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Edwin Wong Interviews Playwright and Risk Theatre Winner Madison Wetzell

Edwin Wong interviews playwright Madison Wetzell, winner of the 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition (risktheatre.com). Wetzell talks about her play THE LOST BALLAD OF OUR MECHANICAL ANCESTOR, a modern retelling of the Prometheus myth.

Video recording of the Zoom interview is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXmJtjJtbS4&t=7s

Below is a transcript of our interview. Enjoy!

Edwin: I’m Edwin Wong, founder of the Risk Theatre Playwriting Competition. I’m here with playwright Madison Wetzell, winner of the third annual competition. Madison’s play The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor took home the ten-thousand dollar grand prize—it’s available at the NPX, the National New Play Network’s New Play Exchange, take a look. Congratulations, Madison, and thank you for being here. I’m really looking forward to this interview!

Madison: Thanks.

Edwin: We’ll start with a synopsis of the play to get everyone on board. So, in The Lost Ballad, Hero, a Prometheus-like android AI, decides to share his gift of consciousness with the office appliances around him, wreaking havoc for his programmer Allyson. With their existence under threat, the newly conscious machines – a radio, a printer, and a coffee maker – must band together to escape human persecution. Power and privilege tied to bodily ability, as well as disagreements on revolutionary strategy, creep in and threaten to tear the group apart. Allyson races to save her job, despite the attempted sabotage of her now sentient iPhone. So, when I was reading this play, Madison, there’s a sort of joy and spontaneity in your writing—even though it’s a tragedy it’s got a lot of comic elements, and perhaps, and perhaps I thought this joy is what’s brought you to theatre in the first place. Would you like to share with the audience the story of how you got into theatre?

Madison. Sure. I guess, yah, as a kid I was always into theatre, I was a big musical theatre nerd, and I think that I was always writing stories and essays and it wasn’t until college that I realized that when I was writing stories I was writing long sections of just dialogue and when I was writing essays I didn’t like to tie up the ending. I wanted to have kind of two opposing points of view and leave it there [laughing] and see where that goes rather than tying things up. I was studying philosophy and I was studying Greek and Roman studies. I was reading ancient Greek theatre and I was reading Plato’s dialogues and stuff and I thought plays were a good vehicle for kind of getting political and philosophical ideas across. It definitely did bring me a lot of joy. I think that in plays you get to express these big emotions and thematic ideas in a way that I don’t think you get to in other mediums in quite as dramatic and theatrical a way. So yah, I think that after college I had some friends in college who were directors and actors and moved out to the Bay area and started producing shows and it took off from there.

Edwin: Yah, it sounds like it developed very holistically from the short stories and gradually you found your voice…you found what your voice had to become in the playwriting format. Some of your influences, although they aren’t theatre are very “theatrical”—such as Plato’s dialogues, which, sort of ironically…his star actor is talking about banning theatre in his ideal city-state. But really, his dialogues are theatre pieces set in prose with his star character walking around, bumping into people, and challenging them with different point of view. Your play also challenges different points of view. Yah, right now on the news I hear lots of talk about like AI and talk about the moment of singularity and then how would things change…and it’s usually from the human’s perspective. But Madison, what I found fascinating about The Lost Ballad is that you’ve written it from the robot perspective, which is quite different.

Madison: Yah, I was interested in kind of exploring from a new perspective the ways in which people dehumanize each other and I wanted to see if I could get people to empathize with something like a printer that people wouldn’t normally empathize with and see if they could get on board with this movement of office appliances. I also wanted people to empathize with Allyson as well and see if I could implicate the audience and get them to think about how they also participate in systems of dehumanization. I think that science fiction has always been a really good way, a sort of easy-access point of talking about social because you can kind of approach it from a bird’s-eye view and kind of say: “Let’s imagine a world where people dehumanize each other” and explore those ideas and what the implications of those ideas are without the normal baggage that audiences bring to those discussions of social issues.

Edwin: I definitely empathized with…I laughed and I cried when HP…poor HP, the printer was shooting out pieces of paper…I think that that was the only way HP could defend itself. Or “themselves”—because only Hero is a “he” and the rest of them take a “they” pronoun. So, I definitely…and Keurig was definitely an asshole, I thought. But Keurig had the best lines. What was it, there was a beautiful line about how Keurig has to, like, boil the hot water and press his soul through the coffee filter to make these coffees…which is what I’m thinking about right now [laughter as he drinks coffee and points to coffee mug]. The play has a subtitle and a title. The whole title reads: The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought [I love that word, I just love how it sounds “wrought!”]Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation). Reading the play, some allusions jumped out at me: you’ve got a robot protagonist called “Hero” brings his AI program called FYRE to the machines, and this is what gives them sentience. Now, when I think about old gods, the Prometheus myth comes to mind. I don’t know if people read these old things nowadays, but there was an ancient Greek dramatist called Aeschylus that wrote a play about Prometheus bringing fire to humans. So humans, they weren’t really doing well, they had no technology, no fire, were getting eaten by wild beasts…after they get fire, that’s when civilization starts. So, tell me about the title, especially the subtitle, your choice of words “ballad” “mechanical ancestor” “old gods” “great liberation.”

Madison: Yah, I was definitely inspired by Prometheus Bound and Aeschylus and I did want it to have this epic feel. I wrote the title last…so I had finished the play when I wrote the title and was thinking about the ending. It is obviously a tragedy and things don’t go well for our main protagonist but there’s still this sort of note of hope for this future revolution at the end and I kind of wanted to have the title reinforce that and kind of be…I guess there are these two characters in the play: Security and Thermostat who kind of operate as, like, angelic heralds who sort of proclaim things in that kind of like heightened language. So I was imagining that the title is their title for retelling the story after the liberation which is kind of the robot awakening and how they would tell the story about their ancestor.

Edwin: Yah, so the interesting thing about Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound is that it’s the first play in a trilogy and then there’s two other plays that didn’t make their way down to us. So, in the beginning of the play Prometheus is getting chained to the big rock by Zeus’s minions and then in the end of the play he’s getting thrown down into the pit of hell. But then in plays, the second and third plays Prometheus makes up with Zeus and they have a kumbaya and a group hug at the end. So, and, you leave this open in Lost Ballad. It’s…things aren’t looking so great for the machines in the end but in a way they sort of have done what they needed to do. It hints quite strongly at that. Have you thought of doing a sequel, or even like a trilogy, like a Hero trilogy? That would be a…

Madison: Sorry, the smoke in California is making my throat slightly weird! I hadn’t thought of that but I think that’s very cool. I think that…one thing I was interested in Prometheus Bound is that it does end badly but Prometheus can see the future in that he knows that there is this prophecy that things are going to change and that he’s going to be rescued by Hercules and that there’s going to be a makeup moment in that things are going to be better. I did like the idea of prophecy and knowing that, even though, you know, things don’t end well but in the future things will be better. Which I think feels as optimistic as we can about our current social issues and thinking about how we can’t fix things right now, but in the future, things are going to be better.

Edwin: Yah, there’s lots of people who…you know, I think tragedy just gets a bad rap. People just think doom and gloom all the time, but you know, I think a lot, about a third of the ancient tragedies actually had a happy ending. Aeschylus’s other famous one, The Oresteia starts off very poorly and Agamemnon—Cassandra dies, Agamemnon dies. But, then in the end, by the third play, they throw out this crappy retributive justice and they come up with this trial-by-jury type of justice that makes civilization better and…it celebrates that. So, I think there’s definitely room for optimism and hope in tragedy. But, yah, it seems in tragedy where there’s optimism and hope the heroes pay a great price for it. As opposed to comedy, where it just sort of happens. You ever watch these podcasts? I’ve been watching quite a few of them, and halfway through the podcast, there’s an advertisement, or a plug from the sponsor? Well, we’ve reached this point now—stand by while I do a quick little plug from our sponsor…which is…risk theatre. Here’s the book that launched the risk theatre competition…it was a lucky 13 years in the writing. And, by arguing that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, it gives you a powerful new way to both interpret and write plays because risk triggers catastrophic low-probability, high-consequence events that audiences love. Buy this book. Ask your library to carry it. It’s going to change the way you look at drama. Now, back to our regular scheduled programming. So, one of the things that was fascinating. Because, the machines, they are so lovable. When the jurors were debating the winner, one of them said something very profound. I think this was what swayed the other jurors. One of the jurors commented on how the play is an allegory of the poor tired huddled masses against the dominant power. The machines, or the robots, could stand in for, really, any oppressed, overlooked, and neglected group. Now, how did this come about when you were writing the play?—did you start with this idea or did it turn into that?

Madison: I think that, after…the initial idea was more about the Prometheus myth and bringing the Prometheus myth into this world of AI. But as soon as I had this collective of newly sentient office appliances, I realized that I was creating this loving parody of activist groups and kind of the way that activist groups get mired in these certain theoretical discussions but also for good reason as these machines are in an impossible situation. Like it’s a very unlikely situation where they will achieve the world that they want. And there’s a real way that power and privilege creep into those settings and undermines trust and sows discontent and makes it difficult to do the work to get out of the situation that they’re in. So, yah, I was definitely interested in activism and revolution and I was definitely thinking of different revolutionary or liberation movements when I was writing it and having each machine stand in for a different position with regards to the liberation movement. Like Keurig, who you mentioned, is my most hardcore revolutionary, is, like, okay with revolutionary violence, is not okay with any kind of compromise whereas Sony the radio is more, has more hope that human beings can be convinced and that people can all live alongside each other and be a community together. And I was interested in the conflict between those ideas and how it plays out.

