A Response to John Logan's RED
This response/interview was inspired by the Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of Red by John Logan. Red is a conversation between artists about the mechanics of making art. Our Ingram New Works Playwright Dean Poynor tried to recreate that dialogue with our Ingram New Works Fellow Doug Wright over coffee.
DEAN: I’ll start here because this is where Red starts. One of the most interesting early questions that it asks is “When is it done?”
(A thoughtful pause.)
DOUG: I guess when it ceases to fascinate you. Because I think there are no perfect works, but there are many finished works. So when your impetus to move on and create something else, surpasses your impetus to get this particular piece irrevocably right, then it’s probably finished. Does that make sense?
DEAN: So you’re done with it, as much as it is done.
DOUG: Yeah, yeah. I mean, works do talk back to you and they try and tell you when they’re finished or when they’re confused, and so I think it means listening to the work. And when it screams cease and desist you have to back off.
DEAN: We get bored sometimes and we get distracted sometimes and we get excited sometimes. You definitely feel like you’re pounding your head against a wall sometimes. And then the concept of “I don’t want to touch it because whatever is working is working” in a fragile way, maybe, comes up. That makes sense.
DEAN: And I also think that it gets better just by sitting.
DOUG: Yeah. I think that’s true actually. It’s like bread dough. There’s yeast, it has to rise and you have to get enough distance from it to return to it and see what it truly is.
DEAN: I like that. I’m interested in the idea of structure. I mean, is structure a thing that we use, is it like a tool, like a lever, that makes impact greater, or is it like a trick?
DOUG: Great question.
DEAN: Because we all use tricks.
DOUG: All the time. Well, I think information always has to be contained in some kind of vessel. And storytelling is the very earliest vessel through which we receive information. Jack and Jill went up the hill. As children we hear stories, and it’s through stories that we start to cultivate a sense of the world, and a heightened sense of empathy. And I think programmatically as people, we are driven to respond to stories. And over millennia of stories refining themselves, we have been able to isolate what stories structures are impactful and last with us, and which structures are less so. So I think at this point, as people, stories and certain narrative structures are almost encoded in our blood as a first means of understanding. As writers we have an obligation to appropriate those structures – to use them when they serve us, and to smash them when they don’t, and to question them all the time. But I think that because they are so rigorously established, that whatever we write, in whatever form it takes, always exists either in accordance or in opposition to classic narrative structure. That’s my own theory. Even what you’re doing with your play, you are aggressively challenging our conventional notion of structure, and yet you could argue that the event you are writing about has an almost Greek-like tragic structure. So your play is on the one hand using a radically new structure to talk about a narrative that follows a very old, Classical structure. But you can’t really assess the play without thinking about structure. It rears its head all the time.
DEAN: I think about “Is it getting bigger?” Are the stakes increasing, instead of decreasing. Because that makes us continue to be interested, versus get ahead of it, or fall behind it or whatever.
DOUG: Yeah. And it’s like we were saying in Tennessee [at the Ingram New Works Lab with Nashville Repertory Theatre] part of the playwright’s job is to posit a mystery early, which the play then in some way solves or gratifies. And I think that, at it’s rawest level, is a kind of structural trick. But it also allows us to dispense the information in a meaningful and digestible way.
That’s what I think on Tuesday morning, the 25th at 11:25 AM. [Laughs.] Who knows what I’ll think tomorrow! But right now that’s what I think.
DEAN: I think I – this was also a Red question – that the Zeitgeist, the current trends of a cohort, can become a thing that everyone else tries to follow. So part of that is just aesthetics – we like green today and pink tomorrow – but yeah, Tweeting in a theatre is a bad idea for many reasons, because it’s unnecessary. I don’t know. The idea of no intermission feels kind of old, actually. I can see a lot of those Greek things going train on a track, log rolling down hill, and it’s not gonna stop. You can’t leave until it stops. And there’s an emotional continuity to that, that makes a lot of sense. The idea of an intermission – wherever that first developed – whether it was Shakespeare or some director-manager trying to sell drinks – is a bit of a trick already, a bit of a delay.
DOUG: Totally. And like you’re saying working commercially on Broadway where sales matter. I mean Disney shows are largely going to have intermissions. Because there is merchandise to sell. It’s hilarious because all that I talk about classic story structure, there are all these other concerns that play into it that sometimes are quite mercenary.
