Less talk, more rock.
Back in the day when I still harbored delusions of being the world’s favorite sardonic nerdcore rock star, I often recited a saying (pawned off of the eponymous Propagandhi album. “Who is Propaghandi?” you ask. Exactly): “Less Talk, More Rock.” No one wants to go to a show — big fancy concert hall, trashy basement show, backroom of your least favorite bar or Knights of Columbus hall, whatever — and just hear a bunch of dudes with guitars espouse about life and tell how they feel about the world, and what their songs are about. I’ll fully admit that if you put me in front of an audience with a guitar and get me going, I will banter until the End of Time. And despite the fact that my banter is undeniably charming and brilliant and hilarious, no one wants to hear that (okay well maybe they do a little. ’cause I’m awesome). They want to hear a damn song, and if done right, that song will tell them everything they need to know about my world view and me as an artist. I shouldn’t have to explain it.
Now that I’ve graduated from playing shitty punk rock songs at your local VFW to writing delightfully verbose diatribes for other people to recite at your local Boston Playwrights Theatre, this mantra still comes to mind. Anyone who has met me or seen / read any of my previous work will not be surprised to know that I’ve taken more than a few creative cues in my life from the Joss Whedon School of Dramatic Storytelling, which preaches lots of fast, quippy dialogue about who-kn0ws-what (in addition to the time-honored traditions of random and arbitrary deaths). It’s how I write, because it’s how I talk (which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that, yes, I’m hypomanic, but still). I’ve always envied the Mamets and Pinters of the world, the writers who can create a scene of people saying “Hi” “Hey” “How are you” “I’m good, how are you?” “I’m well. Something dramatic” “Oh okay” “Bye” and still make it incredibly compelling and dramatic, but unfortunately, that’s not me. I have weird brain things. And, well, my characters tend to speak. A lot.
But to me, there’s a huge difference between what they’re speaking, and what they’re actually saying. My last full length play, TRUE BELIEVERS, was set over a weekend at a comic book convention. But I made a very conscious effort to make sure that it was still an accessible story for the audience members who somehow hadn’t seen STAR WARS, for example, or never read any of Steve Gerber’s later 1970s work at Marvel (which you totally should, ’cause it’s totally weird and totally awesome). But while the characters might be going on at length about Superman and/or Howard the Duck, it’s not the details of their lines that matter, but the fact that they’re talking about esoteric things with such passion. You can replace STAR WARS with the Red Sox — or, I don’t know, Titleist golf balls — and still have the same story at its core (or, at least, I hope so). As I developed the play with several different companies, I had to continually stress to actors that they didn’t need to focus on enunciating the meaning behind every little nerdy pop culture reference, because people weren’t going to understand it all. Instead, they needed to express the intention, and the feelings of their character at their particular moment. I suppose that many modern interpretations of Shakespeare do that just as well: the poetry might be gorgeous, but sometimes difficult for an uninitiated audience to penetrate, so the actor must find a way to tell the story through and despite that.
I was speaking with an audience member after a recent performance of David Cromer’s OUR TOWN at the Huntington (full disclosure: I do work there during the day), and she made a comment to me about how she had difficulty understanding Howie Newsome, the milkman, at a few points in Act One. But she knew that he was a milkman, and she knew that he had a cow, and I wanted to say to her, “Well, what else do you need to know?” Because OUR TOWN is not about what Howie Newsome says when he drops milk off at the Gibbs’ home, or when Bessie starts misbehaving. But the fact that Howie Newsome goes around every morning with his cow, delivering milk to the various families of Grover’s Corners, is just something that helps establish the world of the play that we’re living in. WHAT he is saying doesn’t matter, so much as the fact that he’s actually saying it, in the manner in which it’s being said. And no offense, lady, but if your inability to understand every syllable spoken by the milkman somehow detracted from or ruined your experience with that production, you might have been focusing on the wrong things, and, well, I think you may have missed the entire point of the play (I’d actually argue that not understanding every line is precisely in line with the intentions of the play, but that’s an argument for an other time).
So what does all of this have to do with the One-Minute Play Festival? I have no idea.
Kidding! (jokes lolz) The point is that writing for the OMPF was an interesting experience for me, one that forced me to stretch my brain muscles in a different way. With just a page of text to work with in order to tell an entire story –or at least, enter at a status quo and experience some kind of change followed by a denouement — without being able to make my characters quippy and clever and fast-paced and whatnot was a difficult task, something well beyond my ordinary comfort zone as a writer. But that’s also what I found so exciting about it. It gave me a chance to create a short, simple story that could be left almost entirely in the hands of the actor and director to bring to life. There wasn’t room to guide it with my own brilliantly off-kilter ramblings; I was forced to get in, get out, and get the hell out of the way. Instead of writing incredibly detailed characters expressed through dialogue, I had to learn to give up the legwork to the actors and let them do their jobs. Because in these short theatrical moments there isn’t room or time for anything else — and frankly, it doesn’t matter what a character’s favorite band is, or the fact that he or she refuses to wear matching socks. It hardly even matters what they’re saying. It matters that a person just experienced the loss of a friend, or is building up the courage to ask someone out on a date (spoilers, Sweetie). Maybe they can talk about socks on their date, but that’s not what this moment is.
I guess what I’m saying is, the One-Minute Play Festival has helped teach me how to shut up and sing — to drop the witty banter, and just to play a damn song. Let’s just hope I played it right.
Less talk, more rock.
The 2nd Annual Boston One-Minute Play Festival in partnership with Boston Playwrights’ Theatre will run Jan 5-7 at 8PM at BPT. Tickets are $20 and available here.The Jan 6th performance will livestream howlround.com’s New Play TV.