What the Heck Is This Play About?

[This is the first post on the subject of Script Analysis.  It’s a topic I’ll deal with in depth in a month or three, but my current students have need of this right now, so I’m tossing it into the middle of the Creativity series.]

A-Few-Good-MenAs an actor, you have to know this before you can begin to do justice to your role.

Playwrights don’t write plays because the local theater needs a script.  They write because they have something to say that sheds a tiny bit of light – no answers, necessarily, just light – on some aspect of human existence.

You need to figure out why the playwright felt driven to write this particular play.  The answer is going to directly affect the choices you make as an actor.  If you’re going to be a good storyteller – and that’s all an actor really is, a storyteller – then you’d better know what the story you’re telling is about.

The fancy English Lit term for this is “theme.”  I’ve always hated this word.  Never understood it in school, despite asking multiple teachers to explain it.  Whatever words they were using to describe it were too esoteric for me.

I began to get a handle on it during playwriting classes, and finally grasped it fully when I started to direct.  Identifying and articulating the theme and choosing a vision that honors the playwright’s reason for writing the play is the first responsibility of the director.

Why not just wait for the first rehearsal, when the director will share his understanding and vision with you?

First, because it’s lazy.  Understanding the reason for the play in your bones is going to help you produce better work than if you just sign your name to the director’s vision statement.  Yes, you need to understand and subscribe to what he tells you, but you’ll have more luck doing so if you do your own homework.

Second, because not every director is going to share his vision with you, particularly in amateur theater.  Not every amateur director realizes that having a vision and sharing it with his cast is his responsibility.  If he doesn’t, you better find the answer yourself if you hope to turn in a credible performance.

So what’s a “theme?”

It’s what the play is about, not what happens in the play.  What happens in the play is the plot:  Felix Unger gets kicked out by his wife, he moves in with his friend Oscar, they fight and drive each other nuts, but ultimately learn to get along.  (The play in question is Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, in case you aren’t familiar with it.)

Playwrights use the plot as a means of talking about the issues that matter to them.  Underneath the plot, they are really dealing with high concepts.  Start by going after them.  You can do this by asking yourself, “What is Simon concerned with in this play?  What part of life is he examining?”

Answer:  Loneliness and friendship.  Some other examples?

     King Lear:  Greed, ego, and love.
     Romeo and Juliet:  Love and hate.
     Amadeus:  Talent, desire, envy, and grace.
     A Few Good Men:  Loyalty, honor, justice, and humanity.

You might choose different words to describe these plays, but I hope you get the idea.

If you go no further than identifying the high concepts, you’ve got something valuable to work with.  If you’re in The Odd Couple, you need to look at your role in terms of loneliness and friendship.  What are the moments when loneliness is a part of your existence?  When do you have friendship or are striving to get it?

By looking for the connections between the high concepts and the action or dialogue in the play, you can subtly “underline” them for the audience, which is good storytelling.  Pass everything that happens during the play through the filter of “loneliness” and “friendship”, and the playwright’s message should come through loud and clear.

You can’t possibly do this effectively unless you know what the play is about.

The theme is more than just the high concepts.  The playwright has an opinion about those concepts.  How you interpret the opinion is your vision.  Different people, because they have different personalities and backgrounds, may interpret the playwright’s opinion in slightly or materially different ways.  This is why vision is the director’s choice.  We all have to be on the same page, and the director is the one to choose that page.

So how you string the high concepts together matters.  For The Odd Couple, I might say, “Friendship is the only antidote to loneliness.”

For A Few Good Men, I might say, “When loyalty to corporate bodies harms an individual, it is no longer honorable.”  Or I might say, “Everyone deserves justice, irrespective of rank or prestige.”  Or, “We must never forget that the military is made up of human beings.”  In the first instance, I am emphasizing loyalty and honor.  In the second, justice and equality.  In the third, humanity and compassion.  Whichever alternative I choose determines what I want to most emphasize in my portrayal of whatever character I am playing.  Productions using different visions will, of necessity, have different feels and different impacts.

Which is why the first, most important step in Script Analysis is to know why the playwright wrote the play.  Or at least, why you think he did.


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