Some friends of mine had a party this past week, to launch the upcoming season of their theater company. It was the usual sort of promotional fundraiser, full of short script readings and booze-fueled networking – with one additional element that made it particularly worth attending (apart from the fact that these were my friends, of course). The company took this opportunity to announce their prompt for the scripts they were soliciting for their fall reading series – the suggestion given to writers as to what subject matter to write about when preparing their submissions.
The prompt this year? Write something with a twist ending or an unreliable narrator, or that similarly plays with the nature of reality. Like most of the prompts you’ll find – and you’ll find these on theater’s websites when they’re reaching out for new works – it’s intentionally general and vague, so that writers have the maximum amount of flexibility in terms of what they actually write about. And indeed, the other playwrights in the room were me were delighted with what they heard, having all manner of possible ideas that might fit the format.
As usual when confronted with what appears to be the status quo, my response was the exact opposite. I sat there smiling – again, these are all my friends – but in a state of confusion. Doesn’t every story have a twist? Aren’t all narrators unreliable to one degree or another? (Even omniscient ones. Especially omniscient ones.) How, out of all the infinite number of possible pages fitting this suggestion, could one select and polish a ten to fifteen in time for a fall reading series?
No, Gentle Reader. When it comes to prompts, I want mine as specific as possible. In fact the more impossibly specific, the more ridiculous, the better.
As an example, the short play of mine that’s been read by this company was the result of a prompt that asked writers to draw inspiration from a particular episode of the Radiolab podcast. I don’t normally listen to that podcast, so I selected an episode at random – I literally threw dice as a way of making the choice. The episode in question was on the theme of “Weights and Measures,” which seemed exceptionally unhelpful and didn’t directly inspire anything. Indirectly, however, it led to a script about post-apocalyptic survivors searching for the last original copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio in the ruins of Columbia University. There were fire-breathing radioactive bears and everything. It was a lot of fun to write – and it wouldn’t have been written were it not for that (seemingly unhelpful) prompt.
The most amusing prompt I ever received was for an evening of horror-themed one-acts which went up at the Kraine Theater a few years ago – in which the plot elements and the cast breakdown were all drawn from a hat. A literal hat. I’m very proud of the result, Trumpets Sounding Over Harrisburg, which is a tense hostage drama and study of how traumatic events can bring out the worst in us – and which exists because I was asked to write a piece for two women which riffed on both the 1979 meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant and the Wes Craven film Last House on the Left. All of which, improbably, I picked out of a literal hat.
I appreciate what theater companies are doing by asking for plays on “injustice” or “mercy” or “yellow,” or whatever this year’s general term happens to be. They’re trying to be on the side of the angels, and draw the widest variety of responses from the widest variety of writers. But in playwriting, as in all things, the devil’s in the details.