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May 9, 2015

How to Open a Play

I don’t open films the same way that Shakespeare opened plays.  The first shots in Dara Says contain no words.  It opens with a series of actions, and in the first couple of minutes there are fewer than ten words spoken.

We created a draft of the opening for the crowdfunding campaign.  Here’s the video of the first few minutes from that campaign.

The script for the final film was identical, but we used different music and paced things differently.

I wrote the screenplay thinking that “film is a visual medium”, but a lot of story is told through the dialogue, tones of voice and other sounds.  Film is an audio-visual medium.

While in my own “play” the characters use each others name in a natural fashion, so the audience knows who they are, I didn’t want overuse the names.

I remember watching films when I was a kid, knowing who the hero, villain, love interest, sidekick, and henchmen were, or what they looked like, what they did and what their motivations were, but forgetting their names.  Perhaps with only three characters, it\’s easier to remember names.

Not all characters have names as such, and not all names are spoken.  Sometimes I’ll read a screenplay and learn what a character’s profession is.  I didn’t know this from the film because it’s not mentioned directly.

With the plays of Shakespeare, however, almost the entire story is told in the dialogue.  Fights, weapons, names, props, are almost all mentioned in the dialogue.  Shakespeare’s original audience did not have the advantage of the close up, the insert or the cue card.  So, they need to hear the names early and often, or they’ll be lost.  “He dies” and “she dies” is often the extent of action told only in directions.

I remember watching “Les Miserables” in a West End theatre, seated in a small seat, in between two men who were both much larger than myself.  And I’m not exactly small.  It seemed between myself and the stage, there was a pillar, erected especially to punish me for sitting in a “cheap” seat.  I also remember thinking that the seat wasn’t that cheap, but I guess things are more expensive in London.

When I read the opening to “The Tempest“, I’m reminded of the theatre going experience.

Master: Boatswain!
Boatswain:  Here master, what cheer?

It doesn’t sound like the opening to a classic. (Or, at least not what we’re taught to expect of a classic.)

So many “creative” writing classes tell us to avoid excessive exclamations, “idle” chitchat, and the like.  If I opened a script for a screenwriting class with a similar set of words,

RICH DUDE

Cabbie!

CABBIE

I’m right here Rich dude, What’s up?

I’d probably be blasted.  Not as badly blasted as one of those so-called script-readers would blast me, but blasted.  The viewer knows the cabbie is a taxi driver by seeing the taxi, I’d be told, the rich guy is obviously rich from the way he’s dressed.  

“Show, don’t tell” is the way of modern writing, “otherwise it might as well be radio.”

Then I imagine trying to write a pirate story for the stage.  The aquatic stories with large action scenes and great fantasy “need” to be on the screen, I’ve been brought up to believe.  Yet, The Tempest has all the epic of any big budget film, all with minimal props and sets.

Then, I think of all the film adaptations of Shakespeare, and wonder, is this why The Tempest is not as often made for the screen?  It is truly a play in many ways.  Yet, I don’t see it much on the stage either.

The Tempest is a masterpiece, which, I hear, has a richer vocabulary than almost any other work of the English language.  And yet, it starts with a simple introduction in plain English that doesn’t tell us much more than who is speaking.

By contrast, I started my last film without telling the audience who was on stage, but slowly introducing the characters as I was told Edgar Allen Poe had done.  I like my technique, for the particular story, but I also see the value of doing things differently.

Both differ to the tools used by playwrights of the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century.  The text of those plays open with a long description of the set, written more for the set designer than the literary audience, as we often don\’t need to read these openings to understand the text.  (At least, that\’s what I get from readings of Checkov, George Bernard Shaw, and Tennessee Williams.)

We all pretend to know Shakespeare, but even a first line shows how little we know.

Let’s try the opening of Romeo and Juliet.

“Two Households, both alike in dignity” I said aloud.

I tried it out on three people of different ages.

“What’s dignity.” was one response.  The other two didn’t know how to explain it to the first.

Narrator:   Two households, both alike in dignity

This opens a sonnet which introduces the play.  And, indeed, the answer to “what’s dignity” is part of a play on words that this sonnet uses.

The reactions to these words, out of context, are negligible.

I think people need to know that they are watching a play, that this is indeed “Shakespeare” or at least the title of the play, to understand things.

The opening words of any play are its title.  Anyone who has paid to see a play, or a film, will usually know what it is called.

“The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet” is obviously an unhappy romance.  The first line hints at the struggle between their families, and the challenges the two protagonists face.  Even if we don’t know it the first time we hear it, those words help to set the tone.

The fact that someone is a Boatswain is more significant when you know a Tempest is coming.

So, I try again with my audience, telling them the title where that line comes from.

“Well, now that I know that it’s Romeo and Juliet, I know that you’re not just going crazy.”

Still, no real reaction.  No reaction on my social media post of those words either.

Okay, now we’ll watch Boxtrolls again.  The opening to that film is pretty funny.  But the first line?  I don’t remember the exact words.