Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Manifestation of a Script

So! Last week my script was featured in Un-Scripted Theater's "Act One, Scene Two" project. It was an unusual, surprising, fun, and very valuable evening. I'm so pleased with how it all turned out.

The Un-Scripted Theater Company specializes in long-form improv: improvising a full-length, 2-act play in a specified genre or style. "Act One, Scene Two" is a new thing for them:
Each performance features a different guest playwright with Act One, Scene One of an unfinished play. The Un-Scripted Theater Company interviews the playwright onstage, performs their scene while reading it for the first time, and then goes on to finish the play -- now without a script -- starting from Act One, Scene Two. It's a blend of scripted and un-scripted that exposes the electric heart of live theater.
Writing my scene for "Act One, Scene Two" was actually a really good playwriting exercise. I had to devise a premise interesting enough that it could self-evidently sustain a full-length play, even though I had no idea what the remainder of the play would be. My scene -- required to be under 8 pages -- would have to establish characters, setting, style, and tone, provide some kind of action, and drop hints or dangle plot-threads that the improvisers could pick up. I quickly realized that the opening scenes of my existing full-length plays wouldn't work: they were too slow-moving or didn't have a clear enough "hook." So I wrote a new scene, titled "Manifestation."

The scene begins with two female friends, Annie and Elise. Annie believes in "manifestation," understood to be some kind of New Agey, The Secret-type philosophy where "the universe exists in order to manifest our deepest desires" and if you want something enough, you'll get it. For this reason, Annie asks Elise to envision and describe her "ideal man." But Elise doesn't believe in Manifestation, and thinks it's wrong to spend your time dreaming about an ideal that will never come true. Finally, she says:
ELISE: OK, if this is my ideal man we’re talking about, he is a good cook. He is also the heir to a billion-dollar fortune, owns a flying carpet, and gives me an orgasm every time he touches me. But I have to be practical. It makes no sense to daydream about a man like that. So, sticking to the realm of the possible, and being careful not to set myself up for disappointment… it’s nice if he can cook. But it’s not necessary.
And then, wouldn't you know, a good-looking man (Jake) shows up on a flying carpet, and he's the heir to a billion-dollar fortune, and when he shakes Elise's hand... yowza! Jake and Elise ride off on the flying carpet, and Annie is left feeling confused and resentful.

It's kind of silly, and I'm sure that this same basic premise has been used before. And I don't usually write plays that violate the laws of physics, with things like flying carpets. But at the same time, this felt like a "Marissa" play. It has female protagonists, and suggests that female friendship can be complex and involve emotions like envy or competitiveness. It has a heterosexual-romance element to it, and somewhat cynical or dissatisfied characters. The "Manifestation" theme is there to give it a bit more philosophic depth than just "two girls talking about their love lives," as well as to provide a sort-of explanation for why Flying-Carpet Jake shows up.

The Un-Scripted actors received my script about an hour and a half before curtain time. The show itself began with me being called to the stage and interviewed about my writing. I said that I enjoy playwriting for the characters it allows me to create, and that I particularly like telling women's stories, and exploring "flawed" or "unlikable" characters. Thus, I told the Un-Scripted troupe not to be afraid of acting unlikable: "Don't have the audience love you because you're so wonderful, but because you are interesting and messed-up."

"That's a pretty good philosophy for life in general," said one of the actors.

I was also able to drop a few hints as to how I envisioned the arc of the play. For instance, I said that I thought either Annie or Elise could be a compelling protagonist, and I wanted to see how this incident affected their friendship.

Then I returned to my seat, and the show began. There were five cast members that night: Mandy Khoshnevisan as Elise, Stacy Mayer as Annie, Aaron Saenz as Jake, and Joy Carletti and Merrill Gruver in a variety of smaller roles. Mandy had a wonderful array of incredulous grimaces that she used to convey Elise's amazement at her "ideal man"'s sudden appearance. Aaron did a very funny parody of a smooth-talking romantic hero, pointing up the absurdity of this stereotype. Stacy managed to be sweet and likable (okay, maybe I do want the audience to like my characters?) even when playing a sad-sack who felt like she'd gotten a bum deal.

As you can see, there were four women and one man in the cast that night. I knew this going in, so I figured that Aaron might have to play multiple roles. What I could not have guessed is that Aaron would decide that his character, Jake, had an evil identical twin who matched Annie's description of her ideal man! Utterly brilliant. The revelation that Jake had a twin brother came right before intermission, and I couldn't wait for Act II to begin and allow us to meet the evil twin. Un-Scripted knows how to use the tricks of dramatic structure to hook an audience.

Not everything about the show was necessarily "the way I would have written it." The last scene felt tacked-on, though this is probably an occupational hazard of long-form improv and the need to wrap things up. And the play ended with Elise happily married to Jake and the mother of twins, whereas, cynic that I am, I would probably have broken the characters up -- Elise would realize that she and Jake are incompatible and that it is indeed ridiculous to daydream about "ideal men." But I really appreciated that the troupe decided to follow both Annie and Elise's stories. You couldn't say that one woman was the protagonist and the other was the sidekick; they were both protagonists, and I loved that the show had two women at its core.

One of the most interesting things about Un-Scripted's shows is that they often end up becoming meta-theatrical -- somehow commenting on the act of live performance and improvisation. Seeing the show, I made a connection that hadn't consciously occurred to me when I wrote my scene. "Manifestation" is the act of creating something just by saying that it exists. Well, isn't that what theater is -- particularly improvised theater?

(There were a couple of funny, coincidental "manifestations" surrounding the show, too. Without knowing the subject of my play, Stacy had brought the New Age book A New Earth to read on the bus that day, and she ended up using it as a prop -- it's exactly the kind of thing Annie would read! Another odd manifestation: the entire cast decided to dress in purple shirts. How could they know that purple is my favorite color?)

Long-form improv is a high-wire act, full of risks. But the folks at Un-Scripted are so talented and quick-witted that they can make amazing things manifest.

Image, from left to right: me, Aaron Saenz, Joy Carletti, Mandy Khoshnevisan, Merrill Gruver, and Stacey Mayer, after the show. Photo by Scott Keck.

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