Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What do you want?

"The difference between a good playwright and a bad playwright is caring about every single word that comes out of a character's mouth."  
   -- Tony Kushner
Jude Law and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Hamlet.

In my teaching and dramaturg-ing, I've often talked to playwrights about “passive characters”.

This notion floats around but maybe we all don’t know what it means. I’ve certainly been guilty of writing a passive character.  Sometimes its easy to see and  fix, but other times, not so much.

What are they really saying when a director or dramaturg says  your character is passive? 

I equate it with a director giving me as an actor a note of “I don’t know what you’re doing in this scene?  What action are you playing?  What do you want in this scene from the other person?”

Which, as an actor, clues me into the fact that I’m not playing an objective, or it isn’t clear what objective I’m playing, and also that the obstacle is not clear.  Characters want something and are defined by HOW they go about getting through the obstacles to get what they want (ie behavior and actions).

So when a dramaturg, director, or fellow playwright describes a character as passive, that’s really what they’re saying.  It’s not just that the objective/want is unclear, its that the conflict and obstacles are not clear, either (or completely absent).  Or it may simply be that the objective/conflict needs more at stake.

Every character in your play, whether they have one line or a hundred, must have a driving need to be there.  They cannot be a mouthpiece for you as the playwright.  They must serve a function.  It can be a simple need but it needs to be dramatically active.  Of course, the more complex the need and the more conflict, the more dramatically interesting its going to be.  A messenger with one line should have a relatively small need compared to say, Hamlet, right?

But if Hamlet’s only need is to “grieve his father”, we wouldn’t get past the second scene of Shakespeare’s play.  His overall need is to avenge his father’s death.  Once he hears from the ghost his father was murdered, a whole series of actions gets set into motion and he starts DOING a lot of things.  Hamlet is not just a “gloomy dane”, as some English profs would like to believe.  He’s on the move and quite active.

Most of the time, I find myself walking into the “passive character” zone when I have a character that is quite similar to myself, or I’m using a real situation.  This is natural.  In real life, most of us are quite passive.  Yes, we do things, but on the whole, most of us avoid conflict.  Few of us enjoy confrontations.  We deal with them when they happen, but if we can get what we want without pissing off our neighbor, that’s great.  And it’s rare when we run into not getting what we want in a big way. 

Theater is a truncated version of real life.  As soon as a real story or situation is put on stage, it needs to be leaner. We don't want to see the moments of non-conflict (usually).  We want to see people at their very worst or their very best, overcoming obstacles.   

So if people are telling you that your character is passive, you need to reexamine the wants and needs in a big way.  Are they as dramatically interesting as you think they are?  Is there enough conflict or do your characters get what they want pretty quickly?  What are the actions that your character is doing to get what they want? 

Sometimes it’s just a little tweak here or there.  Other times, you might rewrite the character completely in a whole new and exciting way.  

Rest assured, you’re not alone.  Everyone lands in the passive zone eventually.  Good writers just know how to rewrite their way out of there.

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