Theater, Out of the Box and Into the Magic

Theater, Out of the Box 
and Into the Magic


By Robin Catesby
Stage & Screen Moderator


©2001, Robin Catesby 



The stage is a magical playground, yet very few new playwrights take advantage of it.  Raised on television, or perhaps on revivals of You Can’t Take it With You and The Odd Couple, they tie themselves to linear structure, to realistic sets, to character types we recognize from every second-rate TV sit-com.  Where’s the magic?  It’s there, waiting to be used.  The magic of language, the magic of vision, the magic of unconventional story telling -- all of it waiting to be tapped.   


I served on the board of a playwriting organization for a number of years, and during my involvement in workshops, readings and script competitions I began to notice an odd similarity between the dozens and dozens of scripts that passed through my hands.  Mother - daughter relationship plays, Father - son reunion plays, strangers trying to fit into a small town, university couples meeting on a weekend and threatening affairs.   All domestic or “kitchen sink” dramas, almost all of them lacking in magic. 


Granted the “write what you know” principle is pounded into young writers with alarming intensity, but there must be more to theater than dysfunctional families and caustic couples.  Especially when the beginning playwright clearly lacks the verbal pyrotechnics of either a Sam Shepard or an Edward Albee. 


A friend of mine served as a script judge for last year’s Writer’s Digest competition and had a similar experience.  How refreshing it was, he told me, to find something out of the ordinary.  Something that didn’t take place in a kitchen or a living room and involve a woman searching to find herself, a daughter searching to break free, a son striving to please his estranged father.  Yes, all of these domestic scenarios can lead to fine theater, but only if they are tackled with courage, a high degree of skill, and most of all, innovation.  


For my own work, I’ve a manifesto of sorts.  The short version: No Kitchen Sinks.  I am never satisfied to stay within the box.  I’ve traveled to dreamlands where garden vegetables talk, I’ve written in whimsical rhyme, I’ve deconstructed Shakespearean history.  Ghosts and alchemy abound, and I’m happy to know that none of my scripts would ever make a decent TV show.  They shouldn’t. 


Go on, try it.  Step out of the box. 


Don’t be frightened by poetry; don’t run from a whimsy with words.  The rough beauty of Arthur Miller’s working-class blokes in A View From the Bridge is not realism, not the dialogue of TV land.  It’s heightened, compressed, wrenched from the characters’ guts.  Read the playwrights who embrace language -- Tom Stoppard, Peter Shaffer, David Mamet, to just scratch the surface -- then find your own eloquence, your own rhythms, pauses, explosions of heart and soul. 


Forget the unities of time and space.  If you’ve got a unity of theme, you don’t need ‘em.   Tell your story out of order.  Tell it simultaneously in three locations thousands of miles (or years) apart.  Tell it with interludes of shoop-shoop songs sung by a Greek chorus.  Float through your protagonist’s memories in the order they come to her, not in the order they occurred.   


Explore the world of theatrical magic-- learn about lighting effects, scrims, rear projections, all the nifty tricks that exist in the world of technical theater.  Take a tech class at a local community college.  If you want to write for the stage, you need to know the tools of the trade.  


Now, theatrical magic of the technical kind can sometimes go a bit too far.  This is the real world after all, not Hollywood, and theater companies do have horrifically tight budgets.  I once read an adaptation of Ramona Quimby that included a snow machine, falling leaves, and a sequence where in a dozen “reflections” of Ramona stepped out from a row of mirrors and danced ballet across the stage.  Beautiful to imagine, but a royal pain to produce.  The script only gets produced at large companies who can afford that much magic  (and that many little Ramona clones!).   But this doesn’t mean you can’t explore the magic of theater when writing for a smaller company.  Theatrical magic can happen with a flash of unexpected costume, a cascade of light and color, a magnificence of sound.  It can happen on a bare stage with no effects at all. 


Don’t be afraid to explore the unconventional, but remember always that you are still telling a story.  You can tell it backwards as Harold Pinter did in Betrayal, you can add that Greek Chorus of shoop-shoop songs as Paula Vogel did in How I Learned to Drive, but never let the magic destroy your story.   If you are changing the structure -- tackling the story in a non-linear fashion -- remember that the structure should either reflect the theme, ask the story question, or amplify the audience’s attachment to the protagonist. Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus unfolds as a confession -- Salieri, the patron saint of mediocrity, revealing all.  He is our window into the world of genius, and the story would otherwise lack the depth and pathos this unconventional structure brings to it.   Terra Nova by Ted Tally slips in and out of dreams and visions, not because the playwright thought it was a neat theatrical trick, but because the play’s main characters are dying on the Antarctic ice, hallucinating, grasping onto dreams to fend off reality. 


For the larger non theater-going audience, look no further than the recent wave of neo-noir films including The Usual Suspects, The Limey and Memento.   The unconventional methods of storytelling in each film are there for a reason.  They serve a purpose that’s integral to the plot and to the inner-workings of the lead character.  Unconventional structure should not be layered on top as a gimmick.  It’s part of the meat of the piece, not just dessert to impress the critics. 

Theater is all about words (so they say), but words are only one of the tools at your disposal.  Make some magic not only with your poetry, but with images and with the very core of your story.  Elevate it beyond the sit-com inspired domestic dramas that fill the in-boxes of small theater companies across the country.  Write your own manifesto of magic.