What’s The Play About?

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December 10, 2018 by Sam Graber

Recently I was at a dinner party when one of the other guests, an accountant, after learning of my playwrighting profession, asked me what I was working on.

Me: A new play.
Accountant: Do you mind me asking what’s the play about?
Me: Regret.
Accountant: Regret.
Me: Yeah. Regret.
Accountant: Okay. But. What’s the play about?

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WE SHOULD HAVE BEEN ACCOUNTANTS

-What’s the play about?-

Either we ask it, or get asked.

-What’s the play about?-

We hear it from directors. We hear it from actors. We hear it from technicians, lighting designers, audiences, and our crazy aunt. No, the other crazy aunt.

-What’s the play about?-

But whenever I hear this, I am very careful these days with how I respond. Because I don’t hear the question as someone seeking to learn the sequence of events, or the characters, or the whole storyline.

-What’s the play about?-

I respond to express the essence of the play.

Actor friend: Working on a new play, huh?
Me: You know it!
Actor friend: What’s it about?
Me: Regret.
Actor friend: Regret?
Me. Yeah. Regret…[leaning in, conspiratorial]…and an accountant.
Actor friend: Oh man, you gotta get me cast as the accountant.

So here comes another e-missive from yours truly hoping to serve all us playwrights out there with a dose of discussion and some strategies for how to think about this what’s-the-play-about question.

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WE SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN MARKETING

-What’s the play about?-

There it is again. That question. The one.

Seems so innocent. So innocuous. A friendly little ask. What are you working on?

But oh, how answering that question can go very wrong.

Especially because we as writers will have been working on a new play, sometimes for as long as a year, flush with the excitement of our new dramatic piece…and still not know what our play is about.

Isn’t that HILARIOUS? Not sure what our new play is about???

Where else can you get away with this? Can you imagine an accountant being asked what the IRS means by a particular rule, and the accountant not entirely sure what the rule means because the U.S. tax code…

…wait a second…

Okay, can you imagine you’re working in product development for a big company, and Chief Boss Officer asks for an update on how the new product is coming along and you respond: I don’t entirely know what our new product is about. Wouldn’t that be HILARIOUS?

Well guess what. Coming from someone who’s been corporate. That’s exactly what happens.

People will make a product. And they’ll know what the product does. They know exactly how the product works.

But they won’t be able to say what the product is about.

Because products by themselves aren’t necessarily understood for their value until communicated via marketing through adverts extolling how the product represents qualities such as fulfillment, desire, happiness, comfort, and security. Marketers take a product and tell you what it’s about so that you have a reaction to what the product does.

But playwrights aren’t product developers. We’re not creating something to be marketed to micro-slices of the demographic under a particular positioning campaign. We are writing (usually) for general audiences. But I have seen many times where playwrights function as product developers in that they are concerned only with what happens in their new play without wanting to understand what the play is about.

And this is very key; what our play is about and what happens in the play are two different things.

Not understanding this distinction gets us in trouble. When a new play doesn’t know what it’s about and spends years trying to put together a string of scenes where things happen to characters can banish us to the fun place called development hell.

The Submitting Playwright, as an isolated creature submitting plays to open opportunities, encounters this trouble when a Synopsis and Summary at the forefront of a new script get confused with each other. When defining what the play is about in a Synopsis goes against what happens in the play as a Summary.

So just to be triple clear – the old marketing rule of telling ’em three times! – what the play is about and what happens in the play are not the same thing.

Which is why I have a little strategy for answering the what’s-the-play-about question.

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THE START OF THE RIVER

But before we get to that strategy — as many of you know I live in Minneapolis, which is famous for many things, such as being so cold that it can’t snow. Seriously. Sometimes it gets too cold to snow. Isn’t that HILARIOUS?

The Mississippi River runs through downtown Minneapolis (where it’s so cold it can’t snow) before it continues the balance of its two thousand mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico (where’s it’s so warm it never snows) (although, the way things are going).

The mighty Mississippi River. Water of legend. Which starts from a single spot in upper Minnesota.

There’s an actual spot. You can stand on it. The launch point for the fourth longest river in the world.

I think a lot about this spot. It speaks to me about the power of beginning. That there’s a place where great things begin.

We all have that moment where the great idea for a play assaults us. We start with an impulse. In our body, somewhere between the heart and the soul, maybe the liver if we’ve been drinking, our entire body hums with the frequency of possibility.

And then we begin working. We see our characters, the ideas take form, form takes shape, the opening scene unfolds…

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THE MIDDLE OF THE RIVER

…and gets away from us. Veering off in various directions. Quickly becoming something we don’t recognize.

Because the middle of the river is where we as playwrights can run into trouble.
It’s at this point when the fear begins to choke our brain. We feel frustrated. We start contemplating about how easy it would be to master QuickBooks and change careers.

Because we’re lost somewhere along the river. And we’re all by ourself. And we start to question whether the river is worth it.

