Day 11: How to Develop Plays with Movement, Sound and Silence

by Sheila Cowley | Aug 1, 2016

This guest post is part of our countdown to Lab 2016 un/spoken: The Language of the Stage. Every day for the 30 days leading up to the Lab, we’re featuring an article or resource examining different aspects of language and communication in theatre.

The question I keep asking is, how does a playwright develop a script that isn’t people sitting in a room and talking?

Theater is magical when it embraces movement, sound and images created by artists, audience and imagination. Not flashy special effects, but the visceral imagination that an audience and actors bring to life together when they will a piece of cloth to be the ocean, and they want with all their hearts to believe gravity just let go of your feet. The kind of magic that can’t work on film or TV.

How do you grow a script like that, when new play development is built on straight staged readings?

Because if you, as directors, want to direct bold and adventurous plays that use more than words to tell a story – I’d ask what you can do to develop those kind of scripts, given that the only opportunity most theaters offer is a reading at music stands?

Staged readings are vital to develop dialogue and story, absolutely. But if a script is built on more than dialogue, it’s automatically unsuited for the kind of staged reading that’s all most theaters schedule for new play development. In the last two years I’ve had three different scripts get as far as semi-finalists in a New York competition from a bold and adventurous small theater. Each time, the Artistic Director told me that they love the scripts and keep coming back to them – but they just can’t choose them because these plays are full of movement, sound and visuals. And a staged reading’s all they can afford.

•   •   •

Trio is a play that wrestles with the cycles we all struggle through, as parents die and children have to take their place. Leslie’s mom is dying, so she’s distracting herself by working on a monster play for kids. Every day Tim puts on a mask and offers himself up as a monster to be killed. His old boyfriend, Fletcher, is an engineer who’s become a witness. The Trio are three silent clowns – or acrobats or dancers, puppeteers, whatever form of movement art a theater wants to showcase.

Fletcher and Tim are talking about monsters. But not really talking about monsters.

TIM
What would you feed him?

FLETCHER
Oh, I’d ask him what he likes. And I’d make that.

TIM
What if it’s really, really complicated?

FLETCHER
You know, I think monsters like things very simple. Simpler than they make you think.

TIM
. . . And what would you do, after dinner?

FLETCHER
Oh, I’d ask him what he likes. And I’d do that.

TIM
What if it’s really, really complicated.

TIM abruptly exits.

[FLETCHER touches the Mask. Almost tries it on, but can’t. FLETCHER starts to leave, suddenly puts the Mask on.]

[The TRIO act like a mirror. FLETCHER doesn’t recognize himself. Can’t recognize his hands.]

[The TRIO form an engine, a churning machine. FLETCHER admires it. The TRIO’s engine falters – FLETCHER adjusts it to run smoothly. The TRIO set sail.]

LESLIE strides on with a head of steam.

LESLIE
(mistaking Fletcher for Tim)
Okay, where’s my car, you bastard? You are always, why are you just always, I just don’t know what we’re doing anymore, just what the hell. . . yeah, go on, touch me, with your monster hands. Let’s just go to a movie. But it’s just so loud and glaring out there, isn’t it. Offstage. And in here’s where you always come to life again. After I kill you.

[LESLIE pokes FLETCHER, testing. Just before she’s sure that FLETCHER isn’t TIM, The TRIO drown her in their blue and green cloth waves. FLETCHER takes the Mask off and exits.]

I made huge breakthroughs with this script when Dan Granke at the University of South Florida volunteered to do a two-day workshop of the script with his Mask and stage combat students. Another professor worked on scenes with his acting class, and the costume design professor used it as a project for advanced design students.

University theater departments are terrific for this kind of exploration, giving students and professors a real script to work on and play with. But we only had time to do selected scenes, and weren’t working with professional movement artists who’d have ideas about the choreography. So the full script hasn’t gotten on its feet, after four years.

•   •   •

There’s a great podcast recorded by The Dramatists Guild, a conversation between Itamar Moses and Moises Kaufman. They wrangle with this question, how the most beautifully theatrical moments in their most successful scripts had no dialogue. They lament that the development process is geared to favor talky scripts – scripts that would work as a radio play.

But that leaves out plays full of movement and gesture. Or plays where a silent exchange is more powerful than any words. Music stands aren’t geared for scripts that forge connections between sound and lights and set and bodies.

•   •   •

The Burlesque Astronomy Play asks theaters to collaborate with a visual artist as a brainy astronomer puts art to the test by dating a painter, and experiments with her femininity through burlesque dance. Her colleague Fiona is trying out science magic tricks for kids. Just before the act break, Andi finds out she’s pregnant, which threatens her career plans.

The sounds of deep space radio transmissions.

Images of Saturn.

ANDI
(on the phone)
Yes. Yes, speaking. . . You’re sure. A hundred percent. Right. I know. I mean, I tested it myself. But I don’t have the same equipment that you. . . Thanks. No. No, I’d need to call you back about a sonogram. And can I ask, I, when, I – what’s the deadline? To decide if you are gonna – you know. . . If you need to scrub the launch.

[Simultaneously, these actions begin.]

[1 – – – FIONA turns on the overhead projector. Drips vegetable oil. Then drips water. Then food coloring. The water changes color. The oil doesn’t.]

[1 – – – CAL ventures into the lab, approaches the silent burlesque stage. CAL almost touches the feather boa.]

[1 – – – ANDI casts about her office. Picks up an oldfashioned compass, and tries to get a bearing.]

[2 – – – FIONA pokes at the liquids, has fun. The overhead projector goes out, the office goes dark.]

[2 – – – CAL looks at the stars, is drawn back to the boa – surprised how soft it is. CAL looks to see if anybody’s looking. Runs the boa across his hands. His throat. Starlight begins raining over CAL.]

[2 – – – ANDI looks at the audience through her telescope, searching.]

[3 – – – FIONA finds a fluorescent bulb. Rubs it briskly on her sweater. The bulb glows in FIONA’s hand.]

[3 – – – Starlight spreads across the audience, as ANDI looks up at the stars.]

[CAL reaches for the gloves.]

Blackout.

FIONA’s bulb glows. And goes out.

The sounds of space fade slowly.

I used to write realistic, talking plays. They worked in staged readings because the story’s told with words. But I think I’m a better writer now, as my plays embrace other art forms, and worlds that don’t fit on a page.

It’s true that bold and physically adventurous scripts get produced, and thank goodness. There are theaters that support extended workshops and experiments. But these are few and far between when playwrights look for places to help get a script from page to stage.

I hope it isn’t true that playwrights have to write kitchen-sink realism to get a foot in the door.

Right now I’m working on a play that blends Greek myth and hipster jazz to provocatively question costs of war – by using movement, musicians and sex. The title character in Meridian can be played by a man or woman, with language that’s designed to shift its meaning depending on the actor’s gender. It’s another script with potent, dialogue-free moments that don’t work at music stands.

So my question is, how do you as directors – given the financial constraints of the theaters you work with – do the work that’s needed to make scripts like this production-ready?


Sheila Cowley is a playwright and radio producer. Her work combines vivid conversation, sound and movement. She can be found on her website and at the New Play Exchange.