Power of the Pen Poetry Plays Week 6 Part II Len Berkman


– [Instructor] During our
class videos, you may hear our poets and playwrights use
terms that are new to you. We have created a list of key
terms and definitions that you can refer to at any point
during our video lectures. This list is available on
the videos and readings class page, where you can read
it or download it as a .pdf. If you would like to find and
review these terms while you watch each class video,
you can stop this video, go back to the videos
and readings class page, and download the .pdf. There you can play this
video and each of the following class videos. If you have any questions
about these terms, we encourage you to ask
your teaching team in the weekly class discussions. – [Announcer] Len Berkman
is an American playwright, and has taught playwriting since 1969. His plays include We Three,
Excuse Me for Even Daring to Open My Mouth, ‘Til the
Beatles Reunite, Adultery Without Touch, Voila, Rape in
Technicolor, Missing Children, I Won’t Go See a Play Called
A Parent’s Worst Nightmare, Quilts, Quote Unquote, and
These Are Not My Breasts. Berkman has served as
Hispanic Playwright’s Project Festival Dramaturg at
South Coast Repertory, as Mark Taper Forum’s playwright
mentor in Los Angeles, as new-play-development dramaturg
at WordBRIDGE in Florida, at Epic Theatre Ensemble in New York City, and on script development
teams at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute in Utah. He’s the Anne Hesseltine
Hoyt Professor of Theater at Smith College. – Okay, I’m Len Berkman,
and I teach playwriting and dramatic literature at Smith College, and work professionally,
both as a playwright and a dramaturg, and
to tell you the truth, I’m far more happy, far
happier, working with other playwrights, developing their work and getting their work up for production. It’s nice to have my own
work done, but it’s not what feeds me. What feeds me is teaching and writing. What I would like to do right
now is actually utilize this very immediate moment as the
starting point for thinking about creating a play. We often see the blank
page as a scary emptiness. How do we fill it? What do we do about it? And I’d like you to
think of this blank page as the equivalent of an invitation. Nothing’s written on it
yet, but you are invited to do that. And if you think about
the immediate moment, the moment you are in right
now, actually watching this video, you can
actually look at that moment as a stimulus in and of itself. I’m gonna do that stage by
stage, beginning with me. I think most of us when we
write begin with ourselves, and hopefully don’t end with ourselves. And what I’m doing right now
is trying to imagine you. I have no idea who you are. I have no idea what you
know, what you don’t know, what you wish for, what
you don’t wish for, where you are, and when you
will be watching this video. Something major in global
events could have happened that would immediately
recontextualize how you hear what I’m saying and I have
no clue as to what that is, I only know my own present time. And I also have no idea
at this point, and this is similar to when we write a
play, I have no idea what voice I’m using. I don’t plan it. I’m just looking at you
as I imagine you to be, in that camera eye. And with all of that, I can
then move from who I am, at least who I think I am,
as a person who wants to be of assistance, wants to
help in a particular area that I’m thought to have
some kind of expertise for, but I can also imagine
myself doing something else. For instance, I can become a salesman. I could be talking to
you, selling a product. And if I wanted to help
you, I don’t know whether I’m going to help you. If I’m gonna try to sell
a product, I don’t know whether you’re going to
end up buying that product. Perhaps I am a prisoner of war. Perhaps I am forced to
talk with you right now because my hope is that
I won’t continue to be tortured, that I will
in some way assure my ultimate freedom, I won’t be killed before I’m released, and whatever
image you might have yourselves of the
circumstance I’m in comes with an intention. It comes with something
I want to accomplish in the person I am and
that will dictate as well how I approach it. Verbally, and right now
you’re not seeing my behavior other than my moving
hands, but of course if I were in a space with
implements, if I had a hammer, if I had a knife, you
might see me utilizing that implement in order to
achieve something that I wanted to achieve. So that’s where I begin with me. But then there’s you. You’re watching me at
your time and your place. And I’m interacting with who you are, or who I think you are. You’re interacting with
who you think you are and who you think I am, and
why are you watching me? What is it that you are
wanting out of watching me? Suppose, for example, I were a dictator. Suppose I were speaking
on this tape to try to influence your thinking
and to try to assure your obedience. You, in turn, have to decide,
what the conditions are that might make you
obedient against your will, or might make you rebel
against me, might make you think this tape is dangerous
and needs to be destroyed before anybody else–this
videotape–destroyed before anybody else sees it. So, you yourself sitting,
or standing, or jumping, or running, or whatever
you’re doing when you are watching this video, need
to decide, need to know, what it is you want in
this very given moment, which is a different
moment for you than it is for me, and which is going
to tap different feelings, different thoughts, on
your part than the feelings and thoughts on my part,
although we may be in sync, maybe amazingly in sync
