by Kitty Felde
A week or so ago, I was honored to be invited back for a second year to serve as dramaturg to a group of playwrights in Lincoln, Nebraska. And as usual, I learned more about my own shortcomings as a writer. It’s always easier to see the problems in someone else’s play. It’s one of the reasons I so enjoy attending new play conferences, like the annual gathering at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. “If only they’d tackle this” or “fix that” I say to myself, knowing full well I should be saying that to myself.
Here are the two big take-aways from my Nebraska seminar. I should tape them to my wall:
– Theatre is about present action, what happens NOW onstage, not about working out past trauma. Certainly the past informs the present. But if the biggest event in your play happened twenty years ago and all we get to do is hear about it, we, the audience will feel like we didn’t get our money’s worth.
– Every monologue must operate as its own mini-play. What does the character want? Why is she/he telling this story? What do they want to get out of the person they are telling it to? What challenge or problem is the character working out in that monologue? Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Again, is it just about the past? Is it just exposition? Make it necessary to the play as a whole.
These two points were a particular challenge to my class of hopeful playwrights. They are also challenging me.
I got a commission to write a one-man show that will serve as a tour for the neighborhood around the White House. A company here in DC commissioned three playwrights to build one-hour shows around a historic character who lived or worked in the White House. My character is Quentin Roosevelt, youngest son of Theodore.
There are challenges I’ve never had to worry about in previous plays: when will the Secret Service arbitrarily shut down the tour route? Do you need to build in bathroom breaks? How much walking can an audience take before it tunes out and thinks of nothing more than the next bench?
But I’ve also had those two big challenges to tackle: how do you make present a story that is mostly (by design) intended to inform about the past? And how do you do this with a 50 page monologue?
My own solution for QUENTIN was to set the play on the day he came to DC for his Army Air Corps physical – the one where he memorized the eye chart to hide his poor eyesight. It was to be a reunion with his “White House Gang” – the neighborhood kids he hung out with during the years his father was president. The gang doesn’t show up, but he encounters a group of tourists…whose tour guide has also stood them up. Quentin offers to take then around, sharing his own stories of life in the White House and bits of Washington lore. But he’s also having an internal struggle about coming to terms with enlisting, not disappointing his father, the very real possibility of death, and the excitement about his secret engagement to Flora Whitney.
We’ll see if it works. The show is in rehearsal right now. If you’re in DC this summer, you can join a tour – er, performance – and see for yourself.