Monday, September 13, 2010

Writing the solo show pt. 3: Let's get physical

In 1916, a writer of the Evening Sun in New York by the name of Don Marquis, created a fictional poet by the name of Archy. He also happened to be a cockroach with the soul of a human. From this downtrodden, underbelly view of the world, Archy shows how he sees life, and death and religion, and we meet his friend, Mehitable, an alley cat who is the re-incarnation of Cleopatra.

Archy types one letter at a time, without punctuation or much grammar, yet is quite lucid and poetical (and this pre-dates e.e. cummings, by the way).

Take this excerpt from the most famous poem, where Pete the Parrot talks about Shakespeare, the poor mutt, who he knew well:

money money says bill what the hell
is money what i want is to be
a poet not a business man

these damned cheap shows
i turn out to keep the
theatre running break my heart

slap stick comedies and

blood and thunder tragedies
and melodramas say i wonder

if that boy heard you order

another bottle Frankie
the only compensation is that i get

a chance now and then
to stick in a little poetry

when nobody is looking

but hells bells that isn t

what i want to do
i want to write sonnets and
songs and spenserian stanzas
and i might have done it too
if i hadn t got
into this frightful show game

business business business

grind grind grind

what a life for a man

that might have been a poet

Last post I mentioned one should do some research—read some solo shows or go see them. Friday night I got the chance to see Gale McNeeley perform his solo show Archy & Mehitabel. Complete with songs and recitations, characters from the poems and stories came to life due to Gale’s physicality and multiple voices.

Which brings me to my next thing to think about when writing a solo show, or rather, the thing I’m thinking about now.

 And that’s to remember that theatre is a physical activity.

Playwrights often forget this, which is why we see a lot of “talking heads” shows or plays that feel more like TV (which is also very aurally dependent as opposed to film which relies heavily on images).

Even though the above excerpt is a rich text-driven piece of poetry, Gale is able to inhabit multiple characters through his voice, body, and movements. We see him do Archy, by use of a 1920s style hat, and then launch into being Pete the Parrot, a drunken Will Shakespeare, a bloated Ben Johnson, and also Frankie Beaumont (some random bar patron, I assume).

Gale has extensive training in dell’arte and European clowning, which means he understands how a simple gesture, a slight variation in stance can create character and move a story along. Playwrights forget that. They rely too heavily on the words. Words are only part of the story. We’re not building a radio show. It’s live theatre.

Here’s a trick to think about when developing your monologues. Not all of us have dell’arte or clown training (I certainly don’t). You can still think of physicality in the simplest terms by thinking about activities that can be done. What can your character be doing that might coincide with what’s going on in the scene?

For instance:
a pregnant mom talking about her anxieties of being a new mother might be knitting baby socks
a musician changing strings on a guitar.
a man who just got his heart broken might be talking about his ex-girlfriend while he systematically rips up love letters

You don’t always necessarily need some kind of physical activity. There are times when the text needs to be front and center with little movement at all. But in the early stages of writing, it helps to remember and think about the physical three-dimensional space these characters will inhabit.

No comments: