Tuesday, March 19, 2013

About some plays I've Read

Way back at the beginning of the semester, when I thought I couldn't design costumes without a script, I sent myself on a play reading adventure. Reading plays is hard work for me. I have to consciously read them - I have to hold lots of information in my head in a three dimensional space (that I also created in my head) and I have to keep track of characters who may not be talking but might still be in the scene or significant props that have been brought on or off. Lots of things to think about. I can blow through a book in no time flat, but reading a play takes me FOREVER. So, it is not pleasure reading, but more like work. But that is ok. I need more work to do. I wanted newer plays that might offer me some design challenges. Jackie Goldfinger had posted a possible reading list for a class she was teaching that had lots of contemporary playwrights/plays so I thought that was a good place to start and I branched out from there.

Penn State Altoona's Library is significantly lacking in the new play department. Perhaps this is not shocking news to others, but I was disappointed. I did the best I could. I managed to find The Mountaintop by Katori Hall and 26 Miles by Quiara Alegria Hudes.

I was pleasantly surprised by The Mountaintop. After I got the play home, I realized why it seemed so familiar to me. It was the play everyone was talking about in Philly because PTC was still running it while their stage crew was on strike. The story was much more shocking that I would have expected from a "biopic" sort of story. Especially one about Martin Luther King, such an icon of proper behavior and peace. The language felt modern, but not out of place. While it is mostly a talky play, there were a few moments of magic between the words for designers to play with. Overall, I enjoyed it, even though I didn't think I would. So I would say that is a win for the play.

26 Miles was harder to get into. I had to really push myself to stick with it. Lots of people standing around talking, and arguing, and arguing in Spanish. Sigh. But I pushed through and suddenly I was on an epic road trip to find a young woman's significant moment. My favorite moment was when the mother and daughter would write something in a notebook, tear out the page and then throw it out the car window, letting the page twirl around and disappear behind them. Now THAT gets my designer/director brain revving. Because I want to SEE that happen. I don't want to skip over it in production as "too hard". Readers will remember that I like the impossible. So that was a pleasant surprise in the play.

I got a little more brutal after that. I had the anthology New Playwrights The Best Plays of 2001. Perhaps the title set itself up for disappointment, but hey I was hopeful. The anthology opened with 36 Views by Naomi Azuka. I will admit to some cheating here. I chose 2001 because I recognized Auka's name and I am already familiar with her work both on the stage and on the page. 36 Views was magnificent. A wonderful blend of technical elements coming together to tell the story. They were perfectly integrated. The story could not be told without them. Ahh, so beautiful and lyrical. I very much enjoyed it.
Then Chagrin Falls by Mia McCullough. The premise seemed good - perspectives on people in a town where the main industries are Death Row and the Meat Packing Plant - killing and killing. Page after page after page of people just talking. No one doing anything, no real conflict. I chucked it, onto the next.
Music From a Sparkling Planet by Douglas Carter Beane. Perhaps this play had an unfair advantage as it was set in the Greater Philadelphia area, and it also seemed to speak to Generation X or so. Or maybe I am just making excuses because the play sucked me in and I don't want to admit it. And suck me in it did. At first it is 2 stories - one set in the past and another in the now. And then slowly, the stories start to blend in and out of the other. These "loser" Gen Xers decide to go on a quest to rediscover this icon of their past and I was right there cheering them on the whole way as they drove to Wildwood and then returned to Philadelphia to attack the broadcasting company. I cried tears while reading this play. I can't tell you the last time that happened (or even it has EVER happened!). And this play was mostly a people sitting around talky play. But yet I cried.
Following that heartwarming tale was Diva by Howard Michael Gould. I read a few scenes from this before bodily resisting the urge to throw the book across the room. The scenes that I read were dominated by a nasty diva woman who just manipulated and trashed everyone around her moment after moment after moment. I spent more time trying to figure out the motivation of the play than actually reading the words. We have all experienced this personality in person, why would we need to sit through 2 hours of a play to see it reenacted before us? Ok, I react very viscerally to this woman, is that the playwright's intent? That he got a reaction out of me? Great. So I hate a woman who is despicable, what have I learned? And sure, maybe there was a significant turn around for her character later. That she was so much more noble because she was soooo rotten earlier. I don't know because I never got that far. I didn't feel like I needed such toxic language and behavior in my life.
I started another play, Be Aggressive by Annie Weisman. I think it was about cheerleaders. Someone's mother had died recently. Page after page and the story wasn't going anywhere and once again, just lots of people standing around talking. Don't really need a designer here. I skimmed the last play, yep, just more talk talk talk.

And then I just got angry. You see I know lots of playwrights and really, THESE were the BEST plays of 2001!? Really!? Because I, I want to hedge here, but I will say it, I hate them. I really really hate them. What is NEW about these plays? What is different, special, unique, the BEST!? Argh! As a designer, I want to be important to a story, integral, a cog that makes the wheel turn. These plays did not really offer me that opportunity.

On a recent visit to a friends house, I discovered his treasure trove of plays and just grabbed a bunch of things that spoke to me. I will post separately about them. Meanwhile, if you have suggestions of plays that won't work without design, please share them with me! I'd love to read and learn more.

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