Saturday, April 20, 2013

Theatre For Thought, April 20, 2013

joel fishbane

It was like being in school all over again. And not just because I was in school.

I’m sitting in my last screenwriting class and we’re going over the answers to the final exam; this being an enlightened course, we took the exam during the penultimate class and now have the opportunity to discuss it with the teacher. One of the questions asked for the purpose of a screenplay. “Is it A) to provoke an emotional response or B) to provide a blueprint for a film.” I had blithely answered B, confidant that it was probably the one question I would get right. And in a moment of great dramatic irony, it was the one question I had, apparently, gotten wrong.

“If a screenplay doesn’t provoke emotion, it isn’t working,” said my teacher and instantly an alarm went off in my head. I was sent spiralling back to my early university days when I was sitting in playwriting class with another teacher who also used to say things I strenuously objected to. Back then, I argued my way into a D-minus. Never one to learn from my mistakes, I now raised my hand and went to war.

plays are by definition incomplete

A screenplay, like a play, is nothing but a blueprint for a production. It is not meant to be read the same way as a novel. If a play is perfect on the page – that is, if you can read it and have a complete literary experience – then it is not a play. It is a piece of literature written in dramatic form. 

This very point was touched on recently in the Guardian in an essay by Nicholas Hytner, the director of London’s National Theatre. “A novel can tell you everything you want to know about what it's trying to say,” wrote Hytner, “but plays are by definition incomplete. They are instructions for performance, like musical scores, and they need players to become music.” Hytner’s essay, which focuses on his production of Hamlet with Rory Kinnear, discusses the various ways that Shakespeare’s text is merely the starting point for those artists brave enough to bring it to life.

A similar thing was mentioned by Tony Kushner, the famed playwright of Angels in America and author of the screenplay for Lincoln. In the afterword for Perestroika, Kushner remarked: “The fiction that artistic labour happens in isolation…is, in my case, repudiated by the facts.” He goes on to say that the smallest divisible human unit is two people. “From such a net of souls,” he concludes, “societies, the social world, human life springs. And also plays.”

The more work I do as an artist, the more I am struck by the fact that no artist is an island, at least not the successful ones. The very first collaboration occurs the moment an artist opens themselves up for critique (usually at a young age and invariably from a mother). The net of souls only widens from there. Plays and screenplays are written to be interpreted. We essentially write out a series of instructions: you say this and someone else says this and then someone else pulls out a gun. What sort of gun? What are they wearing when they get shot? I’ll leave that to people far more knowledgeable than I.

I said something to this effect to my screenwriting teacher and I’m happy to say I argued my way into an extra half-point on my exam. My teacher tried his best to convince me, but I just couldn’t buy it. While the instructions of playwrights and screenwriters may produce emotion, I suspect it is more by luck than design. I’d almost argue that the best scripts don’t actually provoke emotion at all. They are blueprints for the provocation of emotion, just as they are blueprints for everything else: stand here and say this and you will make the people cry. 

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