Friday, June 24, 2011

The Barebones Start of Some Thoughts about Trust and Intimacy and What Music Does/Can Do in a Play

by Dan Dietz

I’ve written a number of plays that utilize live music in some way.  A Tennessee fairy tale with a Tom Waits-esque singing angel.  An American history play featuring a live rockabilly band.  An adaptation of AGAMEMNON set in post-Katrina New Orleans, complete with a Chorus that moans the blues (CLEMENTINE IN THE LOWER NINE, set to premiere at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto this October).  But my latest play, HOME BELOW ZERO, takes a much more subdued tack, at least stylistically.  It’s my first attempt to utilize music—in this case, heavy metal—in a primarily realistic (if somewhat heightened) drama.

Which has got me thinking:  why music?  What does it do that I like so much?  And what about this time will be different from my previous uses of live music onstage?

Coming of age in Austin

I spent a huge chunk of my adult life living in Austin, Texas.  It’s a city so saturated with musicians and bands that music pretty much becomes part of every resident’s DNA.  It’s in the air you breathe.  Its value is inherent and obvious.  Like a dip in Barton Springs’ freezing waters on a hundred-plus degree day, or a trip to the taco truck on South First Street for lunch.

As a young playwright coming of age in that town, I was one of many experimenting with how you could add live music to a play without making it a “musical.”  I was a member of Salvage Vanguard Theater, one of whose founders was in a garage punk band called Superfecta.  The company started off by doing plays in a rock club called the Electric Lounge.  They had to have the entire set struck in time for the first band to go on at 10pm.

Which is a long way of saying, we knew musicians.  And since gigs could be hard to get in a town chock-full of bands, we were often lucky enough to have stellar players weaving their music into our onstage action.  We got to see how the music could leaven a moment with irony, or cut to the emotional heart of a scene by repeating a simple chord.

And we weren’t the only ones doing it.  The Rude Mechs (now famous for their collaboratively-created shows), Refraction Arts, even theatre artists at St. Edward’s University were bringing live bands into their shows. 

But putting live music in a show begs the question:  What does music do well in a play?  So let’s write a section called:

Brief Detour:  What Does Music Do Well?

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to work on a collaboratively-created musical with some unbelievably talented artists at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto.  In one of our early meetings, the composers (and librettist/book writer Kait Kerrigan) spoke at length about what music and musicals do well.  Here’s part of the list they came up with:

1.  Telling you what to feel.
2.  Giving you a sense of a larger world or community.
3.  Serving as a vehicle for emotional honesty.
4.  Slowing down or speeding up time.
5.  Activating transitions.

They also spoke about Source Songs and Montages, but I won’t get into all that here.

When I look at this list, though, what I really see is:  Trust.

Look at all the ways your audience trusts you when you put music onstage.  They trust you with their emotions.  They trust you to help them build the world of the story that’s being told inside their imaginations.  They trust you to carry them through time and transitions and on to the next important thing they need to see and experience and wonder about.

Because make no mistake, trust is what’s involved.  Creating and receiving music is a deeply personal transaction.  Music by its very nature bypasses the logical centers of the brain to stimulate way more primitive parts of your subconscious.  This is (my faux-sciencey yet still I think very true explanation of) why going to see a bad band is an almost literally painful experience.  Why Muzak makes some people want to tear their hair out.  And why a single note placed just right can make my Dad—not an emotional guy—start blinking away tears.

So basically (and assuming they’re not just sitting there with a massive emotional wall up for some reason), each of these human beings watching your show lets you (through your music) into their hearts and minds in a way that circumvents their well-honed ability to use language and logical thought to shut you out.

Kind of unbelievable how intimate this all is.

Which segues me to…

How does all this relate to HOME BELOW ZERO?  Or does it?

A big part of what I’m exploring in this play is the intimacy that people experience when music binds them together.  The trust that music promotes and requires.

