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Playwriting and Original Practices

Working on Shakespeare and other playwrights’ work with Pigeon creek has drastically improved my ability to write plays. More particularly, employing and embodying the same practices that Shakespeare used while working with Pigeon Creek has made my plays seem, to me at least, simultaneously fresh and familiar. I am not writing this to toot my own horn, or to advertise the plays that I write. Well, at least this is not my sole goal, anyway. But there is simply so much to be said for Shakespeare’s theater of the imagination, which uses language to evoke worlds different from our own, and the skills of actors to portray different characters, sometimes four or five within a given production, with little more physically added than the addition of a hat or cloak, to create beautiful theater. And Pigeon Creek’s original practices are means to the end of kick starting the imagination.

Ensuring that the production values a command of the language is not, as far as I know, explicitly stated within Pigeon Creek’s performance philosophy (although it is certainly valued and present). Editor's Note: Though not listed as part of our Performance Philosophy, a commitment to text-based performance, emphasizing things like use of meter, rhetoric, and internal stage directions, is a cornerstone of our internally-circulated artistic standards, set by the board of directors. Doubling and universal lighting are explicitly listed values, and are vehicles toward emphasizing the language the playwright has written. Doubling necessitates actors transitioning from character to character, and universal lighting strips away spectacle that would distract from the language Shakespeare’s characters speak, which carries the story of a given play.

Universal lighting has the effect of creating a community within an audience, and between actors and audience, because they can all see each other. Shakespeare and other playwrights writing near his time capitalized upon this emergent community by writing them into the play, and, depending on how the audience is addressed, teasingly manipulating the emotions of the audience and its distance from the action. More than this, these original practices require the audience’s active mental participation in a way that is deeply rewarding, but also much more demanding than other modes of performing Shakespeare, or many playwrights’ plays, for that matter.

But what these original practices point to is ultimately something much deeper and grander, and the aspect of theater that excites and entices me most: transformation. To me, drama is about seeing a person or people changing. Original practices aid this fundamental function of drama.

Let’s move back and focus on doubling. If you are an audience member and you want to follow who is who and what they’re doing, and the actor you are watching is playing more than one role, you need to pay attention. If you do, you won’t be lost, provided the actor acts skillfully, and differentiates the characters as necessary.

When an actor changes the character he portrays into another character, I am delighted. While it is the same actor, and this is obvious, I can suspend my disbelief and follow the actions of each character the actor plays. And the economist in me revels at the parsimony; that there isn’t another actor to portray a role when there need not be one. There’s just enough, a perfect balance.

Now let’s move back to universal lighting. Universal lighting aids in emphasizing the power of Shakespeare’s language, because there is nothing fancy that aids in setting the mood. The pressure is on the actor and the words, and the words won’t fail. And really, any practice that aids in emphasizing the language is good in that it allows transformation, of a stage into a kingdom, or a forest, or a heath, and of an actor into a princess, a villain, or a pauper to occur.

The single most interesting aspect of transformation, however, is the internal transformation of a character. A character happy with his estate finds misfortune, and then regains his fortune. Or a miserable character finds a glimmer of hope, which is overrun by his own vice, be it greed, or ignorance, or cruelty. The list goes on, and you can take your pick. But the point stands that Shakespeare’s characters change, for better or for worse. And characters in School for Scandal, and contemporary plays change as well. Very few people would want to see any kind of play in which characters did not change.

Stripping away fripperies like grandiose costuming or casts in the dozens, and cutting to down to raw language and the action it begets, and allowing that to lead a production, is good because language and action are the twin vehicles that lead to transformation in theater. Whittling away is certainly not the only way to show a character transforming. Indeed, we can imagine a whirlwind of light and sound and music that moves with the internal movement of the character. And this would be fine. But because Shakespeare and other playwrights, including Sheridan, whose work Pigeon Creek tackle, create their worlds primarily through language, it is fitting and artful that these elements of spectacle should be stripped away, and let the playwrights’ words do their job.

In my own plays that I write and stage, I draw heavily from Shakespeare’s original practices, and the way that Pigeon Creek makes them work. Most specifically, I’ve adopted heavy doubling because I like to see actors artfully transform from one character into another. And I think the athleticism of running around backstage and onstage, then backstage and again and back on, is kind of like a fun and highly intricate dance: You learn the steps, and you can’t rest, but it’s good that you can’t rest, because always focusing, always being vigilant, helps your performance.

From Shakespeare’s writing itself, I’ve learned that a strong command of language and creating characters that change are incredibly important to writing a play, and can be difficult. I have come to appreciate the act of transformation itself, which hides within Shakespeare’s plays, and which his original practices allow, because of its elusiveness. During a performance, we can see the moment before a character’s decision; perhaps the decision that is his point of no return, after which all else is inevitability, and the moment following it. But what happens in between? We can see his face light up that split second after having decided to do something, but never the decision itself. We never see the moment of transformation, but it is ever present, ever elusive, and ever-embodied in theater and all of us alive.

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