The good news is that no matter where that long and winding journey goes, we always have the ability to return to the origin. We always retain the opportunity to revisit the initial wellspring of idea.

What is this play about???

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THE PLAY IS ABOUT – AN EMOTION

Theater is the study of empathy. That’s the popular tenet circulating the rounds of the theaters in the round these days. And thrust stages. And black boxes. It’s all about empathy.

Which is great, of course, and may very well be what theater is about, but it’s not what your play is about. Your play might evoke empathy. But your play is not about empathy (unless your play is actually about empathy).

I offer this: if empathy is the purpose of theater, then the essence of theater is the precision of emotion.

So finally. The first part of my strategy. Is describing what’s-the-play-about as a singular emotion.

I’ve stopped expressing my answers to what’s-the-play-about as a synopsis or outline or story spread. No more summations of main characters or situations. Not even loglines.

I describe the play in one word, as an emotion. This play is about regret. This play is about hope. This play is about resentment.

Example. Many of us are familiar with Amadeus by Peter Shaffer. Amadeus tracks how two lives are ruined by the torment of mediocrity, pride and professional gamesmanship. But if you asked me what Amadeus is about I would answer, simply, envy. The principal in Amadeus is consumed by a kind of envy which furthers all action.

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Not about witches, or persecution, or societal decay. I say it’s about hysteria.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Remorse.
The Glass Menagerie. Loneliness.
Hamlet. Revenge.
A Streetcar Named Desire. Desire (Williams put it in the title for us!)

Now, you may not agree with my descriptors, which is totally expected, and you may find it abhorrent that I’m distilling titans of the literary canon to a single word. And if the playwrights of these works were still alive they might wish to banish me to an even more remote corner of the internet than this website already is. But I do this to illustrate a point.

Each of these mammoth works of art are defined herein as a singular essence, a single human emotion. That the precision of a singular human emotion is the small spot from which the mighty river of dramatic property flows.

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THE PLAY IS ABOUT – A QUESTION

Say you’re not sold on my singular emotion strategy to answer what’s-the-play-about. Fine. I still got you.

Try this. Is your play about a question?

And I don’t mean is your play about answering a question. I mean: is your play about a question. This works for pinpointing your play around a concentrated identity.

Important Director: Alright, so what’s this new play of yours about?

Me, Answer #1: Okay so I’m working on this new play where there’s this old-age home, and one of the older guy’s really popular, like early 70’s, and he’s kind of the social raconteur, really into card games, the men’s shuffleboard league, former city firefighter, big dude, but his wife died recently and he lives alone in the home and the wife’s death was kind of this weird thing, but the play starts when this new guy arrives at the home and he’s shy and doesn’t have any family and then…

Me, Answer #2: what happens to sexual orientation when physical intimacy is no longer active in the human equation?

(actual play idea of mine, been waiting to write it for years now, directors out there wassup!)

Now. I will tell you from lots of experience. That while both are answers. There’s one that piques further interest and crystallizes subsequent conversation around a firm thematic starting position.

Consider how the second answer, a question, constructs a context so that if someone wants to know what happens in the play (different than what’s-the-play-about) then you go for Answer #1. The second answer also helps when you’re being asked what’s-the-play-about in a setting, such as a dinner party or elevator, when you know the asker might not be granting their full attention and won’t be around to hear a long answer.

Overall, I don’t wish to neuter the hours of incredible discussion dissecting the inferences and inner meanings of plays. I certainly don’t want to dislodge the audience from debating nuance. And I’m not trying to take away from us practitioners the discovery of the multifaceted dynamics within plays. Just because I believe the play is ‘x’ doesn’t mean someone else can’t feel that the play is about ‘y’.

And just because I wrote the play means I own what the play is about.

What I’m trying to do here is provide a framework for playwrights as we attempt to sculpt our plays as it moves from the starting point to the Gulf of Mexico. Because writing is so joyful, so pure and wonderful an act, that it’s easy to get sidetracked if not lost on the journey. It’s very easy to forget what the play is about.

Believe me, I’ve had some plays which have been in development hell for years, which finally became unlocked once I’ve figured out that singular precision of emotion. Or the right question to ask. Giving me a foundation from which everything else can flow.

And believe me, I’ve had some plays which have had successful first runs, and then only when getting a second production start to realize that I had it all wrong, and that what I thought the play was about wasn’t what the play was really about.

It’s all an evolution. A process. A constant rebirthing.

Final strategy – sometimes I handwrite the single emotion or the question on a note card and put that card in front of my keyboard as I’m writing. That way, I can’t forget what the play’s about.

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THE END OF THE RIVER

Have you ever finished the first draft of your new play? The one with that rock star idea? Spangled with biting dialog, the rousing romance of poetry, the thunder of potential aesthetic power?

And then a week later you go back to revisit your work, and you still love that idea, and the characters, and the conflict, and…and…

Something doesn’t sit right.

There you are, floating in the Gulf of Mexico, and you can’t feel the play anymore.

And then someone asks: what’s your new play about?

Isn’t that HILARIOUS?

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