The common perception of theater as mere entertainment is an aberration. Historically, theater has been an exercise for making visible the invisible worlds within and without us. It has been a laboratory setting for creating an experience of the ineffable. Therefore, theater is an art that suggests rather than depicts. Realism is the forte of film, not of theater. We might watch a movie or look at TV, but theater (from the Greek thea — “a vision”) is the space for glimpsing evidence of things unseen. It is the place of the eternal present. A movie is made; theater happens. Throughout all cultures, theatre was never a “Saturday night” diversion for sitting alone in the dark. It was the one transcendent, collective experience of a community.
The French playwright Moliere said that to create theatre all he needed was a platform and a passion or two. In Haitian voodoo, to begin a ceremony all one needs is a pole and people. Like the Northwestern Native American totem pole, its purpose is to puncture the sky to allow the invisible to slip through. In a materialistic age in which people are often judged not by the content of their character, but by the cut of their clothes or color of their skin, modern theater reflects this over-emphasis on appearances. Props, costumes, sets and special effects often take precedence over content. Style trumps substance. How liberating then to know theatre doesn’t require high finances or finery!
Since theater is about action, not words, let’s demonstrate the basics of playmaking with two activities.
Note: If this exploration of playmaking is part of a group study circle, the group facilitator — or animator — can perform this first activity.
The facilitator announces that when he claps his hands, it will indicate that he is beginning to act out a scene. He claps his hands. He then sits quietly in a chair and does nothing. He creates expectation. In truth he is doing something — he is waiting, but the group isn’t told this. Eventually, he looks at his watch or at the clock on the wall, followed by a glance toward the door. Perhaps he sighs. Perhaps he gets up and looks out the window, followed by another glance at his watch. He sits down again, glances toward door, sighs, and cranes his neck to see out the window. Quietly and patiently, without melodrama, the facilitator demonstrates the action of waiting. After two minutes he claps his hands and says, “Scene over.”
“What just happened?” the animator asks the group.“What was that scene about?” Participants will now offer various answers. “You looked out the window,” says one. “Is that all?” asks the animator. “You were impatient,” says another. “Why?” presses the animator. “Don’t just describe the scene; tell us what was happening.” Eventually someone will say, “Because you were waiting” or “You wanted something” or “You wanted the mail to arrive.”
This exercise gives the animator an opportunity to point out the basis of all theater — conflict. Somebody wants something and somebody else is preventing that want from being realized. All theater is about conflict because life is all about conflict. (We want to eat because we’re hungry. Our chair isn’t comfortable. We’re tired but we have to go to work or to school. We feel sick, but we want to be well. We love someone who doesn’t love us. We want a job, but the job isn’t available.) Conflict is the act of wanting, of wanting something — or someone — we do not have.
What Aristotle said 2500 years ago is still true today: “Drama is the imitation of an action.” Aristotle called theater an “imitation” because it is make-believe. Theater is an imitation, a representation of reality. However, the key word in Aristotle’s truism is “action”. Theater is not an imitation of a theme, nor is it an imitation of an idea; it is not even a visual or a verbal representation of life. Theater often is based on a theme or an idea, and it is usually presented visually and/or verbally. However, the essence of theater is action. It must show someone wanting something s/he doesn’t have.
Our “waiting” activity illustrated that theater doesn’t need props, costumes, language, special effects or even a second actor! But the activity also demonstrated the three essentials all theater must have:
 a character
 in conflict (wanting something)
 somewhere (in a specific setting).
The “waiting” activity also dramatized the difference between action and movement. Movement is physical motion; action is psychological tension. The action of the scene performed by the animator was waiting. However, the action of waiting involved various movements — as well as stillness. Action is what captures an audience’s interest. Movement might grab an audience’s attention, but if the movement does not involve a psychological action, the audience will soon become bored. Many modern movies are full of movement: fast-paced chase scenes, louder and bigger explosions and more and more graphic violence, because their stories lack a compelling enough psychological action to engage the deeper sensibilities of the audience. Failing to render the invisible visible, such drama resorts to embellishing and adorning the visible. Movement provides stimulation; however, action allows for transcendence.
Dramatization vs. Narration
We mentioned that the essence of theater is action; that theater must show someone wanting something s/he doesn’t have. We did not define theater as someone telling us about someone wanting something. Telling is narration; showing is dramatization. Playmaking is the art of showing. “Don’t tell me the old woman screamed,” advised Mark Twain. “Bring her on stage and let her holler!” After all, if I tell you that I am generous, you have no reason to believe me. If I show you I am generous, you will come to your own conclusion about my generosity. An audience prefers to see with its own eyes and come to its own conclusion. When we narrate, an audience can feel talked at or lectured to.
“Listening to information about belief is far less satisfying than watching someone be transformed by it,
a point that [theater director Peter] Brook himself made, time and again, in his earlier work,
which showed just how sacred the stage can be.”
