Everything Must Happen and It Must Happen Now

3 Sep
I’m working on a full-length play.  I’m learning not just about plays, but about life – that’s either a desirable side-effect or the whole point of plays.  I’m not sure which.  Anyway, here’s one reflection.

Everything Must Happen and It Must Happen Now

I’ve been trying to write this play.  Not what I’m used to.

I’m used to writing fiction and more recently essays in which the characters – by which I mean the actual letters, the symbols that make up language, are in front of the audience, the reader, in ink.  It’s visual, but strangely.
In a story or an essay, you look at the symbols on the page and they turn into light that hits your mind and understanding.
You can write about thoughts or the way the few, thin trees in San Francisco catch the light differently than the few, thin, shadowed-over trees of New York do.  Or if a vase means something, well then, write about the vase.

On the stage, everything must happen and it must happen now.

There’s no hiding.  The entire world – often rectangular, viewed like a diorama – is present.  No one has private thoughts.  (Voice-overs are cheating.  Narrators in plays, a la Arthur Miller have fallen out of style.)  Your characters must always want something, and they’re always trying to get it.  The people around them must react to this (even if it’s a stone-like reaction; cold, distant).

If you walk around as an audience, observing others as if they’re in a play, you’ll find very quickly: It’s no way to live.

It makes you wonder about everyone you know.  What are they thinking?  What do they want?  The playwriting term for this – what someone wants – is “action.”  It’s not a good thing to wonder, when someone says hi to you at the gym, “What’s his action?”  It’s a good phrase when your with a friend and someone hits on you at the gay bar or smiles at you (read it again in a British accent “What’s his action, anyway?”), but not a good thing to always be thinking.  You’ll turn suspicious, maybe even psychotic.  Like playwrights.

Better to be an audience when appropriate.  Go see a play.  If it’s at all good, the characters will lie to each other, undermine each other, try to appease each other.  But here’s the thing: To the world, to the audience (I write “the world” but I could write “the universe” or even “God” if you believe in a dispassionate, observer God), it’s all so obvious.  The character’s actions, so carefully constructed, so clever and ploying, are apparent to the everyone-who-can-see.  The audience only appears to be the one in the dark.

Is this what we, in our lives, look like to the rooms we sit in, to the sky, to the ground?  These things are the audience to our lives.  We can’t see them, but they’re watching and absorbing and being moved to tears or disgust or laughter.
We think we’re so smart; we think we can hide our actions – but really, the world knows better.  There is nothing we can do to fool anything.

This is why it is better to avoid being a character.

Sometimes, I imagine the conversations I’m having taking shape in the air above my head.  The other person and I, with each carved bit of air we announce, form something.  Errant words go in there too.  Small talk builds the edges.  Sometimes, the shape of that conversation is a terrible thing.  If I’ve lied to someone, if I’ve tried to manipulate someone, or if I sense he’s tried to manipulate me and I react with each word defensively… I imagine black, baroque curves and latticework turning in the air – too much detail to be beautiful; ornamental only.  And that shape can follow me into my sleep as a ghost.  I’ll feel guilty or wonder why I’ve woken up in a bad mood.  My words, which I might have thought were flippant, were noticed by the world, the unconscious, the people who passed by, the air.  They have effects.  Those are my words – what about my behaviors?  Taken together, what sort of shape would they create?  What effect on the world?

Generally, characters do not become aware of the audience.  They will sometimes address the audience in monologues, but these could just as easily be delivered to a mirror, or occur in a dream.  The character keeps going, pulled along by what he or she wants, with no regard for the swelling emotions in the surrounding black room.

This is, I realize, a very spiritual concept – that no action, no conflict, no event, goes unnoticed, and that every moment of our lives has an effect.  This is a lesson, mostly, of the play, where everything is shown. In a book, the words are framed.  They can go anywhere and then be closed – they are symbols.  They can take their time and meander.  Sometimes, they can refuse to disclose their meaning, or whether they even have meaning.  We read and may miss something.  A paragraph slips by us because we are thinking of someone as we read and it’s lost forever in the ocean of hundreds of pages.

In the play, we are shown: all the words go out into the world.  They aren’t contained.  Someone is always watching.

This is what I want to say, what the play has taught me.
There is an audience to my actions and it is the world.  If I am aware, I act more carefully and purely.  My actions are kind, because they’re not isolated.
If I am not aware of the audience, who knows what schemes I’ll come up with, and I will be threaded along, dragged by the force of my action.

So.  There is a difference, in life, to being a human and being a character.
One knows and tries to keep his heart pure.
The other is locked in drama.

13 Responses to “Everything Must Happen and It Must Happen Now”

  1. Laura-Ann Jackson September 3, 2010 at 3:45 pm #

    Great insight! I’m also from a fiction background and wrote a play about 2 years ago. It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life, but also one of the most worthwhile once I saw it performed. I found myself having to constantly remember what Chekov said about the pistol hanging on the wall. I wish you luck!

    Also, posting the teenage pics of yourself might be the bravest thing you’ve done since leaving academia to make porn. I cringe at the thought of myself as a teen.

    • Conner Habib September 4, 2010 at 5:40 pm #

      Thanks LAJ! It’s so crazy. Where was your play performed?