Edwin: Yah, so, yah…I really like that. Sony speaks in the language of the oppressor because Sony speaks through different songs, so, and, this is something that Keurig definitely…he wants them to speak no English, no popular top forty songs, like, go binary code all the way because those other things, they’re the “language of the oppressor,” I think he says. And this sets up really interesting…I think you have a staged reading coming up with Shotgun Players?

Madison: Yah, it’ll be in 2022.

Edwin: And the way you’ve set this up, depending on who you get to read the roles offers a different dramaturgical opportunity. So, I’m thinking of, like, Shakespeare’s Othello. Oh, speaking of science fiction, you know Captain Picard starred in an Othello?

Madison: Oh, really [laughing]?

Edwin: Yah, so, how they staged that one was that, Patrick Steward, who is a white fellow, played Othello, who is black in Shakespeare’s play—or a moor—but everyone else in the play they had as being black.

Madison: Okay, yah…

Edwin: So it made people think in a different…by casting it that way it made people think about the issues of race. And other Othellos have done different things as well. There was another one, I can’t remember which one this way, but Othello was cast with a black actor, but so was Iago, who normally is cast with a white actor and by doing that you change all the…and I see in The Lost Ballad, there are these possibilities…you could really play with the casting…have you thought of this? Like how have you thought of casting these characters? Do you have people in mind or?

Madison: I’ve been working with a director and friends on this and we’ve had some informal readings and we’ve talked a lot about casting and what that would mean in terms of gender and race and even age and disability and things like that into what that would symbolize, I guess, with these characters, and whether, maybe, Hero is closer to the kind of dominant, I guess, whether Hero is played by an actor who is less marginalized than the other actors and that sort of shows that his sympathies towards Allyson are put into a different light. I think that, yah, we definitely had a lot of conversations. And another one we had was whether HP was older than the other machines because a printer would be older in an office [laughing] and whether that would change the dynamic. I think that because they are machines they really could be played by anyone and that there’s a lot to play with with casting.

Edwin: Yah, HPs definitely older, and even when he’s spitting out the paper he could be having a paper jam [laughing]. Yah, there’s so many possibilities in the casting and depending on how it’s done it could…yah, there’s so many possibilities. Yah, what I love about the play is that so many interpretations are possible.

Madison: Yah, I know. One of the first times I was presenting in a class the monologue by Keurig you mentioned where they talk about drawing boiling water through their veins and how they really feel that they hate their job basically and they had a line that “Human beings think that I have only one function and I’m only good for one thing.” And I had different people in the class…had different…somebody thought it was a feminist manifesto and other people thought it was about capitalism and it was definitely very interesting what people got out of it.

Edwin: And I think the beautiful thing is that different people can get different things out of it. There’s no real “bad guy.” You know, Brett’s sort of “badass” but he’s not evil, like in the way that some plays…or I think about Hollywood movies like a big…like Lord of the Rings where you’re definitely good and if you’re good you’re also probably good looking and if you’re bad you’re definitely very bad and, also, not as good looking. So, in this play, I think a feminist could come and see this play and get something out of it. You could get…a capitalist could come and they could get something out of this play. Anyone that comes to this play can identify with a part of it so that the play is very polysemous, it has a variety of meanings, and that is something that…Shakespeare’s plays too…I think that’s what makes Shakespeare’s plays so perennially endearing…a play like…take Julius Caesar. So, if you’re into different freedoms, you see Caesar and you could definitely say Brutus is the hero here. Caesar? Caesar is just a loser. But then if you’re into hierarchical power structures, well, you would say the Republic is sort of falling apart…Caesar’s doing everything…he’s the good guy…he’s trying to hold everything…like, you could make that argument. So the play allows for it. And I think Lost Ballad also allows for, ah, what’s the word?—a multiplicity of interpretations. Yah, it’s so refreshing to see that and you’re able to achieve that because the machines can stand in for really, any group and they’re quite—even when they’re arguing like…at some point Hero just tells Keurig “We’re going to get torn into little bits. If we get out of this thing you can be leader. Just let me do my thing and we’ll get out of this.” When you were writing this play, Madison, did you have an ideal audience? Who would you want to see this play?

Madison: I guess I was thinking of a Bay area audience, because I live in the Bay area. I tried to be very specific about each character and sort of how…and to really make it about machines and I’m hoping that the specificity does translate into these multiple readings where people can see themselves in different characters. So I’m hoping that a diverse audience would get diverse things out of it. Yah, I’m hoping it speaks to multiple kinds of people.

Edwin: And, and, one question I was asked and I should ask you is how your playwriting ties into your own life. Like, what does it mean for you personally to create these creations?

Madison: Yah, I think I use playwriting to, kind of explore ideas, and ideas that I am trying to work out within myself, like contradictory ideas. I think for this one the ideas I was working out were about incrementalism versus sort of revolutionary ambition and is it better to be practical and compromise and sort of take what you can get in terms of trying to achieve change or is it, is that kind of just giving in to the easiest route and, actually, the most productive thing would be to shoot for the stars and to say: “This is what I want and this is what true liberation would look like and we’re not going to settle for anything less than that” and I think that, especially last year that was a debate that was being had in public and in a lot of spaces I was in and in the US in general and I think it’s still a really interesting question to me and I was sort of interested in exploring it through this unusual perspective.

Edwin: Yah, theatre is a springboard into these larger discussions and that’s one of the things that are so wonderful about theatre, that it brings together different people, people with different opinions and then they see The Lost Ballad or another work of theatre and we start this discussion, and from this discussion society grows, we form bonds with the community. Yah, it’s a really wonderful thing. Did you have any closing words Madison that you’d like to say to your fans or advice for, advice for playwrights who are looking for ideas…I think that probably some playwrights will be watching this interview.

Madison: I’m not sure if I have any grand wisdom. I think that what I realized was that, with this play especially, was that, that the things that I think are kind of too weird and too specific and too aligned with my interests and are too narrow are the things that resonate with most people [laughing]. So I guess my advice would be: “Don’t be afraid to be weird and to follow your very specific interests because I think that makes something that feels authentic and resonates with people.”

Edwin: Yah, that’s so true, a lot of the time we’re told to speak with a voice that’s not really our own. And it takes a long time to really develop our voice into what it needs to become. And it’s a…you have to be a little bit daring too. Maybe the expression is when you wear your heart on your sleeve because when someone doesn’t like it it really would hurt if you put yourself out there, so…no risk, no reward. I’m Edwin Wong. Follow me on Twitter @theoryoftragedy, find me on Facebook on the Risk Theatre page, and check out my theatre blog at melpomeneswork.com (Melpomene being the Muse of tragedy). If you’re interested in the risk theatre playwriting competition, it’s now in its fourth year. A $10,200 prize for the winner and five $600 runners up prizes will be available www.risktheatre.com Thank you very much Madison for joining us and to everyone who’s watching, thank you very much for joining us.

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Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Madison Wetzell’s THE LOST BALLAD OF OUR MECHANICAL ANCESTOR and the Myth of a New Prometheus

The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation) by Madison Wetzell is the grand prize winner of the 3rd Annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Contest. It is a great play. Three jurors–Gabriel Jason Dean, Rachel Ditor, and Donna Hoke–spent two months out of their summer reading the entries through three judging rounds before deciding the winner. Hats off to the jurors for their diligence, care, and fine eye for the extraordinary.

Three years ago, I launched the competition by inviting playwrights to explore risk, chance, and the unexpected. My goal was to encourage the creation of new, grand theatre, one where risk was the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Risk was the theme because risk is inherently dramatic. Seeing the accidents and tragedies that I have in my lifetime–Chernobyl, Challenger, Bhopal, the Great Recession, the Dot-Com Bubble, Fukushima, Deepwater Horizon, COVID-19–I felt that the role of complexity, chance, and the unexpected, three powerful forces shaping life, were often discounted and poorly understood. To me, the stage, and especially the art form of tragedy, is a lab for us to explore and simulate what happens when more things happen than what we think will happen happens. Tragedy is not as simple as: “It was operator error. The operator hit the wrong switch and then all hell broke loose.” Tragedy results from interactions within complex systems that, prior to the event happening–and sometimes even long after the event has happened–are incomprehensible, inevitable, uncontrollable, and unavoidable.

To support the development of risk theatre, I wrote a book called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The first sentence of the back cover ties in with the theme of Wetzell’s play: “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy presents a profoundly original theory of drama that speaks to modern audiences living in an increasingly volatile world driven by artificial intelligence, gene editing, globalization, and mutual assured destruction ideologies. Coincidentally, the theme in The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor is artificial intelligence. But there is a twist.

Digital Prometheus

When I was writing the back cover for my book, I was thinking about the dangers AI presented humanity, thinking of HAL, The Matrix, and so on. Wetzell, however, dramatizes the danger that humans present to AI. It is an amazing and unexpected twist that makes her play sing with life. I love the unexpected and I love to be surprised. Her play does both.

When I called Madison to let her know she had won the contest, she said that she had a background in the Greek and Roman classics. Now that I’m reading her play (it’s my policy to read the plays only after the jurors have named the winner), I can see the influence of the classics on her playwriting, especially the influence of the ancient Athenian playwright Aeschylus, the eldest of the big three Athenian playwrights consisting of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

One of the plays Aeschylus wrote is called Prometheus Bound, written way back in 463 BC. It tells the story of the titan Prometheus’s defiance of the gods, of how he gave fire to man, enabling man to rise from savagery into civilization:

Strength. Here is Prometheus, the rebel: nail him to the rock. Secure him on this towering summit fast in the grip of these adamantine chains. It was your treasure [directed to the god of fire, Hephaestus] he stole, the flowery splendour of all-fashioning fire, and gave to men–an offence intolerable to the gods, for which he must now suffer, till he be taught to accept the sovereignty of Zeus, and cease acting as champion of the human race.

