Friday, April 3, 2009

What Makes Theatre So Unique?

So I’ve started teaching my playwriting class again and am so happy to be back in the classroom, thinking and talking about the fundamentals of solid storytelling and playwriting.

And really, good playwriting starts with good storytelling. This is why Shakespeare has lasted throughout the ages and no one knows about any other playwrights of the time except for possibly Marlowe.

(Unless you have an English Lit degree you may know some of the others.)

Not that other writers of the Elizabethan stage were terrible, but Shakespeare and Marlowe knew a good story and how to tell it.

What I love about teaching playwriting is that it connects me back to the fundamentals. Like with anything—acting, directing, playing guitar, riding a bike, golf, eating well, etc.—the fundamentals are key. As with most arts, you can learn the fundamentals in a fairly short time. Say, two years. But to truly master the fundamentals, that takes a lifetime.

Last night I read a great essay by Thornton Wilder called “Some Thoughts on Playwriting”. Wilder is one of those old masters where you think you know all about him because of the success of one play (that play being Our Town which is not just a nostalgic ode to Norman Rockwell but a deep examination of life with very dark undertones). What many people don’t realize was how innovative and revolutionary he was as a writer. Honestly, writing a play which doesn’t need a set—no, actually mandates there not be a set—in a time when lavish sets and costumes were the norm was a radical act and he got a lot of heat from audiences and critics alike. But Wilder was a master storyteller and if the only play you know of by him is Our Town, I suggest you pick up a collection of his works and get acquainted.

Next week in my class we are going to talk about how what makes theatre unique from other arts.

In Wilder’s essay, he lays out four fundamental differences:

1) The theater is an art which depends on the work of many collaborators

2) It is addressed to the group-mind (it needs an audience)

3) It is based upon a pretense and its very nature calls out a multiplication of pretenses (ie-people put on masks or characters pretending to be someone else and we as audience buy into that illusion with no qualms)

4) Its action takes place in a perpetual present time (theatre is always about the now

In the essay, which I recommend you read, goes into succinct explanation of what these things mean and some examples of each.

I’ve read a lot of theory and explanations about what makes drama tick. What’s beautiful about Wilder’s essay is its coming from the mind of a playwright, someone who has seen and knows what works on stage and with an audience. That’s really the bottom line.

And he has a great concluding paragraph:

The theater offers to imaginative narration its highest possibilities. It has many pitfalls and its very vitality betrays it into service as mere diversion and the enhancement of insignificant matter; but it is well to remember that it was the theater that rose to the highest place during those epochs that aftertime has chosen to call “great ages” and that the Athens of Pericles and the reigns of Elizabeth I, Philip II, and Louis XIV were also the ages that gave to the world the greatest dramas it has known.

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