Guided by Voices


No one asks me to teach playwriting. That’s probably because my academic credentials qualify me to shout rude questions at weary press secretaries, not misguide young minds. It’s just as well since my answer to inquiries such as “How do I get a play produced?” is “Write a good one.” That’ll be _________ dollars.

But if some misguided administrator actually asked me to teach a seminar or something, I guess I’d title it “Listening to Voices” simply because I know a play has a chance if I can hear the voices of distinctive characters.

That’s all a playwright has, really. You can develop any number of scenarios, but how those play out depend on what kind of people your characters are, and the only way you can tell them apart is by the way they speak. Suppose your character stows away aboard a spacecraft. You’re in for one kind of play if, when discovered, your character says:

Please, man, please. All I ever wanted to be was an astronaut. But everybody said I was, you know, stupid. I won’t touch anything. Honest.

As opposed to a character who says:

Well, hell, you found me. Guess we’re stuck with each other. Might well rock’n’roll. Have a snort. But be careful. I get stingy with my supplies when I get past the Van Allen belt.

Not that I’d recommend writing either play; we have too many spacecraft stowaway dramas as it is, right? It’s just that in a dialogue-driven medium such as theatre, voice is destiny. Once it was customary to refer to playwrights as the “gods of theatre” (and a lot of us are irritated about being demoted to “necessary evil” in some quarters), but the truth is we’ve always pretty much been stenographers to the unconscious.

Which is to say, at least for me, I don’t have the slightest idea where the voices come from. I can tell, however, when they aren’t cooperating because everyone ends up sounding the same. It’s one of the most common problems I see as a producer reading scripts; not only do the characters not have distinct personalities, but they’re not speaking to each other. Reading those plays is rather like getting cornered at a party by a monomaniac. Pretty soon, you can feel your smile muscles cramp as you glance at the clock or oh-so-casually look around from someone to rescue your ass.

A play’s a play, and an essay’s an essay.

About Steve Patterson

Steve Patterson has written over 50 plays, with works staged in Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Austin, Tampa, and other U.S. cities as well as in Canada and New Zealand. His works include: Waiting on Sean Flynn, Next of Kin, Farmhouse, Malaria, Shelter, Altered States of America, The Continuing Adventures of Mr. Grandamnus, Bluer Than Midnight, Bombardment, Dead of Winter, and Delusion of Darkness. In 2006, his bittersweet Lost Wavelengths was a mainstage selection at Portland Center Stage's JAW/West festival, and, in 2008, won the Oregon Book Award (he also was an OBA finalist in 1992 and 2002). In 1997, he won the inaugural Portland Civic Theatre Guild Fellowship for his play Turquoise and Obsidian. View all posts by Steve Patterson

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