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Talkback: A Play About Talkbacks

Wednesday, January 5, 2011 Leave a Comment

(Our amazing Dog Act playwright Liz Duffy Adams wrote this short play about the talkback process. Having lived it, I love it, and hope you will, too).

By Liz Duffy Adams
In Which the Great Majority of the Talkback Dialogue Has Been Collected Verbatim Over the Years, about Various Plays by Various People

The setting is a rehearsal room or small theater, anywhere plays are read to an invited audience for the purposes of “development.” Such a reading has just finished. A large cast of actors are standing about in front of a line of music stands and chairs (under which are scattered bottles of Poland Spring water, tissues, pencils and yellow hi-lighter markers), chatting animatedly with a number of earnest people, a mixture of young, snappily dressed and stylishly tattooed (fellow actors and their friends) and somewhat older, somewhat frumpier in vaguely bohemian fashion (artistic directors, agents, dramaturges).

In the audience a thin, sallow, youngish man with a wispy goatee and already receding hairline is sitting in the front row in a posture as close as to fetal as one can be and still be sitting upright. His large dark eyes are registering a combination of dazedness, pain, anxiety, relief, euphoria and a desire to seem open minded that is, in fact, physically impossible to register all at the same time. The playwright. A buff young man in a tight tee shirt and Teutonic haircut (the director) is speaking in a low tone in the playwright’s ear; in the other ear, a wiry young woman with bitten nails and no makeup (the dramaturge) is murmuring in counterpoint. A handful of other people are milling around or sitting in the audience gossiping, smirking, laughing raucously in a way guaranteed to rasp the playwright’s last nerve (friends, interns) or hunched and pale, scribbling in small well-worn hardbound notebooks (other playwrights).

A stately lesbian wearing a necklace of rough semiprecious stones as large as dog turds—literary manager or head of program, moderator of the event—sails through the crowd, touches the playwright on the shoulder.

Moderator: Okay, we’re going to get started. Ready?

The playwright stands, clutching his own small well-worn notebook, and follows her.

Moderator (to the room): Okay, people, we’re going to start the talkback now, if you’d like to stay and share your thoughts with the playwright.

A hushed stampede ensues as three-quarters of the crowd rush the door, stagewhispering “You were great!” and “We’ll talk!” to the actors, pulling cell phones and cigarettes out of their messenger bags as they flee.

The playwright and moderator take the actors’ place, facing the audience where everyone else settles in, some with the keen look of people mentally rehearsing incisive points, others with the smug and lively air of Romans anticipating a good Christian vs Lion bout.

Moderator: First of all, thanks so much to all of you for coming out tonight for the latest in our developmental reading series. I’m sure Bill appreciates it very much. This play we heard tonight is in a very raw state, as I’m sure you could tell, and before it continues on its journey of five more readings, two workshops, several aborted production discussions and sincere invitations from several important small theaters to send them his next play, we’re going to do our best to help the playwright understand what he’s done, what he should have done, and what to think about what he should do. All right? So why don’t we start with what’s wrong with the play. Okay, you, there.

Talkbacker 1: First of all, let me say I’m just in awe of your use of language. So powerful, so poetic, really, just, like, so evocative.

Bill: Thanks.

Talkbacker 1: But you know, you might want to think about that as a strength that’s really potentially a problem for you. Sort of a crutch, you know? Did you ever think about writing a play with really spare, you know, minimalist use of language?

Bill: Not really...

Talkbacker 1: Well I think you ought to try that. I think that would be amazing. That would be a play I’d want to see.

Moderator: Okay, you up there.

Talkbacker 2: Hi, yeah, I just wanted to add to that because, you know, yes, the language is amazing, but it’s so dense, so many words. I think you just need to edit, you know? I mean, you say something one way and then you immediately say the same thing in another way, and then you complicate it and contradict it and build on it and oh my God, you know? It’s like, the language and the images—which are great, by the way, so powerful, so poetic—but they’re just too much to take in. I just felt overwhelmed. It ends up being inaccessible. Like, leave room for me, you know?

Talkbacker 3: I agree and I’d like to add, there are too many monologues. Monologues are inherently untheatrical, they’re just lazy writing. Can’t you say the same thing in a scene? Like, instead of that “to be or not to be” speech—which also actually I had a lot of trouble following—couldn’t you show that he’s feeling suicidal instead of having him tell us? Like, he could try to stab himself and someone—oh, like, his girlfriend could stop him, and that whole scene could lead into the “get me to a nunnery” scene—

Bill (automatically): Get thee to a nunnery.

