Don’t say it.
Something I struggle with when crafting a play is what’s not said. I’m not talking about the themes and ideas underpinning the play, but rather what don’t the characters say – that is often just as important to the story as what is actually spoken in the dialogue.
Novelists have the luxury of getting into the heads of their characters (this is the big reason why I love writing the narrative of a novel). As a playwright we tell our audience everything about the character through what the character says– and what other characters say about them.
But just as in life, the silences in the theatre also inform us. This is obviously the job of actors and directors, but still it’s the playwright’s job to infuse the script with what’s not said.
It’s what’s not said that often takes me the longest to tackle when writing drafts of a script. I’ve sometimes made the mistake of saying too much and not trusting the audience to get it on their own. The result is something heavy handed or too on-the-nose. And I’ve also sometimes not said enough, thinking the audience will get it and then they don’t get it.
For instance in The Buffalo Kings there is a closeted gay character that comes to Christmas dinner. I wanted the audience to know he was gay without ever saying it. Director Eric Davis and actor Chris Crawford, who played Pete, helped me with this in rehearsal. Chris was beautifully nuanced in the play but my writing in that moment was just a little bit off. As it happened some audiences got it and some missed it. But damn it, I wanted them all to get it! So in the post-production draft of the script I added a line that acknowledges that Pete is gay.
In writing my new piece, I tried different variations of scenes to say things without actually saying it. I won’t know until I hear it in readings if it works. But I sure do love trying to solve the puzzle of what to say and what not say every time I sit down to write a play.