Material Realities

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Unlike print-based genres—poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction—the dramatic genres, such as playwriting, are allied to certain material realities.  By this I mean that what is mentioned in a script is not just for a reader’s mind, but is meant to be concretized before an audience’s eyes.  I find myself frequently noting on drafts of student scripts that particular stage directions sound “expensive,” and I don’t mean this as a positive comment.  I use this word to discourage writers from including elements that would make staging difficult—for example, impossible special effects and overly frequent scene changes.  In a similar vein, I ask student authors to remember that acting is paid labor.  Frequently, beginning playwrights will include a character—often a waiter—who does very little.  In the professional theatre, the actor playing this character would have to be compensated for his or her work.  Therefore, inclusion in the script means an added expense, and if it’s not a meaningful expense, there’s no reason for it.

What’s more, wasteful writing can mean not just a waste of monetary resources, but a waste of performer time.  To return to the waiter example, a playwright in a university setting could likely find a fellow student willing to play a minor role without compensation—meaning that the inclusion of a peripheral character would not increase expense in this case.  However, I ask writers to also take into account the performer’s perspective.  While student actors might be willing to play small roles, the truth is that no one wants to sit through weeks of rehearsal for a part that ultimately isn’t all that meaningful. A small part is one thing, a small and wholly insignificant part is quite another.  Therefore, ethically, the playwright should cut the role or make it worthwhile; otherwise, she or he is wasting someone’s (unpaid) time.

Material realities have even greater significance when they illuminate larger issues of artistic representation.  Cultural prejudices, for example, exist everywhere; but it is easier to see their consequences in the dramatic arts.  As I remind students, acting is one of the only jobs where employers can legally include sex, age, and race as hiring considerations—even though these categories are subject to legal protections elsewhere.  Because scripts create work for actors, I remind my students that, with each role that they write, they are potentially creating or denying work for another human being—and often doing so along race-based, sex-based, and age-based lines.  In other words, since each role potentially puts food on someone’s table, playwrights must not ignore their responsibilities to society. If the roles they create put food only on the tables of young white males, I encourage them to at least be aware of the exclusions they’re building into their creative work.

Just as the stage concretizes the text, so the field of dramatic writing concretizes the problems of representation that all creative writers face (or should be facing). In playwriting, it is harder to ignore one’s ethical responsibilities because they are so apparent.  A print-based writer knows in theory that she or he should not create characters that conform to offensive stereotypes.  The playwright, however, must understand that, when she or he creates such a role, she or he must essentially look another human being in the eye and say, “You.  Be that.”

[[This post first appeared on LitBits on 3/30/12.]]

About the Author
David J. Eshelman teaches at Arkansas Tech University, where he is the founder and artistic director of the Arkansas Radio Theatre. His plays include Vim and Vigor, A Taste of Buffalo, Bathysphere, and The Witches’ Quorum, which had its professional debut at the Magnetic Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina. His essays about playwriting and his plays have appeared in Theatre Topics, Text and Performance Quarterly, Ecumenica, and Liminalities.