There’s a moment in Act I of the new play I’m revising, Bay Ridge Lotus, where one of the characters describes childhood days spent at the beach. I’d already established that he grew up in the Bronx, it allowed for a bonding moment with one of the other characters, so I wrote a few lines of dialogue in which he talks about Orchard Beach, the major beach in the borough where I currently live. I’d never had the chance to go to Orchard Beach myself, but I grew up on Long Island, and was at Jones Beach and Robert Moses State Park all the time, so I thought nothing of it – a beach is a beach, right?
Perhaps not. Playwriting is much like boxing as described by Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby – it’s all backwards. If you need to move right, you push off with your left foot. If a moment isn’t working right in Act II, it’s probably because you didn’t set it up properly in Act I. Perhaps in that dialogue exchange where the characters are talking in easy generalizations, because you don’t have your own personal details about the municipal beach in question.
So this Saturday, the last day of the Labor Day weekend before Hurricane Hermine closed everything down, I went to visit my local Bronx beach. And having finally seen Orchard Beach for myself, there are quite a number of differences from the generic “beach” I’d imagined:
- The waters are much calmer than I’d thought. It’s on Long Island Sound, after all, and protected. Given the approaching storm, the seas were probably choppy by local standards – which would be barely noticeable surf where I’m from. Not much of a tide, either – so if you build a sand castle (as my character mentions), it’s going to stick around much longer than if you build one at Jones Beach.
- There are islands surrounding Orchard Beach, and if you look out at the water, you’re looking out at them rather than the open sea. It’s a much different vista than I’m used to, and along with item 1. above, it reinforces that this is a much safer, more sedate beach than what I’m accustomed to.
- Very few seashells on the beach. No clamshell drawbridges for the sand castles! (Banners and tapestries made of seaweed are a real possibility, though.)
- Very different in terms of marine life as well from beaches on the open water. Schools of small fish (not sure what kind) leaping just out of the surf was a common sight right at the shore’s edge, whereas I’m more used to seeing dolphins and other larger fish from afar.
- An abundance of tennis and basketball courts. This is a major surprise for me – where I’m from, the beach is the beach, extending miles in all directions, and if you go there, you go for that and that alone. I hadn’t considered a “beach” to which one might go for completely different activities. It’s actually significant for the character, then, that he’d be at the surf rather than playing on the courts – it makes it a more active choice, potentially makes him the odd person out in his childhood peer group as he builds his sand castles instead. None of which I’d initially considered, all of which I clearly should have.
- Most of the social activity takes place away from the beach itself – the beach was only sparsely attended, but there were grassy picnic fields (again, this is much different topography from what I’m used to) where everybody was congregating. So as with 5. above, if you’re playing at the shoreline instead, it says more about you than I’d realized.
So now that I’ve gone and done the research I should have done earlier, now that I’ve gotten some new insights into the character, how much does this actually change the play?
The dialogue exchange in question takes up maybe half a page. That’s how much is directly affected, how much needs to be revisited – half a page. As I mention, changes to that half a page may cause things to be adjusted later in the script as well, but still – half a page. And keep in mind, while Orchard Beach is only about three miles or so from where I live, there’s no direct route from my neighborhood to the beach by bus or subway, so it took me two hours to get there. And two hours back. And several hours exploring Orchard Beach itself. For half a page.
But I got to go to the beach, so, y’know, there’s that.