Playwriting and Math

One of the many amazing things to come out of the Freedom Art Retreat back in 2011 was that one day, somewhere in between swimming in Pea Porridge Pond, eating grilled corn, drinking cocktails, singing along to ukeleles, hiking mountains and making group projects, I asked the group a question that had been on my mind for a while.  Actually, no, I tried to ask the question, but it was a barely formed, half articulated, bizarre mumbling thing in the general tenor of a question.

It was something like:  “So guys, I’m working on this 8-character play, Mad Props, and it’s a lot of characters!  But I was wondering, if I have 8 characters in a play, how many, um, if I wanted to know, like, how many different scenes are possible, with you know, different characters in different configurations, um, how would I figure that out?”

Now I used to be a math person, back when being a math person meant basic multiplication and division.  So, essentially, elementary school was when I peaked.  But I’m still a person who likes to figure things out, even if it’s not something I know how to figure out. That’s where the amazing powers of friendship and collaboration come in handy.  Thanks to the help of my fellow retreatants, particularly Jason Weber, we figured out what my question was, and then he even came up with the answer in the form of an amazing excel spreadsheet that figures it out for you using formulas.  Formulas!  On a theatre-in-the-woods retreat!

The key was remembering a math concept called “combinations (without repetition)” – just coming up with the right concept took a little while.  Did I mention I was having problems articulating the question?

It turns out what I was asking for was the total number of possible scenes, depending on total number of characters in the play, using different combinations of characters.  So, for example, if there are 8 characters in a play, then the total number of 1-character scenes possible in that play is 8.  The total number of 8-character scenes possible is of course, 1.  The trick is figuring out all the combinations of 5-character scenes and 3-character scenes, etc.  In an 8 character play, there are a total of 255 unique combinations of different characters on stage.  The only thing is, the formulas only give you the number of combinations.  You would have to figure out yourself what each of the unique combinations are.

For example, here are the 28 unique combinations for 2-character scenes in an 8-character play: ab, ac, ad, ae, af, ag, ah, bc, bd, be, bf, bg, bh, cd, ce, cf, cg, ch, de, df, dg, dh, ef, eg, eh, fg ,fh, gh

Here is what the basic formula looks like in my fancy spreadsheet (thank you Jason Weber!!):

=FACT(B7)/(FACT(A10)*FACT(B7-A10))
with B7 containing the total number of characters and A10 containing the # of characters in a scene

Ah, math.  Sometimes you are so helpful.

How To Make Freedom Art…

I am always returning to the question – why this right now? – as I sit and write, alone. I do this because I want the plays I write to mean something, not only to me, but to be worthy of other people’s blood, sweat and tears.  A play asks for the time, attention, spirit, and money of so many people.  So, whether my play is intended to make an audience cry, think, sigh or laugh, I take my job pretty seriously.  Probably, often, too seriously.

This summer I made a few discoveries on the Playwrights Commons’ Freedom Art Retreat that released me from my own silly, grandiose perfectionism and reminded me why theatre is so much fun to make and to experience.  (Whether great fun always equals great art is another question for another day, and one I was grateful to have the opportunity to leave behind for a week.)  Here are the things I was reminded of again and again as we worked in different small groups over the course of the retreat:

  1. Pick something to make and then make it.  Finding a way to do this is going to be different with every group, every time. Some of the most exciting stuff came from starting with a strong visual image, like paper boats on a pond at sunset, or someone crawling haphazardly down a flight of stairs.  Sometimes it took all day to agree on what to make, sometimes it took just a few minutes. It was always more fun when we were done with the picking part and had moved on to making something.
  2. If you’re worried about something coming out bad or clichéd, just go ahead and make the “bad” version.  Make it SO SO bad.  Clothe yourself in cliché. When I was working in a group of five people on a site-specific play, we discovered early on that the place we had found in the woods was suggesting 1960s-nostalgic-teen-car-crash-after-school-special-melodrama to us.  So we ran with that as far as we could. And I don’t think any one of us would have made what we ended up with had we been working on our own, which is great.
  3. Take every functional idea. Even keep stuff that doesn’t feel quite right, call it a placeholder, and come back to it later. Don’t worry whether that line, image, character or concept is cool, funny, poetic, intricate or sexy enough.  If it moves the process forward, keep it and move on to the next thing.
  4. Just play.  Play ukuleles. Play charades.  Eat popsicles and drink alcohol and go swimming and have a dance party.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Also eat an unholy amount of delicious homemade food, play with dogs and tiny frogs, and travel to the top of mountain.  You’ll know it’s the very top because you can see the other side.