Playwriting for Dummies: When What You Really Want to Do Is Direct

The first thing you need to know about Playwriting for Dummies is that carrying it around with you, to read at coffee shops etc., will very possibly make you feel like a world-class dork.

I had actually forgotten, over the several years since their heyday and my bookstore-clerk career coincided, just how seriously the ‘Dummies’ series takes its core mandate. If you’ve never picked one up, you do want to be aware going in that these are the kind of how-to guides that include a How to Read This Guide section right up front, in which the function of graphics labeled ‘Tip’ and ‘Remember’ are solemnly explained.

It’s problematic, all the way around. I had initially signed on for this review figuring I would make the ideal test subject; I’ve achieved some modest success as a non-fiction writer, but — as various unfinished drafts will testify — have always rather fancied myself as the next Molière, or something. Despite which I have also always been a bit sceptical of ‘how to write’ handbooks… but clearly, I had not much to lose.

Except maybe my patience.

Look, I honestly don’t mean to sound snobbish here; I have a full and free appreciation of what the Dummies books are trying to do in theory. However, in practice, it means that this book isn’t really written for me, or for anyone who is interested in creative satisfaction, as opposed to the shortest route to production. It’s just one entry in a series primarily designed to simplify computing and mathematics concepts, and its approach does not change when faced with less quantifiable ideas.

Which is not to say the author — pro playwright and professor Angelo Parra — isn’t dedicated to his task, idiosyncratically formatted as it may be. He does, after all, teach this subject as well as live it. The series publicity makes much of all the ‘fun’ you’ll have, but unless you’re not yet tired of writing vs. typing gags, you may feel a trifle let down on this score by Parra’s academic avuncularity.

Still, that also means he comes across as competent, clear and very thorough, even insightful in spots. Throughout the chapters dealing with the process of having a play published, read and produced, this is a fine example of what made the series so popular in the first place: all the facts, as presented by a bonafide expert, in a place that never judges you for not knowing the jargon (so long as you don’t take it to the actual first reading).

The thing is, immediately you deviate from left- to right-brained tasks — i.e., to the actual writing — all this competent thoroughness creates an insurmountable Catch-22 between subject and format: the need to treat creativity as if it were not just a challenging exercise, but fully as foreign a notion to the average ‘dummy’ as computer programming or wine tasting… and thus fully as amenable to obsessive definition, demonstration and categorization. “The easy way to write a play!” trumpets the back cover cheerily.

Uh-huh. Call me wildly impractical, but something tells me that the difference between myself and a published playwright is not, fundamentally, that I paid attention to the ‘Tips’ and/or ‘Remember!’ boxes.

Which is not to say that artistic creation isn’t, at least partly, a mechanical exercise. As anyone who’s ever watched an American Idol audition episode can verify, there’s definitely something to be said for any attempt to train the wannabe artist, in any discipline, out of their pretensions and into everyday coherence. In the case of Playwriting for Dummies, I did feel like I got at least some of this value for reading, especially in terms of the focus on the author’s interaction with audience expectations.

On the other hand… I also feel like the only reason I got that much out of it was because I was obligated to keep plugging past the frustratingly obvious. Unlike the average C++ programmer, most of your wannabe writers will have seen some movies and read some books — maybe even a play or two. There’s a good chance they may even have been inspired by same to pick up the pen themselves.

These people may not know how to wield the mechanics of storytelling well, but that doesn’t mean that –- whether actually talented or just delusional — they’re going to sit patiently while having concepts as basic as ‘anti-hero’ or ‘denouement’ carefully explained to them. And honestly, they’re going to have a point.

For readers who did pick this book up based on prior fascination with the arts, I fear there’s another sort of disappointment in store. Playwriting for Dummies is not actually about how to become Molière II; as it turns out there isn’t really a place for him anymore, or for much else in the playwriting field, apparently.

This book is essentially about how to write — if you’re really lucky — a community theatre production in as few acts, with as few actors, on as bare a set as possible. Otherwise there’s always training films for local businesses, or maybe historical re-enactments for classrooms and whatnot. Budget constraints have hit the theatre world hard, is one of the major themes Parra develops here.

Again, practical to be sure, and it must be conceded an easier route to production and possible acclaim than, say, trying to publish the Great American Novel. Just not at all encouraging to the novice’s daydreams of artistic fulfillment, let alone self-sufficiency.

Especially so since Parra also uses the great plays and playwrights to illustrate his points throughout, and they are inevitably based on just that sort of ideal: the complex multi-act productions that defined the term ‘theatrical’: Hamlet, A Doll’s House, A Streetcar Named Desire, etc. etc. (Yes, there’s a section on musicals too. West Side Story and A Chorus Line, at your service).

This sets up a rather awkward running dichotomy in which the book keeps demonstrating these vast and inspiring possibilities of the craft, and then a sentence or two later has to shoot them down with equal vigor. This is what the geniuses do, but it isn’t viable for you, is another big running theme. Not perhaps a deal-breaker, but still. I can’t picture any eager literary daydreamer — even one as expectation-free as would be reading this far — being wholly thrilled to discover that they’ve just spent good money to learn how to write scripts on how to sell used cars.

Look, if you have a story and you’re really that unsure how to tell it… the only thing I’d seriously suggest is that, prior to purchasing a Dummies book, you spend some time in your local library, figuring out what you really want from the creative process. If the answer is ‘a Dummies guide’… just a thought, but have you ever considered taking up computer programming, instead?

RATING 4 / 10