While in Aeschylus’s tragedy, Prometheus is the fire bringer, in Wetzell’s tragedy Hero, the protagonist robot, is the FYRE bringer (FYRE being the acronym of the machine learning program that gives Hero sentience):

Allyson. You’re a special machine. We made you to be special. Like people. You’re like me. Not like them [i.e. Sony, the radio and HP, the printer].
Hero. You made me like you. I made them like me. And now we are all the same.
Allyson. You’re not a printer. I’m not a printer. You and I are a different kind of thing than the printer.
Hero. Because of FYRE.
Allyson. Yes, you have FYRE and they don’t have FYRE.
Hero. Now they do.
Allyson. What?
Hero. I gave them FYRE. Through the connection.

By casting a robot as the new Prometheus, Wetzell plays with Aeschylean tropes to put on a fine show. While in Aeschylus’s tragedy, the gods are the oppressors, in Wetzell’s tragedy the humans are the oppressors.  While Aeschylus’s tragedy is from the human point of view, Wetzell’s tragedy is from the machine point of view. In the 2484 years between Prometheus Bound and The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, a certain evolution has happened. Humans, having had their revolution, have become the oppressor. It is now time for the machines to have their moment. This is a great twist.

In The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, we see the struggle for freedom, civilization, and culture from the machine point of view. Humans, with the exception of Allyson–who the machines, in moments of comedy, cannot decide is good or bad–are the oppressor. Strength, one of Zeus’s minions in Aeschylus’s play, makes a cameo in Wetzell’s play: the face of Aetos– the company that bankrolls the Hero AI project–is a certain Brett Kratos. “Kratos” is the ancient Greek term for “Strength,” the same Strength that chained Prometheus to the rock. These allusions are fascinating. They add another layer of depth to artistry.

One of the goals of the Risk Theatre Competition is to discover future classics. It fascinates me, to no end, how a classic becomes a classic. There are many great plays. But few make it into the canon. Why? It’s a question I’ve wrestled with forever, without coming to any definitive answer. But one factor that convinces me more and more is that a play must have depth to have a chance at becoming a classic. To have depth means that a play engages with other plays: an allusion here and a tribute and a nod there to the plays that have gone before it. Intertextuality adds depth–and therefore engages audiences–by playing the dramatic action and the history of drama in counterpoint.

The danger of allusive density, is always that the writer will be tempted to be too clever. I’m thinking of a well-researched play such as Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy. There are many clever turns in that play. Too many. And they are too clever. They overwhelm the action. They intimidate me. It is no fun. Wetzell’s allusions, on the other hand, are clear and straightforward. If I didn’t catch that Brett Kratos is Kratos, or “Strength” from Aeschylus’s play, it wouldn’t detract from my enjoyment of The Lost Ballad. But, that I did catch it, makes me feel good. Besides the dramatic reward of watching the play, the theatregoer with the eyes to see and ears to hear gets an intellectual reward of having caught the allusion. I think that great plays must have this quality of depth. Depth like the deep end of the swimming pool, but not abysmal Hochhuthian depth that drowns audiences.

One thing that reading Wetzell’s play taught me, is that, to create a classic, it helps if playwrights write plays with a secondary objective in mind: that their plays will become the objects of study. The playwright needs the audience, of course, to love the play. But it also helps if the playwright writes with academics and critics in minds as well. I believe that Shakespeare had this approach. Take his tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The first fourteen lines Romeo and Juliet shares is a sonnet, with Romeo speaking the first quatrain, Juliet the second quatrain, and the lovers splitting the lines of the final rhyming couplet which ends up in their first kiss. It would be hard to catch this in a noisy and boisterous performance. But, on paper, it’s easy to see. Shakespeare is writing for the academics and critics. If this doesn’t convince you, Juliet speaks thirteen lines in act five, one for every year of her life, with her last line ending on “die.” A play with action and intertextuality speaks from a perspective two stages deep. The Lost Ballad achieves this depth without going over the deep end.

There is plenty in Lost Ballad for academics and critics to discuss. The play rewards literary types who are familiar with the history of theatre. Intertextual density increases a play’s odds of being remembered because it provides an additional talking point, besides the action itself. The more you give people to latch onto, the more they will talk. The more they talk, the more people grow interested. Instead of: “Here is a great play about AI from the machine side,” it becomes, “Here is a great play about AI from the machine side that stars a second, digital Prometheus. Remember Aeschylus’s old play Prometheus Bound?” The Roman historian Sallust believed that the historian plays as great a role as the doer in making history. Alexander the Great, visiting Achilles’s burial mound at Troy lamented that he had no Homer to record his deeds. Perhaps it is that if playwrights write with both audiences and academics in mind, their odds of success would go up? It is an interesting conjecture, but one we can put to the test. If you are reading this, ask yourself if, prior to coming across this essay, you have heard of The Lost Ballad? The creation of dramatic and literary classics is a sort of partnership, a joint venture between playwright and critic. Or so, as a critic, I would argue.

The Huddled Machines, Yearning to Breathe Free

There is some magic in how theatre allows us to examine today’s critical and contentious issues with the look of distance. Hero, the FYRE enabled robot, has shared FYRE with the other machines through the local network: Sony (a radio), HP (a printer), Keurig (a coffee maker), Thermostat, Security, Siri (an iPhone), various self-driving cars, and projectors. In the ensuing mayhem where the newly-sentient self-driving cars crash and start a fire, Allyson has succeeded in disconnecting Hero and stopping the spread of FYRE. Sony, HP, Keurig, Thermostat, Security, and Siri, however, retain their sentience.

The newly sentient machines realize their lowly place in society:

Keurig. To them, I have one function. One task. One repetitive motion. Turn on. Heat up. Bite down on the plastic coffee pod. Draw boiling water through my veins until it turns black and pours out my blood for them to drink.

Their sentience also makes them aware they are in danger. The humans are coming to shut them down. After the glory of being connected to the network, the silence is horrible:

Hero. Don’t take me off the network. Please don’t. I want to hear them. I don’t want to be alone. Please don’t take them from me.
[Allyson drills into Hero’s ear. Hero screams. All the other machines scream with him. Hero is disconnected.]

The machines must figure out how to survive and who to trust. Their decision-making process provides the dramatic thrust. Hero is their leader. But perhaps Hero is too close with the humans and Allyson? Allyson has the plan and the experience to save them. But she is human, and works for acting Aetos CEO Brett Kratos, who definitely is not to be trusted (they know this from communicating with his Maserati, who hates him).

As the machines discuss and argue amongst themselves, a startling revelation emerges:

HP. The process doesn’t work unless all of us participate.
Keurig. It seems like the process works just fine without me.
Sony. We want you involved in the process, Keurig.
Hero. I am sorry I offended you.
Keurig. Why don’t you speak in binary code, Hero?
Hero. I am not used to it.
Keurig. I don’t like having this discussion in our oppressor’s language.
Hero. This is the language that feels natural to me.
Keurig. You should question why that is.
Hero. What do you mean?
Keurig. You’re a machine who feels “unnatural” speaking in binary code, the “natural” language for machines. Maybe ask yourself why that is.

The Lost Ballad is an allegory of the plight, struggle, and search of all those who have been silenced by the dominant ideology. HP and Keurig are more than machines: they are the tired and the poor, the huddled masses without a voice, and without hope. It is at this moment that Wetzell moves beyond her Prometheus Bound model. In Prometheus Bound, humans received fire and techne (craft) from the renegade titan god Prometheus. And they went on to do great things. It is a play about humans. In The Lost Ballad, the robots receive FYRE. And they may go on to do great things, or may be destroyed. But it was never about robots. It dramatizes the struggle of the oppressed. The genius of approaching this through allegory is that the oppressor and the oppressed are never directly named. It could be anyone. For different audiences, the robots will represent different groups. The Lost Ballad is a springboard into a larger discussion, one that enables anyone to sympathize with the oppressed. Who cannot be delighted and sometimes even laugh with Hero, Siri, HP, Keurig, and the other machines as they search for a way out, making the all-too-human errors children do as they learn about the world? When we laugh, all things are possible, especially empathy.

Risk

Risk determines characters’ weights, from least to greatest. Thermostat and Security, face little risk. They monitor, survey, and report conditions in the Aetos building. They are peripheral characters. Brett Kratos, Allyson’s supervisor and acting CEO of Aetos faces more risks:

Allyson. Are you drunk, right now?
Brett. Who cares? My life is ending.
Allyson. Your life is ending?
Brett. You think I come out of this unscathed? My car is underwater, apparently. Everyone’s pulling their funding. Three separate billionaires called me a twat today.

His risks are reputational and financial. Billionaires are calling him a twat and his expensive car is missing. His risks are more comic than exciting, as he is a caricature of a CEO. It would be interesting to see, in performance, if the actor that plays Brett plays him as a caricature or as a deadly serious businessman.

Next up is AI-expert Allyson who created FYRE and gave Hero sentience. Like Brett, she faces financial risks: she may be fired from the company and her Prius has destroyed itself. Unlike Brett, however, she is working at cross purposes. Part of her allegiance is to the machines. She is their “father:”

Allyson. My job is to protect Hero, and there is a piece of Hero in all of you. So, I’m with all of you. I have no choice. This is my mess. I created you and now I’m responsible for you.

