Some Thoughts on Plays

When I read a play, my immediate instinct is to read it out loud.  It makes sense, I guess, since the entire reason to be, for plays, is to eventually be read aloud, but I imagine there are people in literature courses the world over who read “Romeo and Juliet” or “A Raisin in the Sun” and never think about verbally uttering the lines as they do.  No – I think the instict to read a play out loud from the moment the first page is turned is perhaps a bit more trained than it is natural.  Between the ages of eight and twenty-four, I probably spent more time in plays or at least affiliated with them (acting is my first love but I’ve been known to voluntarily run lights for a particularly company I loved, in other instances, I served as director) than not, and even though it’s been years since I acted, the moment I began reading Edward Albee’s disturbing “Finding the Sun”, which I read over a lunch break at my desk while eating a chicken pesto panini, I found myself muttering the lines, practicing with inflection, with tone.

It’s a delight to be reading plays once again. I forgot that I owned so many until I went to put The Hunger Games trilogy away in our book closet and I noticed, stacked in so many reckless piles, the wide variety of plays in so many different forms, from scripts to collections.  Plays in One Act: 43 modern Masterpieces caught my eye, since I am trying to write a one-act play. I grabbed it from the shelf, but not before running my fingers along the bindings of “Steel Magnolias,” “The Crucible,” “Angels In America.” Hello, old friends, I thought. I’ve really missed you.


One of the things I love most about plays? The vagueness of many of the descriptions.  Playwrites are trying to help guide you with the idea or image they have in their head but it is not their job to spell it out for you exactly  – the reader or actor or director’ will filter the directions through his or her own lense and it is hoped that the spirit of the playwrite and the spirit of those that make the play come alive will meet somewhere along the line in agreement.  For example, look at this, from Albee’s directions:

Whatever beach outfits seem most appropriate to each of the characters and the actors playing them.  Towels, bags and the usual beach stuff as well.

The scenes of the play flow into one another without pause, althoug ha tiny “breath” between them – more a new upbeat than anything else – would be nice.

Or these, from “On Sundays” by Lynne Alvarez –

Downstage right is a large box with transparent sides.  it is open at the top – SYLVIA is in her bedroom; perhaps there is a pastel-colored makeup table and a mirror, a chiar, some fluttery, transparent curtains.


I recently downloaded the musical “The Last Five Years” to my iphone.  My best friend M introduced me to it years ago and at the time I remember thinking there was something so unique and exciting about it – I listened to it over and over again, imaging my interpretation if i were to direct it (I could never fool myself into thinking I could sing).  With only two characters, one a writer and one an actress, it is full of inside references to book writing and acting which thrilled me, well, five years ago but I now find annoying…for a play to be about actors or writers I think it must be done extraordinarily well – otherwise it’s just so much inside baseball.  One thing listening to it again has made me realize is that I have an attraction to plays that really and truly rely on the actors to tell the story – not incredible set designs and over-the-top costumes and incredible music scores.  “The Last Five Years,” which is about the unraveling of a marriage that *mostly* blames the wife’s needyness and insecurities while making the husband seem like a long-suffering artistic genius,  really relies on the actors’ physical ability to tell the story of their marriage and so the songs are instilled with an energy and narrative that many plays lack. I remember taking myself to see a local production of this play several years ago and ultimately being disappointed because it didn’t measure up to the soundtrack – the actors didn’t seem to have the vocal or physical capacity to turn the play into the dynamic production it could have been, even with the flaws of the plot.


Top Ten Plays I either read or watched that made a lasting impression:

“Angels in America,” Tony Kushner

“Blithe Spirit,” Noel Coward

“Miss Saigon,”

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Tennessee Williams

“The Crucible,” Arthur Miller

“West Side Story,” Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim

“Three Days of Rain,” Richard Greenberg

“Steel Magnolias,” Robert Harling

“Private Lives,” Noel Coward (again) and

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” Tom Stoppard


Top Ten Favorite Plays in which I had a role:

1. Oklahoma

2. The Crucible

3. Blithe Spirit

4. You Can’t Take it With You

5. Angels in America (I was an understudy and never got to perform but it was still amazing)

6. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

7. A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream

8. Anne of Green Gables

9. Little Women

10.  Annie Get Your Gun


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6 Responses to Some Thoughts on Plays

  1. Amy says:

    Have you ever read Wendy Wasserstein’s plays? In love with her (especially The Heidi Chronicles).

  2. shoreacres says:

    What’s so interesting to me in your post isn’t the question of “read, or read aloud?” but the question, “read, or not?”. I’ve never read a play by choice, and barely can remember reading a play in school, although I certainly did. I know I’ve been around productions – I painted scenery, for heavens’ sake – and I’ve been to stage plays and musicals. It isn’t that I’ve not been exposed.

    But if I open a book and discover a script, I’m done with it. Maybe it’s lack of imagination, or laziness on my part. I don’t want to fill in the blanks. Or maybe it’s just that mysterious “something” that makes one person sigh over the impressionist painters and others unable to spend more than a walk-through in the gallery.

    On the other hand, my unbearable shyness made the thought of performing equally unbearable. Perhaps that spilled over to the whole genre!

  3. smithereens says:

    I rarely go to the theater, to my regret. I remember HBO movie Wit with Emma Thompson based on the play by Margaret Edson. I was so impressed that I bought the script. But I remember it because I own so little scripts on my bookshelves…
    I love, love, love Angels in America, but once again it was on HBO, not on stage or in writing.
    It’s quite difficult for me to read a script for which I haven’t seen the play. I read it more like a novel and it’s weird.

  4. Emily Barton says:

    Well, here is a way in which we are completely different. I absolutely love the theater (so much so that I’m actually braving Broadway on Black Friday, because it’s my husband’s birthday, and we have, have, have to see the Godspell revival that a friend told me is fabulous, so I got tickets as a birthday present, and it was just about the only day during what is now his busiest season that he could go), but I can’t act and have never had any desire to do so. I also haven’t read many plays, although that’s something I’d like to remedy. Often, I see a play and find myself thinking, “I really must find the script for that,” but then I never seem to do it.

  5. Anne Camille says:

    I read Rosencrantz and Gilderstern over 30 years ago but it has stayed with me. Last spring, I saw the B’way revival of Stoppard’s Arcadia which I loved so much that I stayed up all night that night reading the script. I have thought of that play 3 times this week: when I made oatmeal a few days ago (people familiar with the play will know that you can’t stir your jam out of the rice pudding), when I hear about an explosion (you can’t reverse an explosion, just like the jam), and listening to Brian Green on Nova.

    My cousin is currently in a book group that is reading all of Stoppard’s plays. I think that sounds like a wonderful endeavor!

    Recently, I’ve been trying to read through all of Shakespeare’s plays, but that is a very long process and I’ve taken a break for about 6 weeks, after seeing 6 Shakespeare plays in a very short period of time. Methinks I had a slight overdose!

    The only way I can read plays and understand them is to verbalize the lines. Otherwise, I just can’t make any sense out of them.

  6. Courtney says:

    Amy – oh my goodness I LOVE the Heidi Chronicles. How have we not discussed this before?

    Shoreacres – that is such an interesting perspective! I have always loved reading plays and poetry, mostly because of the ability to read them out loud. So interesting that your reaction is entirely the opposite!

    Smithereens – HBO does a REALLY good job adapting plays to film!

    Emily – well, if we were exactly the same we’d have no reason to read each other’s blogs, right?

    Anne – love Stoppard. Love him. And I’m glad i’m not alone in needing to read plays aloud to make sense of them!

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