Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Rules for Captivating, Intriguing Theater

Here are my definitive, undisputable, minutely researched rules for good theater, set in stone for all eternity.

(But “good” is a very vague word. By “good” I mean captivating and intriguing – keeping the audience’s attention for the entire duration of the play. If you think about it, that’s not a lot, actually. I’d say it’s the bare minimum you can ask of a story that’s being told to you. Whether it’s easy to achieve, however, is a whole different ball of wax.)

1) The play must speak for itself. Elements whose meaning depend on footnotes, background stories or anything relative to the writing process may add some enjoyment to the mix, but if any of them are necessary to grasp the core meaning of the play, it has failed on a very basic level. Above all else, the author must never explain his intention – and never need to.

2) The play must establish the rules by which it is going to be presented and abide by them. Suspension of disbelief may be broken and any or all of its elements may contradict reality (as it is acknowledged by humanity) or storytelling conventions in any manner or to any extent, but that deviation from the beaten path must make sense as part of the play. This rule applies to content as well as form. When the play has no particular plot or aesthetic statement establishing an unusual language or setting, the audience naturally assumes, by default, that they are watching a play set in the real world as they know it, and it in the dramatic language they are used to – e.g., chronological order, clear enunciation, stories ending with some sort of resolution, etc (in other words, it is impossible for a play to have no rules – either it defines its own or the viewer will). The more elements contradict the play’s rules, the less coherent the play seems in form, content or both. If the central elements or too many elements of the play violate the play’s rules, it has failed on a very basic level.

3) All the elements of the play must be motivated by a need of the play itself. In Aristotle’s words, everything must arise out of probability and necessity. The classical example of a failure in this sense is the Deus Ex Machina – the arbitrary ending where a conclusion is reached not as a resolution of the tensions and relationships developed throughout the play, but out of a new, last-minute element. Both Aristotle and the expression Deus Ex Machina refer specifically to plots, but anything can be gratuitous: a character trait (or even whole characters), a soundtrack or a lighting choice may also be dissonant from the whole play to the point of drawing the viewer’s attention to it from a formal perspective. The more elements are dissonant, the less cohesive and meaningful the play is. If the play has more random elements than motivated elements, the play has failed on a very basic level.

4) At least one element of the play must draw an emotional response from its audience. More often than not a character (or more), but it may as well be the plot itself. If viewers love it – or hate it – the play has succeeded. If viewers are indifferent to it, the play has failed on a very basic level.

5) The play’s duration must feel necessary to the viewer. It mustn’t feel too short or too long, regardless of its actual length. Three-hour epics may feel insufficient, and ten-minute sketches may feel too long. If the play’s duration calls attention to itself during the performance, the play has failed on a very basic level.

6) The meanings of the play or of its elements must be limited. A professor I had when I studied Visual Arts once said that “what can mean anything means nothing.” That may have been the most important thing I learned in that major. If no interpretation of the play can be denied or discarded, the play has failed on a very basic level.

7) The more important elements of the play must have more than one meaning. All art must have some sort of poetry, and there’s no poetry in anything that has only a literal meaning. If the audience can grasp no metaphor, allegory, symbolism, humor, pity, risk or some other sort of added value in the play as a whole or in its central elements (whether in form, content or both), it has failed on a very basic level.

As you can see, good theater is actually something very basic. Perhaps even more so: the more I think about it, the more I think rule #1 is the only one strictly necessary. Maybe #4 as well. It’s was in fact quite a struggle for me to fill up the 7-rule minimum. At any rate, these are the rules for good (not necessarily great) theater. There’s a lot more I find desirable in a play, but not necessary. If plays can still be good without it, I left it out.

The rules above are operational from the moment of their publication. Infringement of said laws may lead to severe civil and criminal penalties.

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