Several years ago when I worked at Actors Theatre of Louisville, I heard this story about a play from the previous year’s Humana Festival:
ATL was producing Lee Blessing’s Oldtimers Game, which revolved around America’s favorite pastime. In their promo materials, the publicity department said the theme of Blessing’s play was baseball. The literary manager telling me this story chuckled mightily and emphasized with oldtimer’s knowledge, “Baseball is NOT a theme.”
The publicity folks were not strong at dramaturgy but they did get butts in the seats, God bless them.
Back when I was in school, we used to say the theme is the “message” of the play… something like, “Crime doesn’t pay,” or “True love wins out,” or “There’s no place like home.”
A couple of years ago I found a book (just by trolling through playwriting books on Amazon dot com, for Pete’s sake) that gave me a new perspective, a new lease on my writing life, a way of taking theme to another level.
Buzz McLaughlin’s book The Playwright’s Process, the gem I stumbled upon, says that a good dramatic premise (a phrase he got from Lajos Egri) has an active verb that links two parts. The dramatic premise of Death of a Salesman could be, “Looking for fulfillment in worldly success leads to disillusionment.” For The Crucible it could be, “Honor and integrity conquer sin and evil,” Buzz says.
Other fabulous verb choices besides “leads to” and “conquer” include “destroys” “defies” and defeats.” Theme is a lovely idea but it’s, well, static. The cool thing about ACTION VERBS is you get something leading to something else and that gives the play forward movement. Hallelujah! We’re goin’ somewhere! And things will be different when we get there! We will not be listening to endless clever dialogue spinning its wheels!
As writers, we can use this tool to UNIFY our plays when they want to wander like happy puppies sniffing flowers down every pretty garden path.
May your plays have not just activity but action, not just plot but story, and a compelling dramatic premise to hold us in our seats until the very end – when we want to jump up and applaud you mightily.
And now back to work. Gotta see if I can get the next scenes in my new play Community to unify around the dramatic premise I’ve been using.