I’m using music in two different ways as it stands right now.  One is realistic:  Khaled really does play the guitar.  And not in some Brechtian, presentational, let’s pop out of the narrative to address the audience directly kind of way.  He actually plays in the Real World of the play.

The other is non-realistic:  music exists in what is currently the Coma World of the play.  It is music created by instruments that aren’t there.  It’s the music of memory, music that is connected to a particular character’s sense of identity (an identity that’s kind of split). 

But I’ve tried to find moments where music could intersect with the action in other ways.  For instance, I gave Khaled what felt like a manifesto (what I call his “Tabaghdada speech”).  Originally, I conceived this moment as occurring while he plays a throbbing heavy metal riff.  Then I decided to take the music out, and see if the speech still retains the same swaggering energy without the sound.  That’s the great thing about BAPF—I get to test that theory out in practice.

Then there’s another scene in which music brings two characters into an intimate moment of connection—but the music is on headphones, so the audience never gets to actually hear it.  Another experiment—we’ll see how it plays.

But the point is, these characters need music to express themselves.  It comes out of a deep desire to have a part of themselves heard.  And since some of these characters have a difficult time expressing their emotions through language, the music offers a way of talking about what they feel—without having to talk about what they feel. 

So I’m hoping that maybe the music in HOME BELOW ZERO will say things that monologues can’t.  And maybe the absence of music will say things, too.   Maybe these characters need to do numbers 1 through 5 above in their lives as much as I might want to do them in my plays.  Maybe in a world falling down around their ears, it’s the only tool they really have.

We’ll find out.

You can catch the Bay Area Playwrights Festival reading of Dan's play HOME BELOW ZERO - with a live musician - on Friday July 22 at 8pm and Sunday July 31 at 4pm. For more information on Dan's play and the 34th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival visit

Monday, June 13, 2011

Tragedy and the Common Playwright

by Lauren Gunderson

I need to ask Arthur Miller a question.

The play I’m working on this summer with Bay Area Playwrights Festival needs his help. The end isn’t working. It hasn’t been working. Why is it not working? The first 2 acts are strong enough to build some rolling momentum, to launch major questions, to define this very special world, to flood this world with the possible, the impossible, the serious, the ridiculous, the human, the musical, the horrible. But after all that the climax isn’t climaxing, isn’t real, isn’t earned, isn’t satisfying. Why? I don’t know. I’m stuck. So I ask Arthur Miller. We talk about tragedy.*

He says that the greatest playwrights have “a fierce moral sensibility. It’s unquenchable. They are burning with some anger with the way the world is."

     “Yes,” I say. “Theatre artists know we need that truthful ferocity for theatre to be relevant, prophetic, important - “

“That’s nice. I don’t have a lot of time,” he says. 

     “Right. Sorry.” I say. 

“Are you writing a tragedy?” he says.

     “I thought I was writing a drama. I mean it’s still funny, but only because the tension is so high, but now I’m thinking – ”

“Are you. Writing a tragedy?” he says and looks directly at me over his glasses rim.

    ”Yes, sir. Yes, I think I am."

“Ok. Then your hero must suffer.”

     “Weeeell - she’s not really that kind of person and I don’t think this is that kind of play for - “

“The greatest truths we know have come out of people’s suffering. The problem is not to undo suffering, or to wipe it off the face of the earth, but to make it inform our lives."

     I nod. Right. Yes. The heroine of my play is a fuck up, a rebel, a very tarnished sheep in her very polished southern family. Her suffering is of an outcast, a reject that turns to the outlandish for a freedom she thinks she can handle. But then how do I reconcile her with her stepmother - who is the real force to be reckoned with in the play? How do I get those two opposite women in a place to understand the depth of each other’s needs? That’s my ending - and that’s where the end keeps stalling."

“Are you done thinking?”

     “Yep. Sorry, Arthur Miller.” 

