Duvall played the ringleader in that production, and I wish I had seen the moment when he shows Susie the one light she forgot to smash: the bulb in the refrigerator (In theater parlance, we refer to this as the "Oh &$%# Moment").

The film version, a year or two later, drags badly. It allows us to see outside, too, which removes the claustrophobic feel of being trapped in the apartment. Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston are excellent as the bad guys, but Audrey Hepburn's weepy and whiny blind girl is annoying. She's all wrong for the role. I played the Crenna role years ago, and now Jeffrey Hatcher has reworked the play and set it in the 1940s. The play has to be done in an older time period because a photographic dark room is vital, but I don't understand why someone felt it needed to be rewritten.

Death Trap by Ira Levin. Levin, who wrote many other works, including the novel that became the film Rosemary's Baby, saw this 1978 drama become the longest-running comedy-drama on Broadway. It was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Play. Another very stagy work, it involves two playwrights, a newcomer and a seasoned pro, who work together on a project that won't make it to the stage. The play-within-a-play structure works, and the script abounds with dark humor and theater in-jokes, including using a crossbow as a weapon. Done well, it's wonderful. Don badly, it's...well, deadly. I saw a local production with the same friend who played the psychiatrist in Equus as one lead and a former student as the other. The excellent film starred Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, and Dyan Cannon. Hard to go wrong there.

That's it. If the plays don't work, the fault, dear Brutus is not in our star actors, but in ourselves.


27 September 2012

Notes from the Penitentiary – September 2012


by Eve Fisher

Yes, I'm back from the ever-friendly South Dakota State Penitentiary, after another three day Alternatives to Violence (AVP) Workshop.  This one was training facilitators, i.e., turning outsiders (like myself) and insiders (yes, inmates) into trainers of other outsiders and inmates in the principles of AVP.

As always, exhausting, worthwhile, rewarding, interesting.

Also as always, the food is a criminal offense in and of itself.  Up here in South Dakota, they've outsourced all meals to CBM Managed Services.  Now CBM's website is a masterpiece of literary succulence - "High quality food service programs through utilizing fresh, high-quality foods, tested recipes, planned production standards, preparation practices and comprehensive employee training programs" - but in actuality it looks like dog food.  No fruit, fresh or cooked.  Industrial canned vegetables, one scoop per meal (maybe).  (This tray is semi-accurate; take out the red stuff, put in a slab of bread, double up on the brown stuff and take out the beans.)  But hey, it's cheap, and that's what counts. All I can say is that I wouldn't feed it to a dog.  And yes, I have first-hand experience, because we go in at 7 in the morning and get out at 6 at night, and we're not allowed to go out for meals or breaks.  So we share in the dining experience - twice a day - with the prisoners.

Speaking of food, sort of, Ramen noodles- i.e., "soups" - are still standard currency.  The workshop role play that got the biggest applause was one about an inmate who owed five soups to a storer inmate and couldn't/wouldn't (difference never was determined...) pay.  After considerable talk and a bit of shoving, the local lifer told them all the shut the f*** up.  Eventually he paid up the five soups for the owing inmate, which meant that now that inmate owed the lifer - not necessarily a good thing.  Everyone agreed the inmate needed to pay his debts, and learn who to owe and who not to owe.  I asked the actor (still in character) if he was going to pay the lifer, and he said "maybe," which got a lot of muttered comments from the audience about how he was going to get punked if he didn't.  (Getting punked ranges from getting beat up to rape.)  I agree - he needs to pay his debts.

I am always in admiration of the awesome ingenuity of prisoners and their families.  One of the ways to smuggle things into the pen is to have a friend of relative shoot stuffed dead animals over the wall into the yard with a potato gun.  (Proof that reality is stranger than fiction, because I'd never have thought of doing that.  And I don't know anybody on God's sweet green earth that I would do that for...)  Anyway, they stuff the animals with tobacco, cell phones, or drugs, which is why prisoners on the yard are always keeping an eye out for dead squirrels, birds, etc.  So are guards.  I gather it is often a sprint to see which gets there first.

We have workshops in October and November, and we already know they're going to be a bit hairy, and might even get cancelled by the authorities...  There's going to be at least one execution in October or November - Eric Roberts and Rodney Berget, both lifers, killed prison guard Ron Johnson in an escape attempt.  Both have been sentenced to death, and both have either rejected appeals or the appeals have been denied.  (Rodney Berget is continuing a family tradition, in that his brother, Roger, was executed in Oklahoma in 2000.)  Anyway, executions disturb the prisoners (there's a surprise), and the staff (who are worried about the prisoners and how they'll react), and the administration (who double down on security, thus upsetting the prisoners even more).  So the workshops will probably be more emotional and more strained than usual. Will keep you posted.