      • Laura-Ann Jackson September 10, 2010 at 4:03 am #

        It was performed twice at the Bowery Poetry Room in NYC. AND Taylor Mead was there doing some readings, which only made me more nervous. The play (Divine Intervention) was basically a conversation between myself and Divine, and takes place in heaven (a dive bar). I’ve recently died and am filling Divine in on the things she’s missed in the last 20 years. Taylor loved it, and I ended up talking to him for most of the night about Taylor Mead’s Ass, cupcakes, and porn.

  2. Joseph September 3, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

    Hey Connor!
    Loved the post… I majored in theatre and acted for a few years professionally out here in the Bay Area, but left whoring myself for Academia… ;)
    I wanted to say, though, that your bit about “action” is just the slightest bit off… at least, from an actor’s standpoint (it may be different to a playwright)… as an actor approaching a role, you have differing “Objectives”… you have a “Super-Objective” (what do you want out of life), and each of your other objectives FEED that objective.
    Keeping that objective in mind, you choose “tactics” or “actions” to obtain those objectives. Normally, there is something blocking your attainment of your objective by way of that action (an “obstacle”) and you must shift objectives (forming a “beat”) to attempt to overcome the obstacle.
    The dance between shifting actions on both sides of the objective provides drama.
    The steady and timely flow of beats provides music.

    Not sure if that was unnecessary, insulting, or self-righteous, or (“god” save me) helpful… but I’d love to talk to you more about this endeavour!

    Also, if you ever want to hear it read out loud, I’ve done my fair share of staged or table readings… :)

    • Conner Habib September 3, 2010 at 8:17 pm #

      Hey bud, the only thing close to insulting in your post is that my name is ConnEr, not ConnOr, just like it says in the big letters at the top of the page.
      Besides that, I’m definitely interested in what you have to say as a performer. It’s a different world for playwrights – you don’t think like the actor at all. That’s the actor’s job. The term “action” is appropriate when playwriting. To address the rest – “action” is the term for the character’s wants and needs, “conflict” in playwriting substitutes nicely for “obstacle” and “event” is whether or not the want is attained or not.
      I’m not sure I feel comfortable with the “objective/super-objective” etc approach to acting. I think my advice (as if I were qualified) to an actor would be the same as David Mamet’s (detailed in his excellent True and False) – I wrote the lines on the page. You get up on stage and read what I wrote.
      It sounds too simple, but after reading Mamet’s explanation, I feel comfortable with it.

      • Joseph September 3, 2010 at 9:26 pm #

        Haha! Sorry about that! :) Like I said, from our side of the desk we look at the script differently, so I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate. I’m glad you were interested enough to slog through it, though!

        As for Mamet… I agree 100%, however, T&F is a very misleading book. It’s brilliant and extremely liberating (I remember almost crying the first time I read it), but it reads very differently after years of training and ridiculous exercises and all that… the Mametonian approach to acting theory holds its greatest value when the actor already has the formal “Method” training for those rough spots. I looked as Mamet as releasing the actor from the imaginary shackles of “the method” by reminding us that the characters can only be us and we can only BE them by being us. However, the method is of inestimable utility to the actor presented with a scene that does not read as “natural” for them (eg. classical works where you’re speaking in Verse and debating the merits of action or inaction against your uncle who killed your father and married your mother, or experimental works where you are given stage directions like “SKINHEADgirl slowly turns into a star, bright and glowing, a neon girl, a constellation in a sky full of stars. She lights up the dark, flickers, and then burns out. Darkness.” The latter from Iizuka’s “Polaroid Stories” which is BRILLIANT).
        The whole time I wrote my last comment I was thinking “he’s gonna’ bring up T&F to refute me ’cause this is so method based…” Haha. :)

  3. Chriso September 4, 2010 at 1:38 am #

    I have all these things I am trying to flesh out to respond to this but they aren’t gelling. So I just wanted to say I think it’s a really great post and I can relate to it in a lot of ways, despite my lack of being a playwright. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Ian September 4, 2010 at 8:23 am #

    hey.im just a passenger.
    Im gonna be here around i promise.
    hope you guys have good.
    i love your post very much, bud.

  5. Bob September 5, 2010 at 3:16 am #

    Hey Conner,

    What increasable insight. I am glad I found your blog. This is definitely a site I will look forward to updates.

  6. jessemonoghan January 17, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    Hey, Conner!

    It’s amazing that you not only write these deep, interesting blogs, but also have the time and brain power to make a play! I hope I get a chance to see it, I’m sure it will be great and moving. I always found it amazing, that a play, being of what was mentioned in this blog, involves characters and drama. That drama and certain characters interests us, affects us, and eventually we have a mindset on how to view something. I like your look of this world so I’m sure I’ll enjoy the play!

    Thanks for writing another awesome post man!

  7. Geno February 22, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    I hadn’t read a line of text that I had to reread because I needed to remember it until moments ago when I melted after drawing these words into my breathing mind: “Flat without the contours of imagination, we begin in poverty and end in reward.” Someone with a very rare gift created that string of thought. I’m amazed, and affected. Thank you.

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