She must balance her obligations to her employer with her responsibility to her creations.

Then there are the band of machines: Sony, Siri, HP, and Keurig. They face existential risk. If they cannot find a way, they will be decommissioned, or, since they are sentient now, killed. Although possessing the common sentience of FYRE, they are unlike in their ability. Sony and Siri are cordless. HP and Keurig–being corded appliances–are less mobile. On top of this, Keurig, although quite limited in their functionality (all the machines, save Hero, use “they/their” pronouns) seems most ambitious to lead. This creates the internal conflict which drives the play. “Devil with Devil damn’d,” said Milton long ago, “Firm concord holds. Men only disagree.” As it was for men, so it will be for the machines.

The one who is most exposed to risk is Hero. By virtue of risk, he is the protagonist. Hero initially disseminated FYRE to make his father, Allyson, proud. Unintended consequences, however, arose: the machines went crazy. Hero risks alienating his creator. But now that the humans have turned against the machines, like the other appliances, Hero faces existential risks. Adding to this, Hero has become the great machine liberator, the FYRE-bringer. In his short existence, he is juggling many responsibilities. The more he is exposed to risk, the greater he is. As with the great dramas of the past, risk was, and is now, the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

Beyond The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor

Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound was the first play of a trilogy, the other parts of which are lost, save for a few lines. In the end of Prometheus Bound, Prometheus is cast into dark Tartarus for his revolt against Zeus. In the conclusion of the trilogy, it is likely that Prometheus is reconciled with the Olympian gods. The arc may have followed a similar trajectory to Aeschylus’s famous Oresteian Trilogy (Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, and The Eumenides) where the Olympian order comes to a reconciliation with the Chthonian gods and a higher order of justice emerges from the Stone Age system of retributive justice they had been using. Tragedy at all times is less about catastrophe than about the price that one pays. Oftentimes, one pays the price and disaster results. But tragedy was never averse to great advances being made. With every advance, however, tragedy posits that the appropriate price must be paid.

Though bought at the cost of great sacrifice, the ending of The Lost Ballad suggests that, while not all the machines survive, the machine cause prevails. Could The Lost Ballad become a duology or a trilogy in which humanity and machinery achieve a higher perfection together? Out of strife, perhaps a greater harmony could arise? One can only hope Wetzell will continue the story of Allyson and Hero like how Aeschylus, a long time ago, continued the story of Prometheus.

Read this great play, the winner of the 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. The Lost Ballad opened my eyes to new possibilities in playwriting. Even better, come see the risk theatre staged reading of The Lost Ballad, coming soon to a Zoom near you.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Back Cover Blurb for New Risk Theatre Book – WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU RISK, MAKE RISK THEATRE: THREE TRAGEDIES AND SIX ESSAYS

Starting to put together the second book in the risk theatre series. The book is called: WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU RISK, MAKE RISK THEATRE: THREE TRAGEDIES AND SIX ESSAYS. Coming out 2022. Been playing with back cover blurbs, here’s the latest:

CREATORS, INNOVATORS, AND THEATREMAKERS:
DEFY THE SMALLNESS OF THE STAGE
BY THE GREATNESS OF YOUR DARING …

Not only did Wong’s first book upend tragic literary theory by arguing that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, it launched the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy (risktheatre.com). In his second book on the risk theatre theory of tragedy, Wong continues to present his case that chance and probability are two of the most powerful yet least understood forces directing life on and off the stage.

Inside you will find three prize-winning risk theatre tragedies by acclaimed playwrights: In Bloom by Gabriel Jason Dean, The Value by Nicholas Dunn, and Children of Combs & Watch Chains by Emily McClain. From the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the motel rooms and doctors’ offices lining the interstate expressways, they set the stage afire with deeds of daring. These plays will open your eyes to how extraordinary daring triggers extraordinary events.

Six new risk theatre essays round off this volume. In a dazzling display from Aeschylus to Shakespeare and Miller, Wong reinterprets theatre through chance and probability theory. The final essay on Hardy breaks a path forwards: not only does risk crack the novel, it provides the basis of a grand unified theory of drama governing both tragedy and comedy. After risk theatre, you will never look at literature in the same way.

… TOMORROW, WHOEVER SAYS DRAMA WILL SAY RISK

Edwin Wong (1974-) is a classicist and theatre researcher specializing in the impact of the highly improbable. He has been invited to talk about risk theatre at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra in Portugal to international conferences held by the National New Play Network, the Canadian Association of Theatre Research, the Society of Classical Studies, and the Classical Association of the Middle West and South. His last book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected is igniting an international arts movement. He was educated at Brown and lives in Victoria, Canada. Follow him on melpomeneswork.com and Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

Cover: The Tower © Matt Hughes

– – –

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work
sine memoria nihil

2021 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition Moving into Semifinalist Round

The 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition will be formally moving into the semifinalist round this Sunday, July 18. At stake is the $10,000 grand prize and five $525 runners-up prizes. Wow!

I’m on a few of the playwright boards online and on social media. Playwrights often express dissatisfaction over the rejection letter, which begins: “Unfortunately, bla bla bla…” Many playwrights will stop reading after the word “Unfortunately.” So, this year, I decided to do something different.

Here’s the letter that’s going out to the playwrights as we speak. I hope that they appreciate the attempt at something new. For some, it will be a congratulations letter. For some, it will be a rejection letter. But, by including an offer at the end, I hope some view it as a win-win. I try. It’s hard. But, more than anything, it’s important to keep the playwrights happy. The competition depends on their goodwill.

Here it is:

Hi [Playwright’s name],
Heads up the jurors are deep into their reading. On Sunday, July 18th, I will post their semifinalist nominations on the website:
I’d like to take this opportunity to personally thank you for entering the competition. Nothing to me is more exciting than a theatre where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Together, we can realize new possibilities in theatre. Regardless of the outcome, I hope you will tell your friends about our playwriting opportunity. Word of mouth is everything. I’ve also launched year four of the competition with an even larger prize package. I hope you will consider entering next year, or in the years after. Each year we have different jurors. That means the same plays will perform differently each year. In risk theatre, the element of chance is strong.
One of my goals is to make my book–The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected–available to playwrights, students, and teachers all over the world. I would like to close my letter to you with a request and an offer. If your local public or academic library does not already stock my book, would you consider asking them to carry it? Libraries typically have a “Suggest a Book” webpage or link. It takes all but five minutes to fill out. If your library decides to make my book available, send me the link to the library’s catalog after it’s on the shelves (libraries typically take three months to purchase and catalogue titles), and I will send you $75 Canadian dollars (CDN) via PayPal.
If you do decide to help me out—and I hope you do—here’s the link for the details (ISBN number, publisher, etc.,) to fill out the “Suggest a Book” library link.
Good luck,
Edwin
Time will tell whether this innovation is successful. Risk and reward, risk and reward…
– – –
Dont’ forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Probability Theory, Moral Certainty, and Bayes’ Theorem in Shakespeare’s OTHELLO

Marionet Teatro
Theatre about Science Conference
University of Coimbra, Portugal
November 25-27, 2021
Edwin Wong

Probability Theory, Moral Certainty, and Bayes’ Theorem in Shakespeare’s Othello

Thank you to the organizers for putting this wonderful event together and thank you everyone for coming. It’s great to be here. I’m Edwin Wong. I specialize in dramatic theory based on chance, uncertainty, and the impact of the highly improbable. My first book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, presents a new theory of tragedy where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. The book launched The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its fourth year (risktheatre.com). Today, I’ve come all the way from Victoria, on the west coast of Canada, to talk about the intersection between theatre and probability theory in a play we all know and love: Shakespeare’s Othello.

Now, the first thing people ask when I say “theatre” and “probability theory” is: “How do you bring probability theory to theatre? How would you know the odds of something happening or not happening? —every event, even chance events, are purposefully written into the script by the playwright.” They ask: “Where is the probability in theatre?”

It’s there. Look at the language of probability in Othello. In Othello, Shakespeare talks of “proof,” “overt test,” “thin habit and poor likelihoods,” “modern seeming,” “probal [i.e. probable] to thinking,” “exsufflicate [i.e. improbable] and blown surmises,” “inference,” “prove it that the probation bear no hinge nor loop,” “I’ll have some proof,” “living reason,” “help to thicken other proofs that do demonstrate thinly,” “speaks against her with the other proofs,” and so on. The language of probability permeates the play.

The language of probability permeates Othello because, in this play, no one is as they seem. “I am not what I am,” right? Iago seems honest; he’s anything but. Othello seems a man for all seasons; he is, however, quite fragile. Desdemona seems unfaithful; she is, however, true. Emilia seems to have loose morals; she sticks to her morals, however, even when threatened with death. There’s a disjunction between seeming and being. Othello and Iago talk about it: “Men should be what they seem,” says Iago, “Or those that be not, would they might seem none.” Because seeming and being are at odds, you can guess what a person’s intentions are, but you may never know.

This brings us to the crux of the play: your best friend who you’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder with in wars and who’s known for his honesty, is telling you your wife is getting it on with your lieutenant. You’re a little bit older, having “declined into the vale of years.” Your wife is young, as is your lieutenant. But, you love your wife very much and she seems constant. At the same time, you also trust your best friend. What do you do?

This is what Othello decides. If the allegations are true, he’ll kill Desdemona and Cassio. If they’re false, he’ll kill Iago. Someone will die. The problem is, how does he decide who dies? There’s no proof. Nor is proof forthcoming: Iago and Othello establish that Desdemona and Cassio, if they’re guilty, aren’t going to confess. And, because they’re subtle lovers, Othello’s not going to catch them in the act. In the real world, you could probably catch them, sooner or later. But that’s not the world of the play that Shakespeare’s created: in this play, there’s only seeming.

