Keep it Simple

From the desk of Sam Chattin, PTC Marketing Intern

“Keep it simple,” are words of wisdom hammered into me time and time again by professor and renowned playwright Bruce Graham. Now I’m roughly paraphrasing the rest of his advice, working from memory, which coincides nicely with his newest play The Outgoing Tide, but much of his advice as a teacher of playwriting at Drexel University concerns this idea of simplicity. Plays are not as complex as novels; the writer is severely limited in the theatre with storytelling when compared to the flexibility found within a novel. Character development within the play form must be clearly visible, with subtlety signifying a playwright’s worst enemy. I remember Graham chastising me on my use of complex metaphors and well camouflaged subtext. He would remind me during our many meetings together that the audience was not me—the people watching my play would not think as I did. Reading the script of Graham’s The Outgoing Tide has shown me that a fairly straightforward story can contain just as many complex elements.

There is nothing simple about Alzheimer’s. It affects more than the person diagnosed with the disease, causing emotional strife within the rest of the family and loved ones.  Bruce ran the risk, with such a complex subject matter, of creating a story that could have easily alienated the audience with excessive backstories and muddied themes.  Instead, he neatly ties the subject matter of memory into exploring the pasts of each character. The play flows seamlessly through each scene without any breaks for set changes (except for the intermission), weaving past and present in a smart but simple way. There are only three characters seen on stage, though other people are mentioned and described throughout the play. Bruce saw the importance in keeping the number of actors on stage to a minimum, realizing the main characters’ opinions of the other unseen characters was more useful in creating an image of the various relationships both inside and outside the scope of the play. Gunner’s low opinion of Jack’s wife simultaneously establishes Jack’s sense of disappointment in the shadow of his father. In Graham’s trimming of the play and its characters, he has tightened the story and made it more accessible to his audience.

Graham offered me a useful trick in deciding whether my story was too complex for the playwriting medium: if a playwright can’t describe his or her play in one sentence, then the playwright does not yet know what story he or she wants to tell. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and desiring to make amends for his past actions before he forgets them, Gunner has devised an unusual plan to secure his family’s future that meets with resistance from his wife and grown son. And that’s playwriting in a nutshell.

Sam is a Playwriting major at Drexel University (2012) and has studied with playwright Bruce Graham.