June 7, 2016 by Sam Graber
I was somewhere east of exposition and west of intermission when the whole affair turned ugly.
I wasn’t prepared for it, of course. These kind of moments always seem to sneak up and surprise you with no warning. Even though doom was ever-impending since That One Line was first written.
I mean there you are, as the playwright, sitting in the audience section, amongst committed patrons of the live human staged arts. You’re wriggling in your third row seat feeling that strange juxtaposition of nerves and excitement. You think about whether you should be sitting down front in the first place. Is it uncool for the playwright to be sitting that close to a performance of one of his/her plays? Shouldn’t you be alone with your restless anxiety in the wings? Or backstage? Or nibbling on cookies by the snack bar? And why aren’t people laughing?
Not all audiences are equal you tell yourself. Each night brings a whole new energy to the seats, you tell yourself. All you can do as the writer is hand over your work to other creators and allow the process to go forward. Because every story on stage is true. You’re certain of that, you tell yourself over and over. And over. You need a cookie.
This is what’s rolling through your head as the action you penned continues, each beat gaining in momentum, the action drawing in the watchers, ushering them towards a place of release and cultural definition and visceral magnitude and…
And then the ugly thing happens.
Then an actor delivers That One Line exactly as you originally wrote it, exactly as it sounded in your head, identical to the pace and inflection you always wanted. Causing the entire audience to gasp. In shock. The echo of their shock careening off the theater walls, almost like a shockwave seeming to figuratively rock the stage, actually causing a true literal pause to the stage action. And it is not a shock of surprise. It is a shock of repulsion. Of objection. It is the tangible jarring stupefaction of, ‘No way did they just say that!’
And yes, that was me. No, not the audience. The playwright. Who managed in one line to repel an audience so bad that it shocked them out of the story and into something else.
THAT ONE LINE
Let’s call it my little life lesson. Which replays itself over and over, particularly when I’m drafting a new piece. I’ll be reviewing my script and then reach the line where I’ll realize: that’s the one.
That’s the one where the dramaturg will take the extraordinary move of foregoing email and actually call me (yes, young people, CALL) to delicately explain that there’s a particular line which will get me skewered. That’s the one where the director will plan a full single dedicated rehearsal to resolve. That’s the one where the stage manager will go out of her way to say something. That’s the one where the actress will quit.
You think I’m kidding. Oh, no. Not even kidding.
My above shared life lesson (also referred to herein and henceforth as Recurring Nightmare) thankfully occurred at a staged reading where a gutsy theater company invited a select few to inform me of the merits of my nascent script. So there wasn’t a lineage of collaborators protecting me from my own blind spots prior to my work reaching that presented staged read. My script went straight to the ears of an audience which gasped so loudly that the Richter scale is adding a new level and Guinness is coming to investigate a world record claim.
And because I wasn’t at the snack bar nibbling a cookie or behind the protective forces of the National Guard there was just this rising, seething enmity, beaming from all the people sitting behind me into the back of my head in the third row. I’m not sure the next 60 minutes of the play even existed.
These kinds of ego spankings are extremely valuable for any level of playwright. The Recurring Nightmare is the living lesson of how not to make an audience hate you. It’s a testament to how not to cause an audience to stop watching your play. And I’m here to tell you it really does take just one line. I’m here to testify That One Line can occur anywhere in your script. It can reach out and slap the collective face of an audience at opening curtain. It can instigate revolt at closing zip. And this isn’t on direction, or technical, or interpretation. The culprit is the writer.
So let’s talk a little bit about That One Line and how we can not only eliminate the unforeseen pitfalls of audience alienation but also use the same technique to raise the bar on the artistic virtue of our script.
BUT FIRST, A STORY
One of my playwright buddies, who will wish to remain anonymous forever, was once writing a sensitive and demanding piece about the transfer of power within the context of race relations.
Like my situation above, his script went before a small crowd as a means to test the material and gauge early reaction. Something important to note here is that my buddy is white. Very white. Like, if there was an Extra White category added to one of those government ethnicity forms it would be Extra Checked by this guy.
So we get to the stage and the playwright is introduced beforehand and an explanation given of the effort to date and how what everyone is about to see is a work in progress.
And it’s going well…right up until That One Line was spoken. And That One Line was: ‘I’m a n****r with a badge.’
Now, while this line was referencing a quote from a famous movie, a famous movie dealing with race relations using comedy, the movie quote isn’t so famous all by itself. The quote alone isn’t ingrained in public consciousness (Crossmedia Reference Fail 101) such that the referencing had instant and immediate connection. So during talkback afterwards the small crowd was unable to focus on anything except That One Line. They couldn’t get off that line. It was like the whole experience of the play was That One Line. Needless to write here that their feedback was the opposite of positive.
The best part of this whole thing for me was that I decided to take my buddy out for That One Beer so he could maybe start the process of getting over the disastrous results from That One Line. So we trudge to the bar across the street from the theater and my buddy requests with mournful tone a stiff drink and once the drink reaches his hands he turns to me and with total sincerity, I will never forget this, he says…
‘You think I should change that line?’