the way that it often does happen. I must say, for me, anyway,
you see somebody across the room, in a crowded room,
the whole stranger business, and immediately your eyes
click, something is there, you make a move toward each
other and within five minutes you’re old friends. That’s always possible, too. Friends and enemies are
equally dramatic because when you make a new friend,
there’s tension involved in how do I sustain this connection? Just as if you make an instant enemy, there’s tension involved. It’s more obvious tension,
what do I do about this enemy, to keep myself safe? So having now thought about
this particular moment of you watching me, of me talking to you, you might even be talking
to me and I don’t hear you. We often have theatrical situations where, as an example, in Central
Park, in New York, there are often outdoor Shakespeare productions, and if you see ever the
production of Othello, when Iago comes on stage,
the villain of that play, the audience goes “Boo!” And what are you gonna do
about that if you’re the actor, you hear the boo. It’s not for you as an
actor, it’s for you as Iago, and the audience is having
a great deal of pleasure out of knowing that
whatever the audience says will not impact on what
Iago says, but it may impact on what Iago feels in what
he’s saying and how the actor is going to proceed
with this clearly hostile, clearly knowing audience. So I don’t hear what you’re saying. You hear what I’m saying. That’s unfair, in some sense,
and you may feel it unfair, because the other side of
it is you may wish to speak with me. You may wish to know how to reach me. And unless you do know how to reach me, unless you have a means of reaching me, that you can anticipate,
there’s a frustration on your part if you want to reach me. If you don’t want to reach
me, there’s no frustration. You just have to watch the
tape, the tape is over, you go on with whatever your
life is holding for you, and you’re perfectly fine. Where I’m going with all
of this is that I have, in whatever self I decide
I am at the moment, and I say “decide I am”
because as a playwright you make choices, choices
are critical in drama. You don’t just accept the given. And you decide who you
are, is a playwright. And you decide who you are as the receiver of that play or that
speech or that action. And with that decision
comes your assessment of how intensely you feel in that moment. And in dramatic terms,
feeling doesn’t work all by itself. We think so, we think
acting is emotionaling out, and it really isn’t. It’s finding the behavior
that serves the passion that gets you something your
passion is yearning for. So you have to start
thinking about what it is you feel most strongly about. Playwrights in my class
sometimes don’t find that until maybe the sixth week of
their first semester of studying to write. Even people who have ideas
at the top of their heads, for instance, if they are people of color, they’ll want to write about racial issues. But they don’t know yet
what the particularity of that writing is going… what form that is going to take. And then in the sixth
or so week of writing, they I’m just gonna make… give you one example. I’ll just make one up. But it is actually a memorable example. It’s of a person who felt,
one of my recent students, that being African American,
she was expected to write as an African American,
and to forego any other identity that she might have. As a woman, as a person not of privilege. Her wonderful phrase was
“I grew up in the garbage “of Baltimore and Philadelphia,” and here she is at Smith College. How did she get there? What enabled her to get there? What prevents other
people from getting there? She was, herself, thinking
not only of her own arc, her own trajectory
of life, but of those who have different trajectories. So you think about what your passion is. It could be a passion
about something you want for yourself. But it can also be and
actually more interestingly, ultimately, can be your
passion for what you want for other people. And what you think you
need to do to get something for them that they don’t have. If they’re suffering from an injustice, how do you anticipate
acting on their behalf, as well as on your own behalf to make the corrections, to adjust the social situation, to change not only individual people’s behavior but the structure of the country or the culture that you live in? When you decide what your passion is, one of the strange things about that is that it’s not an end. You might say, oh, I’m angry. Okay, let’s start with I’m angry. I’m angry and therefore… Because there’s always a
consequence in dramatic structure. Therefore what? If I’m angry, what do I do about my anger? Voice it? Simply voice it? Not good enough. That’s… Okay, I’m angry and I’ll
tell you why I’m angry. But there’s no intention yet. What I have to do in
talking about my anger is to convince whoever is listening
to me, and it may be me, it may be I need to hear myself, which is why we have
soliloquys on stage, too. People like Hamlet, who
need to talk to themselves to figure things out,
because they don’t know at that point what they want to do. So if I’m angry, the next
thing is the challenge of finding out what it is I
need to do about my anger, what I need to achieve to
satisfy the needs of that anger, and how do I know when I’ve achieved it? Very often it’s more than one step. And this is often why
in the former years of conventional playwriting
we had three act plays. We had a point where you
would reach a seeming movement forward, but it
really wasn’t complete. It actually enhanced,
