Allow Me to Make Your Acquaintance
Allow Me to Make Your Acquaintance
You’ve decided to start with a character. You’re doing this in part because you hold to the dogma that Plot is by necessity beholden to Character; that the best stories are not “something happened to somebody” but “somebody caused something to happen.” You note how human beings customarily personify the intangible forces at work on their lives: Mother Nature, Father Time. You briefly consider how dull and lifeless the story of Job would be if it hadn’t begun with a wager between God and Satan.
You’ve decided to create a character, and when you examine the process too closely you start to feel a bit like Victor Frankenstein, except you’re not stitching together body parts, you’re stitching together the thousands of tiny nuances and experiences that could make that character whole and original. The thread is so fine that it disappears when it vibrates; the needle so sharp it doesn’t pierce the material so much as fit into the spaces between its atoms. And this is where it gets tricky, because unlike the aforementioned mad scientist, you’re concerned about the aesthetics of your creature, you’re doing what you can to hide the seams. You do not want a patchwork creation. You want the character not only to achieve life but also to achieve logic.
You decide on an occupation for the character and immediately have to ask yourself how old they are and whether this age is a sign of their adeptness or incompetence at the occupation. You give your character a distinctive name and then need to ask if your character’s parents would really have named your character that distinctive name. You imagine a scar on your character’s right thigh and begin excavating the story of that scar, of the summer day it happened in a small town in Ohio, the end result of a minor accident that would never have happened if your character had insisted to their best friend that the hill was too steep, the water too shallow. The best friend that your character never stood up to because your character thought it was the surest way to the best friend’s heart. And then you ask if that accident is what ultimately led your character to that occupation.
Or maybe it was this. Or maybe it was not. And in any case the story of that scar might never be told in your play. It might never even make it into the stage directions. You’ve created your character and now the question is how much of that character you’re actually going to share.
Now take all of that above and give yourself the task of finding a single minute. Recognize, first, that many of the most important moments in any person’s life can happen in a minute or less—the first kiss, the baby beginning to cry, the SUV barreling through the red light—and then try to determine the most compelling minute you could share with an audience.
Then add another character. Repeat the steps above for the second character and then ask how it’s possible that this exact same minute in the life of the first character could also be profoundly important in the life of the second character. Examine the common histories of these two characters, the histories they don’t have in common, the thousands of tiny choices that led them both to this single minute. Invent the shorthand of their communication based on their relationship up until now. Determine the single word that means nothing to others and everything to them, consider the way their hands interlock briefly before they say goodbye. You only have a minute, which means so do your characters, whether or not they know it.
Add a third character. Add a fourth. Track their lives up until this same minute. Let the forward velocity of all four of their lives lead them here, let them careen and carom off of each other for the span of that minute and then remove them from the audience’s view entirely. Never return to these characters again. Your audience has had one minute to get acquainted with them but if you’ve chosen the right minute your characters won’t simply be acquaintances.
The comedy of human existence is that everybody gets a story; the tragedy is that nobody gets to read them all. The thing you discover, while trying to tell the story of a single minute, is that it might be possible for that minute to be all one needs to learn the definition of a character’s lifetime.
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.