— New Yorker magazine, Nov 10, 2008
Rather than continuing to tell you the difference between telling and showing, I’ll show the difference. Let’s present the same story as both a narration and a dramatization. We’ll take one of the stories we analyzed in the Storytelling section (see Storytelling link) — about the teenager executed by a firing squad in Tabriz in 1850. Imagine yourself as a playmaker who wants to present this story to a audience. We are usually tempted to tell rather than to show. So judge for yourself the difference between narration and dramatization:
ANÍS: “My name is Anís and I am waiting for someone, someone special. For two years now I have been waiting. I don’t care if it costs me my life. For a year my father has locked me in my room. Poor Papa, he fears for his property more than for his soul. But I want to be with the Siyyid-i-Báb. Yesterday I heard that He may pass here in the city square. People say that He is being brought to Tabríz to be— Oh! Here He comes!”
(rushes downstage and throws himself on his knees)
MAN #1: (Pointing at a youth): Who is he?
MAN #2: The son of Siyyid Aliy-i-Zunuzi
MAN #1: What is he doing?
MAN #2: Waiting
MAN #1: For what?
MAN #2: The Siyyid-i-Báb
MAN #1: What! Is he mad?
MAN #2: That’s what they say.
MAN #1: Doesn’t he know the Governor has decreed that anyone who approaches the Siyyid-i-Báb will be stripped of all property and put to death?”
MAN #2 His father knows. He locked the boy in his room for a year, so he wouldn’t lose his house and savings.
MAN #1: If I were his father, I’d beat him within an inch of his life.
MAN #2: If he were my son, I’d— Wait! Here comes the prisoner now!
(They back up hurriedly, pulling their cloaks around them.
Anís rushes downstage and throws himself on his knees.)
In the narration, at first we like the idea of hearing Anís speak; we feel we are meeting him. But very soon we wonder: Why is he telling me this? Why is he talking to me? Or worse, we may wonder why he is talking to himself? Monologues can easily feel artificial. Human beings only speak out of need or want. If we don’t see the compelling dramatic reason for a character’s talking to us we may soon lose interest.
On the other hand, when a scene is dramatized before us, rather than narrated to us, we feel as if we are overhearing a conversation. The situation seems more believable. Moreover, now we anticipate meeting Anís. The playwright creates a want in us to see and hear Anís. Now we are eager to hear what he has to say from his knees to the Báb. Notice also in the dramatization how the audience’s point of view shifts. Rather than feeling addressed by Anís and involved in the narration as a listener, the audience feels like a fly on the wall. Rather than feeling acted upon by the narrator (who is requiring a response from them), the audience feels as if they are eavesdropping on a scene that doesn’t involve them. Dramatization allows the audience to feel free to have its own response. It feels more autonomous and in control. In whatver way the audience responds to the scene, they will feel as if they have chosen that response, not that it was drawn out of them by the narrator.
The narration of storytelling is a very effective art in its own right — as the Storytelling link points out. We are making distinctions, not judgments, between narration and dramatization. Each art has its place. Moreover, narration is sometimes an effective component of drama. Some movies employ voice over narration and some plays have a Stage Manager or Narrator as a character. However, not all narrated stories are “the imitation of an action” (Aristotle’s definition of drama). For the imitation of an action to take place — that is to say, in order to have a movie or play — five components must be present. Not all stories have these five components. However, all movies and plays — even those that employ narration (The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Our Town, Amadeus, etc.) — will most certainly have these five components.
The Five Components of Drama
Perhaps we all intuitively know the five components of drama. After all, every child at bedtime seems to know what makes a good story. So instead of telling them, let’s show them:
The animator of the study circle can now direct a game we’ll call “Pilot To Tower.” First, he asks the group to rise and stand in a circle. The animator then asks for two volunteers: one volunteer to be the Radio Tower and one to be the Pilot. The animator explains that the Pilot is lost in a fog and he is running out of fuel. To complicate matters, the Pilot’s radio can only receive communications; he himself cannot transmit communications. So the volunteer in the Tower must guide the Pilot — via one-way communication — to make a safe landing. The animator directs the Pilot to stand at one point in the circle and the Tower volunteer to stand at the direct opposite point. Someone blindfolds the Pilot.
The other participants now place obstacles on the floor between the Pilot and the Radio Tower. (The obstacle course should be made challenging but not impossible.) The Radio Tower must guide the Pilot around the obstacles. Meanwhile, the Pilot must “blindly” step forward, crossing the diameter of the circle to where the Radio Tower stands (thus, landing the plane safely). The rest of the group forms the perimeter circle within which the Pilot must navigate. They cannot move or speak during the game.
RULES: The Pilot will have three (3) minutes to safely navigate home before he runs out of fuel. The Pilot cannot speak and the Radio Tower person cannot move. The Pilot is allowed two (2) “bumps” into obstacles or into perimeter participants. If the Pilot bumps three (3) times before crossing the circle, the plane is determined to have crashed. One participant consults his watch and intermittently calls out the passage of time: “Two minutes left,” “One minute,” etc.)
