Mundane Activity as Structure

THE PLAYWRITING SEMINARS > STRUCTURE > SHAPE > DIAGRAM > INCITING > PLOTS > SUSPENSE > TECHNIQUES > MUNDANE

Order 'If one is making theatre, the issues have to be immediately visible to the audience, so one needs a carrier.'

-- Peter Brook







Mundane and repetitive physical activity can be a great temporary support structure, especially for scenes verging on pure discussion. The structure of the physical activity provides shape and a sense of forward movement to this sort of thing. The device works for short segments of a play in an odd way like a Suspense Plot functions for the entire piece.

This technique has been around the theatre at least since Hamlet's Grave Digger carried on that philosophical discussion with our boy while shoveling up dirt and bones. There's nothing particularly interesting about shoveling dirt, or doing the dishes, or taking a bunch of photos, or cooking dinner, or getting dressed. But . . .

These kinds of routine physical activities do have a structure to them: at least they have a beginning and an end. And they can create a heightened sense of tension when woven through a scene with only mild conflict or even just discussion between your characters.

It's a very effective technique that can partially substitute for your Suspense Plot. It's even been used to great effect for the entire length of a play, though it's been a while since a contemporary playwright pulled this off . . .

But most playwrights still do what Shakespeare did: they use this device sparingly, usually for a maximum of 5 pages. And the key is to weave the mundane activity through the dialogue. A great example . . .

Tony Kushner's second scene of ANGELS IN AMERICA: Roy is on the phone making and receiving calls -- the mechanics of this are funny, but have no real significance. This repetitive activity is woven through his side of these conversations -- which tell us a lot about Roy Cohn -- and Joe's attempt to figure out why Roy's asked him to talk. All of which takes about 4 pages.


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