Wednesday, December 14, 2011
How to Build a Play?
By Rana Nayar
Before we talk of ‘how’ to build a play, let us briefly talk of ‘what’ a play is and ‘how’ it is made. Let me start off by saying that the art of ‘making’ or ‘building’ a play is different from the art of writing a poem or a novel. Put simply, a play is not just a collocation of words on a printed page (text) but is made or created within the precincts of a ‘theatre’ (which is what Peter Brooks calls The Empty Space). (All great playwrights have been apprentices who created their plays, not in the privacy of their rooms but in the lively and vibrant ambience of theatre. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Mahesh Dattani). It is this ‘performative’ (text as performance or text in performance) aspect of drama that makes it very different from other genres.
I’m not saying that a poem or a novel can’t be dramatized or performed, it could well be; but a play is not a play unless it is performed. It is in this sense that we often say that a play is twice-born. A play has two lives, first as a text and then as a performance. And if it is a good play, it will multiply these two lives into several hundred or thousand. (Imagine how many productions Sophocles’ King Oedipus, Antigone or Shakespeare’s Hamlet or King Lear must have had. Simply countless. To my mind, this is what building a play is all about; it is creating it in a way that it has several lives. More re-runs it has, more chances of it acquiring an enduring, eternal life.
Let’s look at the etymology of the term DRAMA. It is traced back to the Greek word ‘drame’ which means to act or to do. Drama is connected with action. Aristotle also defines it as a form of imitation...imitation of an action. Important thing is that in drama thought has no meaning if it doesn’t manifest itself as an action. Often, in drama action and thought go together. For example, let’s think of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. In that play Macbeth wants to kill Duncan. He harbours a murderous thought. Is that enough? No, it isn’t. In that case, the play will not move forward and if it doesn’t, nothing will happen. And if nothing happens, there will be no play (Everyone is not as ingenuous as Beckett that they should be able to create a play out of nothing). For instance, if Hamlet (in the play of the same name) just keeps thinking of avenging his father’s murder, he won’t be able to act. He can’t act because he thinks too much. Thinking has paralyzed his capacity to act. And that is his problem, too.
Now in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot “nothing happens twice” as one critic puts it. The characters simply wait and in this process of waiting, so much happens that one is often left completely stunned. In modern drama, action happens inside the mind or as J. L. Stylan says: ‘All drama is in the mind.” Theatre, as I said earlier is “an empty space” and by that logic, human mind is also a tabula rasa. Just as we can create unimaginable possibilities in theatre, so we can write innumerable images, experiences and impressions on this clean slate called mind. Be it physical or mental, a play is action of one kind or the other. A play is the art of doing, making, building and creating or simply, an act of doing something meaningful. Yes, the word meaningful is important for me here.
Now for any action to be possible, you have to be in a group or what we call an ensemble. (An ensemble is a term from music which means that all the musicians in a concert play different instruments and yet manage to build up towards a totality called ‘harmony’. In an ensemble, an individual musician contributes effectively to the overall impact of the music). Now imagine that you are sitting in a room by yourself. What are the options you have? You could either look out of the window or at the walls. Or you could pick up a book from the shelf and start browsing it or you may tire of everything and go off to sleep. A single person in a room doesn’t offer any dramatic potential. Unless, he starts doing loud thinking or starts soliloquizing. But again, there are limits beyond which it can’t be done. Now imagine that you are alone in the room and your friend walks in, saying: “WHAT’S UP?” The moment, you say, “Yaar, I was just lazing around”, it is the beginning of conversation. But does that mean that this conversation will always develop into a dialogue? It may be so, but it is not necessarily so.
