The Play’s the… you know…

Mac Rogers, whom I often refer to as “our playwright” or “my co-producer”, but who’s relationship to me would be better defined as “the best man at my wedding” or “the guy in the room who, when crazy shit happens, tries not to look at me”, has written the script for our show opening this Saturday.

Now, Mac has earned a lot of praise on our level of theater, people seem to be very excited to work with him and his talent is finally being recognized. The problem is, it hasn’t been recognized earlier, and it’s still really difficult to recognize it without seeing the script in action.

This has always shocked me. After every production we’ve done of Mac’s work, I watch the audience stagger out – astonished, elated, exhausted, and utterly in love with his writing. So, why can’t we send the script to an agent or a larger production company and get the same reaction?

Let me explain using film. In horror movies, filmmakers use what they call “negative space”. You see a woman, sweating, clutching a baseball bat, and she’s in the center of the screen, it isn’t that scary… but you frame the shot with her filling just the left corner of the screen and the whole rest of the screen is black, you sit there, straining, looking into the dark. It’s terrifying, you know something is there, you can’t stand it, and the longer you wait, the more you feel like jumping out of your seat.

This use of negative space doesn’t have to be just the frame. Harold Pinter does this maybe better than anyone, a seemingly normal conversation that is dripping with implications. The Homecoming is as close to a nihilistic horror movie as I’ve ever seen, I might have been more terrified watching this than I was watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

But Pinter can very easily be done badly. As many of my college friend can tell you (in fact some of them put it on display). That’s because Pinter has no interest in participating in post-modern pop culture, so he not only doesn’t make it easy, he makes it difficult. His plays can read like blank scenes, all the import is the responsibility of the audience and the production. And when I say “audience”, I include the reader, if you read it, you can horrify yourself. I won’t read Pinter when the house is dark and quiet.

Now, there’s a scene in Pulp Fiction where Maria De Mederos is describing the breakfast she wants while Bruce Willis looks for a watch. It’s different than Pinter because Tarrantino gave us the scene earlier, explaining the watch, and he’s also made it clear that Bruce Willis can’t go back to his apartment. It may seem like a scene about breakfast, but the mounting tension is brilliant, the banality of her breakfast hopes set against almost certain death.

This is what Mac does, as well or better than anyone. There is a scene where two women are cleaning a room for the video shoot, talking about where pictures will sit, talking about the nicest way to frame the shot… and the whole time, while you’re watching, you keep wanting to say, “FOR YOUR *DEATH*… right? You’re setting this place up FOR WHERE YOU WILL DIE…” and then, “unless you don’t.”

All the way through the play, characters sit and fight about Italian food, or talk about distribution deals, and the whole time, you just want to know… is she gonna do it? And if she does… is she gonna tell us *why*? The more time we spend with her, the more we can’t believe they’re gonna make her do it… or even *let* her do it. And more than anything, we want to know why. Why is the ultimate not-okay thing suddenly okay for her?

Now, this is the macro-brilliance (no pun intended) to the writing, the shape of the piece, the arc of the story. It’s an hour forty with no intermission because there’s no place for an intermission. That’s how you have to go with Mac’s writing, you put the intermission where the script calls for it, and if there is none, then there is none. The play has a rhythm, like a five movement symphony, it has a structure that fits precisely as it is.

But it doesn’t mean the script doesn’t have these incredible turns of phrase. It’s one of the first things you learn when you get to act in a script written by Mac, if you paraphrase, you’re just making things harder on yourself. He actually knows what he’s doing, there isn’t a word that hasn’t been weighed and been deemed worthy. Consider just one little insignificant snip, from the middle of a scene –

GEENA: Colin’s just… when he’s in the middle of a project, he gets all intense… things’ll be different when this happens. There’ll be money coming in… we can all take a breath. Things’ll be different.

The specific words like, “project” and “money coming in” (that passiveness, as if money will arrive, not that people will be giving them money for watching someone’s death) “when this happens” (just a little thing, like a dentist visit or appointment television)… It’s all fantastic. You don’t know how badly they are drowning until Geena describes “breath” as “different” than they live now.

I don’t feel right quoting any stretches of dialogue, but there are shocking and beautiful chunks of dialogue and monologue that are heart-scraping. I’ve had the privilege of acting in several of Mac’s plays, and there are pieces of script, little stretches of English, that still sit in my head. And if they’re sitting in my head, they have to be changing who I am, they have to be influencing the way I see my life and the world.

More than that, there are scrapes of Mac’s writing that I only know from being an audience member, and those are still living in my head. In an early play, Mac had a playwright character say, “I don’t believe theater can change the world, but I think it can change one person’s mind, and I believe that person can change the world…” I’m paraphrasing because, honestly, if Mac knew I was writing this, he probably wouldn’t send me the quote. He’s that lousy at self-promotion.

I may end up apologizing at the end of every one of these posts, but this is the first time that I have served solely as producer on one of our plays, so I really am removed from the whole thing. It’s very difficult to take credit for the artistic work done inside the play when you’re sitting outside of it, just watching. But it’s really easy to become a groupie for the very thing you’re trying to sell, when a piece of art becomes as important to us as this has become. Every play is important to the people who make it, and I’m using this blog to try to explain why this one is important to us.