Writing The Motor Of Your Play

Crafting the way your piece moves story to meaning

The main thing I hear about the reception of my work is that, by the end of the show audiences feel overcome.

The secret is, most of my shows come with what I call a “Motor”: A force behind the story that drives action to meaning.

Finding your play’s motor is tricky and frustrating. For example, my current project is infuriating: A Holocaust Comedy that should, if I honour my original vision (which I don’t have to do), it should feature an entire set of Holocaust jokes.

I am having trouble writing Holocaust jokes.

The jokes should have been my motor by it isn’t working. I’ll work through the problem in this article to help you get a sense of how you can find your motor too and once you find it, you’ll thank me.

Motors melt story into THIS THING THAT MY AUDIENCE NEEDS.

Motors take you deeper, they make you write harder, they sweat the show.

Read through and you’ll see what I mean…

Having grown up attending a Jewish school, gaining a Holocaust education, I am not certain what the word “Auschwitz” feels like to individuals who do not descend from Holocaust survivors.

When I hear the word Auschwitz, the name of famed Nazi death camp, located in Poland, responsible for over 1 million deaths, I think of hiding. 

My grandparents were part of a generation that immigrated here and thrived in a uniform culture. They then hid beneath their communities and felt safe knowing that their freedom, despite being dependent on hiding, was secure.

That’s changing.

The children upstairs are back.

They had arrived for a week, cried, threw things, played music, yelled at Alexa and just, generally, sucked.

And then, it took a day, but I realized: They are gone. A week went by: Gone gone gone gone gone

Silence.

I sit at my cafe table, trying to write.

The silence is surprisingly distressing.

I am struggling to write this play.

I haven’t tapped into the motor.

What is a show’s motor?

The motor of your play: The force behind your play’s urgency, the rhythm that is designed to move action in a waves that crash through your audience, dizzying them and then stopping exactly at the moment of Oh Fuck.

There’s two kinds of motors: character motors and show motors.

The character motors will drive the story.

The show motor will drive the meaning of your play.

People always comment that my plays come together forcefully towards the last ten minutes of the piece, leaving them with a strong sensation of experience.

That’s because, on top of motoring my story, I also put a motor behind my play, crafting a miracle magic experience of deep meaning.

Start by writing a lot.

Put your play aside and just: write a lot of stuff.

Find what your character needs and flush out the psychological and environmental pressures that dissolve any opportunities for quitting.

The character in my show, who I call Zeidy, is at the end of his life. He has called on his grand daughter to help him write a comedy show about the Holocaust for an audience full of Nazi soldiers.

Together, Zeidy and his granddaughter, who I call Rachel, craft a variety show geared to their live audience of Nazis.

This play is meant to be a last laugh. 

Of course, I am having the hardest time writing the jokes. Zeidy’s jokes aren’t funny because his motor isn’t humour. He doesn’t want the audience to like him, he doesn’t want the audience to even understand him, he wants the audience to feel like fucking losers.

So, what prevents him from quitting?

That’s the work I have to do. Write out his thoughts, Rachel’s thoughts regarding everything under the sun, their psychological complexities, their present opportunities for love and hate, their obsessions, their illnesses, their worst and best memories, write everything.

Find their motor.

Then, write the story of the play from both their perspective and put those stories aside.

Today the children are back.

The performance of chaos continues. 

Children crying.

Mom yelling.

Alexa: Play Hokey Pokey 

I listen to the Hokey Pokey sung and danced with constant repeatition, trapped, hidden beneath these people, silently considering how the end of the world will mean that soon modern cubicle living will just be a hilarious memory that our souls laugh about while floating through absent freedom and I realize: My audience needs to see Auschwitz.

They’ve heard about it, seen it in films maybe but they don’t know the trauma, the heaviness, the stain.

If your stage truly transforms, your audience will follow.

While the children play, my environment changes and so I change, I bear witness to the life of someone else and it is so disturbing, it’s so insistently gross, I can’t stop listening, it’s a distraction, it’s a consumption, it’s an obsession and a wonder and a fucking unfathomable wreckage of tragic human habit.

I hate The Hokey Pokey. But, love it or hate it, that’s whats upstairs and it’s not 

going away.

So, here’s my self-lesson in craft: Every show should be insufferable, particularly shows about Auschwitz.

And, here, finally, is my show motor: The jokes won’t be funny.

Auschwitz was a repetitive slaughter. So too will be this holocaust comedy show.

The jokes won’t be funny. They will be horrific. And they’ll repeat. A Holocaust Hokey Pokey. That’s what it’s all about.

Why would I continue to hide the pain that I grew up with? And, where would I even hide it? In my apartment? Under these children? While they stomp and sing and have a great time?

I start writing more jokes, only jokes. Pages of them will fuel the motor. 

TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP 

Someone upstairs is doing something tappy and I feel intruded up on in a way that inspires the growth of my vision.

These children are geniuses. Their mother? I can’t say. I am consumed by their chaos in a way that blocks out my own which is the exact gift to give your audience.

Give them a motor, something powering the show that can’t be stopped.

How do you find it?  Listen for what your show needs. You’ll hear it. 

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