Steve Moulds, who leads the workshop "Beyond Banter: Dialogue as Storytelling" at the Writer's Block Festival on November 14, answers some questions about his craft:
1) When you co-wrote the serialized play The Stranger and Ludlow Quinn with Diana Grisanti for Theatre , what was your collaborative process like?
Oh, man. I feel like I could write an entire article on how Ludlow Quinn came to be—because it was a year-long endeavor, the process and the play kept shifting as we went. But I’ll give you the digest version. Because Diana and I were attempting two different creative challenges at once—writing a serialized narrative and doing so together—we decided to set some ground rules. For the odd-numbered chapters, I wrote the first draft and Diana wrote the second. For the even-numbered chapters, we’d swap places. Drafts three and beyond were open season, and since we were always in rehearsals, there was a lot of revising on the fly. We also had story conferences every month with our two directors, Amy Attaway and Gil Reyes, to keep our eyes on how each chapter fit into the big picture. The best part was the sense of collegiality in the room. We had lots of debates over the course of the year, and even some borderline arguments, but we were all completely devoted to this crazy yarn we were spinning. In retrospect, the whole venture seems pretty quixotic.
2) That play focuses on a powerful magician and a 15-year-old girl who finds an ancient book in her great-great-great-grandmother’s attic. Your play The Body centers on a young girl and her stepfather who receive a mysterious crate with a life-size doll and a cryptic instruction manual inside. What draws you to having young characters in your plays who must grapple with something mysterious?
I feel like the adult world can be very unsettling for a young person, and one of the most disturbing things that can happen is to realize that the people who take care of you are just as uncertain about the world as you are (if not more). Is there anything more lonely and terrifying than discovering your parents are real people? These plays simply take that discovery and manifest it through something magical. Also, I’m a huge Twilight Zone fan, and my favorite episodes are the ones where the magical/mysterious appears somewhere mundane or commonplace. There’s an implication that just beneath the surface of our everyday lives, there’s deep strangeness we might not be seeing, which I think is dead on.
3) Your workshop deals with crafting vibrant dialogue. Why do you feel that dialogue is so important? Do you have any tried-and-true methods for creating dialogue in your plays?
At its simplest, most basic level, theatre happens when a performer tells the audience a story. There are other important elements to the theatre experience, but language is the bedrock—if you can’t craft language that’s compelling (notice I didn’t say beautiful or poetic), then an audience won’t listen. As far as my own methods for crafting dialogue, I try to make sure the characters are actually communicating something, not just talking. And once I’ve written the long-winded version, I pare it down to the fewest number of words that will express it. Directness can be very powerful. Bluntness grabs an audience’s attention.
5) You have a new one-act play at Actors Theatre this month, The Wedding Guest. What is at the heart of this play?
The idea for The Wedding Guest started with an anecdote I’d heard about the family of a mega-celebrity who was from Louisville. Allegedly, this famous person’s family invites him to weddings and other occasions with the full knowledge that he’ll never come—but he does send expensive gifts. Maybe they’re using him, maybe not, but there are definitely established expectations on all sides. Then it occurred to me—wouldn’t the worst outcome be for the celebrity to actually show up? When Actors Theatre commissioned me to write a play for their apprentice company, I knew I wanted to do this one. Of course, the play evolved from that initial tragicomedic setup, until it became a play about how much we project onto the rich and famous; they really do stand in for all our anxieties and insecurities. The famous person in the play actually doesn’t have any lines. Everyone else interprets what he’s doing there without him needing to say a word.