When the three minutes have expired, and the Pilot either lands safely or crashes, two other participants can volunteer to make an attempt. Three or four attempts can be made with various volunteers playing the roles of Pilot and Radio Tower. Then the animator gathers the group together to discuss the exercise.
THE DISCUSSION: The animator, guiding the discussion, can ask the group to identify the elements of the drama they just enacted. The animator might make reference to the “waiting” activity. What did the group learn from that exercise about drama? They learned about conflict. The five components of drama all pertain to conflict. The entire airplane game was about conflict. Conflict is what fixes an audience’s attention. Did the circle participants notice how they were involved with the drama? How their bodies even leaned forward with the Pilot? That is because they cared what happened to the PROTAGONIST. When a drama has STAKES (the pilot might crash) and a TICKING CLOCK (fuel is running out) it draws the audience in and creates suspense. The audience, wanting the conflict (the WANT) to be resolved, becomes active participants in the action.
After the group offers its opinions, the animator can help formalize their findings. Every play and movie has the following five components:
1. A Protagonist — the “hero” who wants something. The protagonist’s pursuit of his/her want is the engine that drives the play (or movie).
2. The Want (or Forward Action) — this is the measurable, concrete goal of the protagonist. The play is over when the want is attained or — in some scripts — totally thwarted.
3. An Antagonist — the person (not always a villain) who puts obstacles in the protagonist’s path in order to thwart his/her want.
4. Stakes — the risk, hazard, or danger that will result if the want is not attained by the protagonist.
5. A Ticking Clock — the limited time frame in which the want must be achieved
Identify these five components in the “Pilot To Tower” activity. The only flaw with this exercise is that it has no human antagonist. Drama must have a human antagonist. Even movies in which nature serves as a chief antagonist (e.g., Jaws, The Perfect Storm, Titanic) still have a human antagonist.
It’s worth pointing out how the more effective Radio Tower volunteers were those who PRESCRIBED how the Pilot should avoid obstacles, not those who DESCRIBED the obstacles. “Take two baby steps to the right” worked better than “There’s a garbage can on your left.” This reminds us that drama is about prescribing action, not describing or narrating a situation.
From Story to Script:
In the “Storytelling” section of this web site we discussed the five stages of the dramatic arc inherent to most stories and scripts:
1. The Set-up
2. The Complication
3. The Crisis
4. The Face-Off
5. The Resolution
We then chose four stories and broke each one down into the five stages of the dramatic arc (see Storytelling link). Let us now point out the Five Components of Drama in each of these same four stories from Ruhi Book #4:
1) Anís and the Martyrdom of the Báb
Want: to be with the Báb
Antagonist: Muslim Guards
Stakes: Anís’s last chance to be with the Báb; He risks forfeiting his family property and his life if he does approach the Báb.
Ticking Clock: the Báb is very soon to be put to death.
2) The Conference of Badasht
Want: to unveil laws of New Day; to establish the independent nature of the Bábí Faith.
Stakes: immortality vs. stagnancy, spiritual practice vs. religious tradition, progressive revelation vs. absolute truth.
Ticking Clock: It must happen before the conference ends and the Bábís disperse.
3) Bahá’u’lláh’s imprisonment in the Siyáh-Chál
Want: to revive the spirits of the imprisoned Bábís.
Antagonist: The Sháh
Stakes: the defeat of the new revelation.
Ticking Clock: before the Bábí prisoners are put to death one-by-one.
4) Bahá’u’lláh’s exile to ‘Akká*
Want: to resurrect the Faith from burial in the Most Great Prison
Antagonist: the sultan/brutal prison guards
Stakes: defeat and death of Manifestation of God (i.e. New Day)
Ticking Clock: before the Bahá’ís despair and starve to death
By consulting on the following points, any group can create theater from one of the above four stories:
1) What human resources does your group have? What can each person do? What would each person like to do?
2) What are the needs of your audience?
3) Given the nature of your group and the needs of your audience, which of the four stories might be most fitting to dramatize?
4) Which of the elements of theater is your group most comfortable with? Which elements is it capable of using to dramatize this story? Consider music, storytelling, dance, procession, puppets, masks, mime, torches/candles, narrator/actors and visuals (banners, signs, flip charts, props, etc).
5) After a story has been chosen, and the theatrical methods decided upon, assign tasks within the group. Which individuals will work on what? What is needed to prepare for a live performance?
By consulting the “India” page of this web site, the reader can see examples of how community groups used puppets, torches, placards, papier-mâché, actors, dance, chanting, and banners to dramatize these stories.
Final Word of Encouragement:
Every community play is “written on the wind”. It adapts itself to the participants — both performers and audience. Rather than art for art’s sake, it is art for the occasion’s sake. We must never assume how a play “should” be done. Every group’s process must be a self-discovery as well as a discovery of how best to meet the needs of its audience. The process is as sacred as the product that is the performance.