One of my favorite questions to ask people is, “when was the last time a play changed your life?” I particularly love asking theatre artists this question. Aside from being an interesting conversation starter, it cuts right to the heart of what our collaboration will be. We at SPL believe the primary purpose of theatre is to change the people who experience it. So we, the playwrights and new-work developers, are in the business of creating stories that change lives.
How do we do that? How do we set out creating scripts that have the potential to move an audience member, change their attitudes or outlook on life, make them wiser, or maybe even make them more compassionate? No easy task, I know. But, what if I told you that all scripts with life changing potential have one central thing in common? They all start from the same place.
They are about that which is human.
Before you roll your eyes and utter “duh” under your breath, this isn’t as obvious as it first appears. I don’t mean it has to be about humans. No, to possess the power to permanently alter a person’s life, the theme of your script must be about something that is fundamentally human, something that transcends time and culture.
Let me give you an example from a time a play changed my life. I was at ACT in Seattle about 6 years ago. They were premiering a new play. It was a charming little piece about an older couple who (to wildly oversimplify) reunites after a lifetime apart. The entire production was masterfully crafted, but there was a moment where the main character turned to his lost love, takes her hand, and says, “when you’re young you think you have an infinite number of ‘next times.’ One day, you wake up, and you realize your last ‘next time’ is far behind you.”
In that moment, something deep inside of me shifted. It felt like something cracking and waking up at the same time. I could see all of the blessings offered to me I had ignored over the years. I could see all of the opportunities I had passed on or failed to take full advantage of. Most importantly, I could see a life that I deeply wanted, but was making no efforts at pursuing. I was so arrogant that there was always going to be another ‘next time’ in front of me. I made excuses. I told myself I was “waiting for the right time.”
That playwright dropped a truth on me, and it exploded like a bomb in my chest. In that very moment I burst into tears and resolved on my course of action. I left the theater after the show and I started making phone calls. I spent the whole rest of the weekend on the phone. That was the weekend I made ammends with my family. I created a plan to step back from teaching full time and recommit to my professional career. I called a colleague and accepted a directing gig I had been waffling on because (honestly) I was just too intimidated. And, most importantly, I called my (then) girl friend (now wife). That’s the first weekend we decided in earnest to start a family. We now have a beautiful son who is the center of my world. Point is, I was done wasting opportunities. I was resolved not to become an old man who wasted all of his “next times.” That playwright forever altered the course of my life.
Do you see what else the playwright did, though? They tapped into something common to all of us. Their theme was regret. Anyone, in any time or culture, can identify with that. It’s one of the fundamental human experiences.
That human element is the bedrock of all great work. It is also one of the qualities we, Dahveed and I, look for when we are considering a script at SPL. When we are kicking a script around, one of the questions we like to ask is, “in 200 years in a foreign country, would anyone care about this?” Answering that question has a way of separating that which is political, or even cultural, from that which is truly human.
So, that is our loving challenge to you. Do powerful, life changing work. Be brave. Search deep in your heart and mind to find stories that share the truth of what it is to be alive and human. I guarantee you, if you search hard enough, you will find something you need to say. And, someday your script is going to change someone’s life for the better, too.
Workshop your script at SPL
Have a script that you’re ready to start developing? We would love to collaborate with you. Our workshopping experience can help give you a competitive edge. We affectionately call it “Lab Time.” Learn more by clicking below.