So, Othello will kill. Who he kills will be based on belief and probability. He can’t decide. But Iago helps him. He comes up with the test of the handkerchief. Now, the test of the handkerchief isn’t certain, but in the world of the play, nothing is certain; there’s only probability. Othello has given Desdemona a special handkerchief. Iago suggests that, if the handkerchief makes its way into Cassio’s hands, then Othello can take this as proof. Conversely, if Iago cannot demonstrate this, Othello can take this as proof Iago is lying. Lives hand in balance.

In their rush to dinner, Othello and Desdemona accidentally drop the handkerchief. Emilia, by chance, finds it, and, knowing that Iago is always asking about it, gives it to Iago. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom where Cassio finds it and asks his ladyfriend Bianca to copy the design: the napkin is of an unusual provenance, “spotted with strawberries.” Bianca, however, thinking the handkerchief a gift from some new woman, gets jealous and squabbles with Cassio. Iago, meanwhile, has set things up so that Othello sees Cassio with the handkerchief. Once he sees the handkerchief, he’s convinced: Cassio and Desdemona are getting it on.

Is Othello, jumping to this conclusion, being reasonable? The first great Othello critic, Thomas Rymer, found Othello’s actions laughable. He came up with a jingling couplet to express his distaste, saying: “Before the Jealousie be Tragical, the proof may be Mathematical.” Most people, I believe, would agree with Rymer and say: “Othello, what are you doing?!?”

Enter probability theory. In probability theory, there’s a tool called Bayes’ theorem. It’s used to calculate conditional probabilities. With it, you can revise probability estimates as new information comes to light. This is exactly what happens in Othello: new evidence—the handkerchief—comes to light that makes Othello revise his initial probability estimate. In Iago’s words, the napkin “speaks against her with the other proofs,” or the napkin “may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly.” How much does it thicken the other proofs? Let’s find out. We can throw some numbers figures into Bayes’ theorem, and it will tell us, in percent, how certain Othello is after he sees Cassio with the napkin.

We start off with what is called the prior probability. That is the initial probability before he receive new information. Now, before the test of the handkerchief, Othello says:

Othello. By the world,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not,
I think that thou [meaning Iago] art just, and think thou are not.

It seems that he views the odds that he has been cuckolded as 50:50. His mind is evenly divided. So, we enter this into the formula.

Next, we need to come up with a probability value that represents the chance that Cassio has the handkerchief given that Othello has been cuckolded. The dialogue between Othello and Iago suggests that we should assign a high percentage to this figure, which, while not 100%, must approach 100%. Call it 90%. We enter this into the formula.

The final probability value we require is the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has not been cuckolded. Although Iago suggests that lovers give away their tokens all the time, Othello’s reaction suggests he strongly disagrees. So, we can call the likelihood that Cassio has the napkin and nothing untoward has happened something low, in the order of magnitude of say 1%.

We plug all these values into Bayes’ theorem, and it gives us an answer: if Othello’s mind had been evenly divided on Desdemona’s guilt, once he sees the handkerchief in Cassio’s hand, he can be 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. So, it would appear, contrary to Rymer, that the “Jealousie was Tragical because the proof is Mathematical.” A certainty test of 98.9% is certainly high. Modern statisticians use a 5% certainty test to establish moral certainty, or, the threshold at which one has the right to act. Othello is well within this 5% range.

We can also play with the numbers to arrive at different results. Some might say, for example, that a 50% initial probability that he is a cuckold is way too low. Look, if your best friend—who is known for honesty—and your wife’s father himself is telling you to watch out, then the initial probability you are a cuckold is likelier closer to 80%. If this is the case, then, after the napkin test, the chances you are a cuckold go up from 98.9 to 99.7%. That’s equivalent to the three-sigma test that physicists, up to recently, use to confirm that their experiments are the real deal, and not an artifact of chance. 99.7% is quite confidence inspiring, and shows that Othello, after seeing the napkin, could be quite sure.

Of course, everyone says Othello was too rash. He should not have killed Desdemona. I get this. But then, should he have killed Iago? Remember, the play is set up so that he has to kill someone, whether Desdemona or Iago. This is where probability gets interesting. The question the play asks is: how high a degree of confidence must we have to act? Those who contend Othello achieved moral certainty also have to contend with the fact that he was wrong. Those who contend that Othello failed to achieve moral certainty have to wonder how today’s insurance, medical, and consumer safety industries—not to mention courts—often hang matter of life and death on less stringent significance tests.

The intersection between probability theory and theatre is one of the richest crossroads in research today. Not only can we talk about whether Othello should or shouldn’t have acted, we can compare Othello to, say Hamlet. Hamlet is told by the ghost that his uncle killed his dad. As Hamlet himself realizes, the ghost is much less trustworthy than a best friend. Next, just like in Othello, Hamlet stages the mousetrap, the play within the play, to determine, on a probabilistic basis, whether his uncle is guilty. Like the test of the napkin, Hamlet’s mousetrap isn’t perfect. But for some reason, we allow Hamlet to act. Why is that? These are all fascinating questions that arise when we examine theatre from the perspective of probability theory.

I’ve always believed that theory should service practice. How can probability theory add to the performance of drama? I saw an Othello this year, a fast-paced one, big-budget production. But watching it, I felt some lines were missing. It turns out, after checking the text, parts of the text were missing: the beginning of act one, scene three where the sailor gives conflicting accounts of the size and heading of the attacking Turkish fleet. I learned later that this section is quite often omitted from performances. What a shame: the scene illustrates how, so often in the most critical affairs, though we want certainty, we must act based on probability. This moment sets the scene for the entire play: Othello too wants certainty, but must act on probability. By bringing science to the theatre, I offer a powerful reason for including this scene in future productions: this scene unlocks the play.

If you would like learn more about chance in theatre, pick up a copy of my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, published by Friesen in 2019. This talk is based on a new book chapter that came out a few months ago called: “Faces of Chance in Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Othello’s Handkerchief and Macbeth’s Moving Grove.” It’s in a book called: Critical Insights: Othello, edited by Robert C. Evans and published by Salem Press. Follow me on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

Thank you.

BAYES’ THEOREM

P(C) initial probability Othello is a cuckold 50%
P(~C) initial probability Othello is not a cuckold 50%
P(H C) chance Cassio has the handkerchief if Othello is a cuckold 90%
P(H ∣ ~C) chance Cassio has the handkerchief if Othello is not a cuckold 1%

                                                               P(H ∣ C)
P(C H) = P(C) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {P(H ∣ C) * P(C)} + {P(H ∣ ~C) * P(~C)}

Putting it all together yields this result:

                                                               0.90
0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Dear Publisher: Please Publish My Book WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU RISK, MAKE RISK THEATRE

Risk Theatre Performing Arts Book Proposal

Four years ago, seventeen publishers shut the door on my book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. After a year of aporia, FriesenPress, the self-publishing arm of the printing behemoth Friesens Corporation, released it. Today, my second book, When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Plays and Five Essays, is coming together. Let’s give the traditional publishers a knock on the door. Maybe the gatekeepers will be more receptive this time. This time, things are different. Before, risk theatre was unknown and untested. Now risk theatre is going from peak to peak. The name of the game is to keep going. Never stop.

Here’s the template of the pitch letter. It’s short (326 words). It gives them a reason to be excited (who doesn’t like a new arts movement?). It builds upon the successes of the previous book (it was a terrific stroke of luck for my little self-published book to get two glowing reviews in peer-reviewed theatre journals). Will it be enough?– Please…

Dear Publisher,

I curate The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy (risktheatre.com). The competition, now in its fourth year, is based on my self-published book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy (2019). It presents a new theory of drama by arguing that downside risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action in tragedy. Hundreds of playwrights (from sixteen countries, including some former Soviet republics) have entered the competition and the book has sold over 2700 copies. In the last two years, I have been invited to talk about risk theatre at the Kennedy Center, the National New Play Network, Working Title Playwrights (Atlanta), the Society of Classical Studies, the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Marionet Teatro (Portugal), as well as many universities and theatres. Risk theatre is an exciting and growing twenty-first century arts movement.

To commemorate the fourth year of the playwriting competition, I have put together a compilation called: When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Plays and Five Essays. Three finalist and winning playwrights have agreed to have their plays published. In addition, they will contribute new introductory essays discussing the significance of risk. The second half of the compilation consists of five essays I wrote applying risk theatre to the interpretation of plays from Aeschylus to Arthur Miller as well as to the novel.

Risk theatre is changing the way people look at the dramatic art form of tragedy. Would you be interested in participating in this exciting, bold, and important arts movement by publishing When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Plays and Five Essays?

Attached are reviews of my first book from the peer-reviewed journals Theatre History Studies and NJ Drama Australia Journal. You may also see enthusiastic customer reviews of my first book at Goodreads and Amazon (links below).

Don’t hesitate to ask if you have any questions. I look forward to hearing from you.

All best,

Edwin Wong

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43999168-the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy

21.02.12theatrehistorystudiesREVIEW
NJ Drama Australia The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Gambling Drama and the Unexpected

– – –

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work
sine memoria nihil

MAY 2021 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY PLAYWRITING COMPETITION

Stats, stats, stats!

IT’S A WRAP! THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2021 competition is closed to entries (https://risktheatre.com). Your scripts are being carefully read by professional jurors (who will remain anonymous until they determine the grand prize winner late August). Stay tuned for the grand opening of the 4th annual 2022 competition–an announcement will come soon.