“The quality in such plays that does shake us, however, derives from the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what or who we are in this world. Among us today this fear is as strong, and perhaps stronger, than it ever was. In fact, it is the common man who knows this fear best."

      That is what Johnnie wants most - respect. More than respect though - which can be done in faraway silence - she wants active support, community, family. She wants real understanding. And - whoa - so does her stepmother. They are both outcasts in their respective societies. Ok, this is good. 

“As a general rule, to which there may be exceptions unknown to me, I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing - his sense of personal dignity."

      Lay down her life? Literally? Her life? I mean... the heroine of this play, Johnnie, is a young Southern punky white girl that does not “belong” in her family, in her house, in her small conservative world. If she is the tragic hero, then she has to be willing to risk an ultimate fate. If Johnnie can truly connect to her stepmother, a powerful African-American woman who definitely does not understand Johnnie at all and has her own massive bag of injustices to deal with, she must present her ultimate vulnerability. And if Sugar, Johnnie’s stepmom, can come to accept Johnnie it will only be by seeing the edge off of which Johnnie is capable of jumping. But do I have to actually make her jump? Is this the moment when I recall my grad school training and the meaning of “action”?

“The discovery of the moral law, which is what the enlightenment of tragedy consists of, is not the discovery of some abstract or metaphysical quantity."

     “So that’s a yes to action?”

“If all our miseries, our indignities, are born and bred within our minds, then all action, let alone the heroic action, is obviously impossible.”

     “So that is a yes. Jesus. I have to kill her? Oh crap, Arthur Miller, can we talk about this?”


     “But Johnnie is the character that fought for freedom, for individuality! She’s the cool one!”

“Which is not to say that tragedy must preach revolution. The Greeks could probe the very heavenly origin of their ways and return to confirm the rightness of laws. And Job could face God in anger, demanding his right and end in submission.” 

     Right, Arthur Miller. Freedom may be what you want but not what you need. I think about a discussion I have with students about the earned endings of their plays - these endings generally circle around the worst possible thing that could happen to their heroes. Comedy or tragedy - the worst thing either makes us laugh or makes us think; makes us pity or understand. Sometimes the worst thing is the thing the hero asked for. Either way it pushes the hero to his/her ultimate abilities. Which makes me think that Sugar might be the hero of this play...

“But for a moment everything is in suspension, nothing is accepted, and in this stretching and tearing apart of the cosmos, in the very action of so doing, the character gains “size,” the tragic stature which is spuriously attached to the royal or the high born in our minds. The commonest of men may take on that stature to the extent of his willingness to throw all he has into the contest, the battle to secure his rightful place in his world.”

    ”This is getting deep, Arthur Miller. I don’t want everyone to die.” 

“I almost hesitate to claim that in truth tragedy implies more optimism in its author than does comedy, and that its final result ought to be the reinforcement of the onlooker’s brightest opinions of the human animal.”

     “Ok, good. ’Cause I’m generally sunny. I like hopeful endings. I like a play that points us toward betterment. Is that ok?”



“The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy.”

    Exactly. Huh. What would victory be for Johnnie? For Sugar? Ok I have a lot to think about. I haven’t decided on this killing-the-hero thing yet. 

“I tend to like it.”

     “I know you do. Oh god. Do you want something to drink or something? I’ve been such a bad host.” 

“No. I’ve actually gotta go.” 

     “I don’t mean to keep you. Thank you so much for coming.” 

“It is time, I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possible lead in our time - the heart and spirit of the average man.”

     “Or woman.”

“Or woman.”

     “Thanks again.” 

“You’re welcome.”

    ”Do you know where you’re going?”

“Yes, I do.” 

      (Arthur Miller walks out of the door. Lauren makes fresh coffee and starts typing. )

You can catch Lauren’s play Rock Creek: Southern Gothic at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival on Sunday, July 24th at 4pm and Saturday, July 30th at 8pm. Click here for more information! [LINK to HOMEPAGE]