August 22, 2014 by T. Gregory Argall
A couple of years ago I ran a one-day workshop/seminar/learny-thing on script writing for the stage. Obviously, there’s a lot more to being a playwright than can be taught in one day, but I provided a fairly comprehensive overview of the things I learned from my mistakes when I was first starting out in the wordy biz.
The end-of-day assignment was to write a 5-10 minute scene with the following criteria:
- Minimal set description; focus on the dialogue
- Two characters, named “He” and “She”
- The opening line to be chosen randomly from a list I had prepared.
After all of my “students” had pulled an opening line from the hat (yes, there was an actual hat), I pulled out one more for myself. I didn’t know what I was going to write any more than the others had any ideas before their first line spurred them one. I was hoping for some interesting surprises.
We got them.
An hour later, my collection of aspiring playwrights presented me with a wonderful and intriguing series of random scenes. Each short script was unique and imaginative and spoke clearly in its own voice. I was very proud of them.
However, for me the biggest surprise was the script I ended up writing. Apparently, without realizing it, I’d been carrying this little scene around in my subconscious, tantalizingly close to the surface.
With the exception of the fictitious bits and the fact that I made the whole thing up, this is one of the most plainly honest things I’ve ever written.
SHE: Was it worth it?
HE: (distracted) What?
SHE: I said, was it worth it?
HE: Mostly. Kind of. A bit. (pause) It depends what you mean by “worth it” really.
SHE: I mean, are you really any better off having done that, having embarrassed your mother in front of all her friends. Was your post-rant sense of satisfaction worth the look on your mother’s face?
HE: Oh. (pause) Probably not, but I can’t take it back now.
SHE: No, you can’t.
HE: Also, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m right.
SHE: You’re right?
HE: I’m certainly not wrong.
SHE: How do you figure?
HE: Really? You’re actually asking me that? You want me to justify and explain my opinion?
SHE: Yes. Yes, I do.
HE: Okay. (deep breath, rubs back of neck, sighs) When my father died, Mom had- (stops, sighs, shakes head) No, it goes back long before that. It was there for years, I just didn’t really think about it. I knew how I felt and I knew how they felt, and I knew those were two different things. I think Mom and Dad just assumed that my views were the same as theirs.
HE: Why what?
SHE: Why do you think they assumed that?
HE: Why wouldn’t they? I’d never told them otherwise. It was their default stance unless demonstrated otherwise.
SHE: Well, it was certainly demonstrated today, wasn’t it?
HE: (hollow laugh) Yeah, I really didn’t leave much gray area, did I?
SHE: Nope. Any gray area that might have been there has been completely eliminated now.
HE: Yeah. (pause) Do you think I could have handled it better?
SHE: Of course I do. We wouldn’t be having this discussion if I didn’t. The point is, do you think you could have handled it better? Keep going. Tell me the why.
HE: Years ago I moved away from religious thinking. I just had too many questions and not enough answers. Mom and Dad were fine with no answers. God’s ineffable plan was enough to satisfy their questions. Not me. I needed facts and science and proof. “Ineffable plan?” Eff that.
SHE: (sarcastic snort) Nice. Good thing you didn’t say that to your mother.
HE: Probably. Doesn’t matter now. She knows how I feel and either she’ll avoid the subject in future and we’ll never speak of it again, or she’ll lay it on extra heavy to force the issue and end up shutting me out, just out of spite and, I don’t know, religious fervor.
SHE: Religious fervor?
HE: It’s a thing.
SHE: Well, yeah, but I never considered your mother to be the religious fervor type. She’s religious, sure, she’s got her faith and she’s happy with it, but she’s not the kind of person to go door-to-door with it trying to bring converts into the fold.
HE: That’s because she thinks they’re already in the fold.
HE: Years ago, when I was still in my teens, and I think this is the first time I actually began to question this sort of thing, a stranger knocked on our door, looking for directions. He was lost, couldn’t find an address, Mom helped him figure out where he needed to be. He was actually miles away from the place he was looking for. Completely different subdivision.
HE: But what got me was, our house was on a self-enclosed side-street off of another side-street. The only way to pass our house was if you were on the way to another house further along the street, and you had to pass five houses just to get to ours.
HE: So, why did he choose to stop at our house to ask directions? Why not the house next door, or across the street?
SHE: Does it matter?