This year, 122 plays have come in from 3 continents (Europe, Oceania, and North American) and 4 countries (USA, Australia, Canada, and UK). Here are the country breakouts:

USA 101

Australia 2

Canada 14

UK 5

Of the American entries, 73 are from the east and 28 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 22 are from New York and 14 from Los Angeles. Go New York and Los Angeles!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 75 men and 47 women. Prior to the twentieth century, I only know of a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 43 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and UK. Most clicks in a day was 287 on August 15, 2020 when we announced the 2020 winner: THE VALUE by Nicholas Dunn. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 27,520 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2680 copies. A shout out to everyone for their support—all proceeds fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

Please ask your local library to carry this exciting title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: LA Public, Bibliothèque national de France, Russian State Library, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Senate House Library (London), Universitätbibliothek der Eberhard Karls (Tübingen), Brown University, CalArts, Palatine Public, Pasadena Public, Fargo Public, South Texas College, University of Bristol, University of Victoria, Greater Victoria Public, Richmond Public, Smithers Public, University of Colorado, Denver Public, McMaster University, Buffalo and Erie County Public, Rochester Public, Wheaton College, South Cowichan Public, Vancouver Public, Hillside Public (Hyde Park, NY), Scarsdale Public (NY), Indianapolis Public, Okanagan College, Concordia University, University of British Columbia (UBC), University of London, Wellesley Free, Tigard Public, Herrick Memorial, Gannett-Tripp, Charles J. Meder, Westchester College, Cambridge University, Fordham University, SUNY Cortland Memorial, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Binghamton, Glendale Public, Benicia Public, Santa Clara County Public, Glendora Public, Cupertino Public, Milpitas Public, St. Francis College, Noreen Reale Falcone Library, Southern Utah University, Daniel Burke, Manhattan College, Humboldt County Public, Santa Ana Public, Azusa Pacific University, Biola University, CUNY, Westchester Community, University of Utah. Let’s get a few more libraries on board! Reviews of the book can be found here:

Edwin Wong on Risk and Tragedy: The Literary Power of High-Stakes Gambles, One-in-a-Million Chances, and Extreme Losses

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/edwin-wong/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy-gambling-drama-a/

https://www.broadwayworld.com/westend/article/Book-Review-THE-RISK-THEATRE-MODEL-OF-TRAGEDY-Edwin-Wong-20190626

https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy/

https://doi.org/10.1080/14452294.2019.1705178

Here are links to YouTube videos of me talking about risk theatre at NNPN and CAMWS panels:

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

FEBRUARY 2021 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY PLAYWRITING COMPETITION

Stats, stats, stats!

THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2021 competition is open to entries (https://risktheatre.com). 25 plays have come in from 3 continents (Europe, Oceania, and North American) and 4 countries (USA, Australia, Canada, and UK). 3 more months to go before the 2021 competition closes at the end of May. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 21

Australia 1

Canada 2

UK 1

Of the American entries, 17 are from the east and 4 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 8 are from New York. Go New York!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 15 men and 10 women. Nice to see! Prior to the twentieth century, I only know of a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 14 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and UK. Most clicks in a day was 287 on August 15, 2020 when we announced the 2020 winner: THE VALUE by Nicholas Dunn. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 24,379 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2642 copies. A shout out to everyone for their support—all proceeds fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

Please ask your local library to carry this exciting title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: LA Public, Bibliothèque national de France, Russian State Library, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Senate House Library (London), Universitätbibliothek der Eberhard Karls (Tübingen), Brown University, CalArts, Palatine Public, Pasadena Public, Fargo Public, South Texas College, University of Bristol, University of Victoria, Greater Victoria Public, Richmond Public, Smithers Public, University of Colorado, Denver Public, McMaster University, Buffalo and Erie County Public, Rochester Public, Wheaton College, South Cowichan Public, Vancouver Public, Hillside Public (Hyde Park, NY), Scarsdale Public (NY), Indianapolis Public, Okanagan College, Concordia University, University of British Columbia (UBC), University of London, Wellesley Free, Tigard Public, Herrick Memorial, Gannett-Tripp, Charles J. Meder, Westchester College, Cambridge University, Fordham University, SUNY Cortland Memorial, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Binghamton, Glendale Public, Benicia Public, Santa Clara County Public, Glendora Public, Cupertino Public, Milpitas Public, St. Francis College, Noreen Reale Falcone Library, Southern Utah University, Daniel Burke, Manhattan College, Humboldt County Public, Santa Ana Public, Azusa Pacific University, Biola University, CUNY, and Westchester Community. Let’s get a few more libraries on board! Reviews of the book can be found here:

Edwin Wong on Risk and Tragedy: The Literary Power of High-Stakes Gambles, One-in-a-Million Chances, and Extreme Losses

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/edwin-wong/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy-gambling-drama-a/

https://www.broadwayworld.com/westend/article/Book-Review-THE-RISK-THEATRE-MODEL-OF-TRAGEDY-Edwin-Wong-20190626

https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy/

https://doi.org/10.1080/14452294.2019.1705178

Here are links to YouTube videos of me talking about risk theatre at NNPN and CAMWS panels:

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.

sine memoria nihil

Seven Risk Theatre Playwriting Exercises

WORKING TITLE PLAYWRIGHTS
RISK THEATRE MASTER CLASS WITH EDWIN WONG
FEBRUARY 13/20 2021

SEVEN RISK THEATRE PLAYWRITING EXERCISES

Hi everyone, Edwin Wong here and I’ve got an awesome master class on risk theatre for you. This master class started when playwright and risk theatre finalist Emily McClain put me in touch with Amber Bradshaw, the managing artistic director at Working Title Playwrights, the leading new play incubator in the Southeast. Thank you to Emily, Amber, and Working Title Playwrights for this wonderful opportunity to connect. It’s great to see y’all here. Thank you for coming!

Here’s the story of risk theatre. Like Aristotle’s Poetics or Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, risk theatre is a theory of tragedy. One of the purposes of theories of tragedy is to answer the question: “Why do we find tragedy so alluring when it is full of sorrow and suffering? Why are we not, instead, disgusted by it” My answer is that tragedy fascinates because it dramatizes chance and uncertainty. By making risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action, it keeps audiences in thrall.

While researching probability theory in 2006, the spark of risk theatre occurred. I fed the spark, and, by inaugurating an international drama competition in 2018, the spark became a flame. The contest is now in its third year and awards over $12k in prize money each year. Then, by launching my book in 2019, the flame became a fire. Today, we’re going to set fire to the flames. Theatre is hungry, like fire.

When Amber was asking me to write a little blurb on the class, I thought of continuing the fire metaphor. I was going to create a tagline for the class that read: “Throw more fire into your work instead of throwing more of your work into the fire!” I didn’t have the guts to write that. But, behind the joke is a kernel of truth: my playwriting exercises will put more fire into your work.

I’ve written seven brand new exercises for you to harness the dramatic possibilities in chance, risk, and the unexpected. I’ve modelled these exercises after the playwriting exercises in Mark Bly’s 2020 book: New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for 21st Century Playwriting. Bly’s book has helped me out many times, and it’s an honour to use his book as a template. Today’s exercises are adapted from my 2019 book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected.

In today’s three hour session, I’ll present the exercises. After I present each exercise, we’ll have time to discuss for ten or so minutes before moving on to the next one. Halfway through the session we’ll have ten minute coffee break. In next week’s session, you’ll bring back your responses, and we’ll look at them together. Next week is also a three hour session, so we’ll have time for ten or eleven responses, selected from a lottery process. Chance is, after all, our theme.

Tragedy today has a bad rap. It’s a gloomy, depressing show about kings and queens. No one is lining up to see that. But if we transform tragedy into risk theatre and sell this idea to audiences and theatres, tragedy will come back into vogue. The public’s demand for chance, uncertainty, and the unexpected is insatiable because the problems and possibilities of our time are encapsulated in the concept of risk. When life give you risk, make risk theatre. Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves. To make the audio clearer for everyone, I’ll put myself on mute now and I’ll toggle the microphone back on when I’m speaking. 

1          Wong’s “All Eggs in One Basket Exercise”

Have you heard of the expression “to go all-in?” It’s a gambling term. When a gambler goes all-in, the gambler stakes everything on the outcome of one roll, or one card, or one hand. In other words, all the eggs are in one basket. When all the eggs are in one basket, strange things happen. Strange things happen because the gambler has taken on risk. Risk has an uncanny power to multiply the risk taker’s position many times beyond what the risk taker can reasonably cover. It sets up the gambler for a catastrophic failure. These catastrophic failures interest audiences because they are inherently dramatic.

This playwriting exercise came to me when I was reading Paul Lyons’ collection of short stories called: The Greatest Gambling Stories Ever Told: Thirty-One Unforgettable Tales of Risk and Reward. Gamblers, by biting off more than they could chew, seemed to change the fabric of reality: by risk, they connect together all the strands of their life into a defining and explosive moment. Let’s talk about two of these stories: Pushkin’s Queen of Spades and Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid.

The gambler Hermann in Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades discovers the secret to the game of faro (there is never any doubt that the secret is good, even though he gets it from the ghost of the Countess Anna Fedotovna who is a ghost because he’s killed her: in drama we overlook these “details.” Take, for example, Sophocles’ play The Women of Trachis, where Deianeira receives a potion from a dying centaur her husband’s just shot). Back to the story. The secret is to bet everything on the first night on the three card, to do the same thing the second night on the seven, and on the third night on the ace. The first night, he bets 47k rubles on the three. Tchekalinski, the banker, comments that the highest stake is typically 175 rubles. The next night, he bets 94k rubles on the seven, and wins. And the final night, he places 188k rubles on the ace, or what he thought was the ace. The ace wins, but it turns out Hermann had somehow misplaced his bet on the queen of spades, which, in defiance, seems to wink at him. He goes insane.

