Yesterday, I heard a script for the first time, at the table reading with the cast of this commission I’m working on for young audiences. For a playwright, the first table reading is half Christmas morning and half job interview, full of explosive joy and barbarous self-judgement. It’s got me thinking about Shakespeare, Sudoku, and “multiple intelligences.”
This is an educational project with specific health messages, which means it’s my job to open the eyeballs and earholes of the kids watching, send the information into their heads, and then slather it with superglue so it stays put well after the curtain call. I also need the piece to be good theater, dramatically compelling with momentum and style.
I need to keep the set and other production values lean and simple. I need to cover the issues well, making sure the scenes introduce specific science facts and concepts, and I need to persuasively sell the benefits of making smart choices for physical and emotional health, so that kids get both the what and the why. I need to provide velocity in the flow of information, so that core ideas are introduced and then deepened in a way that makes sense. And it’s not just about one health arena, it’s gotta touch on a wide array of topics, from nutrition habits to conflict resolution skills. And it can’t feel totally disjointed, it’s got to hang together tonally and energetically.
And it’s gotta be age-appropriate. And the stage time has to be distributed evenly amongst the ensemble cast.
AND it’s gotta be FUNNY.
Basically, writing this project is like doing eight or nine Sudoku puzzles at once… while also sort of inventing the idea of Sudoku? I mean, it’s hard. Doesn’t it sound hard? It’s hard.
With a Sudoku puzzle, when one number falls into place in its little box, it affects where you can put anything and everything else you’re trying to make space for… but the end result is balance, an equal distribution of every number in the grid. As I head into the next draft of revisions, that’s the exact feeling of the script. When you’re close to reaching your final draft, everything that shifts causes a shift in everything else, because if one number moves, the whole grid can go out of balance… and the grid is finite, because you’ve only got a certain amount of your audience’s time (in this case, about 35 minutes).
I was hired to write this project about eight months ago, and it’s been epic. I can’t remember ever writing a play with so many particular and varied goals, some of which have been present from the start and some of which have emerged during the process. In the middle of the project, I trashed an entire draft and started over from nothing. But, for me, as new goals arose and a few fell away, one persisted throughout: writing for multiple intelligences.
By “multiple intelligences,” I don’t mean different levels of intelligence, like “smart” and “dumb.” I mean multiple intelligences as in Howard Gardner’s theory of the modalities of learning; he believed that people learn and perceive in different ways.
These are Gardner’s basic categories of intelligence: musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Fancy, right? Kind of. Not really. What multiple intelligences basically means is that some people will learn better by hearing a song, other people will learn better by seeing a pie chart, and that while some people will learn best by hearing information from a teacher, other people will learn best from talking with a friend. Everybody has a blend of these learning styles, but not an equal balance; each person’s brain is dominated by one or two modalities. Which means there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all education… or one-size-fits-all theater… because not all brains work the same way. Different brains are interested in different kinds of stuff. In its simplest form, Gardner’s concept isn’t a revolutionary idea, but it’s not a vocabulary people typically use in playwrighting. And I think we should.
If you write a play that only appeals to, say, dominantly verbal-linguistic brains… it’s gonna leave some audience members totally cold. They only saw talking, and their synapses go boom for singing and dancing. It’s not just “taste,” it’s probably neurological.
(Please note: this does not explain why anyone likes Mamma Mia. That IS about taste.)
Most of the time, as an artist, you’ve got to be prepared to say “some people watching won’t get this.” There’s the idea that you can’t, and shouldn’t, try to write for everyone– because trying to please everyone tends to produce mediocre mush without much personality. There’s truth to that– an artist should be distinctive, and sharp. Who wants an artist who panders, who caters to others? Not me. Artists are in society to Get Punk and Light Shit Up.
One of the core concepts for the commission we read aloud yesterday is that it teaches HIV and AIDS information.
When you’re educating the audience about a life-or-death topic that you’re really passionate about, it’s not good enough to say “some people watching won’t get this play.” So, what do you do?
You write for everyone… but not for everyone at once.
(Let’s talk history for a second: Shakespeare wrote for everyone. He wrote to engage his socioeconomically mixed audience, throwing a lowbrow fart joke down to the proletariat groundlings in the cheap standing area and then turning around a line later and pitching poetic ethical quandaries upwards to the classes sitting in the costly balconies and boxes, who were flattered by being seen as highbrow. Thanks to his technical mastery and his keen awareness of audience appetite, his plays had something for basically everybody– they even had singing and dancing, boom!– he’s maybe the only person who has actually written plays that are “for everyone.”
I’m not quite as good as Shakespeare, so I love to steal from him.
And I’m all about stealing this technique: Write for several different kinds of people in a row, but not at the same time. Give each person your full attention, then move on… like a serial monogamist.
I’m not saying I achieve that in my writing… but it’s a technical aspiration, to get fluent with that one move, to get more graceful doing that particular thing.)
Trying to find space in this commission for moments that reach out to each one of the multiple intelligence categories, so that no matter what thinking style dominates a student’s brain I can grab their attention and gain entry to their activated mind, has actually raised the bar for my other work. I’m going “What does my two-woman vaudeville have for naturalistic thinkers? When I go back into the Neo-Futurists show next week, can I bring a short play that will appeal to logical-mathematical minds?” I’m obsessed, inspired, and creating with an impossible-to-please rigor that’s absolutely built for failure. It’s great. It’s sort of like writing in hell.
This commission has ruined me.
Once you’ve tried to write a play that leaves no audience member behind, why would you ever settle for attempting something that’s less engaging? Once you’ve start trying to solve it, how can you possibly put that puzzle down?
There’s a difference between catering to your audience and serving them. If you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen. It’s sweaty as fuck.