“But I really am Wayne Newton.”
Posted December 14, 2008on:
I’ve been puttering around with a small start-up theater group in Boulder for the past couple of months. The vision for this year is that the group will call for previously unproduced, one-act plays from regional playwrights. The “reading committee” will select the best plays and present them in public reading evenings from February through September 2009. Then, the best scripts would be produced in an evening of short plays.
We’ve posted listings in several playwrights’ newsletters and arts events calendars and so far have received about 10 scripts. So far, so good. The problem is that that all anyone seems to want to write about is unhappy people sitting around at funerals agonizing over their relationships with the deceased and bitching about their unhappy lives. No kidding, a significant portion of the plays have somehow managed to have that same plot line. And most of the rest of the scripts are about unhappy people somewhere other than a funeral agonizing over their relationships with still-living people and bitching about their unhappy lives.
One of the cardinal rules for playwrights is that all of your characters must have strong desires, and something must get in the way of their achieving their desires. They will struggle to overcome the obstacles, and sometimes they will succeed (comedy) and sometimes they won’t (tragedy). In my book, desiring to sit around bitching about how unhappy you are just doesn’t satisfy that instruction.
A few months ago I submitted a short play for a call for scripts. The requirements were that the plays had to be between 30 seconds and 4 minutes long, they had to be about Las Vegas, and they had to use the words “Wayne Newton.” Wacky, huh? I thought so.
In response, I wrote, “Tough Town.” In “Tough Town,” a down-on-his luck Wayne Newton comes into a seedy booking agent and tries to get a job as a Wayne Newton impersonator. At first, the booking agent doesn’t believe that the person he’s talking to really is Wayne Newton. He’s just another kook star impersonator who’s gotten carried away in the role. In any case, there’s not much demand for Wayne Newton impersonators, so the agent tries to give him a gig as an Elvis impersonator. But Wayne doesn’t do Elvis; he really is Wayne Newton! The agent is unconvinced. If this really is Wayne Newton, he must be worth millions of dollars and have people breaking down his door to offer him concert gigs. So now Wayne must persuade the agent that he is short of cash and that he can’t get a job anywhere. At the play’s conclusion, the agent has convinced Wayne to don a honey-blond wig, and is training him to be a Celine Dion impersonator.
Over the course of the play, Wayne needs to convince the agent: a) that he really is Wayne Newton; b) that he really is broke and needs a job; and c) that even if there is infinite market demand, he isn’t going to lower his standards to doing Elvis. The agent: a) needs to convince this seeming madman that he believes him; b) needs to find him a job that is in demand and that will earn them both some money; and c) needs to get him to agree to do something (someone) other than Wayne Newton. Wayne Newton’s character goes from being somewhat arrogant and inflexible, to humbling himself and compromising his principles.
All this happens in about 3 minutes. Lots of high-stakes needs from the characters, lots of action, lots of humor. Nobody sits around bemoaning their unhappy pasts.
Sure, good scripts usually come from what the playwright cares about. But writing plays must also be about entertaining the audience. Wallowing in morbid, autobiographical self-pity rarely does that.