This is probably a familiar scenario for most playwrights, a conversation that repeats itself over and over in our lives the way that lines of dialogue repeat in Beckett: we meet someone and tell him we're a playwright, and our interlocutor immediately asks, "So, what kind of plays do you write?"
And despite the fact that we get this question all the time, it is rare that we enjoy replying to it or have a good answer prepared. (Well, the person who asked the question might find our answer satisfactory, but to us, it tends to feel woefully inadequate.) Being a young writer, I am fortunate that I can hedge and say "Well, I feel like I'm still learning, and finding my voice." But I don't have too many more years in which I can get away with this. And besides, it embarrasses me to act in this aw-shucks manner.
The problem with the "what kind of plays do you write?" question is the problem of having to label and pigeonhole yourself, as well as the problem of wondering if the person you're talking to understands what you mean. Let's face it, a lot of Americans don't know much about theater, and have never heard of many of the playwrights that contemporary writers revere the most. They know Shakespeare, or Arthur Miller, or Neil Simon... but most people these days don't write like Miller and Simon, they write like Caryl Churchill or Sarah Ruhl.
For instance, a lot of contemporary playwrights employ magical realism (influenced by Ruhl, Kushner, etc.), and if I were telling a group of fellow writers about my work, I might think it was noteworthy that I don't tend to write magical realism, and say as much. But if I were talking to an "average Joe" who doesn't see much theater, and I said "I don't write magical realism," the other person would be more confused than enlightened.
I get the impression that many people, when they think of "American plays," think of the classics they were taught in school--The Glass Menagerie or maybe A Raisin in the Sun. Dramas, revolving around a family, dealing with Big Themes, without a lot of laughs in them. So, I always feel compelled to explain that I don't write those kinds of plays, that I think I have a good sense of humor and it comes out in my work. I say "I could never write a tragedy" and "I think there is almost always some humor to be found in a situation--I mean life is like that, right?"
But more and more, I've come to realize that this gives the impression that I write comedy, which isn't exactly true, either. Indeed, a few weeks ago, I was talking with one of the people who had selected a play of mine to be produced in an evening of one-acts. He said, "You know, Marissa, your play is one of the only serious ones that made the cut--the rest are comedies."
I happen to know that this play of mine has a few laughs in it, but I also know what my friend meant--if it is a comedy, it is a very dark one, and most likely it's not even that. It's a character study, it's a drama.
(And yes, this is the big news that I alluded to in my last post... I am going to have a short play produced in August, my San Francisco playwriting debut! More information to follow as soon as there's a press release or something that I can link to.)
My parents said to me, "Maybe you could tell people that you write comedies in the same sense that Chekhov wrote comedies." Unfortunately, that doesn't really solve matters. Were I to say that to my fellow playwrights, it would sound like boasting to compare myself to the great Chekhov (seriously, if I could write with half as much honesty and truth as he did, I'd be a happy woman). And, were I to say that to a non-theater-person who asked me "What kind of plays do you write?", they'd just be bewildered. In order for "I write comedies in the sense that Chekhov wrote comedies" to make sense, you have to know who Chekhov was, and how much heartbreak is packed into his plays, and how he called them "comedies" despite this. And frankly, that's not something I expect the average person knows.
So, what should you do if you meet a playwright in the wild, and want to ask them about their work, but you've read this blog post and you know that "What kind of plays do you write?" is a question that writers hate? Well, do what we writers tend to do amongst ourselves, and ask "What are you working on right now?" You'll probably get an interesting answer, you'll get at least an incidental sense of the "kind of play" that we are compelled to write, and, in a small way, you'll encourage us. Because sometimes we need reminding that the work is the important thing, and that we should always keep writing no matter what. The more people ask us "What are you working on right now?", the more aware we are that we'd better have a good, fresh answer to that!