Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Playing Pretend - Pacing

Here at Throwing Ink, I'll occasionally be talking about theatre (and often connect it to film craft) as it's my other "thang". I was going to do it in a whole separate theatre blog, but... that didn't make a lot of sense for me - I have little time to blog as it is and don't want to go a month without new posts in one blog because I'm posting all in the other one. Plus, they connect. I'll be calling these segments "Playing Pretend" and will have a little fun logo eventually. But for now...

She's gonna hurt her eyes, embroidering in poor light like that...
While stage plays and screenplays are certainly different beasts, they share basic qualities of story telling. These are are stories which are written primarily in dialogue, on average are told in roughly two hours, and are performed and meant to be watched. While stage plays are far more limited in it's opportunities for visual settings and effects, scene changes, and general scope, I think the qualities that make for a good film, story wise, will usually make for a good play and vice versa. Why is it, then, that plays seem to often get a pass with poor pacing? Not that all film has a handle on it either - art and indie films in particular often fall into a pacing mud puddle, but it's as if because supposedly "cultured" and "intelligent" people like theatre and art and indie films the audience is meant to overlook the poorly measured acts and lack of forward story movement; that we should pat ourselves on the back because it means we have a greater attention span and appreciation for something more cerebrally demanding. But a good story is a good story.

Now, don't jump on me - I by no means am suggesting that all plays and film should be paced like a blockbuster action movie, but don't you think many plays could learn from the blockbuster? Perhaps attract a larger audience? Increase mass cultural appreciation for the theatre?
Yes, they're green. No, there's no Elphaba. Or Kermit. Wrong plays.
Take for instance Punk Rock, a brilliantly paced new (2009) play by Simon Stephens. I read this play the other day and loved it, couldn't stop reading it. And it was not one I went into excited for; it was described to me as a play about a "British Columbine". *sigh*

However, while I have qualms about the lack of strength in it's female characters (as in, these female characters have no character - I couldn't remember which girl was which and can barely describe them beyond their relationships to the lovingly fleshed out male characters), this play is a brilliant example of the polish more plays could use. The scenes are tight, they move the story forward, and it carries you along. Every scene is started in the middle of the action, no matter how seemingly innocuous (one scene begins with the girls screaming about a wasp in the room - but this rather than everyone sitting and then the wasp is noticed before yelling begins) and never did I feel bored. I was interested in these characters (the male ones at least) and their stories - I wasn't wondering when something was going to happen, despite the majority of the play's action and dialogue being adolescent kids griping about school and personal relationships (of course the play is about more than that, but the point is I wasn't constantly reminded that this play has an important message as I sometimes feel I am in more *ahem* boring plays). Good job Simon Stephens.

Plays (and films) can be important and meaningful without making the audience suffer. A good story is a good story. The basics are the same whether you're talking action heroes or human rights heroes or Princess Muffy's dog having puppies. Keep it moving, kids.

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