The Art of Play Building

September 4, 2009

I remember once watching James McBride playing tenor sax in a hotel band. This was quite a few years before his best selling novel, The Color of Water, rescued him from such indignities.

The set included many top forty tunes and a few jazz standards. The notes on the page were the same as those played by bands around the globe and yet I ached for my dear friend as he suffered up there on the bandstand in a monkey suit complete with black bowtie while blue hairs three stepped and businessmen trolled the bar for loose ladies.

The instruments were the same as in bands all over the world. The melodies were identical to the songs as played everywhere. I sat there in that penthouse bar, nursing an overpriced beer, and pondered for an almost unendurable hour over why the sum of this sound was not music.

I experience the same quandary often when examining early drafts of my own plays. The characters can be clearly drawn, the plot logical and escalating, the thesis clearly stated, jokes spaced at appropriate intervals and yet the aggregate is piano bar noise.

People are fond of saying that, “Playwriting is a craft.” What they miss is the fact that the play building that is essential in the early stages of creation is akin to erecting a cabin or a barn. It is a solid, durable, structure but not architecture. The facades, the mixed and textured paints, the arched doorways and stained glass are where the breath of art enters the creation and transforms it into a cathedral.

James Brown calls it soul. Paul Carter Harrison calls it “nommo.” George Clinton calls it funk. I don’t care what it’s called, I just know my play is not finished until it travels past the notes and finds the music.

--Ed Shockley

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