Meantime, stay out of trouble, and go enjoy a really good meal. I did.

28 May 2012

A Lesson in Digression


By Fran Rizer


Recent events in my personal life have led to many kindnesses from relatives, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers.  Thinking about this made me consider kindness in literature.  As some of you know, great lines I find in reading tend to earn permanent homes in my digressive mind.

"Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind."  What a great line after an older woman restores a young  man's sense of masculinity by bedding down that virgin.  The closing line's been with me since I first read the play Tea and Sympathy while in seventh grade though not as assigned reading. 

On the left is Deborah Kerr as Laura Reynolds (the older woman) and John Kerr as seventeen-year-old Tom Robinson Lee in the movie produced by Vincente Minnelli in 1956, an adaptation of the 1953 stage play by Robert Anderson.

The plot of Tea and Sympathy created an uproar in the uptight fifties since it dealt not only with an older woman seducing a teenager but included accusations of homosexuality.

During eighth grade, I discovered I could go into school, store my books in my locker, go out the back door, and catch the city bus to the Five Points Theater where they showed old movies of many of the plays I'd read and loved. I caught the city bus back to the school right before dismissal. I spent most of my high school time downtown watching movies at least two days a week.  I was only caught once.  When the principal pulled my records and saw I was a straight A student, he patted me on the hand and said, "Now, Francie, don't do that again." (Kinda like cases when the jury says "guilty," but a judge gives a ridiculously light sentence because it's the first time the defendant's been in trouble.)

Vivien Leigh as Blanche when the man who'd
fallen in love with her reacts to learning that
she's a woman with a past.
I read plays by Eugene O'Neil. Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen and others, (I confess I thought The Iceman Cometh was going to be off-color.) I still enjoy reading plays, but I was (and remain) especially fond of Tennessee Williams's work, and  my favorite Williams play was A Streetcar Named Desire. The movie had been out several years before I first saw it at the Five Points. 

This one included rape and everyone's refusal to believe Blanche's accusations though they accepted the rumor that dismissal from her teaching position was because of sexual misconduct with a student. Blanche's last line, when the authorities come to take her to a mental institution because she "hallucinated" that her sister's husband raped her is,  "Whoever you are, I've always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Personally, I don't depend on the kindness of strangers, but I do appreciate them.

Are you, like me, wondering where I'm headed?  After all, most SS posts have something to do with mysteries or writing.  I seem to be digressing all over the place.

I began this blog thinking of kindness and could be headed toward something I learned long ago:
When it doesn't hurt anyone, sometimes it's better to be kind than right.

Both of the movies I mentioned dealt with older women seducing teenaged students--Laura, the coach's wife in Tea and Sympathy and Blanche who'd lost her teaching job for that offense before the action begins in A Streetcar Named Desire. Heaven knows we can't turn on the news these days without hearing about something similar, but as a retired teacher, this violation of professionalism and, in my opinion, decency, leads me to *&^*(*&^%$$# words, so I'm not going there.

I told you about skipping school and the principal's reaction.  Perhaps I was headed toward telling you my parents' reaction, which wasn't at all like the school's.

My mind is digressive. I've already warned you.  Having a digressive mind means that thoughts jump from one subject to another, frequently straying from the main subject.  In the extreme, it's not easy to even identify the main subject.
    


What were we talking about?  Reading plays.   How is that related to mystery or writing? Live drama and movies are entertaining, but reading plays is more beneficial to prose writers.  The structure of most plays is acts divided into scenes. Though the structure is there in performances, it's more obvious when a reader is looking at a print form.   Having trouble with plot sequence and pacing?  Think of your story as a three-act play.  It has a beginning, middle, and ending.  Scenes are the smaller parts of each act.  Thinking in those terms also helps in chapter division in longer works unless you're James Patterson.  I like his short, short chapters, an easy task because it's just making each scene a chapter. My last manuscript to my agent was "Pattersonesque."  It's only been a few days, and I'm eager to see his response. 

Now, what else did I want to write?  Danged if I know, so I'll just say

Until we meet again, take care of . . . YOU!