HE: Of course not. It’s just random chance. But I wondered out loud about it, and my Mom, without a moment’s hesitation, said, “He probably saw that this was a good Christian house and knew we’d help him.” (pause) To me that seemed like a crazy thing to say. First of all, from the outside our house just looked like a house. I never noticed anything on the exterior that seemed more Christian than anything on the outside of any neighbour’s house. Secondly, and this I said out loud, “How do you know he’s not Jewish?”
SHE: You were how old?
HE: I don’t know, sixteen, seventeen?
SHE: Yeah, it’s usually well after the teen years you learn that not every thought has to be spoken.
HE: Right. So, I spoke that thought, and it went over about as well as you’d expect. She thought I was questioning her faith. But I wasn’t. I was questioning her lack of questioning of faith. It had just seemed like an obvious question to me. Apparently not to her.
SHE: So what did you do?
HE: I let it go. She’s didn’t get what I was saying and it really wasn’t worth it to try to explain.
SHE: How was today different?
HE: Right. Years and years of piling the same questions, higher and higher, with no answers. It no longer seemed not worth it.
SHE: Okay… (pause) So what was that about when your dad died?
SHE: Earlier, you started to say something about when your dad died, then you stopped.
SHE: What was it?
HE: Oh. (pause, deep breath) When Dad died, maybe the day after, it was sometime that week, anyway, before the funeral, when it was all still, you know… raw. One of Mom and Dad’s friends was there with Mom. Laura. Now I’ve known Laura for years. She’s a good person. She’s a real sweetheart and I love her. She’s always, I mean always, been a good friend, not just to Mom and Dad but to our whole family. But…
HE: But her faith is as strong, if not stronger than Mom’s. And on that day, when I’m trying to accept the fact that my father is dead, Laura’s sitting there talking about how wonderful God’s plan is and how we can be happy that Dad is with God now because God had a reason for taking him and blah blah blah. (pause) I had to leave. I couldn’t take it. She was actually thankful to God for, apparently, letting my father die. It was unbelievable.
SHE: Sometimes, in those situations, people just don’t know what to say. Their brains sort of go on auto-pilot.
HE: I get that. Really, I do. But her brain’s auto-pilot was pissing me off. She was saying that God had a reason for taking Dad, and that he did it because he loves us, and that we know he loves us because he lets us die. It was the most insane circle of– It was incredible.
SHE: If there is a god–
HE: If there is a god, Laura thinks we’re just his playthings, his toys, and who doesn’t love their toys, right? Everyone, that’s who. People mistreat and abuse their toys all the time because they’re just toys.
SHE: I think you may be going a little off-track with that metaphor. We’re more than just toys. We’re living creatures. Life matters.
HE: That’s my point. When I was a kid, one time when we were camping, I saw an ant just skittering along as ants do. I was bored. I had a little piece of wood and I blocked the ant’s path. He turned and started to go another way, so I moved the wood and blocked him again. I did this for about five or ten minutes, just sort of playing with him without him actually knowing I was playing with him. Testing him, the way Laura says God tests us. Putting up little challenges to see how he’d react. But then when I was done, I didn’t kill him, because why would I?
SHE: Good for you.
HE: Yeah, thanks. So that’s why I’d had enough of Laura’s ramblings about how God loves us so God tests us, and God killed my father because he loves testing us, or whatever. I couldn’t see the love in that equation.
SHE: So, fine. You’re non-religious, atheist, agnostic, whatever you consider yourself. If that’s the case, I’ve got one question for you?
HE: Just one?
SHE: Actually, probably not, but just one right now.
SHE: Why did you take communion at your dad’s funeral? It seems a little hypocritical.
HE: It was very hypocritical, yes. But I did it for Mom.
SHE: You could have just said no.
HE: No, I didn’t do it because she asked me to. I did it because I knew it would mean something to her. It was a small thing that was meaningless to me, but would be significant to her.
SHE: (dubious) Uh huh.
HE: (smiles defensively) No, really. It’s like when someone asks if an outfit looks good on them. You know they spent a lot of money on the clothes and they don’t really look horrible, but, well, it doesn’t look great either. Do you tell them? No, you say that it looks good. They feel better and you haven’t upset a friend.
SHE: It was like that, huh?
HE: Basically, yeah.
SHE: But today…?
HE: Today… (pause) Well, today, there’s just no more room in her closet for bad outfits.
Try to be nice to each other.