As writers we are trained (or convinced or cajoled – and with reason) to be creative (ummm… obviously). We’re pushed by nearly everyone with any say in the formation of our craft to think of things that have never been seen (or heard – or read – or read aloud – or, maybe, thought) before. The need to be innovative can be that voice inside our heads when we sit down with our projects: What makes this story different? What am I giving the audience that they haven’t seen before? How will I be amazing today?
And that’s great. That’s what, often, we look to art and artists to give us: a vision of the world that is in some way new or unfamiliar to us. That’s what we want.
Except when it’s not.
I met with Kyle Ancowitz a couple weeks ago to discuss the draft of my commission play, “I Heart Rock N Roll.” Kyle was great to talk to (cue Kyle blush…) as I was definitely at a point where, while I could rattle off a list of 10 or 20 things I knew I still needed to get back in and work on, what I really needed was to get some of these ideas out of my own head and into someone else's for a while. Kyle and I were pretty much in agreement about many of the things I felt were primary concerns when approaching revision including the main one: the boy-meets-girl relationship that is, if not the center of the play then, at least, a very large cog in it just wasn’t working. It wasn’t only not working it was pretty blatantly not working. As we talked through it, an idea was raised: there was plenty about the play that was unexpected and playful and ambitious (you’ll forgive me the superlatives … they are less necessarily true than they will help illustrate a point), maybe the relationship between Jerry Lane and Heather “Hell’s” Belles (I’ll refer you back to the play’s title now…) needed to be more conventional, more what we expect, if it’s going to ultimately be more effective.
Now, writers of screenplays and television know this (and, if pressed, playwrights will nod along as well): audience expectation is one of a writer’s greatest assets. We like to use it in terms of surprising an audience – of playing off their expectation. But it’s equally important to play to what an audience wants and expects at certain points of a story – it can be just as powerful to do what is expected as to do what has never been thought of before and it’s the balance between these two things that makes for really powerful writing. Sometimes the answer may be to do what everyone thinks is coming. Maybe…
Maybe that’s not the solution to Jerry and Hell’s (again, remember the title of the play…). Maybe everyone will call their part of the story “expected” or “lacking imagination.” But maybe not. Maybe their part is conventional, as every romantic comedy is, essentially, conventional and that what joy their relationship brings to an audience (“See, there, he promised us joy!”) is by allowing to happen what we all know will happen and let other parts of the story do the surprising (did I mention that another of the play’s storylines follows Charon, ferryman of the River Styx, and a character based on Bret Michaels of Poison and VH1’s “Rock of Love”?).
- Robert Attenweiler