Split the atom and the energy pours out; split the well-made play and the same thing happens, or so goes the theory behind a Mac Wellman “non-conventional playwriting” workshop, one of which recently wrapped its four-day run at the Flea Theater in Tribeca. For two weekends in a row, Wellman sat at the end of a folding table in the theater’s dimly lit mainstage space, presiding with impish dignity over a group of 12 playwrights who came to have their assumptions about theater upended, if not blown to bits. “There are three things you need to know about theater,” Wellman tells his student writers on the first day of class, “Aim low. Shit floats. And the squeaking wheel gets the grease.”
A fixture in the downtown theater scene, Wellman is that rare writer whose talents as a teacher are equal to his talents as an artist. In his writing life, Mac Wellman is as close to canonized as an avant-garde playwright can get. His many plays include Cellophane, Terminal Hip, Sincerity Forever, 7 Blowjobs, Cat’s Paw, The Lesser Magoo, Hypatia or the Divine Algebra, and Jennie Richee, to name only a few. He’s racked up numerous honors over the course of his career, including National Endowment of the Arts and Guggenheim Fellowships, a Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Award, and three Obies, the most recent being the 2003 Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. Wellman has taught playwriting at Brown University and N.Y.U., and currently heads the playwriting program at Brooklyn College. He writes poetry, essays, and novels, and he is master of the brilliant, sweepingly enigmatic claim, “Drama, like all games, is a high-low game.” He tells his assembled students at the Flea, “In a low game, even the smallest moves are very big. At the high end the skies break open, revealing the economy of the angels in heaven.”
A grand assertion, but one his students readily accept. They’re here to learn nothing less than this: how to reveal the economy of the angels in their plays. The workshop they’re attending is part of the Flea Theater’s annual series of maverick master classes known as Pataphysics (definition: “the science of impossible solutions”), a series designed to match established downtown playwrights with student writers eager to shake up their own sensibilities. Pataphysics bills itself as “a gymnasium for the writing brain—curious, particular, and rigorous.” Wellman’s own session is subtitled, “An Intensive Workshop in Playwriting. Anti-Romantic. Non-Conventional. Inorganic.” Whereas mainstream playwriting courses seek to provide students with the “rules” for successful playwriting, Pataphysics classes are grounded in a basic skepticism of received (read: Aristotelian) rules, offering students structured ways to undermine traditional structures. Admission to the classes is competitive, and the list of instructors is a gallery of illustrious avant-garde writers for the stage; previous instructors have included José Rivera, Jeffrey M. Jones, and María Irene Fornés, and still to come this season are workshops led by Erik Ehn, Eduardo Machado, and Karen Finley.
The arc—to borrow an Aristotelian construct—of Mac Wellman’s four-class blitz is to get students to break the playwriting process down into its subatomic elements, then help them to reassemble those elements into a new, humming theatrical molecule. To this end, Wellman begins by dispatching his students into the world, notebooks in hand, to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations and take them down as accurately as possible. “Absolutely no creativity whatever of any kind,” he says, but when his students laugh he repeats the instruction seriously. And no stage directions—the purpose of the assignment is to collect raw dialogue, arguably the most basic element of playwriting. But the exercise is also intended to introduce each writer to the grammar of his or her own ear, as the students find out when they return to class the next day, transcripts in hand, and listen to as many different ways to transcribe speech as there are writers in the room. “If you want to get your own style in pure form, write down exactly what other people say,” Wellman observes.
The results of the first exercise are bizarre, hilarious, alive—everyone seems surprised by how utterly strange “normal” speech is, even as it is utterly familiar. Wellman wants his students to think about the essentially elliptical nature of speech. “If you have an idea in a play, you suggest it, develop it, conclude it,” he says. “In real life you suggest it and it’s done. Unless you’re in negotiations with a lawyer or on a first date, it’s redundant to work it out. A suggested idea is light, and because it’s light it has a kind of grace, which is extremely hard to capture in playwriting.” Another thing he’d like his students to bear in mind is the notion of fractional character. Most characters in traditional plays are played “at one hundred percent,” Wellman says, whereas in real life people operate “at around ten percent.” “Think about it,” he tells the group. “If you got on a bus at one hundred percent, everybody else would get off.”
Wellman has an aphoristic answer for everything that ails the contemporary American theater, and in between readings of his students’ exercises he offers up his elegant, sardonic insights casually, as if they’re just coming to him. On topicality: “If you write about an ‘important issue’ you’re in the horrible swamp of the already known. It’s what you don’t think about, what you don’t know about, that’s important.” On structure: “In the American theater, that which we call ‘structure’ is that which resembles another play, usually a better play. Writing something ‘structured’ is writing like something else in a worshipful way, instead of trying to destroy it, which is what you should do.” On narrative: “There are lots of ways of telling a story. A good way to start is one thing after another.” On rewriting: “I discovered that the way to fix any scene is to have a person enter dressed as a cardinal of the Roman Catholic faith. Or have a person enter carrying a piece of dental floss, maybe six or eight inches long. Creates instant drama.” On intelligence: “When in doubt, lower your IQ by 35 points.”
Assignment Two is to do “the exact opposite” of Assignment One: create a wordless scenario, a short play that tells a complete story with no dialogue (setting and gesture—the other two fundamental elements of playwriting). The results of this assignment are as rich and gorgeous as the first, and the students are feeling pretty confident by the time Wellman gives out the final assignment: Pass your dialogue to your left and your wordless scenario to your right. When you’ve got someone else’s dialogue and someone else’s scenario, take them home and combine them into a short play, trying your hardest to retain as much of both original texts as you can. A ripple of nervous, dismayed laughter passes through the room, but Wellman cheerfully dismisses the class’s anxiety. “There will be certain problems. But these are your problems, not mine,” he says with a mischievous grin.
And the mad little plays the students return with are, all of them, wonderfully theatrical—“plays with fur and teeth and claws,” Wellman says, “lovelier than anything in nature should be.” There is a Wild West gunfighter epic in which the cowboys talk like diner waitresses, a family visiting an Egyptian mummy exhibit in a swimming pool, a couple waiting to meet their newly adopted baby who communicate entirely in the jargon of off-track betting. “Does this feel like your other work?” Wellman asks one student. “No,” she replies. “Good,” he says.
To the entire class he offers this reminder: “Mostly, being an artist and a romantic, you want the dialogue and the gestural world of your work to fit, and this is wrong. You don’t want it to fit. All great plays have this slippage, and if there’s not this slippage the play is gesturally dead, there’s no boogie and it doesn’t work.”
For scheduling and application information for upcoming Pataphysics Workshops at the Flea, go to www.theflea.org, or call 212-226-0051.
MADELEINE GEORGE is the 10th of the 13 playwrights who make up 13P (Thirteen Playwrights, Inc.).