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On Setting
Illustration of playwright Charles Fuller by Allen Todd Yeager
Playwright Charles Fuller. Illustration by Allen Todd Yeager for The Dramatist.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of The Dramatist.

What is setting? It’s defined as; “the space or type of surroundings where something is positioned or where an event takes place” or “the time and place a play, novel or film is represented as happening.” OK, but there is something starchy, hard, and fast about the definition that I don’t like. It feels like the description of a deserted stage, where stagehands voices echo above running lights and empty seats. Something I might play with to create the ‘setting’ but hardly any more than a starting place.

     I was once told in high school; “if you want to be a great writer, read great literature.” It was a lesson I followed long before I felt confident enough to call myself a playwright which, incidentally, took several years after my first play opened in New York. During that time there were two plays that influenced my work with regard to setting. I was writing plays where the word ‘Scene’ could be followed by pages of description: the date, the time, the colors of the stage, each piece of furniture, the doors, doorknobs, windows, shades, music—I’m sure you get my meaning. Frankly, I had read too many plays and swallowed all of the descriptions I’d seen. Nervous about accuracy, I would describe everything in detail. Fortunately, my mentor was Douglas Turner Ward then Artistic Director of the Negro Ensemble Company. Doug took me aside and said, “Charles, you’re writing too much, and our budgets aren’t big enough to accommodate all the things you ask for in your scene descriptions. Take a look at what’s on the stages around town.” The theater company had just opened a play of mine titled Zooman And The Sign with a setting that included sidewalk, front stoops, front door, living room, dining area and a free space on stage where a railing suggested a fire-escape or balcony. All described in detail! The play was received well, but Doug was right. I had to find a way to reduce what I saw in my head, so that the ‘setting’ would be less costly—a major consideration in those days, and still accomplish what I wanted as a playwright. I learned from two plays of the period not only how to reduce what I needed to create the visual part of the ‘setting’, i.e. the set, but the other elements I needed to complete what I would call the ‘setting’ from that time forward.

     I saw Samm-Art Williams’ play, Home. On four, largely bare platforms and a series of presets, i.e. prison guard’s cap, shirts, army cap, sweaters and pieces of ‘this and that’ Samm-Art Williams had fashioned the entire world of Cephus Miles, from Cross Roads, North Carolina, a prison in Raleigh, to a ‘large American city’ and back. I had seen plays of comparable starkness, yet despite the simplicity of the set, the elements arrayed on and around it had made Home a larger world than I had ever created and without the fuss. In the author’s notes Mr. Williams tells us, “It is of the utmost importance that this play be directed very simply and free of excessive choreography and movement…” In addition, he made it clear that, “This play is written with dialogue and poetry which might seem to lend itself to music. Any music or rhythms used should not be provided with instruments, but instead by the actors only.” The ‘setting’ or places in this play vary and are created wherever the actors are portraying their characters, and in a ‘choral’ in the music of its poetry. I would copy the austere quality of what I saw in the set of Home or A Soldier’s Play, which I was finishing at the time.

     The next play was Marsha Norman’s ’night Mother. A play I have always felt was like a verbal arrow fired at a target in a strong wind yet penetrating its bull’s-eye without flourish or a single wasted word. Jessie and Thelma Cates in a conversation in which one tells the other she has decided to do away with herself. The ‘setting’ as described is a living room and kitchen with a door to a rear room visible from time to time. Plain, but more than where we are, is what is said. Despite whatever the two rooms and door convey, it is the conversation of ’night Mother, sprinkled with talk of the gun in the attic, Jessie’s fits or doing Thelma’s nails, Ricky, Dawson and the panoply of insignificant things to be done before Jessie’s moment arrives, that holds us in its grasp. Its music is in the flow of dialogue about mundane things and memories, of both mother and daughter. After seeing ’night Mother, my own dialogue became less wordy and increasingly sharper. Now, in both these plays, I asked, what constituted their ‘setting?’ But before answering that question I decided I’d look at several other plays I enjoyed and perhaps cull from their content something close to a satisfactory definition, if there is one.

     M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang, was high on my list. The story of Rene Gallimard and Song Liing, the extraordinary confusion of sexual identity, espionage across continents and the music of Puccini and Peking Opera was not only incredible but Mr. Hwang’s telling offered us a way to understand something about ‘The West’s’ misconceptions about ‘The East.’ As he says in his notes: “I also inferred that to the extent the Chinese spy encouraged these misconceptions [about his gender], he must have played to and exploited this image of the Oriental woman as demure and submissive.” He goes on to say, “I use the term Oriental specifically to denote an exotic or imperialistic view of the East.” When I saw the play the ‘setting’ was as much the characters, their dialogue, and the suspense of the ending it drew toward, as all of the costumes and music.

     Two Trains Running by August Wilson, and Ruined by Lynn Nottage, were next. John Guare mentions both of them in his piece on ‘Setting’ in [the Master Class issue of The Dramatist] 2009. I admired them both because they are staged in clearly defined sets, into and out of which a complete and larger world emerges. We understand everything outside from the voices and action of the characters inside these two bars. It’s the stories they convey that drive our imaginations about the world in which they live. In Two Trains Running it’s Pittsburgh and in Ruined a small mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But what does ‘setting’ mean in the context of these two plays? I used them both as I wrote a new play One Night… commissioned by Cherry Lane Theatre in which the staging takes place in a motel room between two damaged and homeless Iraq Vets. Would a defined set like theirs be all I needed to describe a war and the damage it meted out to our soldiers? I said, ‘Yes’, with the addition of sound, and images. Hmm! Is that what ‘setting’ is?

     Still not satisfied, I looked at three more plays. How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel, Anna In the Tropics by Nilo Cruz, and Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire. Each one seemed more about its words than its whereabouts, even though the place in every play was as clear to me as if I could touch the car, in How I learned to Drive, see the cigar rolling factory in Anna In The Tropics, and the home in Rabbit Hole. Yet while the writing in each play distinguished itself, not one of them could have been performed on a completely empty stage or create the effect it did without its ‘setting’.

     So, what finally was this thing called ‘setting?’ Had I found an answer in the plays above? Perhaps. John Guare tells us in his essay that there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ setting in a play and I agree. But ‘setting’ seems to exist in two forms. It is part of the initial idea of the play the writer decides they will write but emerges only as the play forms and is finally completed. It seems to consist of the scene described—sound, light, color, images, the writer’s instructions and character descriptions—that support the intention and telling of the story we wish to present. I believe each of these vital things creates ‘setting.’ It gives substance to our words and creates the imaginary spaces that audiences believe, for however long, represent a unique reality called, ‘The Play.’


Charles FullerCHARLES FULLER, a longtime member of the Dramatists Guild, won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Soldier’s Play, which received its Broadway debut in the 2019/2020 season.

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