I feel that often times when we think about how to convey information in plays, we immediately go to dialogue as the means to do it. This is said to be one of the main differences between theater and its siblings, film and television. Theater gets by on the verbal.
This isn’t what I believe.
Don’t get me wrong, dialogue is important. The cadence, the rhythm, the choice of words all convey so much about a character. It’s very much part of the music of plays. However, I would argue that silence—everything but the verbal—is an often overlooked aspect of what we have at our disposal as playwrights.
For me, it all comes back to the belief that my job as a playwright is to represent the human experience as honestly as possible. If that’s the case and/or you believe this is true, then it’s fair to say we live in silence more than we live in verbal interaction. With this in mind, my job becomes telling stories that are imbued with the silence that we live in. And not in a way that is silence for silence sake, but in such a way that the silence conveys the story. Because the story needs it.
Below is a list of a few of the ways I think about silence and playwriting. The list is designed as a jumping off point to get us all thinking about how silence can be imbued in our work and the different ways we can define “silence” when it comes to writing plays:
- Charlie Chaplin. Buster Keaton. Greta Garbo. Silent films encapsulate the essence of what can be conveyed by a look, a movement, an action, a character going after their objective. Silent films are stunningly simple, but they are also emotionally complex. But the name “silent film” is misleading because they aren’t silent; there is a score that enhances what we are seeing.
Take some time. Watch these films and look at the economy of storytelling. Without dialogue, there is no room for excess. Everything is story related. It helps me to remember to pare down and just verbalize what is absolutely necessary.
Still unsure? Watch the first ten minutes of Up.
- Live in the moment. Slow down. Breathe in what is happening.
I work on 5-7 pages a week. That’s it. I’m not someone who binge writes - and that is not meant to denigrate binge writing. There is something beautiful about impulse writing.
What working slowly allows me to do is open up as a writer. To explore the moment I’m in. To put myself in the fifth row of the audience and simply observe. And look. And ask questions. Where are my characters standing? What are they wearing? Why are they wearing that? Is it hot? Is one in pants? Why? Does anyone have something in their hand? If so, what? Does one wear a watch? Who wears a watch anymore? What’s the air smell like? Why? Is someone out of breath? Where did they just come from? Does that inform what the air smells like? Where’s the sun? Or moon? Or stars?
The questions expand. New ones arise. It helps me track the emotional states of my characters while also revealing to me what happens in the next 5-7 pages.
5-7 pages a week may seem slow, but at this rate, you’ll actually have a completed draft in 2-3 months, which to me is quite fast.
- Objects. Going slow helps exponentially with this. I find myself discovering objects as I work on a play. They take on emotional arcs of their very own, arcs that are related to the characters’ hopes and dreams and greatest fears. Once we understand what an object means to a character, it can tell us so much more than words can. They hold their own power.
Think about the tree in All My Sons. In the very first moments of the play, the tree has fallen over, the tree that represented their missing son, Larry. Arthur Miller is telling us at the top of the play (spoiler alert) that their missing son is dead and everyone is going to have to confront this by the end of the play. He’s telling us this through the image, the object and not through the dialogue.
- Stage Directions, especially opening stage directions. When I talk about stage directions, I’m not talking about the ones found in published scripts that are reproductions of the stage manager’s notes. What I am talking about are the ones that are painting a picture. Telling a story. Setting the tone of the play. That are lyrical. That are another character of the story.
Look, many people don’t like stage directions. I love ’em. Unabashedly.
One of my favorite stage directions comes from Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Sirens: Suddenly, there is the most beautiful music ever played, heard only by SAM. It is his song. It may be singing. It may be a harp. It may be the eerie, sad sound of the theremin. SAM is completely enthralled. ROSE continues to yell at him but he can’t even hear her now.
I feel that stage directions are capable of not only informing how your play is being told and received, but also including moments that are there specifically for the reader, or actor, or director to tell them so much about your vision.
If you’d like, here is an exercise: Write a 10-minute play that is completely silent. The silence in your play can’t be there just because I’m telling you it needs to be silent. The silence must be earned based on the given circumstances of the character(s).
Microphone image used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Photo Cindy.