A Play is a Single Breath: A Conversation with Sherry Kramer
Bennington College Drama Faculty Sherry Kramer released a new book, Writing for Stage and Screen: Creating a Perception Shift in the Audience, published by Methuen/Bloomsbury (UK) last month. We caught up with her to learn more.
You’ve written more than 30 plays. What inspired you to write this new book?
There are a few reasons. I was teaching at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin one year, and a student, unbeknownst to me, wrote down everything I said in class and published it on her blog. Later, a student’s husband started teaching a class very similar to a class I had taught. That’s flattering. I like that the ideas are getting out there, but I thought maybe I should put them out there myself. That was over 20 years ago.
Also, I teach something called ‘the perception shift,’ which was the concept of my mentor, Oscar Brownstein, who taught me at the Iowa Playwright’s Workshop. It was his discovery of how to really talk about what happens to the audience during a play. He wrote a book about it, Strategies of the Drama, which should have been a Bible for the art form, but for a variety of reasons, it was not. (For one thing, his publisher priced it at $60, which was a fortune at the time.) He's a beautiful writer, and he's an elegant and fantastic mind. So, I wanted his ideas to be out there. With his permission, I include his concepts with mine in this book.
Finally, I was so annoyed by the whole vocabulary and a way of approaching our art form that was the norm. People had taken the vocabulary we use to talk about prose and applied it to plays. Well, that has limited utility. People talk about protagonists and antagonists, but in a two-hour art form, we don’t have endless time to spend on character development—we have to cut to the chase. It’s the audience’s understanding of a character that matters—that’s what we are developing. Because the audience doesn't actually come to the theater to find out about Lear; they come to find out about themselves. The way that you get them to find out about themselves is by making them want to find out about Lear, but anything that distracts you from understanding that Lear is not the end product, he’s the means, is a distraction for the writer. So I was really impatient with a vocabulary and a way of addressing our art that was talking about it as if it was a novel.
How does writing a play differ from writing a book like this?
Writing a book like this is like writing a one-person show about plays and movies.
So would it be a drama or a comedy?
Better make it a comedy; otherwise you're gonna lose people. But it does have very serious moments too. It's first person, and it sounds like me. It's just like listening to me talk.
How is the process of writing a book different from writing a play?
Writing a book like this is more like writing a novel, because you can write it in pieces. What makes a play so hard to write is that a play is a breath. It is a single breath. You take it in at the start, and, at the end of your play, you let it out. It's over. A play is a joke where the punchline lands two hours after the setup. Or you can also think of it as a rhyme where ‘blue’ happens in minute one and ‘true’ happens in minute 130. The rhyme arcs over the whole event; it makes it a single, unified thing.
In the book, you mention the concept of timebound art. What do you mean by that?
If you think about reading a book, you can put it down anytime you want. And when you come back, there it is, just waiting for you on that page. Time has stopped. But when you go to see a play or movie, its moments are part of your life. You're living in tandem with the time on stage, on screen, and you kind of leave your life behind. You give over to the time that's happening in front of you.
You can finish a novel you don’t like, if you’re the kind of person who will finish a bad book, and brush it off. ‘That was a bad book.’ But you don't say that about a bad play. You say, ‘I cannot believe I wasted my time on that play.’ It makes you angry. You're furious. It's an assault. It's a violation, because it's happening to you in your time. So I'm obsessed with what that means and what it means when we “pair bond” our lives to what's happening in front of us.
Also I'm obsessed with the fact that, in plays and films, there is always a clock. A clock is a fuse that has been lit. “This is how long we get.” Works of art usually have more than one important clock. Some of them are really short, and at least one of them is as long as the work itself. It’s a setup and a payoff relationship. Clocks organize the audience's experience. And, of course, they all do it so differently. In Streetcar Named Desire, Stella is pregnant. So, there's a clock counting out how long Blanche is going to be able to stay, because she’ll have to leave when the baby is born. In Waiting for Godot, there's no clock, but there's every clock. It's an indefinite clock. You have what I call ‘the rent is due’ clock, where people are desperately trying to get together some money or whatever they need to stave off disaster. It's how we keep the audience looking through a narrow aperture. It's how we keep them looking at the right thing in the wrong way until we reveal to them what is really going on.
What would you say is the ‘promise’ of the book? What will readers get?
The first thing that they're going to get is a love story. It's a love letter to the theater and to movies and TV. It's this love affair with the world as it is presented by a work of art.
The second thing they are going to get is a completely unique way of talking about what happens in a work of timebound art. The word manipulation is not a dirty word in our art form.
People come to our art to be manipulated, to be made to see the world differently. They want to have a perception shift, which is the core of my teaching about the way the audience sees not only the work of art in front of them but everything in their lives. That's what I'm shooting for. The book is a first step in helping artists use the potential works of art have to inspire the audience to see themselves and the world differently.