ON CHOOSING CAREFULLY
ON CHOOSING CAREFULLY
An early Masters and Johnson study concluded that while the average male orgasm lasts anywhere between 4 and 10 seconds, it takes that typical male around 2.5 minutes to actually reach that average orgasm.
But, I mean, let’s face it: It’s the orgasm that counts.
And so it goes with––let’s say––childbirth. Just before my son Tristan was born, we (read: my wife) endured over 40 hours of painful labor that laid waste to our plans for a Natural and Drug-Free Experience, and forced us (read: her) to undergo an emergency caesarian in order for the doctors to safely extract the little tyke.
Yet it took only about 2 seconds for me to actually see my son for the first time and experience a transformation that quelled every assumption I had ever made in my life. Everything Changed. And some of you know what I’m talking about.
We can conclude, therefore, that in writing a one-minute play, the playwright should be able to dramatize the protagonist’s complete transformation as a human being along with the best bloody orgasm in Christendom––provided the protagonist is a man––and still have at least 48 seconds left for exposition, character, and the rest of that happy horsecrap.
And if, in this hypothetical play, the transformational experience and orgasm happen to occur simultaneously? Well, then send in the clowns and pay the babysitter.
“Aha!” you may say. “The gentleman is trying to be Funny.” Perhaps. But it’s certainly true that 60 seconds is a pretty long time, if you think about it. The most influential moments of your life: I am sure that each one of them boils down to something that lasts less than a minute. You learned to ride your bike. Jamie Denkins kissed you under the bleachers. Your dog Buckie ran away but then you found him over by Pickle Pond. You get the idea.
And so, when I was asked to write a couple of one-minute plays for this festival, my first thought was that I probably could do a big jolly shitload of things in those 60 seconds. Truly. This will be easy. Of course I said yes.
Now, I really have to tell you that I have always been sort of obsessed with the notion of Economy when it comes to my own playwriting. I ask myself: What does each word really buy the audience? Ask any director or actor I’ve ever worked with––and as I’m sure you all know, there have been lierally thousands––and they will tell you that I am always happy to cut something out of the script if doesn’t actually take the audience someplace they haven’t been. “You shouldn’t be afraid to kill your babies,” my mentor once told me, and I have always found this to be a useful metaphor.
Ah, but here’s the rub: When sitting down to write these 3 plays, it was actually more difficult to be economical. As I wrote, I found the straightjacket of time to be counterintuitive to my Writer’s Voice. I wanted to reveal more right away, because I would not be able to do so later on in the piece. Inference and suggestion––oh, how I love those devices!––would not do; surely I would need to be straightforward. I began my first piece with one of those awful lines of dialogue you’ve read in countless bad plays. Something like this:
MOTHER (hangs up the phone:)
Well, my dear, that was old Mr. Pindar calling from down the street, and once again your Goddamn father is passed out drunk in front of the fucking tool shed!
You see what I mean? Lots of information crammed in there; whereas normally I would be inclined to A) start the scene later, after a line like this would have been––perish the thought––spoken, and B) let the pertinent information contained above gradually trickle out over the course of the scene. But there is no “later.” Not really. Information cannot be revealed over the course of 15 minutes because by that time my audience is at the cash bar.
For a moment, I thought that maybe this whole ultra-short form business wasn’t for me. I mean, a minute may indeed be a long time, but––not to be all hoity-toity––I’m a playwright who likes to ask Big Questions, and if there’s a way to ask and answer those questions in 60 seconds or less, it eluded me.
All of a sudden, a portentous voice in my head chimed in: “Choose Carefully,” it said to me. “The amount of time you’ve been given? You’re not going to be able to Kill the Pope.” Interesting, I thought.
The oracle’s voice continued: “You can still be obsessed with Economy. Just make sure your goals are different, dumb-ass.” This prophetic voice––I recognized it as belonging to the actor Peter Finch, now dead 35 years––was telling me to ask different questions. Not smaller questions; just different.
Perhaps the play is not about a boy becoming a man by vision-questing to Pindar’s tool shed. Perhaps the play is the phone call.
And so, I found a few of the questions I wanted my one-minute plays to answer, and––low and behold––they were pretty good ones. I even had enough time left over for a few ellipses and Pinteresque pauses, as is my wont as a writer of Serious Plays.
The amount of time between the pits of my despair and rescue? I’d say around 20 seconds.
In other words, anywhere from 2 to 5 average orgasms.
– Robert Tenges
100 Plays. 50 Playwrights. 1 Minute. The Chicago One-Minute Play Festival with Victory Gardens Theater will be presented on May 15th and 16th, 2011. Tickets are availablehere.