Next To Normal

Too Much?

I’m a member of the writing forum Absolute Write. It’s a fantastic site that deals with a lot of different genres and styles of writing, gives advice on publishing, has some fantastic threads where you can share your work and get feedback. All in all, it’s a site I recommend.

In the playwriting part of the site, this question was recently posed from user Izzie.

Smoking, Drinking, Swearing, and Dark Humor on Stage
The ten page play I am working on is a story that has been stuck in my head over the last month. So far, it has broken several of my “Do Not Write This” rules: no writing about College Kids, Teen Pregnancies, The Voice of Reason, and/or Drama Queens.” Too much of that in undergraduate college writing workshops.

Interestingly, to me anyway, it is better than I thought it would be. The characters are college kids who had teen pregnancies, one a Voice of Reason and the other a Drama Queen, but those are the things that brought them together and helped them find meaning. Or something. No finger wagging. Perfect? No. Next big hit on [insert theatre district here]? No. But I think it will turn out well and is making for good practice.

Because I am practicing, I have some questions on potentially offensive content on stage. Are these things problematic to the point I should not include similar elements in future work:

1. Drama Queen swears. In two languages, even. A lot. I thought it fit her personality. Used for emphasis and is not at random.

2. Teen pregnancies. I didn’t glorify them, but the characters ended up with some level of success in life. They’re not the epitome of mental health and I don’t know if I would call their outcome “defying the odds,” but they didn’t end up living in a dumpster or whatever after school specials would have you believe.

3. Drug references. Drama Queen went on a drug binge. See above about mental health, defying the odds, and dumpsters.

4. The Voice of Reason. She has baggage though, so is that a good thing?

There’s a lot of banter, so no praying for a moment of comic relief and ending up laughing at one line that isn’t very funny because there is so much drama you Must Laugh At Something. Thing is, I have seen an audience look afraid to laugh at gallows humor. Well, more than once. And one of the works was mine. And it ended up with someone pulling me aside and saying they were concerned. Yes, the person was serious about being concerned about my mental state because of something I wrote.

Guidance?

It’s an interesting question and one that I gave a lot of thought into before answering. It also gave me the chance to blog about this. This is how I answered her.

A lot depends on your intended audience and if it remains true to the characters. You should also ask yourself WHY you are writing this. Is it to shock or does it serve a purpose?

If your audience is college age/new adult audiences or those that attend “fringe theater” performance (I hate that term LOL I say as a member of a named “Fringe Theater” group) then yes cursing, drugs, etc are acceptable and such plays have seen success. In fact, a lot of mainstream shows feature this kind of behavior. Tony nominated musical NEXT TO NORMAL features quite a bit of cursing and drug use. AVENUE Q features even more cursing, talk about masturbation, and puppet sex. It also gave us the songs “The Internet Is For Porn” and “If You Were Gay”. DOG SEES GOD features characters who are in High School (and are pastiches for the Peanuts Gang) engaged in homosexuality, bisexuality, drinking, doing drugs, cursing, suicide, and bullying. David Mamet paints pictures with the “f-bomb” (see Glengarry Glen Ross or Oleanna) and even that old standard Neil Simon “cursed” in his plays. In THE ODD COUPLE, Oscar drinks like a fish (when I’ve played him (twice now) I’ve always played him as trying to drown out his personal sorrow through booze) and the entire group of poker buddies smoke.

NOW if you are writing a piece for High School students to PERFORM or see, then you’re going to find a lot less success with these kind of tropes (mainly the cursing), but even that is becoming less and less of an issue. I wrote a 10-minute monodrama for a young actor that didn’t have any cursing in it. I showed it to a friend of mine, a HS English and Drama teacher, and he said “you need to have this character curse.” When I asked “wouldn’t that limit the audience?”, he shrugged it off and said “not really.” This is a teacher at a very small school in Kansas.

I think all these things are fine, as long as they are true to the characters. If it is there to shock or just because you can, then they aren’t necessary, but if they are true to the characters and serve a purpose, then go for it.

I don’t think it is fair to say that there are “rules” that you must “NEVER DO.” Rules for writing, in my opinion, are made to be broken and the theater should explore all kinds of characters. I understand that some characters have become “stock” in playwriting but that doesn’t mean we can ignore them.

On the other hand, we need to ask ourselves, as playwrights, why we are writing about these characters and is there any way to make them “deeper” or more then just stock.

Theater as a means for social change

This is an issue I’ve been struggling with since the Sandy Hook/Newtown, CT school shooting. How should we as artists, playwrights, directors, and actors respond to such a tragedy. How do we share our voice and our beliefs. should we even say a thing? Do we have a responsibility beyond just entertaining?

I recently submitted a piece to the group NOPASSPORT for their Gun Control Theater Action event (to be held Jan 26 at Theater J in Washington DC). And while I haven’t heard if my piece was selected or not, but it did get me thinking. Can theater be an effective tool for societal change?

Obviously, I think it can be or I wouldn’t have spent two days writing and polishing and editing a 10 minute play for that purpose, focusing my attention on something else, a light comedy or farce perhaps. I’m reminded of a quote John Cheever said, “Art is the triumph over chaos.” Theater is an art and without it, in any form, we are allowing chaos to truimph. So, as artists, we have a responsibility to be an agent of change in our society. Every great story has a character going through an emotional or physical change from who they were to who they should be. This, in turn, should challenge the audience to examine their own life and change.

I also think that we are a visual society. That you can express in characters what is often not heard in debate. You can debate about AIDS vicitms or homosexuality if you con’t know such people, but when you watch a piece such as ANGELS IN AMERICA or RENT, you come face to face with people who are suffering from AIDS or are real people who happen to be gay, or suffer a hate crime. NEXT TO NORMAL brings us face to face with mental illness. O’Neill’s THE HAIRY APE displays his concern for the working man and society’s attempts, at that time, to look away from them.

So yes, I do think that theater not only SHOULD be an agent of social change, but has a responsibility to do as much.