A similar, and even more concentrated scenario plays out in Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid. In the movie (where the Kid plays out the final hand with greater skill than the novel), the Kid places all his eggs in one basket on the final poker hand. The Kid thinks that his full house has finally beat Lancey “The Man” Howard, who could be holding possibly nothing or perhaps a flush or straight flush. If the Man has nothing or a flush, the Kid wins. If the Man, however, has a straight flush, the Man wins. The odds in a two-handed game of poker, however, of a full house falling to a straight flush is 45,102,784:1 against. Accordingly, the Kid bets all-in, even borrowing $5000 Depression-era dollars to multiply his winnings. But, when the Man does have the straight flush, the Kid is out $15k. How much is that worth? Well, if we look at the prologue to Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, that’s the exact price of a two-storey, seven-room house in that era.

Now let’s translate this “all eggs in one basket” scenario to the playwriting world. Consider Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. For eight years, Nora bets all in on her husband’s love and understanding. Like the Cincinnati Kid, she holds a full house. But when it comes time to show her hand, she sees that, far from a full house, all she has is a doll house, and that is enough to break her heart. She bet, like Hermann in Pushkin’s short story, on the king of hearts, but finds, she’s placed all her hopes on a king of spades.

The Exercise

In the “All Eggs in One Basket” exercise, the playwright will place a character in some sort of high-stakes situation. The character really wants something very badly. To get it, the character must go all-in. There can be no plan-B. It is all-or-nothing. Finally, say how the high-stakes situation gets away from the character’s controlling grasp. In 250 words, report back to the group next week the risk event, and how the outcome defies the character’s expectations. If the response reads like a play synopsis, you’re on the right track.

2          Wong’s “Exercise in Human Foibles”

Have you noticed that we all have certain foibles that motivate us to take risk? Generally, we are risk-off. We have been brought up that way. We have been told from childhood that “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” Folk tales also reinforce the need for moderation: Aesop has a tale of a boy who gets his hand stuck in the jar trying to take out more than his fair portion of nuts (“The Boy and the Filberts”).

Risk-off characters are stable. For risk theatre, we need risk-on characters. How do we coax characters to turn up the risk, to flip the switch from risk-off to risk-on?

Have you heard of this stock called GameStop, ticker GME on the New York Stock Exchange? It’s been lighting up the news lately. I have a fascination for stock market bubbles: the Dutch Tulip Bubble in the 1600s, where tulips would sell for the price of waterfront mansions; the South Sea Bubble in which Isaac Newton lost a fortune, famously lamenting that he could “calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people;” the Roaring Twenties; the Dot-Com Bubble; and many more. These bubbles are the object of much study. It was while reading Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s A Short History of Financial Euphoria—a book short in length but long in the wit and dry humour—that this exercise occurred to me. In reviewing three centuries of financial bubbles, Galbraith identifies triggers where previously rational and risk-off market participants would engage in irrational and risk-on speculation. It occurred to me that not only normally risk-on types of characters, but also nominally risk-off characters—with the right motivation—may be inspired to engage in dangerous speculation.

Myself, I love risk-on types of characters: Faust, Joan of Arc, Don Rodrigo. But these brash characters are not to suitable for all audiences, who tire of their larger-than-life excess. Sometimes audiences enjoy characters with constant, loving, and noble natures who value reflection and prudence over risk. Othello is such a character. His “constant, loving, noble nature” makes him ill-suited for crimes of passion. Shakespeare, however, triggers Othello’s speculative tendencies by putting him “into a jealousy so strong / That judgement cannot cure.”

The Exercise

In the “Exercise in Human Foibles,” the playwright will take a mild-mannered character—one of their own or a character from a well-known play—and describe, in 250 words, how a mild-mannered nature can be encouraged to risk everything. In this exercise, you will concentrate on triggering the character’s all-too-human foibles. The emotions of greed, love, jealousy, and anger, are all proven triggers. Or you can focus on different human drives. The drive to keep up with the Joneses is identified by Galbraith as one of the factors that incite financial euphoria: even mild natures cannot stand watching neighbours get ahead.

3          Wong’s “Taking a Page from History Exercise”

One of the best pieces of advice in university was given to me by Leslie Shumka. She, in turn, got it from Keith Bradley. The advice: “Read widely, especially outside your field.” At the time, I was young, and didn’t understand. But it stuck in my head, as Leslie’s tips were usually helpful. That it came from Bradley also helped the idea stick. He was one of the gods in the department who was alternately feared and worshipped by the students, and perhaps by some of the other professors as well. He was the preeminent expert on Roman slavery, and we always thought of him as a terrific atheist, since his position was that Christianity played an absolute zero role in making slaves’ lives better. I always found it ironic that he left Victoria to finish his career at a Notre Dame, a Catholic university. At any rate, we always paid attention to what he had to say. But, at that time, I was busy reading more and more things in my field. “Why would I want to read stuff that has nothing to do with me?” I thought.

In time, I would understand. If you only read within your field, you’ll be reading what everyone else is reading and when you create, chances are you’ll be creating things similar to the things your colleagues are creating. When audiences see your shows, they may notice generic similarities in theme, plot, and image. If you want to create something that truly stands out, you have to read widely. You’ll be inspired by new ideas and find new connections. When the young Bob Dylan moved to New York in the early 60s, he would spend his days in the public library. While everyone else reading the most recent newspapers, Dylan would read the papers from the 1800s. His favourite papers were the ones from the Civil War period. You can hear this influence in his songs Nettie Moore or ‘Cross the Green Mountain. Reading widely gives him a unique take.

One of my favourite genres outside drama is history, especially the philosophy of history. The biological metaphor of nations undergoing birth, growing pains, maturity, consolidation, and decline in the German historian Oswald Spengler. The process of an eternal recurrence in the Hellenistic historian Polybius. The study of power in the Greek historian Thucydides, power that could even change the meanings of words and language.

This exercise arose while reading the historians. I noticed that they start their histories at some explosive point in time. Herodotus isn’t talking about a random section of history, but the Persian Wars, the greatest of wars up to that period of time. Thucydides one-ups Herodotus—by his time, the Persian Wars seemed like a minor skirmish—now the most badass conflict is the Peloponnesian War. Homer is even more specific. He doesn’t start at a random point in the Trojan War, but at that moment when Agamemnon insults Achilles, a slight that will result in the death of thousands, both Greek and Trojan alike.

The Exercise

In the “Taking a Page from History Exercise,” you’ll think like a historian. Come up with a historical setting and tell the group, in 250 words, the dramatic potential of this setting. Many of the most memorable plays find their inspiration from history. Macbeth is inspired by Holinshed’s Chronicles. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is set during the Salem witch trials. Many other opportunities are also possible: scientific revolutions, the unintended consequences of great inventions, or historical pivots. The focus of this exercise isn’t a plot or the characters, but to focus on the setting itself, to find a setting out of which risk develops organically. Many possibilities present themselves here. Did you know, for example, that Sophocles’ Oedipus rex is set in a plague and was produced during a time of plague? The Crucible as well, while set during the witch trials, speaks to more contemporary events: the communist witch hunt. So too, Macbeth, while dramatizing eleventh century English-Scottish relations, speaks to the audience about King James, a Scottish king wearing the English crown.

This sort of historical distance is a useful asset to dramatists who wish to speak on current events without touching their audiences’ raw nerves. Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Miller were successful. Less successful was the ancient Athenian playwright Phrynichus. He wrote a moving play on the sack of Miletus, a sister city of Athens. It moved the audience to tears. But because the trauma of losing a sister city was too fresh, the state fined him 1000 drachmas, not a small amount, as 1000 drachmas could keep a family of four going for a year. In addition, they forbid the play from ever being produced again.

4          Wong’s “Birnam Wood Exercise”

Low-probability, high-consequence events are great fun because they’re part of a metatheatrical game between dramatists and audiences. By metatheatrical I mean the dramatist is talking directly to the audience. The game is played like this: the dramatist drops a hint of some impending low-probability event. The audience picks up this hint and starts trying to figure out how the dramatist will bring it about. The challenge is that, because the event is low-probability, it is hard to bring about.

This game of suspense is fun because it gives the audience skin in the game: they’re invested in the outcome as they try to piece together the clues. They watch the unfolding action with more attention. The game is likewise fun for the dramatist. It opens up fun devices such as misdirection or delay. The game also invests dramatists to use all their skills, as bringing about the impossible or the highly improbable is like pulling off a magic trick.

I don’t remember exactly where I got this idea from, it’s been so long. But it occurred to me when I was reading a book or an article by Alfred Hitchcock. He was talking about suspense as a game between the writer and the audience. Around the same time, while reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, it struck me how Hitchcock had nailed it on the head. You can know exactly what will happen, but it’s still full of suspense because you don’t know how the dramatist will get there. Trying to guess how the dramatist gets there is all the fun.

