Sunday, July 26, 2020

Christopher Shinn Excels in Crafting a Brechtian Experience for the Audience in his Play Teddy Ferrara

Photo courtrsy of TCG Books
It was not that long ago that I posted on this blog about the work of playwright Christopher Shinn.  I recently read his play Teddy Ferrara, and am compelled to write about his work again.  Teddy Ferrara is a skillfully crafted play.  Mr. Shinn’s characters are truthful, distinct, and developed with precision.  His dialogue is honest and reveals the pressing needs of the characters.  The scenes are full of miscommunications, as the character engage in social games that have a lasting effect on one another.  I will say this is Mr. Shinn’s most powerful work.

The story takes place on the campus of a large state university in the northeast.  Gabe, a 21-year-old student, runs the Queer Student Group.  He just started dating Drew, who is the editor for the university newspaper.  They meet Teddy Ferrara, an awkward freshman, when he shows up late for the Queer Student Group meeting.  Gabe gives Teddy the information he missed and invites him to the group’s upcoming dance party.  After he leaves, Drew calls Teddy “a weirdo.”  Drew also expresses his jealousy toward Gabe’s roommate, Tim, who is straight.  Gabe brushes off both of Drew’s comments.

The on-campus suicide of a student, Kevin Gillman, the previous school year is beginning to get a lot of press attention.  Information has surfaced that he committed suicide because he was gay and closeted.  The Provost forms a student committee to meet with the President of the University to discuss how to change the homophobic atmosphere the LGBTQ students encounter on campus.  Gabe is a member of this diverse committee of student representatives. 

When Teddy shows up at the dance party, he tells Gabe that his straight roommate videotaped him in his dorm room having sex with someone he met on line.  Gabe is concerned, but focused on the evening’s event and does not address it any further.  Everyone else is too caught up with their own drama to notice that Teddy has isolated himself.  When Teddy commits suicide later that night by throwing himself off the same library balcony as Kevin Gillman, the homophobic atmosphere of the campus if thrown into greater scrutiny.

This play is Brechtian in structure and style.  It clearly and simply illustrates a series of actions from which the audience can draw their own conclusion.  Mr. Shinn gives the audience a bird eye view into the individual behaviors that form this community.  In doing so, he has successfully written scenes of “pure action,” as Brecht emphasized, without any moral explanation to guide the audience toward a purposeful learned outcome.  Not one of the characters seems to be aware of or sensitive to what is going on around them.  They are unaware of their contribution to the creation of an alienating environment.  None of them seems to realize they could have changed Teddy’s situation by simply including him in any one of their conversations. 

Photo courtesy of Goodman Theatre
In the notes at the beginning of the play, Mr. Shinn writes, “The design should be simple in order to maximize speed of storytelling.”  The play does not designate locations for any scene, yet the dialogue is specifically grounded in the setting, which is vital for the flow of action and development of events.  This play can almost be performed on a bare stage.  The actions are that concise and riveting.  I am in awe of Mr. Shinn’s skills in crafting this piece.  Teddy Ferrara had its world premiere at Goodman Theatre on February 11, 2013.  I hope it is produced after the pandemic so I can see a full production.  Get a copy of Teddy Ferrara and read it for yourself.

Domenick Danza  

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Emma Smith Sheds a New Light on the Writings of William Shakespeare, Offering an Engaging Opportunity to Prepare for Our Return to Live Theatre

Photo courtesy of Pantheon Books
Emma Smith’s book This Is Shakespeare is a unique perspective on many of the Bard’s well-known works.  She analyzes Shakespeare’s plays from a different point of view, which she calls his “gappiness.”  (pg. 2)  She point out how Shakespeare’s silences, inconsistencies, and sparse stage directions leave room for varied interpretation of his classic writing.  “Shakespeare’s construction of his plays tend to imply rather than state; he often shows, rather than tells; most characters and encounters are susceptible to multiple interpretations.  It’s because we have to fill in the gaps that Shakespeare is so vital.” (pg. 3)  This space for interpretation is what has kept the works of William Shakespeare alive over centuries.  This is what draws directors and actor to them, yearning to inject new and relevant life into the well-known comedies, tragedies, and history plays.  “These gaps… open up space to think differently about the world and experience it from another point of view.” (pg. 3)  

