What Happens? – or – How To Be Inspired By Great Writers

What would you write if I said “Write a play in which the characters learn they are about to die”?  My mind would immediately jump to the Titanic, a jail cell or a mine where the air is running out and the rescuers just decided to stop trying.  Some bleak, dire landscape.  In other words, my first impulse would be to telegraph from the beginning what’s about to happen.  If you were David Ives, however, you would write a cheeky little rom-com about the dating and mating of a couple of cute mayflies. In David Ives’ “Time Flies,”  two effervescent  little mayflies (you know, mayflies, the tiny creatures whose lifecycle lasts for only one day), come to understand, after much clever banter, that they have only hours left to live. And then they decide to make the best of what little time they’ve got, which is what the play is ultimately about – making the most of fleeting time. Or, rather, flying time. Because they are time flies.  Get it?

Ah, puns.  David Ives is insanely good at inventing and utlizing them. “Time Flies” is one of the plays I am assigning from the book Under Thirty: Plays for a New Generation in my Playwriting I class this winter at Boston’s Grub Street.   I admire Ives’ masterful wit, rhythmic repartee, and generously inviting sense of play, word and otherwise.   He does telegraph what’s about to happen, but he’s using dramatic irony, where the audience knows something the characters haven’t figured out yet, which is a delight. But all these qualities are not why I will be teaching the play.  Or, rather, those are not the only reasons.  It’s also a good example of the difference between what literally happens and what it feels like as it’s happening.  This play is fun, silly and sweet.  It doesn’t seem on the surface of the thing to be concerned with issues of fate, mortality and facing the truth about who you are.  But because it is about these things, it is not simply a sketch with funny costumes.

A natural first impulse for a playwright is to look at any play and ask “how can I do that, but do it better?”  But when using master playwrights who weave plays with hidden seams as your models, it can be hard to figure out where to begin without being tempted to produce shoddy imitations.  After all, the point of writing is to develop your own unique voice. Because the world doesn’t need another, almost certainly lesser, David Ives.  So, I could say to my students: “Write a play that’s funnier and cuter.” But that would be too prescriptive, setting them up to fail.  I probably also wouldn’t say, “Write a play that’s about fate, mortality and facing the truth about who you are.”  Because aren’t all plays about that on some level?

Instead, I will look to what happens in the play as a springboard for inspiration and say “Write a play in which the characters learn they are about to die.”  Because doesn’t that sound tantalizing?  I can’t wait to find out what happens next!

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