Talkbacker 3: Right, get thee to a nunnery, and I think it would have so much more impact.

Moderator: Yeah, about that though, I’m sorry, but I just have to say—I know everyone’s gonna say, oh, she’s so PC, but I have to say that the misogyny in this play really, really disturbed me. If that’s what you wanted to do, fine, but just know that. I mean, why does Olivia have to go mad and die? Are you saying that women are weak and overemotional? You’ve got wimpy crazy Olivia and then that mother, who’s either really stupid or, you know, just awful. And that’s it for women in the whole play. I just think that’s something that you really have to look at. (Bill murmurs something almost inaudibly.) Right, Ophelia, whatever, same point. Okay, you.

Talkbacker 4: There’s so much great stuff in this play, Bill, some of it is just brilliant. Really, very poetic, very powerful. But right now it’s really kind of a mess, you know, it’s all over the place. Like in the, what is it, the fourth act, when he comes back and tells us all that mishigas about switching the letters and being captured by pirates? Well, that’s just poor craft, poor playwriting; I’m sorry, but it just is. First of all, it’s ridiculous, I mean, pirates? And plus you just shove it in there, it’s so over-determined, you need him to come back for the play to keep going so you just have him pop up, say, oh, yeah, switched the letters, Guildencranz and Rosenstern are dead, rescued by pirates, la la la, let’s move on. It just doesn’t work, the audience will never buy that. It took me right out of the play.

Bill (mumbling): Rosencranz and Guildenstern.

Talkbacker 4: What?

Bill: It’s Rosencranz and Guildenstern are dead.

Talkbacker 4: Yeah, right, okay. I mean, who’s going to ever be able to remember that? I’m not sure what you’re trying to do with those absurdist names anyway, these absurdist guys, it just breaks the tone, it’s like “Abbot and Costello Go To Elsinore.”

Talkbacker 5: Yeah, I have something to add on that—first of all, Bill, it’s such a beautiful play, really, so powerful and poetic, and you know, evocative. So, just know that.

Bill (warily): Thanks.

Talkbacker 5: But I agree with a lot of what people are saying: it’s like three or four plays’ worth of stuff in there, and I think if you want the audience to stay with you you’re going to want to take a serious, like, weed-whacker to it. One thing I’d urge you to cut is that scene in the graveyard. It breaks the tone, like someone was just saying about Crazenrose and Guilderstein. I mean you’ve got this very serious existential play about the ethics of revenge (Bill looks startled for a moment) and right when Hamlet should be going for the kill, you derail all the dramatic momentum and take us into a—I guess it’s supposed to be a comic scene, black comedy—with the goofy gravediggers and the skull, and Hamlet remembering the dead guy, York or whatever—and I just, I’m not sure what that adds to the play. I think it’s a detour that we just don’t need.

Talkbacker 6: Yeah, I feel that there are too many characters. I couldn’t keep track and new ones keep popping up—that guy towards the end, with the challenge, and that Fortablau? Apart from it’s confusing, you’ve essentially written an unproduceable play. I mean, you have to be practical. You’re going to want to cut it down to five or six characters, tops, or maybe a little more if there can be doubling. Off the top of my head, what do you need Horatio for? He just hangs around for the entire play. I’m not sure I see what dramatic function he serves.

Talkbacker 7: I have to disagree, I really liked Horatio. I just wanted to know more about him. He’s just there as Hamlet’s friend, like, he doesn’t have a real voice of his own. I’d love to see him more fleshed out. Like, what does he really think about everything that’s going on? Does he think Hamlet should kill his uncle or not? What does Horatio want?

Talkbacker 8: I hate that the whole ending hinged on weapons. Suddenly we have to keep track of which one is the poisoned sword, who’s got the poisoned sword, and oh, there’s poison in the cup too, and so on. I don’t think we’re going to be able to follow that, the audience is just going to be confused. The death of Gertrude especially borders on melodrama—it’s really hard not to laugh. And then everyone’s dead! That just took me right out of the play. Really, it’s going to be hard for audiences not to just laugh, and I don’t think that’s your intention. It’s just way over the top. Then as if there isn’t already too much going on, you bring in Fountainbra! It’s like, too many endings. Does it end when the lead dies? Or when he achieves his objective of killing his uncle? Or when this Fountainbra comes in? I was over it by then. I couldn’t care less about what Fountainbra had to say.