Ms. Smith’s analysis of the history plays (Richard II, 1 Henry IV, and Richard III) shines a light on not only the creative elements of the stories, such as the fictional character of Falstaff, but on Shakespeare’s purposeful guidance of the audience’s engagement.  The historic facts in these works are clear and accurate, yet the focus of the writing evokes a specific emotional journey for the audience.  In Richard III, the role of Richmond is minor.  His victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field ends years of political turmoil and ushers in the Tudor reign.  Shakespeare diminishes this historic importance in the play.  He turned his audience’s anxious eye away from Elizabethan succession and focused it on Richard’s tyrannical reign in order for them to learn a lesson from the past.  Shakespeare achieves this by creating a charismatic character in Richard, who leads the play in line count.  Ms. Smith often turns toward line count to see which character emotionally dominates the play.  This is one example of how Shakespeare constructed the history plays to give his audience more than just historic content.

Shakespeare Scholar / Author, Emma Smith
Photo courteys of Emma Smith
Ms. Smith highlights a few surprising aspects in her chapter on Othello.  She makes a strong claim that the set up for this well-known tragedy follows the structure of Shakespeare’s comedies.  The opening scene of Othello is much like that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where a father disapproves of his daughter’s choice of a suitor.  The handkerchief that Iago plants as evidence of Desdemona’s infidelity can be identified as a “comic prop” (pg. 211), much like Olivia’s letter in Twelfth Night, that pulls Malvolio into his comic downfall.  She also cites evidence that the character of Iago “is a version of the witty servant… often depicted on stage laughing at his own diabolical cleverness.” (pg., 221)  Because of the institutional racism, religious bias, and gender oppression dramatized throughout the play, these comic set-ups take a horrible turn toward an inevitable, tragic ending for the characters.

Ms. Smith also looks at the classic characters in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, as well as a number of Shakespeare’s beloved comedies (The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night).  She takes a deep dive into twenty of Shakespeare’s plays.  Each chapter in the book offers an expansive frame of reference to understand a director’s fresh interpretation.  This Is Shakespeare is the perfect read to prepare for your return to live theatre.  It is a valuable resource to revisit before seeing any new production.  

I leave you with Ms. Smith’s final line from the book:  “So this is Shakespeare.  Permissive, modern, challenging, gappy, frustrating, moving, attenuated, beautiful, ambiguous, resourceful, provoking, necessary.” (pg. 324) 

Domenick Danza

Smith, Emma. This is Shakespeare. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2019.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Search for “Illusive Dramatic Action” Ends with John Patrick Shanley’s "Danny & the Deep Blue Sea"

The Pitkin Review: Fall 2020
This Critical Commentary appears in the latest issue of The Pitkin Review, a literary journal published by students in the Creative Writing MFA program at Goddard College.  I thought I’d share it with you here.  Copies of The Pitkin Review: Fall 2020 is available for purchase on Amazon.  You will also find my 10-Minute plays, Climate Change in that edition.

When I was studying playwriting at Chicago Dramatists, Russ Tutterow, the Artistic Director, often spoke about dramatic action during feedback sessions.  The presence of dramatic action in a play was the biggest difference between one that was working and one that was not.  Everyone seemed to understand what he was referring to, except me, so one day I asked him, “Russ, what exactly is dramatic action?”  He thought for a minute, then answered, “I can’t explain it, but I can tell when it’s there.”  That was no help to me, but at least he was honest.  It set me on a journey in search of what I called “the illusive dramatic action.”  A few weeks later I was reading John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt.  I stopped part way through and shouted, “There it is!  Dramatic Action!”  I could not explain it, but I knew it was there.  It was present in every word.  It drove every line of dialogue.  In my continual search for how to infuse dramatic action in my writing, I recently turned to the earlier plays of John Patrick Shanley.  A close look at the characters and dialogue of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea gave me a clearer understanding of what I have been in searching of for an extended period of time. 

The opening seven lines of dialogue set up the fire between the two characters, Danny and Roberta, and set the tone for the rest of the play.

