When isn’t a play a play? When does a piece of writing become a play? And is it possible to claim to have written a play, but be wrong?
These questions came up over dinner recently. A director/colleague/mentor of mine had just read a Plays Inverse title and was admitting to some difficulty.
“The problem is,” she said, “This isn’t a play.”
“It’s poetry. If you’d told me it was poetry, I would’ve had an easier time. But instead I went in expecting a play and you lost me.”
At Plays Inverse we predominantly publish, well, plays in verse, and I’ll be the first to admit that our titles fall more on the poetry/abstract side of things than typical drama. But her argument was that because the book would be so difficult to stage, that it wasn’t really a play at all. Instead, it was poetry disguised as a play. And if she’d known that, she would have approached it with a whole different lens.
So the conversation became what does, and what does not, constitute a play. Does a piece of literature have to be staged before you can really call it a play? And is there a certain point when a hybrid-genre piece tips too far to one side and just becomes a single thing? Or, at a certain point, should it at least be branded as such for the sake of the reader?
Unfortunately, our check arrived before we could arrive at an answer. But it wasn’t the first time I’d heard the complaint. That was from a stage manager/colleague/friend/drinking buddy a few months earlier.
“I liked the language, but it’d be a bitch to call. All the transitions and cues alone would be a nightmare.”
In her words, she liked the book, but it wasn’t her favorite play. She liked reading it, but she couldn’t keep the stage manager in her from being frustrated.
And that’s where pushback towards our books occasionally comes from: People approaching our titles from a place of “what do I DO with this?” They read a scene where a heart engages in dialogue, is torn out of a chest, and is violently fed to the stage—like in Justin Limoli’s play in verse Bloodletting in Minor Scales—and get hung up on how to make it happen rather than what’s happening.
The joy of reading dramatic literature though is precisely that it is happening. Even on the page, there’s a third dimension to it. A physicality inherent in the writing. That the reader becomes an audience of one, hearing and seeing the text instead of just reading it.
And as an editor and book designer, laying out plays is a blast because you get to paint that picture for the reader. You get to set the stage not with walls or pillars, but with brackets and parentheses. Line breaks and negative space. The trick is to establish a clear vocabulary of design early on, so a reader knows “Okay, when words are italic, it means this thing, and when they’re bold, it means this other.”
Which leads to my question: If a play is vivid enough on the page, does it necessarily need a physical stage at all? To be fully actualized, maybe, but to say something? To be effective literature? Not necessarily.
And that is the rock upon which Plays Inverse has built its church: difficult plays with something to say, regardless of production records or viability, still deserve a voice. If anything, those are the plays that NEED publishing, because they’re less likely to be seen otherwise. The plays too strange or too expensive to produce widely. The plays that maybe only exist in a storefront or bar for a weekend before the playwright and players all have to go back to their “real jobs.”
Should a playwright be conscious of production viability while writing? If they want to make a living as a playwright, definitely. And there are plenty of people who find that the constrictions of production help rein their writing in.
But I’ve found plenty of other motivations for writing plays, particularly in hybrid work. In THE HOLY GHOST PEOPLE, Joshua Young needed a stage to choreograph multiple things happening on it at once. In Bloodletting in Minor Scales, Justin Limoli needed the removal of characters and stage directions to write about a particularly traumatic moment in his life. And in The Invention of Monsters, C Dylan Bassett needed scenes and players for the reader to see how ill-cast the lead actor feels.
So what makes a play? In my opinion: Invitation. More than any formatting or style or staging, an invitation for other’s bodies and voices to embody a work. An invitation to play with whatever the script has to offer. To take the writing and bring it to life, whether in a living room or a coliseum or the mind’s eye.
Genre’s a funny thing. And a divisive one. Ideally, though, it’s just a tool for talking about work—a common language to help readers and writers and producers and publishers communicate with each other. And do Plays Inverse’s books frustrate expectations sometimes? Definitely. But they’re still plays, at least in part—they need to be plays to operate. Although frankly, I’m much more interested in what a play can be than what a play necessarily is. And I think most theatre makers would agree.
And even if I am wrong, and our titles really are just poetry disguised as plays, who cares? Does it really matter? Because if the costume’s good enough, I’m still along for the show.