On at least two separate occasions, I either watched a play performed or heard a reading of a play in which certain information was withheld from the audience. In both instances, it was knowledge which would have had a bearing on the action of the play had it been revealed, but I could imagine that the author had reasons for not wanting to share the information. Ultimately, though, for me, it raised the question of whether or not the author knew the information, since the withheld material could have had a direct impact on the characters and their motives.
One of the plays dealt with the topic of sexual assault. Two characters attended a party where alcohol was served and both had a memory of being alone in a room together but couldn’t remember what happened between them. Rumors later surfaced which cast one of them in a negative light, changing this person’s status within the fictional reality. This caused me to question who it was who started the rumors; within the context of the play, there were only two people who could have started them, and both had something to gain by doing so. This question was never raised in the play.
I suspected the author may not have had a ready answer to the question about the rumors and I regret not asking about this aspect of the play in the talkback afterward. I’m not certain that I had even formulated the question at the time we were discussing it, but one which had occurred to me was whether or not the author knew what had happened between the characters. In my opinion this was something the author should be able to answer, even if the answer wasn’t shared with the audience. Unfortunately, I tend to ruminate on experiences long after they have occurred, so most of my questions came up during my trip home, when the playwright was no longer present.
There’s a vast difference between withholding known facts and not knowing the facts. As authors, we control the narrative and should be able to answer questions about the characters and their situations when asked. While it is true that characters often take on lives of their own apart from what the author intends, the author still has a unique insight into how the characters respond to given situations. Writing is often a process of discovery, even for the person doing the writing, but authors aren’t passive observers in the lives of their creations. Even though they may not fully grasp a character’s motives, they do observe the actions and consequences of the character and at least should know how the characters interact.
At one of the early rehearsals of my play, Another Mother in 2017, the person doing the wardrobe brought a number of skirts for the actor playing Leah Walker to try on. My reaction was to say without hesitation that Leah doesn’t wear skirts. One can agree or disagree with her preferences, but I knew the character well enough by that point to state my case with confidence. One of the challenges I faced while working with the director and cast during the production was that I knew more about the characters than was needed to carry out the action of the play, so I usually found myself having to let certain aspects go that weren’t relevant to performing it.
Knowing crucial details about a story, is vital, even when those details don’t come into play in the story itself. Hidden motives and actions influence how the character navigates the plot and interactions. In the case of the play that dealt with the possible sexual assault, the person I suspected had started the rumors gained a measure of control over another character and ended up isolating the person. Given what I had already gleaned from watching the characters, I made an educated guess at who the rumor monger was, probably reading more into the play than what the author intended. At the same time, the motivation behind the character’s actions still seemed too glaring to be unintended. I suspect the author may also have been leaning in that direction, possibly unconsciously. I have not seen a revision of the play, but wouldn’t be surprised if the author eventually reached the same conclusion regarding this character.
There’s no reason for any author to be in the dark about a character’s actions and usually, getting to know characters better yields a wealth of insight into how and why they behave as they do. In early drafts of Rebecca, Too, Alyssa, believing herself to be Rebecca, whispered something to Rebecca’s friend Claire to convince Claire Alyssa really was Rebecca. For the longest time, I could never figure out what Rebecca would have said in that context. It wasn’t until I fleshed out Claire as a character in Fables of the New South that I finally realized what Alyssa whispers. It turned out to be less about what Rebecca would have needed to say and more about Claire would have needed to hear. For me, the process of discovery uncovered how much Rebecca’s (and by extension Alyssa’s) actions were influenced by another person. Sometimes, insight comes from changing focus and reimagining how a character or situation has been drawn.