The real question is: how is an ordinary conversation different from a dialogue? Often conversations are unstructured, but dialogues are always structured. The moment you begin, you know the direction in which it has to proceed. Or else it would just meander freely and not move in any direction. So dialogue is a “meaningful conversation,” a structured conversation. Now, how does a dramatist create these “meaningful verbal structures?” (You may call dialogue this, for convenience). Think of the opening scenes of Shakespeare and you’ll know what I’m talking about. All right, let me remind you of Ibsen’s play Ghosts. It begins with two relatively minor characters, Engstrand and Regina. Engstrand walks into the room where Regina is. He has come in from the garden where he was working, is soaked to the skin, and says: “It’s the Lord’s rain, I tell you.” Regina says: “It’s the devil’s rain, I say.” Now this might be simply treated as a comment on weather and dismissed off. But if we read closely, we discover that it is not about weather but about the theme or ‘structure of ideas’ that Ibsen wants to develop in the play. Engstrand who gives the impression of being a pious, God-fearing man turns out to be a ‘rogue’ and even a ‘devil’ Regina is referring to. (In a play, things often don’t turn out the way we expect them to. There is a great deal of difference between the ‘surface’ and ‘latent meaning’, between the ‘illusion’ and ‘reality.’) So, this is what is called a structured dialogue. Dialogue is structured because it defines and creates the character, reveals his/her intentions or motives behind the words; configures a situation and also ensures that the possibility of onward movement of action is constantly fulfilled, at least, until such times as the play doesn’t reach a climax and/or resolution. If drama is action, then let us remember, dialogue is spoken action.
Now if action has to move forward and has to have an onward momentum, what should a dramatist do? Well, the least he could do is to ensure that the action must not move forward along the lines that we, the readers or spectators, either suspect it will or expect it to. If it were to so happen, the basic purpose of creating a drama would be defeated. Drama is nothing if it is not suspense. Drama is nothing if its action is predictable. Unpredictability is what makes drama what it is, and implausibility is what ruins drama completely. Add to this the fact that when we go to watch a play, often our interest is not in what the story is, but how it is dramatized. It’s ‘how’ more that ‘what’ that defines the essence of drama. So, a good dramatist always captures the attention of his reader/spectator right from the word go. Starting his action in the middle (or what is called ‘Medias Res’) of things, a dramatist first creates a crisis-situation and then goes about resolving it.
Playwright is more like a carpenter or a shipbuilder who first dis-assembles a story in his workshop and then re-assembles it. It’s like putting different parts of a ship together or putting bricks or blocks to create a structure of a house or a building. Have you ever thought: Why we use the term playwright for a person who writes plays? You’ll say, well, it is obvious, because he writes plays. But my dear, the spellings are very different. It’s PLAYWRIGHT, just the way we say, SHIPWRIGHT. A shipwright is a person who builds a ship and a playwright is a person who builds a play. We call a dramatist a playwright only because the term has all the meanings of a builder, an artisan, a craftsman, a mechanic rolled into it. No wonder, Aristotle called playwright a craftsman, someone who shapes plays out of someone else’s story, just the way a carpenter shapes raw wood into different pieces of furniture.
Now this is important. A playwright is not an inventor of stories; he is only a user of stories. A playwright always works with the material others have produced. He only reproduces it. It could be a folk-tale, a legend, a myth, a slice of history, a real-life incident, a newspaper report or just about any scrap of information. A playwright possesses the necessary ability to transmute this material into something potentially dramatic, exciting and unpredictable. This raises a fundamental question: Is playwright’s craft in any way inferior to that of poets and novelists? No, certainly not. In the ultimate analysis, it requires imagination to build anything, be it a novel, a poem or a play. If you wish to be a playwright, you must start off with a ‘story-telling session’. Unless we master the art of story-telling, we can’t become good playwrights. Now you might say that this is contrary to what I said a little while ago. No it isn’t. I did say that a playwright works with the ‘stories’ others have created but this doesn’t mean a playwright has no sense of how a story works. In fact, he has a better sense of how a story works as compared to a story-teller, because he re-tells stories. So, it is a good idea to start telling stories about yourself, about people around whom you may or may not know. One could pick up a story the group is familiar with, narrate it to them once and ask the group to re-tell it in a piecemeal manner, each member of the group adding a dialogue or a character as s/he leads it forward.
