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Something to care about

Stakes and why they matter in a play

By Stephen Gregg

Danforth Comins and James Newcomb battle it out in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Richard III. Fight choreography by John Sipes. (David Cooper)

You’ve taken the plunge. You’re teaching a playwriting class (or, more likely, a weeklong unit on playwriting in your advanced drama class.) Good for you.

What follows is a lesson that might be useful early on. It could even be your first lesson. Here is what I would suggest you do.

Make copies of the quiz that appears on the opposite page and give it to your students. Tell them that it’s a playwright’s aptitude test. Like all skills, playwriting can be learned, but of course there are differing degrees of natural ability. The test is intended to measure one’s innate prowess.

Before they start the quiz, put the students into pairs. Everyone should have a partner who will grade his or her test.

The test is hard. You should let them know that, although it is only seven questions long and there are only two answer choices in each case, no one is going to get all the questions right.

Give them as long as they need to finish it. When everyone is done, instruct them to turn their papers face down.

And before you grade the quizzes, talk to your students about stakes.

Audiences care about things that a character cares about. The more something matters to a character, the more it will matter to an audience. That is to say, the higher the stakes are for the character, the more an audience will invest in the story.

Think about Tennessee Williams’s play, The Glass Menagerie. Laura has what is essentially a date with a Gentleman Caller whom her brother has brought home for her to meet. Laura never says that she is desperate for the Gentleman Caller to like her. She doesn’t have to. Williams has given Laura many reasons to want this to work. She’s slightly crippled, and self-conscious about it. Laura’s mother, Amanda, was a wildly popular young woman in her day. One of the high points of Amanda’s life was the night she supposedly had seventeen gentleman callers. And Laura has a history with this Gentleman Caller. When they were kids in high school, he teased her affectionately.

Think of how much less effective The Glass Menagerie would be if Laura were sexy and outgoing, if the high point of her mother’s life was the time she won a pie-eating contest, or if the Gentleman Caller was someone who’d been mean to her as a child. Every choice that Williams makes is designed to make us want this pairing to be successful. We know that this is probably Laura’s only chance.

If dramas are better when things matter, so too are comedies. Scenes are funnier when the stakes are high. Think of the 1994 Eddie Murphy remake of The Nutty Professor. There are two scenes in that movie which were really funny in the trailer and not funny at all in the actual movie. In the first, Eddie Murphy’s character, Sherman Klump, is kissing a woman on the beach and he’s so heavy that she sinks down into the sand and disappears. In the second scene, Professor Klump has grown to the size of Godzilla. He’s walking between buildings while tiny people flee from him.

Now why would these movies have been funny in the preview but not in the actual movie? (They may not sound all that funny, but trust me, the audience watching the movie trailer laughed hard.)

The answer is that in the movie, those images were both dream sequences. A dream has no stakes. We see the screen go wavy, we know it’s a fantasy sequence and we stop caring. It’s just a not-all-that-amusing image.

Watching the trailer, our experience is entirely different. We see a man who is concerned about his weight, a problem many of us can relate to: a problem with stakes. And we see that in this comic world this man’s problem is so bad that he can’t kiss a woman without endangering her life! That is a terrible problem! Our own anxiety about our bodies is taken to a ridiculous extreme and we laugh.

The same is true of the second image. Watching the trailer, we assume (wrongly) that in the course of the movie something will happen so that this man who is concerned about the size of his body has gotten so big he can’t approach his friends without crushing them. In our minds, we actually construct a funnier movie than the filmmakers gave us, because the high emotional stakes contribute to the humor.

The point is, stakes matter.

With that in mind, have your students turn their papers back over and grade them. (It’s all right, in fact preferable, to have them grade them themselves.)

Quiz answers

There will, of course, be debate about these answers. There should be debate. But you should strive to have your students frame their arguments in terms of which answer makes things matter more.

  1. The better answer for question one is A. A teacher who is two years from retirement has more at stake. She is clearly invested in teaching. The young teacher hasn’t even decided if she wants to teach, and so she has less to lose.
  2. The better answer is B. This is actually a real example, from a play called Dealer’s Choice, by Patrick Marber. It’s a well-written play except for the choice that Marber makes to have the father be a wealthy restaurant owner. We know perfectly well that the father is not going to let serious harm come to his son. The solution to the problem is right on stage the entire time, and the stakes are drastically reduced.
  3. Clearly, to my eye, the correct answer is A. People love surprise endings. When they work, they are remarkably satisfying. Witness the success of the movie, The Sixth Sense. But here is the problem. It is very hard to tell a story. To tell a story and hide a major piece of information is extraordinarily difficult. It’s the advanced class. It’s calculus. The Sixth Sense hides a major piece of information (no, I’m not going to spoil it if you’re the one person in America who hasn’t seen it) but it is not a piece of information that affects the stakes of the story. At the beginning of the movie, we see Bruce Willis’s character try to help someone in need and fail. He has a chance, with the little boy, to redeem himself. A man whose quest is motivated by the death of someone has a real problem. If this was the only woman he ever loved, he may be desperate to find out what he’s doing wrong. If you hide that the man is traveling to her funeral, it might be a fun surprise, but we’re likely to have tuned out long ago. He’s likely to strike us as an annoying whiner.
  4. Here is a case in which the rules of storytelling conflict with the rules of human behavior. There is no doubt that having one’s foot cut off is a worse penalty than not getting to see one’s parents. That should be the higher stakes choice. But come on. What school, even what military school, amputates your foot as punishment? Here, the attempt to raise the stakes violates the laws of human behavior as we know it and will look silly. Therefore, one should always keep stakes believable.
    The correct answer is A.
  5. Those who get the answer wrong are likely to have done so for a good reason. They wish to avoid a cliché. The cop who lost someone he loved sounds a little familiar. Why not have them just be friends? Here’s why: it is easier to avoid a cliché than it is to raise the stakes. And it is more important to raise the stakes than it is to avoid a cliché. If the detective with a dark past sounds a little shopworn to you, find a way to make your detective a fresher character. Make him a Chinese diabetic. Sometimes clichés are clichés for a reason. They are time-honored ways to make us care about a character’s plight.
  6. You might recognize this as the set up for David Auburn’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, Proof. Proof is a simple play that works well because the choices are perfectly designed to raise the stakes. Answer B is not terrible. A woman whose father didn’t believe she should be educated might have a lot to prove. But answer A is a little brilliant. Someone who believes she’s discovered a groundbreaking proof is either a genius or crazy. Since the woman’s father was both of those things, there’s an all-or-nothing element to the woman’s claim. If she did write the proof, she’s one of the great mathematicians of her age. If she only thinks she wrote it, it’s off to the funny farm with her.
  7. This might be the hardest question. It is phrased in a way that will tempt probably two thirds of your students to choose to include the scene.