Danny:  How ’bout a pretzel.
Roberta:  No.  They’re mine.
Danny:  You ain’t gonna eat ‘em all.  Lemme have one.
Roberta:  Fuck off.
Danny:  All right.
Roberta:  You wanna pretzel?
Danny:  Yeah.                                                                         (pg. 12)

June Stein & John Turturro in the orignal
1984 production of Danny & the Deep Blue Sea
at Circle in the Square Theatre
Photo courtesy of Martha Swope
Danny wants something.  Roberta says no.  Danny pushes.  Roberta pushes back.  Danny steps away, then Roberta makes an offer.  These seven lines might be about pretzels, but the underlying tension is much deeper.  The actors can play into the primal need of the characters while talking about pretzels.  This is how Mr. Shanley’s dialogue is full of dramatic action.  The characters are driven by a deep need, a yearning.  No matter what the dialogue reveals, how the story line develops, or what their objective is in the scene (in this case pretzels), a powerful need drives the characters and propels the action forward.  Danny tells Roberta, “When I turn thirty I’m gonna put a gun in my mouth and blow my fuckin head off.” (pg. 15)  He is twenty-nine.  This is an aggressive decision and sharing it with her fills an emptiness.  Filling this emptiness is the yearning that drives Danny in all his interactions with Roberta.  Mr. Shanley appropriately subtitles this play “An Apache Dance.”  The way these two characters react to one another is brutal and visceral.  An Apache Dance is “sometimes said to re-enact a violent ‘discussion’ between a pimp and a prostitute.  It includes mock slapping and punches, the man picking up and throwing the woman to the ground, or lifting and carrying her while she struggles or feigns unconsciousness.” (“Apache (dance)” n.d. para. 2)  That succinctly defines the relationship and interactions between Roberta and Danny, yet Roberta is just as strong, if not stronger than Danny.  Writing two equal forces in these characters builds tension and creates strong dramatic action throughout the play.

In scene two, Danny asks Roberta to marry him.  It does not feel unusual for Danny to propose to Roberta, even though they just met.  It is compulsive and aggressive, consistent with his character. 

Danny:  That’s right. That’s me.  Will you marry me?
Roberta:  All right.  I mean, yes.
Danny:  You will?
Roberta:  Yeah.  I mean, yes.
Danny:  No!  Yeah?
Roberta:  Yeah!
Danny:  All right!  Good! That’s good!  I feel like I won a prize or somethin.
Roberta:  And will I wear a white dress?
Danny:  Yeah!  Sure you will!
Roberta:  And you’ll wear the bow tie and everything!
Danny:  Yeah, yeah.  The whole outfit.
Roberta:  You think we could?                                                          
Danny:  Why not?  People get married like that left and right!    (pg. 38)

The subtext is strong.  It is impulsive, then doubtful, then certain, then questioning, then they convince themselves.  These thirteen lines go deep into the thoughts of each individual character.  They bounce off one another until they come to an agreement.  The dramatic action is all in the subtext, until it accelerates into the explicit reality of the scene.  Roberta has a young, special needs son, lives with her parents who help her care for him, and recently quit her job.  She is trapped in her life and has no opportunities for escape.  Danny cannot offer her a better life, but does give her a chance for mutuality and passion at a level she craves.  They are the same.  They are both in need, equal partners in this dance. 

Roberta later re-negs on Danny’s marriage proposal in scene three.    

Danny:  I asked ya ta marry me last night square business an you said yes
              an I meant it.
Roberta:  All right then, I didn’t!
Danny:  What?
Roberta:  You heard me!
Danny:  What?
Roberta:  I was lyin cause I wanted a nice thing.  Get serious.  No way are you
                an me getting married.  That was strictly make-believe.
Danny:  Don’t do this to me!                                                              (pg. 44)

Playwright John Pattick Shanley
Photo courtesy of John Partick Shanley
Their dance continues with a new conflict.  Roberta cannot forgive herself for her past actions.  Danny steps up and forgives her.  She fights it, then opens the door to acceptance.  The ending of this play does not give closure to these characters.  We can see them continuing this ongoing dance, fueled by their unfulfilled need.  There is constant conflict between them, which results in potent and effective dramatic action.

These examples from Danny and the Deep Blue Sea illustrate how Mr. Shanley skillfully and consistently crafts all his plays.  He writes characters who are on fire with deep need and potent desire that pushes them against one another.  Dramatic tension is created when the characters start pushing back.  This viscerally engages the audience.  They identify with the struggle and root for a satisfying outcome.  The dramatic action is created by the constant buildup in this struggle, which is caused by the insatiable need of the characters.  This is how dramatic action is created.  It is vital to dramatic writing and keeps the audience engaged throughout the course of the play and, if successfully done, long after the play’s conclusion.

Domenick Danza

"Apache (dance).” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 16 April

Shanley, John Patrick. 13 by Shanley. New York, NY: Applause Theatre and Cinema
Books, 1992.