You can’t sit on your audience’s shoulder.
I saw a show recently that frankly didn’t make much sense. I just didn’t get it.
Afterwards, I found myself at the same table as the Author, and an informal post-show talkback ensued. A very honest friend/audience member spoke up and said, “That scene that happened in the garage . . . I didn’t quite get that. What was the character trying to say when he was asking about the XXXX?”
The Author then proceeded to give a very lengthy and somewhat eloquent explanation of the symbolism of the speech and the metaphors and so on and so on. When the Author wrapped up this defensive monologue of his own, there was silence. Then the audience member said, “Huh. Didn’t quite get that.”
The Author looked a little perturbed and looked around for the rest of us to support him. But we just kind of shrugged our shoulders and agreed that his statements, however brilliantly sheathed in symbolism they may have been, just weren’t getting through to the audience.
It was a very awkward rest of the evening.
But this convo reminded me of my very first college creative writing class at Johns Hopkins University, which was taught by a guy named Greg Williamson. I loved this class, and whenever I asked for some extra help, Greg was always there to meet with me before or after class to look at what I wrote and offer some advice.
One day, I asked Greg to read a poem I had been working on. He read it and then he asked me what it meant, so I explained it in a rush of 18-year-old emotion. Like the Audience Member above, he said, “Huh. Didn’t get that.” I started to explain some more and Greg cut me off, and said, “Ken, when someone reads your work, you can’t be there to sit on their shoulder and whisper in their ear what it’s about. They’ve got to get it on their own.”
Greg was a smart guy, and his ‘on-the-shoulder’ principle applies to playwriting as well. Brilliant writing is only brilliant when an author successfully communicates his message to his or her audience.
Otherwise, you might as well just write a journal, since no one is supposed to see that but you.
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