Wrong choice. Wrong in an important way. Yes, it’s nice to have moments of levity in a serious drama, but not at the expense of the stakes. The key here is in the words “slightly ridiculous.” This is the lead character in your drama you’re talking about. If you want funny, you can make her wry, sarcastic, or clever. You can not make her ridiculous or you lose the stakes. As an audience member, I’m not interested in a ridiculous person’s quest. Ridiculous characters in dramas are condiments. Even in comedies, they are rarely the lead character. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the uptight, scolding, yet goofy-in-love Malvolio is fun to watch but we don’t care about his quest to win Olivia.

When Robert O. Anderson said that playwrighting is always killing your children, this is the kind of moment he was referring to. It’s a really funny moment that you must, for the sake of your play, avoid.

Here’s an interesting thing about stakes. Students instinctively know that high stakes are good. Very often, beginning playwrights write about dark, heavy subjects: child abuse, drug addiction, spousal abuse. Often, these are not very good plays.

But the impulse is exactly right: what those well-intentioned students are doing is trying to find a way to make their plays matter. And because this is a vague, half-formed idea in a discipline that is new to them, they gravitate towards subjects that matter. What we can teach them is that there are ways of making small, even mundane things matter. What’s important is not that something matters in the real world, but that it matters to the character.

Think of how your heart falls when Laura’s unicorn breaks in The Glass Menagerie. For heaven’s sake, it’s a glass unicorn. It probably cost all of five dollars. It matters to us because it matters to Laura, a character who frankly does not have a heck of a lot going for her. If shy, limping little Laura likes her glass unicorn, then we want her to have ten of them.

For another example of how something small can be made to feel important, we need look no farther than the test you just gave your students. This was an in-class, not-for-grade exercise in a course that your students are probably taking as an elective. It’s difficult to imagine something that should matter less.

And yet, I’ll wager that many of them wanted very badly to do well. They probably agonized over at least one of the questions. Many, perhaps most of them, chose one answer then changed their minds.

Why would they care about this meaningless test? Because you made them care.

To begin with, you told them they couldn’t do it. This is a time-honored way to make someone want to succeed. Playwrights use this trick all the time. The next time you watch a play or a TV show in which a character desperately is trying to achieve a goal, pay attention to how many times someone else tells her that it’s impossible, or at least that it’s impossible for her.

Second, you suggested a public component to your students’ failure (or success). By hinting that the students would be swapping papers, you engaged in a never-fail tactic to raise the stakes. Things mean more when there’s an audience. Very few of us have fantasies about private triumphs. The success of fantasy is the success of the Oscar stage or the basketball court. Likewise, failure means more if it’s done in front of our peers. Think of the early scene in the recent movie 8 Mile in which Eminem loses a battle of words. It takes place in a hall packed with admirers and detractors. It wouldn’t have nearly the same impact if it had happened in his living room in front of a few friends.

Finally, you made the test matter with your straight-faced and ludicrous assertion that this test actually measured something real, that it measured one’s aptitude for playwrighting. Who wouldn’t want to do well on that test? It’s always better to be good at something than not good at it. We define ourselves by what we’re good at. Willy Loman doesn’t kill himself because he loses his job as a salesman, he kills himself because being a good salesman is who he is, and if he’s not good at it, he’s not worth anything.

Take a minute to talk to your students about other ways you might have raised the stakes of this test for them. Would it have raised the stakes if you’d said it was for a grade? (My guess is that it would have.) What if you’d told them there was a reward of some sort for anyone who got all the questions right? (Probably yes again.) What if you told them that anyone who missed all the questions would be expelled? (I wouldn’t think so. Who would believe you?)

Sometimes the question of whether a choice raises or lowers the stakes is difficult or impossible to answer. For example, would it have upped the stakes if you had actually titled the quiz, “Playwright Aptitude Test”? If your students are young and gullible enough, you might want to try that. I chose to slightly undersell that idea by calling it an exercise and letting you explain it.

Now, get your students to spend the same amount of energy thinking about how to get a character’s goal to matter. The point is that to give a play real stakes does not mean that a character’s life need be in danger. If something matters to the character, it’ll matter to the audience. If you, the teacher, were able to make your students care about how they did on this trivial test, then your students, the writers, can make even small things matter to the audience.

Stephen Gregg is a playwright who lives in Los Angeles. His most recent play, Wake-Up Call, can be sampled at his website, StephenGregg.com.