In college, I took a class called The Novel in Stories, which studied collections of short stories that—when taken together—tell a longer arc. Two famous examples are Winesburg, Ohio and The Martian Chronicles. I thought it would be interesting to explore how this might pan out in theater form. Each act of my latest play, Circles Circles Circles Circles Circles, could, theoretically, be produced alone as a self-contained one-act play. However, taken together, the two one-act plays cohere into a larger theme. It sounds great on paper but, it turns out, doesn’t work in practice (just like Communism).
A recurring criticism is that the two halves don’t make a coherent story. Strictly speaking, that’s correct, but I was trying to redefine what makes a coherent story. That being said, when ten different people tell you your hat looks like a badger, it might be time to check your hat for a pulse.
Two weeks ago, I had lunch with an Artistic Director who passed on Circles. I thought it might be valuable to hear what her problems were, and I received a very familiar criticism. So I asked her opinion of my solution: to cut the entire second act.
She seemed shocked. She took a moment to process that. “But I like the second act.”
And here’s the thing: I like it, too. I had an off-kilter concept, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, and I did. Yay, me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. So what I’ve got is a very well-written second act that sucks.
For one thing, it breaks several of my Playwriting Rules, most damning, number 19 (“No plays about writers or writing”), but also 18 (“No plays about plays”), 17 (“No plays set in a living room, restaurant, or coffee shop, but mostly living rooms”), 5 (“Autobiographical plays suck”), and, by default, 20 (“Try not to break more than one of these rules in any single play”).
Also, the second act is too clever. Playwrights don’t get paid very much, and it’s not like someone’s looking over our shoulders, so sometimes we indulge ourselves and show off how clever we are and bring shitty plays into the world. Nothing wrong with that. It may even be a useful exercise. But, you better be willing to clean up the mess after you’re done.
At the moment, I’m a hundred pages into a new novel, but once I finish that, I’ll take a crack at rewriting the second act. I already have a great idea that isn’t “clever” nor breaks any of my Playwriting Rules. So, if it sucks, it will suck for entirely new reasons.
There’s a phrase among writers that I’ve always disliked, “Murder your darlings.” They’re not darlings. They’re the gorgeously-crafted feces sculptures that are keeping you from writing a decent play. They might be beautiful, inspiring gasps from all who look upon them, but at the end of the day, they’re still piles of shit.
- Monologue sledgehammer
- Play nice