How Many Scenes Does It Take to Connect to a Character?

by Daniel Robert Sullivan

in Fox Fellowships

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(This post is part of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowships and Fox Fellowship Circle salon.)

A vignette play is easy to conceive, easy to rehearse, and easy to produce.

Don’t believe me? Ok, pick a theme or location. Now, brainstorm ten stories or events that are connected to that theme or that place. Use a group if you want it done quickly. Finally, write or improvise some dialogue for each of the stories and put them in order from lowest stakes to highest. Grab some chairs and a couple of black cubes. Congrats, you have a show.

But wait.

A vignette play is easy to conceive, easy to rehearse, and easy to produce. But it is really, really hard to make it good.

Oh, boy. I’m in trouble.

I came to my current project as a Fox Foundation Resident Actor. I’m acting, devising, writing, combining, and editing with a group of nine NYC high school students at Roundabout Theatre Company. We’re creating a play that is to reflect on and point up the inherent chaos in their urban high school experience. We finished a first draft quickly. I took their stories and text and pieced together a ten-scene adventure that celebrates true friendship and condemns spontaneous violence: Prospect High: Brooklyn. The show can be played by four actors, or many more. It has twenty characters and is based completely in true events. Prospect High, Brooklyn takes place at 2:47 PM in ten different spaces within a mammoth high school building. The first scenes are light, the final ones are dark.

And the play is not good yet.

Why? According to our dramaturg from Roundabout’s Literary Department, Shannon Deep, we haven’t given the audience enough time to connect with any of the characters. Some of them are beautiful and interesting people, she says, but they flit away just as we’re getting to know them. In my effort to get all of the great devised pieces into the finished play, I let each character live for a mere scene apiece. Maybe I need to let them stick around a bit longer.

But how many scenes does it take to connect to a character?

I’ve seen true vignette plays done well. There is no denying the popularity and emotional impact of John Cariani’s Almost, Maine. Those characters last fifteen minutes each, but they convince us of the tangible value of love. Neil Simon’s vignette play, The Good Doctor, is pitch perfect parody that entertains as it mirrors our foibles. Do we connect to those characters in their single scenes? I think we do, because we see ourselves instantly in them. Perhaps more pointedly, we connect to those characters because they were written by masterful playwrights.

I’m just not masterful.

So, I’ve reached a tipping point: I must balance my desire to create a flexible, easily producible play with the reality that it takes (two, three, four, five) scenes for an audience to truly care about a character.

Maybe it’s just a logic problem.

The stories are inherently connected, because they came from the same group of nine people. What if there were two versions of this play? What if the scenes focused on (three, four, five) characters, and we see them journey through a real-time series of situations at their school, but we also have a flexible version where the individual scenes introduce us to twenty completely different characters? In other words: five characters say stuff and make a journey in one version (a character arc), and twenty characters say the same stuff while the play as a whole makes a journey in the other version (a thematic arc)? The vignette version would not be as emotionally satisfying, but it would be easier for a large group to produce. The smaller cast version would not be as easy to create, but it would show us a fuller transformation from each character.

It is possible. I can make two versions of the same play make sense. But is it a good idea?

Let me know.

Read more on the project here and here and here.

Daniel Robert Sullivan appeared in Jersey Boys as Tommy DeVito in the Toronto and International Companies. He has performed at Kansas City Rep, Arizona Theatre Company, Pan Asian Rep, the York, Utah Shakespeare Festival, Gloucester Stage, and others. His backstage memoir, Places Please! (Becoming A Jersey Boy), was published last year by Iguana Books.

The William & Eva Fox Foundation, a private grantmaking foundation, is committed to the artistic development of theatre actors as a strategy to strengthen live theatre. Through its prestigious Fox Fellowships the Foundation has provided more than $3 million to underwrite periods of intensive study, research and training by actors recognized as having a serious commitment to the theatre. In 2004 the Foundation awarded fellowships totaling $150,000 to ten distinguished actors. The Foundation is the largest grantmaker solely dedicated to the artistic and professional development of theatre actors, and one of very few that provides direct support to individual actors.