it intensified something further that needed to be done. And then, as a playwright,
you had to try to figure out what would be more intense,
what would be more significant, than even this stage that I reached? And most playwrights I knew
who were writing in that gen–in my generation!–had
the most trouble with the second act because they
put all of their thrust of energy into that first act. The first act was superb, will that happen or won’t that happen? And you think, okay, the
second act is gonna be that it does or it
doesn’t, or why it doesn’t, why it does. But, it’s will this
happen, and if it happens, will it lead to worse? Will it lead to more complications? Will it lead to a harder
problem to figure out? And that’s where the
second act actually became the weight of the meat,
the real significance of the play, because you
realize that when you are passionately in pursuit
of a goal, it takes work. I’ve been married for 54
years and often I’m asked how are you married this long? And you would think I
might say because we love each other and of course that’s there, but it isn’t. Because loving each
other would not have been enough, it’s the work
that the love requires. And so you’ve now worked
into the second act, and things have gotten worse, not better. There’s more work yet
ahead and the third act then takes a very interesting
approach because you might want to write a play… America is big on hope. You may want to write a play
where things get resolved. On the other hand, and
speaking of the United States as well, we distrust empty hope. We distrust the sentiment
of solving everything, and so we like sometimes
to have a good result on one level and a problem
result on another, and a question result on a third. All of this has to do
with our sense of where society that we live in takes us. Can we get everything we want? And here again your belief
system is gonna play into the kind of play
that you might develop. If you believe, in fact, that we live in a global despair, there’s no way out, then you write certain
kinds of plays that show how important it is
that we find a way out, that we haven’t found yet. Those people who are very
concerned with changing the world will often
prefer a play like that to a play where there is a solution. Bertolt Brecht is an
example of a playwright who wants his work, especially,
to rouse the audience into realizing something
still has to be done rather than having the audience satisfied that in the play the goal was reached. So now you can applaud,
you can go out and talk about the play, but there’s
nothing you need to do about the society in which you
live, the country in which you live, because the
play has done it for you. This is actually an attack
on Aristotle, one of the major theorists of drama,
for whom there is a catharsis at the end of a given play. And for Brecht this meant
satisfying everything that had built up in the audience
and then releasing it. And there are people who
can do that, who want to do that, who believe in that. But if you do, write that kind of play. If you don’t, again, plays send messages. In addition to the story,
in addition to what the characters and the
situations and the development of consequences, one
after another, the more of that, the more it becomes
a real serious question as to where you want
to leave your audience. Do you want to leave them happy? Do you want to leave them thinking? Do you want to leave
them ready to protest? I will give you, in closing,
one particular super example. In the United States, we have
plays that become historic and they’re period pieces. We have a play in Poland
called Forefathers’ Eve in its translation by Adam Mickiewicz. For all I know, one of you
are Polish, or more than one of you are Polish, and
you actually know this play. It is a very thick play,
it takes a long time to do. And it was written in
the 1830s and it is still as current as any play
one would write in this given era, so that when
this play was revived, among its many revivals,
and first, of course, it could not produced. All through the 19th century
it would not be produced, until a playwright director
realized how to do it. Wyspianski if you want
his name, in the 1890s did the first production of it. But in 1968 this play was
done and the audience was so roused by it, so aware
of its pertinence to what they considered to be
the offensive government in Poland in 1968, that
the play sent them out into the public, into the
outdoors, ready to revolt. And we have no play from
1830s in the United States that could ever have that achievement. So again, these are things
that are maybe happenstance. But I don’t really think so. I think if you’re writing
about now, whatever now is for you, there are times
you will write about now, and it will stay with the now. Other times when the now becomes then, and what kind of play you want to write, do you want to write
about what you’re feeling in the moment, not thinking about what its wider ramifications are? That’s perfectly okay. Don’t ever stop yourself
by thinking what you’re writing is unimportant,
what you’re writing is unoriginal, because the
main thing to realize, for instance, if you stab me right now, I mean if you could, if
you could jump through your screen and stab me,
what would happen to me? I would bleed. And you could say to me,
oh, come on, you could come up with a more original
response to being stabbed. But it’s my blood. It’s my pain. And as you will write, you
write from your own pain, from your own blood. And whatever it is, the
passion of that, the purpose of that, is where I think your
writing will take you best. Thank you.

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