Talkbacker 9: Listen, okay, I’ll be the bad guy and just say it. Is this even a play?

Talkbacker 10: I don’t think it is. There are certain natural laws of playwriting and you can’t just break them, like you can’t break the law of gravity. There’s no logical progression of dramaturgical structure here, no thematic unity. This is not a play. Maybe it’s a novel, maybe it’s, I don’t know, some kind of experimental postmodern performance art.

Talkbacker 11: Did you ever think of making it a one-man show, with Hamlet playing all the other characters, like they’re really in his head?

Talkbacker 12: Why couldn’t the lead character be a middle-aged Mexican?

Talkbacker 13: He’s so unsympathetic! Why should I spend a whole—too long by the way—play watching this, you know, whiney indecisive sociopathic ruling-class Danish jerk?

Talkbacker 14: Is he really crazy or is he faking it? That’s not clear. You need to clarify that.

Talkbacker 15: It’s over-written!

Talkbacker 16: It’s elitist!

Talkbacker 17: It made me feel stupid and I resent that!

Talkbacker 18: Have we even talked about why doesn’t he just kill the uncle in the first act?

Moderator: Okay, we’ve got to wrap up, so just one more comment. Okay, you.

Talkbacker 19: You know what, Bill? I think you’re working out some issues in this play. And I think when you figure out what those are, you’re going to write something really good.

General murmurs of agreement.

Moderator: This was great, this has all been very useful I think to Bill. Thanks to the actors for all their great work, to Trevor and Heather for directing and dramaturging, and thanks, Bill, for this wonderful play. I can’t wait to read it again after it’s been extensively rewritten. Thank you, everyone, and please stay for a glass of wine.

Applause, and the audience dissolves into a chattering crowd. Bill looks shakily at his copious notes. The director and dramaturge join him, handing him a plastic cup of wine.

Trevor: That was kind of rough. How’re you doing?

Heather: How are you? Are you okay?

Bill: Well…

Trevor: Lots of good points, though, I thought.

Heather: Why don’t we meet tomorrow and start talking cuts?

Trevor: Yeah, I really heard it this time. Too many characters.

Heather: Too many characters, too many words…

Trevor: Too many words, yeah.

Heather: So, what time’s good for you, Bill?

Bill: Huh?

Trevor: What time can you meet to talk about cuts? Or, I’m sorry, did you want to do some rewrites first on your own?

Bill: Oh, um… Actually, you know what? I like it the way it is.

Trevor: What?

Heather: What do you mean?

Bill: Well, I mean, fuck it. It is what it is. I’m going to leave it and write the next one. About too many characters lost in the woods one night in the middle of summer, with too many words, probably. I’ll see you guys.

Bill exits. Trevor and Heather look stunned and displeased.

Trevor: Wow. What a bad attitude.

Heather: Well, that’s too bad.

Trevor: Yeah, really. I mean he’s good, you know, but…

Heather: Yeah, he’s good, but he’s never going to get anywhere if he can’t collaborate.



  • RVCBard said:  

    I've been following Bill's work for some time now. I really like his work - really poetic and powerful - but he seems to be recycling his plots. We've seen the whole "my uncle is fucking my mother" thing before - simply turn on Jerry Springer or Maury Povich. There's just nothing new here. I think that to make it more contemporary, Bill should do something a bit meta like making this whole thing be a fictional reality TV show or something. That's something I think audiences can relate to.

  • Isaiah Tanenbaum said:  

    Yeah, um, Bill, were you aware that your previous "hit" -- the obviously antisemitic one -- was a complete rip-off of another play that had premiered at another theater downtown? A very promising playwright named Chris wrote it, and you just stole the plot and characterization from his much better -- get your hands off of me! I'm expressing my freedom to participate in an artistic process -- don't tase me! DON'T TASE ME!!!!

  • Anonymous said:  

    Oh, and that part about the girlfriend dying. Well, that needs to happen on stage. What's that narration thing the queen gives? You need to make it active, Bill. Or is it Bob?

  • Greg M said:  

    That was amazing, Liz. Thank you.

  • RLewis said:  

    Now I know why Liz Lehrman won a MacArthur grant.