DEAN: I kind of toss off content things – it doesn’t have to be about a blogger or Julian Assange – to be relevant. We love stories that take us to places that we didn’t know, or do not think we know. And they’re interesting. Even more to the formal concerns, is this baseline, primal “Don’t change the channel yet.”
DOUG: Totally. I think every play – almost every play – and this might sound grandiose, but I think it might be true. It speaks to my tastes, but, on a certain level every play has to be a thriller. Every play has to pose questions and then solve them in a way that quickens your heart. And if it doesn’t – whether it’s issues of love or issues of espionage – it still needs to gratify that phenomenal appetite we have for “What’s going to happen next?” And in order to create that kind of tension, usually you do need some carefully sequenced series of events that are cumulative and that include causality.
DOUG: I think there are all kinds of structural conceits. You were talking about intermission or no intermissions. And I think that is also determined by the shape of the narrative itself. And if you have a cliffhanger, if you have a development that can sustain and linger in the audience’s memory and incite their curiosity for fifteen minutes, while they are going to the restroom and purchasing a drink and calling the babysitter on their cell phone, their curiosity is actually growing during that interval… then you earn it. If they’re doing all those things without regard to the play, then you’re probably in trouble. Or narratively you don’t need an intermission. I like creating narrative cliffhangers that can – like we were talking about before like yeast, overnight in the dough – actually rise and blossom during those fifteen minutes. And I think if you can structure your narratives that way, then it’s a good trick. And if not, then maybe it’s best to simply not have an intermission. And that’s a certain kind of trick.
DEAN: How do you make a cliffhanger?
DOUG: Hmm. Well, I think narratively, if you’re stuck on a play, and you are trying to tell a fairly conventional, Aristotelian story, a great question to ask at any point in the narrative is “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” And if you can answer that question and then go to intermission, you’re in a good place!
DEAN: Pose a threat of that worst thing.
DOUG: Exactly. Exactly.
DEAN: That’s good.
DOUG: It’s so funny, I guess because I’ve been teaching a lot lately, I’m aware in conversations like this the risk of sounding absolute in what I say. And it’s always a danger, right, because all we have are hunches. A lot of these ideas even, this morning with you, I might say with a certain degree of conviction, but they’re really test balloons that I’m flying to see if they stay in the air. And I think that’s all we ever do. None of my conclusions about playwriting are iron-clad. And my presumption that they may or may not apply to others, is also shaky, at best. But that’s all we have.
DEAN: How you teach playwriting is a whole other question.
DEAN: In some ways it is more handed down.
DOUG: Uh huh. And arguably a play like Red sort of dramatizes that. It is one artist mentoring a student. It’s like John Logan finds drama in that process itself. It’s both simultaneously dramatic and instructive.
DEAN: Do you feel weighted down by this discussion? By this type of stuff? You were talking about floating balloons…
DOUG: No! I mean, it’s exciting. And Red probably talks about this as well. What we do is a mysterious, ephemeral maddening project. You can articulate eighty percent of it, and twenty percent of it is a mystery even to you. And those moments when you are furiously typing, and a character suddenly falls ill, or a gun appears, and no one’s more surprised than you! You’re stunned that that just happened in your play! And it’s because you’re accessing some part of your subconscious or I don’t know what.
DEAN: Ooh, yeah, good.
DOUG: And you can’t articulate why you made that choice. It came upon you as completely and irrevocably as a tsunami and swept you away. That’s what happened. Because when you’re really in the act of writing, it’s as riveting and mysterious and compelling as when you’re in the act of watching a really great movie or a really great play. You’re powerless to stop it. And that’s the state that we all aspire to when we work. And a lot of what we’re verbalizing – the tricks or the techniques or the structures or the ideologies that underlie writing – we hope are stepping stones to that fabulous, inarticulate, visceral place where most great plays truly come from.
DOUG: But you’ve got to articulate them, and assess them, and analyze them, so that you can build that staircase to that astonishing, unconscious process. You know? Do you agree?
DEAN: Totally. Oh totally. To write is as enjoyable and addictive and compelling and rewarding as to experience watching the play.
Did you see our production of John Logan's Red? Please feel free to add you thoughts below in our comments section. Please click here to visit our photo archive of our 2013-2014 production of John Logan's Red.