Thursday, June 27, 2013

Reading Plays

Even as an English major who enjoyed reading, I had a very difficult time in the theater class I took in undergrad, where all we did was read and understand plays. The main problem was that I didn't find the selected plays particularly interesting (Ubu Roi? Seriously?) but many students also found it difficult because plays are different from novels.

One big difference is that the majority of a play is conveyed in dialogue. I'm sure there are novels out there that attempt this, but the vast majority do not.
Personally, I find this difficult because I tend to skip over reading who is talking. You can usually understand, based on context, who is talking, because there typically aren't a lot of characters sharing the stage. But when there are, or voiceovers get involved, it can get confusing if you don't actually hear the different voices speaking.

Stage Direction
Usually, if a play has been republished to be read by the average reader, a lot of this is removed. The technical terms might be omitted or "translated," and much of the emotional, directional, and positional instruction is reduced to a line or two here and there. But it's still important to keep track of it, because you don't have a narrator telling you, "He approached her from behind, startling her." He just shows up and starts talking, and you're left to understand why she was startled.

Exposition is Presented Differently
In a novel, the narrator can spend chapters explaining who this character is, how he's related to the others, what his personality is like and what his motivations for his actions are. In a play, the character just shows up and you have to figure all this out for yourself based on what he and other characters say and do. For some, this is easier to follow; for others, it's more difficult. It is harder to write, though, because a novelist can write, "He always wanted to open a restaurant." A playwright shouldn't have the character tell all his friends/family, "I've always wanted to open a restaurant" because they should already know this about him. Maybe a monologue is in order in this particular situation, but that can still come across as patronizing to the audience. It has to be worked in smoothly.

Visual Cues Aren't... Visual
Plays are meant to be seen and heard and experienced in person. Sure, you can read a stage direction like "she flies into the air mysteriously" but it doesn't have the same impact as watching an actress mysteriously float upward. The page might tell you that a man is dressed to the nines and has a pompous swagger, but without watching him do it, your brain is entrusted to remember that character trait every time you read his parts. A novel can remind you over and over again: "He swaggered into the room like he owned the place and said..." "Displaying his typical holier-than-thou demeanor, he..." "She detested his excessive show of wealth but she couldn't deny that under that egotistical outer shell, he must..." Plays don't do this for you, unless you're watching them.

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