There can be hundred and one ways of telling the same story and the group must discover at least a few out of those hundred odd. This is important if the group has to understand the difference between a story and a plot. E. M. Forster explains this distinction very well. Forster says, ‘King dies and the Queen also dies’ is a story, but ‘King dies and the Queen dies of grief’ is a plot. In a plot, incidents have to be connected logically and causally. Let us remember that a plot is a reconstruction of a story. It is in the process of telling and re-telling that a group will learn to explore different ways of starting a play or an effective beginning, as they say. We know how the legend of Oedipus works. And we also know that the play King Oedipus doesn’t begin in the same way as the legend does. (You may explain the difference at this point).
Now what does it mean to change a story into a plot? It only means that ‘time-space’ arrangement of the story has to be re-adjusted. In other words, plotting a story is all about re-mapping the two coordinates of human experience dominating any specific human situation, including a drama, i.e., time and space. We know that all human experience happens within the frame of time and space and also makes sense within this frame. Let me say, what is true of human experience is equally true of drama. Now, what does it mean to create this time-space frame? You are sitting in this hall, and today is March 5, 2011. This defines your location in time-space continuum. All plays have to have a location, a setting, an atmosphere and must belong to a definite period of time as well. Shakespeare was very fond of locating the action of his plays in late medieval or early Renaissance Italy. This helped him look at his own society from a distance. By locating the action in time-space, a playwright imparts a sense of reality as well as structure to his plays.
As the group starts dramatizing the story, it has to bear in mind that the first step towards dramatization is: creating dialogues and also creating characters who speak these dialogues. Now you would say, it is simple enough, but it isn’t as simple as it sounds. I have already spoken to you about the ‘dialogue’ and how it is different from an ‘ordinary conversation’. Now let me make a few observations about the character. In a way, a character in drama is just another person, like you and me. A character is the product of one of the several possibilities that are inherent in you and me. You are not King Lear or King Oedipus, but given a different set of circumstances, you may become either. So, a character always has a ‘being’ and more significantly, s/he is always in a state of ‘becoming’; character is a series of possibilities out of which some may be explored and others left unexplored by a playwright. His selection of incidents and situations from his life depends largely upon the way and the direction in which he wants the character to develop.
And let us remember that a character always develops within the framework of a particular drama, which is also to say, that s/he could develop differently in a different context. People have experimented with this idea. Someone has written a play on Lady Macbeth, who only plays a supportive role in the play Macbeth and someone on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Tom Stoppard), who are only minor characters in Hamlet. Let me list a few things that a playwright remembers while creating a character. These are: consistency, credibility, plausibility and internal coherence. All this might sound too textual, so let me now talk of how to create a character on the stage. We all understand that role-playing is an important aspect of socialization. Not only do we have to understand the limits, demands, requirements and obligations of our role, but also perform them in a fairly consistent manner. If we don’t do it, we invite the charge of being undependable or acting in a manner inconsistent with our character.
So role-playing is central to character making. Just as re-telling story is important to discover how to make a plot, so role-playing is important to know how to make a character. Just ask a group of students to act and behave like someone else, perhaps their teacher. As it progresses, one can add other elements to it, such as gestures, facial expressions, style of walking or talking and even costumes. What actually starts as a game becomes a more serious exercise towards ‘creating a character’. You have a story you are prepared to re-tell, you have written a series of structured dialogues, and your role-playing is becoming more than a game; well, you don’t have to build the play anymore. You have arrived at a crucial moment when it is ready to be staged.
I have shared some of these observations with you in the hope that each one of you has a budding actor, a playwright or a director inside you. You always had the potential, now you have the roadmap as well. Just go ahead and realize your latent potential. And once you do so, the play will start rolling off your workshop.
Do I see the clouds of smoke rising somewhere out there? Is someone’s imagination on fire? Is something cooking? And, is it a play, by any chance?