New Industry Standards – 3 Hole Press & The Art of the Published Play
In my early playwriting days, back when the majority of play submission opportunities had to be printed and mailed, it used to be very common to come across a submission guideline such as this one: “All submitted plays must be formatted according to accepted industry standards.” Or, “Please submit play(s) in Standard American Play Format.”
Which is also to say, if your play doesn’t look like what we think a play should look like, you will be rejected on the basis of what your play looks like.
It’s hard to say to what extent this influenced and affected me as a writer, and as a formatter of writing. Up until I went to grad school, my plays looked something like this:
Occasionally you’ll even find one of mine from that period written in courier font, i.e., fake typewriter, still the only accepted font for screen plays and television, and often found in plays that are written using a software program like Final Draft. Why I felt I needed to emulate a software despite the fact that I was writing in Word (at the time) is beyond me. I suppose I was just “following the rules.” Those rules can be found here. You’re welcome.
Then I began to encounter a slew of new plays by younger writers, and I began to pay attention to how a person formats their work and ultimately what that communicates about a) themselves, and b) the play itself. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with having an industry standard, what does it mean to your reader, most likely tasked with reading ten plays in an hour and saying no to nine of them, if your play looks exactly the same as the one that came before it? Why not look different?
It should also be noted that sometimes – if you get too creative – the formatting (or lack thereof) might suggest that you’re someone who has never written a play before and should never write a play again. This happened to an extremely accomplished friend of mine, who wrote an entire play in the format (sorta) of a screenplay, with the intent that the text be treated as the “play,” and who got some startling swift rejection letters from otherwise open-minded and downtown-oriented theaters as a result.
By mid-grad school, my plays had started to look like this:
Also worthy of noting, I suppose, that I had started writing about hamburgers. That can happen while in grad school. But in comparison to my earlier formatting? The font is different – still easily readable, but more distinct. The spacing is a little more sophisticated. It’s still “industry standard,” but with a twist. Like a slightly elevated cocktail.
Finally, cut to post-grad school, when I started experimenting with full-blown expressionism in my formatting choices. An example:
This particular effort being a short play with very few stage directions, I opted to have them in all caps, like I was a wacky uncle or something. Again, I’m not certain what that choice communicates, other than that the stage directions are crazy-shouted, and also in what spirit those stage directions should be received (i.e., not in a serious tone). I suppose what’s most important here is that the stage directions’ deviation from the norm does communicate something. Look here, it says. I’m loud and stupid. What does this deviation tell you about the world of the play?
Eventually, I began to approach each new work with a different set of formatting ideas. I wanted the play to look a certain way, in order to reflect how I felt it “felt.” This, despite the fact that hardly anyone gets a chance to encounter the play on the page.
Enter 3 Hole Press, a newly formed Brooklyn-based drama publisher with the mission of expanding notions of what a play is and the possibilities that emerge when one presents a play as a physical object (published, on the page).
3 Hole Press has just published Alexander Borinsky’s Brief Chronicle (Books 6-8) and Aleshea Harris’s Is God Is, and you may join their book launch and celebration on Thursday, March 30th, in Fort Greene, where you can buy the books, hear portions of the plays read out loud (enabling one to follow along with the written words and do some side-by-side comparison), and drink some wine.
Both of the plays are handsomely bound (with three holes punched on the cover page, one of which seems to intentionally obscure some of the title) and are typographically ambitious, in very different ways.
Is God Is is a very excellent and rather disturbing play that twists the story of Cain and Abel into that of Racine and Anaia, two twin girls who are tasked with a mission of revenge. Early on, they get a letter from their mother, who they had thought was dead, burned up in a horrifying act of domestic violence. Upon their visit, she instructs them to find the man (their father) who set them on fire, and to kill him. At the end of the scene, she instructs, in regular typeface, “He a slippery motherfucker, so be careful.” Then, in larger typeface, “Dead, real dead. Lotsa blood is fine.”
The play looks like a play – which is to say, if you picked it from a shelf and opened to a page, you’d see character names (in bold) above dialogue, with white space in between. The stage directions are in italics, except for those that are occasionally assigned to a character (reminiscent in style of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother Sister Plays, in which the character, in character, delivers the stage directives as an aside to the audience). Harris experiments with the size of words, and their location on the page. Sometimes a word gets spaced out over three lines. Sometimes it seems to combust all over the page. The character Anaia is often assigned text that is smaller than the rest, suggesting (one assumes) a sort of “under the breath”-ness.
The overall effect is that the act of reading the play is – to the extent that this is possible – dramatized. One sees text in larger typeface and reads it louder. In one’s head, of course. It’s an interesting experience. Can you do it here?
Does this feel louder?
But, it isn’t. It’s not louder, it’s bigger. If you were just reading a poster, you’d understand that size differential in a different context, that the information is being emphasized in some way. But, because you know that you’re reading a “play,” that is, something that positions you as an audience (in your own imaginary, very comfortable version of what you assume the ideal theater for this production would be like), you try instead to listen. Your interior mental reading becomes a voice. Dependent on the skill and/or intention of the writer, those voices become duplicate, many voices, each voice a little different. This is still you thinking. You’re thinking in different voices now, not your own. If literature asks you to think in the voice of the author, perhaps a published play asks you to think in the voice of the characters.
Except, not always. In Alexander Borinsky’s challenging and intriguing play Brief Chronicle Books 6-8, the voice of the author is sometimes inextricable from the action, or intentional lack of action, on the page.
On Borinsky’s page, the play does not look like a play, or at least not in the ways that we’re used to seeing. The character names are crowded together across the page – bolded, so that we can distinguish them, but without space breaks, so that each line by a character ends and is immediately followed by the next character’s text. It creates a sensation of dialogue rushing at you, of a certain neutrality of character voice, and reminded me strangely of what it would be like if each character name was a snail, crawling across a page from right to left, leaving a trail of text behind it.
Without telling us exactly what it means or how to receive it, the last scene (Book Eight) of the play suddenly transforms into something more “conventional,” with line breaks, space, etc. It creates an entirely different reading experience, and triggers the question, what is different now? Without an obvious answer provided by the text itself, this rather simple change in appearance creates, all by itself, a sense of mystery, of unknowability, one which is very much in line with the tone and character of the play itself.
One could argue that a play is not a play until it is fully performed. That a play on the page is merely a blueprint for future production, delivering clear information to the targeted readers (designers, directors, actors) so that they may build the thing correctly. Perhaps it is, in part, due to the new industry norm that a play must get read by a whole bunch of gatekeepers before it transforms into (a beautiful butterfly of) a production, that we spend a lot of time on the caterpillar stage, trying to get the stripes right. And it’s true that, should you ever attend a production of Is God Is or Brief Chronicle Books 6-8, you might never know or care how it looked on the page, so long as the production is taking advantage of the information that the author has provided them by deciding to format it in such a way.
But – if a play can be something more than a play – an artifact, or a communication device all by itself? Let it be as challenging on the page as it might be on a stage. Thankfully, 3 Hole Press embraces and fully executes this experiment, encouraging us to engage with the work just as it appears, and giving us the mental go-ahead to fill in the rest – to become director, actor, and designer all on our own, curled up somewhere, reading a play.