NOT ALWAYS THE PLAYWRIGHT’S FAULT
“I had a play in NYC about ten years ago, and the lead was delivering his big monologue about this painful moment in his life. He was saying how he shot this asshole a look or said something sharp tongued. The line was: ‘That shut him up. But he didn’t cry. I wanted him to cry.’ On opening night, the actor said: ‘That shut him up. But he didn’t die. I wanted him to die.’ Changed the whole character. Nobody in the audience was on his side that night.”
“This isn’t a specific line, but rather a general pet peeve. When the director changes a location or name in a script in order to make a local joke or connection, or to disparage a neighboring town. The worst, as an actor, was being forced to say, ‘Havana? He couldn’t take that girl to Bricktown [instead of New Rochelle]’ (from Guys and Dolls). I refused opening night and was FORCEFULLY told by the director the next night, while I was in the makeup chair, that HAD to. So I did. Closing night, I did not.”
YOUR PLAY IS ONLY AS STRONG AS THAT ONE LINE
I remember several years ago when a full-length of mine was getting featured at an industry showcase. The director assigned to my play met with me to go over the script.
“Okay Sam, what does this line mean?”
“Yes, this line.”
The line was: Can I get you something?
“Well, um, that’s just to set the table for the conflict between the two.”
The director stared at me, unsold.
“You know,” I stumbled onward, “like the whole complexity of power. And maybe victimization. From the previous scene. But here. In this scene.”
“Uh-huh,” the director said in a way that inferred a total absence of conviction. “What about this line?”
It was the very next line. The very next line was, in its entirety: Coffee?
It went on like this. Each and every line. It was the most brutal, mind-numbing endeavor. Sucking the joy right out of the script. Total overkill, a mile-wide mallet to swat a mosquito.
But to this day I review each and every single one of my lines in that manner. More than just once. Many times. Over and over. Because I’ve come to feel that each play is only as strong as its weakest line. The one that you don’t catch until it’s too late. The one you don’t realize until during the middle of the production run that could have been altered, or refined, or dumped altogether.
Your play is only as strong as That One Line.
Isn’t that the case with dramatic narrative? Don’t we identify with particular or popular stories with singular lines from those stories? Don’t we traffic in the nature of stories with the eminent line to represent the tale?
You and I could select any mammoth work of theatrical history and likely identify one line to represent that play. I see most of you cringing in horror out there. If you could uncringe and kind of go with me here, I’m not saying one line can distill down from the massive canvass of theater, with all its moving parts and nuances and tones and techniques and probing questions and mannerisms and sentiment, to a tiny summation of itself with any real accuracy…
But maybe there’s an opportunity to negotiate the central heartbeat of the matter.
LET’S GET POSITIVE
I started off this thought flow with a look at a negative outcome from failing to prune That One Line from a script (by the way, there is no way I will ever put that disastrous line of mine out there for internet permanency, it was that horrid). As if to express that there’s always the prospect of uncomfortable or distracting or confusing moments spawned by the insensitive or awkward line, and we writers should always be working to eliminate that prospect.
What do you say we turn this negative experience into a positive mindset?
I offer there’s a way to scour each and every line of your play so that discovering That One Line doesn’t simply avoid calamity but raises up the work. Provides your script with its distinguishing mark. Recognizes which mantra your play wants to serve as its talisman.
We spend so many hours discussing a new play. We spend so many hours probing its characters. We spend so many weeks exploring the grounds of presentation possibilities. That time spent is critical. But what is the play about when a writer is generating the material? The precision of essence is very beautiful for a writer. It allows us to centralize the play around a problem, or an emotion, or a being.
FINDING THAT ONE LINE
Recently I was revising for the (embarrassing) XXth time a draft of a new play that I have been wrestling with for (even more embarrassing) X years. I thought I knew the story but I still wasn’t sure who should be telling the story. I thought I had the right approach but everything seemed perilously close to pure melodrama. I thought I knew the play but it kept getting further and further away from me.
So I printed (yes, young people, PRINTED) off the script and went walking. And as I walked I read aloud each and every line in the script. As I spoke aloud I questioned each line. Wondering if there wasn’t something hidden that could unlock or proscribe that precision of essence.
And then I got to the line: “You walked out on me. All of you walked out on me!”
It looked so innocuous before. So benign. But something about reading it aloud really identified for me the core of the piece. The whole play got reengineered by refocusing on That One Line.
So I ask you: in your work is there one line, or maybe an unspoken movement, that ministers as the centric idea? That you can always return to during the many hours of subsequent work while it goes to stage? And after your play is produced to acclaim and you feel finished enough with the script to bury it in the graveyard of your mind, what is That One Line you’re going to put on its tombstone?
IN THE END
So that gutsy theater company still hates me. They sure aren’t interested in working with me again. They don’t return emails. And when the cell doesn’t ring that’s the theater company which hates you calling.
Maybe hate is too strong a word. But the damage was done. They moved off and I moved on. Never forgetting what happened that night, and always reminded, each and every day, that there is That One Line out there, for better or for worse, waiting to either sink or soar each play.
It’s up to us to find it.