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  2005-01-01-Book Review: Audience and Playwright

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2005 blog


Book by Mayo Simon
Playwright & Audience:
A case of seduction
,  Jan. 1, 2005

books     plays


The Audience & The Playwright: How to Get The Most Out Of Live Theatre by Mayo Simon, Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, New York: 2003, 215 pages, $24.95 

By Donald H. Harrison

Thanks to Mayo Simon’s book, I now know that going to the theatre is a perfect first date.

Oh, I don’t mean necessarily for you and the person that you’re sitting with in the audience—although that can be an additional benefit.  I mean between you and the playwright, who is trying first to impress you and then to seduce you.

You’re both on your very best behavior the first time you meet in the theatre. The playwright is very considerate to you, from the start putting you in a privileged position.  Through various devices, the playwright tells you things about the situation unfolding before you that even the characters down below on the stage don’t know.

There is a price to pay for these confidences so cunningly whispered into your ear. You begin to feel superior, all-knowing, perhaps like an angel viewing mere mortals doing silly human things.  From your pinnacle, you begin to take sides as the conflict below unfolds.  This one is right, that one is wrong.

Then, suddenly, everything changes.  You had anticipated that the story line would go in one direction, but the playwright takes it in another way.  Suddenly you are feeling awkward, maybe even vulnerable.  What other tricks does this date with the wright stuff have up the sleeve?

Now that you are off balance, the playwright has you watching the play raptly.  You are hanging on the playwright’s every word.  You are being taken down emotional pathways you never knew existed. 

  * *
Simon, whose plays have been professionally produced but which, so far, have failed to become mega-hits, is the son of San Diegan Laura Simon, 99, who, nearly blind, began dictating stories into a tape recorder only recently. Almost immediately, she won two local journalistic writing awards, proving perhaps that the tree doesn’t stray far from the apple.

Although Mayo Simon’s book dissects numerous plays dating back to Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, his discussion of works by Arthur Miller and Neil Simon appealed to the particular interest of

“Neil Simon is an expert at using the proscenium frame to create comedy out of what you don’t see,” this other Simon observed.  “Take a simple thing like an entrance. A door opens, someone appears.  From where?  What’s out there?  You can’t see it but what you imagine often produces a laugh, especially when you anticipate one thing and something else happens.

“Example: The stage set for Barefoot in the Park is an apartment on the top floor of a New York walk-up. The humor comes from imagining people climbing five flights of stairs. Each entrance is a witty variation on exhaustion. Nobody is seen climbing. You only see people entering. You begin to anticipate what people are going to look like when they appear. Each time the buzzer rings and voices from the ground floor are heard, you laugh. They’re so innocent down there, they don’t know what they’re in for.  But you’re smart, you know.  Then, just when you anticipate one more hilarious variation on exhaustion, the playwright surprises you with someone who walks in showing no effects at all and you laugh with delight at yourselves. So smart, but not as smart as Neil Simon.”

Mayo Simon also explains how important the first few lines of a play really are: “Every word, every gesture, is designed to give you the special knowledge that puts you in your privileged place and starts you in your role…In the first scene of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Willie Loman appears carrying two heavy sample cases which he sets down with an audible expression of exhaustion.  Who sees this?  Only you. He’s at the end of his rope.  He’s also filled with crazed dreams of success. The split between his illusions and reality is becoming unbearable.  What’s he going to do?”