Hypothetically Speaking

By way of a shameless plug; like many playwrights, I have unpublished work available to read on the New Play Exchange, a website devoted to the promotion of new work by emerging writers.  My profile is here, if you’re interested (note that there’s a reasonable yearly subscription fee if you’re not already a member.) 

It’s a place where you can find pdf copies of scripts that might hypothetically be staged one day, perhaps by you if you’re a producer or artistic director;  you are able – and indeed encouraged – to leave recommendations on pieces which you’ve read (and hopefully enjoyed).  I don’t have everything I’ve written up here – my general rule of thumb is to only post works that have had a production or developmental reading somewhere – but there’s a decent selection of my scripts looking for a nice production home.  Or at least, a friendly pair of eyes to read them.

In the past few weeks, a number of my playwright friends have found my one-act Gun Safe, and have been kind enough to post recommendations about it.  Gun Safe, as you might suspect from the title, is a disturbing little tale about our nation’s gun culture, set during a parent-teacher conference in a school district which has voted to arm its teachers.  (Of course, school shootings aren’t quite as much of a concern when the schools are closed for a pandemic – you’re doing great there, America – but then again we seem desperate to keep the schools open anyway, so I guess the script’s still relevant.  But I digress.) The titular gun safe is in the classroom, with the loaded weapon inside.  Complications ensue.  The folks who have reviewed the piece – favorably, I feel I should point out, since this is a shameless plug – have referred to it as tense and disturbing.  That’s what I was going for when I wrote it, so while I hope my friends weren’t too distressed I am glad they responded the way they did.

I am a bit puzzled, however.  Because this piece, as with everything I currently have up on NPX, has been presented before.  It was read in three ten minute installments a few years ago at Tuesdays at Nine, the weekly cold reading series I participated in (I’ve since come to be named co-Creative Director, so I guess they liked the piece).  And those audiences howled with laughter.

Now, without getting into spoilers, there is a certain amount of dark humor built into the piece.  It’s built on a series of reversals as to who has possession of the weapon, how the power dynamics shift as a result, and so on, and it’s easy for the resulting tension wind up releasing itself in nervous laughter.  But those live audiences just kept on laughing, well past the point where the piece becomes really, really dark.  (No spoilers here – go ahead and click on that link if you’re curious what I’m talking about).

It has me wondering: why such a distinct difference in responses – both favorable, but very, very different – between those live audiences and my newest readers?

Is it because of the difference in expectations between reading and live performance?  A reader sitting down with a script is likely to be more analytical and contemplative, while a live audience is out for the evening, looking to have a good time.  But they’re still listening to the piece, after all, and at a certain point a writer’s more serious points should become clear, no?

Has time caused a shift in perspective, as we’ve come to realize just how bad things are and are less inclined to see the humor in our nation’s tragic circumstances?  Perhaps, but the bad things we’re dealing with now are bad things we’ve been dealing with for many years at this point.  Surely most of the audience would have noticed by now?

Perhaps this question can only be answered by putting Gun Safe, or any other piece, up on its feet again, and seeing how it plays in front of a brand new audience.  But it’s clearly going to be a while longer before anything like that can happen.

So in the meantime, I’ll keep posting new work to NPX, and facilitating zoom workshops, and doing all the other things we’re doing to try and determine how theater might hypothetically work in front of a live audience again.

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