Dramas are a different species altogether than written fiction, but perhaps the two share a common genus. Some people I know like to view the writing of fiction as its own very specialized field, and while there are things unique to the world of fiction writing that doesn’t mean you can’t find something useful from another art-form. For me, dramas, graphic novels, TV shows, music, and even photography can be viewed through a common lens, storytelling.
The most recent drama I’ve attended was at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival where I had the privilege of seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cymbeline. Of the two, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the most effective to explain my meaning. If you’ve ever tried to read Shakespeare before, you know how difficult it can be. The language can by cryptic and half of what’s said means something else, and if it weren’t for the footnotes at the bottom of the page some of us might as well be reading the thing in Klingon… All that to say, in written form the language can prevent one from interacting with the story on a personal level.
Well on stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream was anything but “difficult to follow.” It was beautifully staged and directed. Every character made an impression from the start, and was easy to remember when they appeared on stage again later on. Now this isn’t a review of the play, so I’ll spare you the nitty gritty details and move on to the important observations.
As a writer I was struck by one astonishing fact. There were very young kids in the audience with me, and when a comedic beat was struck they laughed… apparently understanding the whole damn thing. Somehow the director, the actors, and the whole damn team had produced a show that, even though it did posses that sometimes hard to pierce Shakespearian language, was easy to understand and follow. In fact, it so effortlessly communicated the richly layered story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that even children, who were not likely to have ever studied Shakespeare, could understand exactly what was happening!
Well that was quite a trick! And something my freshman High School English teacher had failed to do with me when I was first introduced to Romeo and Juliet.
So How did they do it? Well there are many choices the director made to facilitate ease of understanding. Firstly, they chose a modern setting. So instead of ancient Greece or Rome, the story was set at and around a High School graduation… something easier for an audience to understand than an ancient city, and because it was a High School young audience members already new to expect youths in the form of students, and older-folks in the form of teachers and staff. So when certain characters took the stage the audience automatically knew a bit about who they were without having to be told.
As you can see, before the story even begins we already know much about the situation and the characters yet to come. This is good. The director sets up our expectations, and the audience will see if their expectations are satisfied or challenged. Either way, the audience begins to become engaged with a subject, young love.
The other piece I’ll share with you is this, the director decided to make the characters a bit more cartoon-like. Their actions were exaggerated in such a way that even if their words were difficult to follow you already knew their meaning thanks to their visual body language and the tone of their voices. When a broken hearted Hermia bemoans her misfortune the tone of her voice is filled with woe, and where her speech begins with confidence and grace her volume diminishes, she no longer occupies the center of the stage, her body crumples up in sadness and defeat, and for a beat or two her gaze is cast down about her feet. All this spells out sadness and heartbreak, and even if you can’t follow the colorful language, you also can’t misunderstand the visual cues.
A writer can be impressed with this and take away a golden nugget. In a critical TV drama like Breaking Bad realism and tension are used where cartoon like caricature was used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And while we as an audience may appreciate the torture and subtlety show’s like Breaking Bad put us through every damn episode, we have to realize that we might not be able to pull that off in written fiction.
You’ve heard it said before, show don’t tell. Well if you look at a good Drama and good actors you will see how the Director decided to show! And that is important! Body language was exaggerated in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to facilitate understanding of mood and language, and I strive to put a spotlight on those images in a story that convey meaning in a similar way. You could take a thousand words to describe a grimace, or you could narrow in on a souring lip, a furrowed brow, and narrowed eyes squinting in contempt. Rely on key details to convey meaning and emotion in a single line. Knowing what details to overemphasize and which to leave out is key to fluid writing that grabs and keeps the writer moving along without any snags. That’s what the director of A Midsummer Night’s Dream had in mind, and I’m glad I was paying attention when when I saw it or else I would have missed a valuable lesson.
Thank you for reading,