Gimmick Plays

By Kitty Felde

I mentioned in an earlier posting that I’ve seen a lot of new “gimmick” plays lately. Our fellow LAFPI member Marissa was “wondering what you mean by ‘gimmick plays’ being the new hot trend these days” and asks what kinds of gimmicks are showing up onstage.

Great question.

First of all, I don’t mean to disparage the genre. It’s a concept as old as playwriting and the mantra of Hollywood. Another way of describing it would be a “hook.” In my own personal theatre dictionary, I’d describe a Gimmick Play as one that offers something else besides character, dialogue and plot to draw in an audience.

Here’s a few examples: Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” is a two gimmick play. It’s a riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun” AND it offers the added bonus of having the cast from Act 1 play completely different characters in Act 2.

At the Humana Festival, there was another play with FOUR gimmicks: “Oh Guru Guru Guru, or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you” (I suppose you could count the title as a sort of gimmick, too…) by Mallery Avidon. Gimmick one: a lecture. The first act is a lecture, complete with slide show, of the “author” explaining the premise. Very funny. Gimmick two: we go to the ashram in act two where audience members are invited to come onstage and sit on embroidered pillows to be enlightened. And then there’s gimmick three where we discover the ashram is just a film set for “Eat, Pray, Love” and act three is a conversation with Julia Roberts about how tough it is to be Julia Roberts.

“Clybourne Park” would have stood on its own feet without any gimmicks; “Guru” would not.

There was one FABULOUS gimmick play at Humana – tucked in with two real turkeys. Apparently the acting school in Louisville is learning how to fly ala Peter Pan or Spiderman or that Angel in Tony Kushner’s work. And there really aren’t a lot of other plays out there with flying actors. So Humana commissioned a trio of writers to come up with them. The real genius gimmick piece was by Lucas Hnath called “nightnight.” He used the gimmick of flying to show weightlessness in space, telling the story of a trio of astronauts on a mission. It was brilliant. You marveled at the cleverness of the gimmick itself: an astronaut sleeps in zero gravity, lying sort of sideways, suspended above our eyes, the launch itself had the actors straddle a wall twelve feet high, upside down. It was marvelous to watch. The director also created with perfect accuracy the mumblety dialogue of the NASA engineers in Mission Control, chattering about who knew what constantly. But the play itself was about the conflict between characters, their ambitions, their foibles, their actions.
It’s not a new concept. Shakespeare certainly wrote gimmick plays. “Twelfth Night” could be described as a cross dressing play; “Hamlet” as a ghost story. Again, though, it’s the writing that carries the play, not the gimmick.

And I suppose here’s my beef: a lot of theatres are choosing work for the gimmick, not the writing. It will certainly sell tickets. But will those theatre-goers return for more once the gimmick has been revealed?

2 thoughts on “Gimmick Plays

  1. So, sorry Kitty, I’m not particularly a fan of “Clybourne Park.” But like you, I’m a gal who sees nothing wrong with “gimmicks,” and new ways to play with ideas and conventions. In this case, “Guru” sounds like an adventure I’d love to take. And the kind of thing that makes me look out for more of Ms. Mallery Avidon. (Congrats, lady playwright!)

  2. Wow. I’ve never heard of LA Female Playwrights Initiative but it feels really awesome to be compared unfavorably to a straight white Pulitzer Prize winning dude and have my work reduced to a “gimmick.” Always great to be a lady playwright.

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