I’ve been a bit distracted this week. My day job took over my life. Something I think most of us understand. But there are lessons to be learned about our craft wherever we are. And so I thought I’d share a few thoughts about this week’s Supreme Court arguments about the health care law.
Voice: My seat inside the court was awful. The press is stuck on the other side of large marble columns, red velvet curtains, and bronze gates (with odd symbols like fish and some bird with a hooked beak that looks nothing like an eagle). I could see the attorneys making the arguments, but not the Justices. So you had to rely on their voices to tell who was speaking.
Which is a reminder for playwrights: voice matters. If our audience couldn’t see our characters, would their way of speaking define them in their minds’ eye? I have been working of late to make sure my characters speak like themselves. Some leave out words. Some never finish sentences. Each manner of speaking helps me craft that character.
Humor: Here we were in the midst of one of the most serious policy debates in a decade and yet it was the humorous lines I remember best. Justice Sotomayor suggesting that it would be Justice Alito’s clerks clawing through the 2700 pages of the law to figure out what could stay and what could be discarded. The many lines about brocoli. And even outside the High Court, the protestor I remember best was the guy in the gorilla outfit fondling what was either a large banana or a yellow penis.
As a playwright, even in my most serious plays, I seem to be most protective of my funny lines. All the chicken jokes that permeate my war crimes play A PATCH OF EARTH – like the tapped phone of a journalist who describes it as clicking and clucking as though there were chickens on the line or the protagonist looking for courage as though you could buy it at the chicken kiosk down the road or the annoying rooster that crows three times as he’s suffering from a hangover. If the audience doesn’t laugh at those lines, I feel defeated.
The Supreme Court taught me humor can be a great tool when the stakes are truly high.
Exposition is deadly: especially in the Supreme Court. Several times in oral arguments, the lawyers got out half a dozen words before the Justices jumped in with questions. DIalogue, in other words. Challenges – ie confrontation.
In this case – unlike our plays – everyone knew the back story. They’d read all the prior case law, the legal briefs, etc. Our audience often doesn’t know all the details. But an audience does know the basics of storytelling. They trust us to fill in the details AS NECESSARY along the way. What they want to see is that confrontation, that dialogue live, onstage, between characters. In the courtroom, whenever anyone cited case law, eyes glazed over. When a penetrating question was posed, everyone leaned forward in their seat.
It was a week of Supreme Theatre. And not a bad week to remind myself of the basics of playwriting.