I had a workshop leader, Frank, who, during the discussion of my work, laid out the pages side by side, three rows of five so that my fiction formed a rectangle on the long conference table. This was his copy, and justifiably covered with the blood of a red pen. I’d seen this with plenty of my fiction teachers—slashes through sentences and whole paragraphs and notes like “could cut” or “What are you thinking?”—but there was something different. Frank had drawn large blue boxes around blocks of text, and most of the bloodshed remained in the spaces between each box. “These,” he said, by his estimation, were “the active scenes of my work.” They drove the story, propelled the reader forward. From that moment, I began to focus my efforts on the crafting of scenes and stringing them together to tell the story. Everything else, all the expositional nonsense in between became superfluous and excised when I began drawing my own boxes.
Because of this, I thought I had a handle on writing scenes, and in the realm of fiction, I still think I do okay. Though, in attempting to write my first scene for the stage, a short two person scene, I realized just how limited I am. This isn’t just to point out my downfalls with putting the actual words on the page, but with all the other details one needs to account for when writing for the stage. I’d like to equate to process of writing fictional prose to a digital art program like photoshop or the archaic MS Paint.
I begin with a blank canvas, and an idea of what I’d like to create, and for the most part I can dive right in. What aids this process, is the available tools surrounding the white space, the fills and splashes and borders, all at the click of a button. With fiction, if I have scene in a bathroom, I can describe the lighting, the putrid, jittery flicker of aged fluorescence bouncing off the cesspool of stained, green tile, the beads of sweat and spatter of blood contrasting the vivid blond of the woman standing and deepening walnut brown of the kneeling brunette. The hammer she drops can be as big or as small as I want. The dead man in the bathtub can be anywhere in the room, because I, with all my readily available tools, am the architect.
When writing for the stage however, I found myself really starting from scratch. The luxury of free-roaming creation wasn’t available. This isn’t to say that anything your mind can fathom couldn’t be performed, but instead, that everything you fail to consider when writing fiction comes into play.
My process for writing fiction is as follows: roll out of bed, smoke, guzzle coffee, smoke, put on a Vangelis record, open up the document, bang on the keys, smoke, smoke, guzzle more coffee, write a page I think is brilliant, then delete it upon further reflection, smoke, nap. I do all this from the comfort of a shabby blue leather couch with my feet propped on a repurposed coffee table. I don’t need to leave, save for research if necessary, because everything I’m creating exists in my mind, and my job then, is to appropriately transcribe this to the page all the while considering the mythical reader in my mind—a cross between the subway commuter reading my work on the way to the drone factory and the delegate sent from the canon to judge my level of worthiness. This person doesn’t exist, and never will, but as I sit here on the couch, I’m writing to them.
The first difference I discovered when writing for the stage began with the confirmation that my fiction instructor was still correct—the scene is paramount, and the words between prevent the audience from being propelled forward. The second, and more terrifying but essential difference, is that another step is needed for the stage. Now, the world in my mind must be transferrer to the page, then transferred to the vast expanse before a viewing audience. No longer am I writing for the mythical consumer/critic beast I’ve imagined, but now I have to write for the public. The world I’m used to laying out for the reader to fill in the gaps crumbles as I fumble with props and lighting and lines of sight.
What I tripped over was tangibility. I can’t just write in a lamp, or the glaring fluorescence, but now I must write the physicality into my scenes. I have to consider not only the fictional world, but how it will translate into reality. Will everyone in the audience, from the back corner, to the front row, get the same experience based on my stage directions. Can everyone see? Can they hear? In a short story, no characters need to face one another, or position themselves in such a way that the general public can watch their lips move, but on the stage, these amount to only a fraction of the necessary considerations. Where editing my fiction is for flow, for syntax, grammar, the hunt for the most beautiful sentence, it has grown to include not only all of that, but also the daunting task of editing to create a performance. And even further, an accessibility for every attendee.
In a way, writing for the stage, to me, removes some of the, for lack of a better word, laziness that I’ve grown accustomed. I can’t let my reader to the work. I’ve got to get up there, walk around the creaking stage, blow the dust off old props, move actors around like rooks and bishops, then return to the page to make adjustments. It is the ultimate recursive process, one that reflects, maybe, the very thematic elements of all creative endeavors—the arduous slog of trial and error, of success and failure—and in doing so, I might be able to create something that has the ability to transcend medium and speak to more than that invented reader I have been pandering to. But first, I’ve got to get up off the couch, hop onto the stage, and put in the work.
Frank, my instructor, had the right idea: break everything down into scenes and see where your story takes you, but I’m learning now that within those little blue boxes, amidst the bloodshed of hacked away prose, the real action isn’t simply text, but must encompass every single seemingly insignificant detail that creates a new reality.