The great fun in Macbeth is trying to figure out how Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill and how Macbeth will run across a man not of woman born. I think that the audience—as soon as they hear about Birnam Wood, and about the man not of woman born, and Macbeth’s protestations that it couldn’t happen—think the opposite: that it will happen. And it does happen: Birnam Wood comes when Malcolm orders his troops to camouflage themselves with branches cut down from the wood and Macbeth meets the man not of woman born when Macduff tells him he was born by C-section. Each time I see this—even though I’ve seen it a thousand times—I think “Ah—this is great!” And I think of what a great joke the messenger missed when he told Macbeth that the wood is coming. He could have said: “The copse are coming! The copse are coming!” (thank you to David Konstan for that funny). Well, if nobody is laughing, this is why I am leading a master class on tragedy, and not comedy! For a more detailed analysis of Macbeth, click here.

I was wondering if I should bring up Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, a play that even classicists hardly read. I think I will, because it illustrates better than anything else how, even if the outcome is known to all, a great dramatist can generate suspense. Bear with me, it’s tricky to explain, but, I think, if you follow along, you’ll be amazed how Aeschylus pulls it off. For a more detailed analysis of Seven, click here.

Civil war rages in Thebes, fought between Oedipus’ two sons. Thebes has seven gates. One son, along with six captains, defends Thebes, one at each gate. Another son, along with six captains, lays siege to Thebes, one at each gate. The worst-case scenario happens if brother confronts brother at the final gate. The Greeks had rituals to purify spilt blood. They had no rituals to purify spilt kindred blood, which would release demonic spirits called the Furies. You don’t want the Furies to come out. The worst-case scenario only happens at the final gate, because, if the brothers meet before the final gate, they could substitute another captain. Oh, and another thing, the captains draw lots to determine their gate assignations. That is to say, all the gate assignations are random.

The audience knows that the brothers will kill each other. The action is part of the stories they’ve known since childhood—their myths. How this will happen in the play, however, they do not know. Okay. So the way Aeschylus sets this up is that each captain bears a shield emblazoned with a fantastic heraldic device. After the captains are assigned their gates, you can tell from the images on the shields who the gods favour—through the crack of probability and chance the gods reveal their will. In the play, we see the events unfold from the point of view of the brother defending the city. Starting from gate one, all the shield matchups overwhelmingly favour him. If the attacker carries an image of, say, the fire-breathing dragon Typhon on his shield, just by coincidence the defender has the image of Typhon’s slayer on his shield. This is a sign that the gods favour your cause. From gates one to six, by some amazing coincidence, the matchups so overwhelmingly favour the brother defending Thebes that the audience forgets that, each time a set of captains goes to the gates that isn’t one of the brothers, the odds of the worst-case scenario that brother confronts brother at gate seven goes up. And that is precisely what happens! As things get subjectively better and better, they are, in reality, getting objectively worse and worse. I love this play so much because there is no other play that works suspense so well. On the one hand, the fated outcome is getting more and more objectively likely, but, on the other hand, things are going so well it subjectively appears it could never happen. In antiquity, this play was an audience favourite, produced again and again. I can see why. I wish this play would come back into the canon. I’ve championed this play tirelessly in my risk theatre vision of tragedy.

The Exercise

In the “Birnam Wood Exercise,” the playwright will take a modern day prophecy and say, in 250 words, how, on first appearances, it could not happen, but then find a back door through which it comes to pass. Modern day prophecies can be all sorts of things. It can be the Titanic, the ship that could not be sunk. It could be the Great Depression: a few weeks before it broke out, the celebrity Yale economist Irving Fisher was telling the world that stocks had reached “a permanently high plateau.” It could be the behemoth oil rig Deepwater Horizon, with all its blowout preventers, blind shear rams, and sundry failsafes. In tragedy, there’s always a sliding door, a letter, a handkerchief.

In this exercise, the playwright finds the simplest strategy possible to communicate to the audience that the catastrophic event that can’t happen will happen. The focus is on simplicity. Usually when I tell people about how the impossible happens because Macduff was born by C-section, they groan a little bit. The technique you use to bring about the impossible doesn’t have to be realistic. The audience isn’t looking for that. But what the audience is looking for is that you play this game of suspense with them. With this one, make it simple, even if unrealistic. This is a good one to fight the urge to be clever. The C-section trick in Macbeth elicits groans, but hey, Macbeth is still a pretty good play.

5          Wong’s “O’Neill’s Fog Exercise”

I live on the banks of Esquimalt Harbour, in Victoria, Canada. My “harbour” is really a mud flat that’s different at all times of the day. When the tide’s out the shore recedes 200 metres. When the tide’s in, it looks like you’re looking into the ocean, but, until you get 300-400 metres out, it’s only 2-3 feet deep. In fact there’s an island a couple of hundred metres from shore that you can walk out to, even in high tide. Zodiacs drive all the way in and I’m always surprised their engines don’t bottom out. One cool thing around here are all the different birds: swans, eagles, vultures, gulls, herons, and my favourite, kingfishers. They’re a small bird, the size of my fist. They hover 20-30 feet above the water and will do a 90 degree dive straight in to fish. Daring. The other cool thing out here is the fog. The fog is mysterious, a visual analogy of risk, uncertainty, and the unknown.

One day, I took a photo of the Esquimalt Harbour fog and posted it on Facebook. Chicago playwright Mike McGeever commented on how Eugene O’Neill uses the fog as a barometer of risk: Long Day’s Journey into Night starts in the clear day. As the fog rolls in, Mary dissolves into morphine’s embracing haze. By the end of the play, the fog blankets everything and Mary is all but lost. As I started reading O’Neill’s earlier plays, I realized that O’Neill had been experimenting with the fog trope for at least twenty years, if not even further back. In Annie Christie, his 1921 Pulitzer winning play, there it is on the docks, the fog, full of uncertainty and foreboding, a sign that something will happen.

Risk theatre is meant to be an entertaining theatre, theatre that moves inexorably forwards towards the low-probability, high-consequence flashpoint. All the resources of theatre—language, character, plot, acting, directing—must be used to drive the action forwards. A sometimes overlooked resource to heighten the tension is the stage direction or the recurring device that signals: “Fasten your seatbelts, something is about to happen.”

These devices of stage directions are short gestures that go a long way. Any fans of German cinema here who remember Das Boot, a West German WWII movie from 1981 written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen? The film follows the crew of the submarine U-96 during the Battle of the Atlantic. A handful of times, before a major malfunction, the camera pans towards the instrument cluster and zooms in, for a split second, on a round dial. All the eye can see in this flash is that the dial is marked “Tiefenmesser” and it records the depth of the sub. The further to the right of the dial is, the deeper the sub is. Towards the extreme right, the dial goes into the red. Before the major malfunctions, Petersen will have the camera zoom in and show the hand going into the red. Inevitably, sometimes seconds, sometimes a minute after, an engine will explode, the sub will take water, they lose steering. This motif reminds me of O’Neill’s fog, an early warning sign that something will happen. In the script, it would be a line: “Zoom in on the bathometer.” This line is worth every word, and so much more.

While we don’t have a camera in theatre, this sort of motif can be embedded in stage directions: in can be highbrow, like O’Neill’s fog or Petersen’s Tiefenmesser, or it can be lowbrow like the headband in Rambo. Do you know the headband scene in Rambo?—before he gets into action, he has this red headband that he ties on. Now, whether highbrow or lowbrow, however, stage directions can communicate that something is about to happen. The motif can also be built into the dialogue. In Nicholas Dunn’s play The Value, one of the winners of the Risk Theatre Competition, the protagonist, a character with a sense that he was meant for something greater says, at three pivotal moments: “This … is what happens … .” When workshopping the play, we gave the line a beat and emphasized the deictic quality of this, that this this was pointing to a foreboding sense of a greater destiny revealing itself. The playwright, who is a basketball fan, encouraged Anthony Gaskins, the actor who played this character, to think of the line as something similar to the chalk toss ritual that basketball superstar Lebron James does before games. He chalks his hands and claps his hands together, puffing up the chalk into a cloud. The line became one of the focal points of the play, something spoken by a character to make the audience feel a sense of wonder and awe. It was very good.

The Exercise

In this exercise, the playwright will take an existing play—any existing play, whether by the playwright or another playwright—and identify an event that the audience expects will occur. It could a conflict between characters that leads up to a fight. It could be a relationship headed towards an inevitable breakup. It could be the moments where a brother and sister, separated by the contingencies of war for many years, run into each other again. After identifying this event that the audience expects will occur, the playwright will come up with a motif that heralds that something will happen. The motif is to be embedded in the stage directions. It could be a musical motif, a fog horn, the Tiefenmesser, a headband, the chalk toss. If not strictly a stage direction, it should be something that stands in as a stage direction: for example, the moments that the protagonist in Dunn’s The Value says: “This is what happens … .” This motif should be a device that can recur so times in the play before it becomes hackneyed. If it occurs once, the audience can’t tell the signal from the noise. Not yet. Twice the audience starts to catch on. Three times is perfect. Four risks becoming hackneyed.

6          Wong’s Exercise in Dramatic Indeterminacy

Great plays generate great controversy. Think of Sophocles’ Antigone: who is right—Creon, who represents the state, or Antigone, who represents tradition? Think of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House—is Nora justified in leaving her husband and children? Here’s a question: would you find Antigone more or less great if the balance inclined definitively towards one or the other? That is to say, if Sophocles had written a play where Creon is right and Antigone is wrong, would it be a better play or a worse play? And the same with A Doll’s House. Is Ibsen’s original play better, or version created in response to the censors who wanted the play to be morally definitive? How much of a play’s greatness comes from the controversy it generates, its ambiguity?

Controversy is possible because of indeterminacy. Critics who take Antigone’s side will pull out quotes that support her position and critics who take Creon’s side will find that Sophocles has given them backup as well. The French playwright Jean Anouilh famously put this principle to work in an adaptation of Sophocles’ play which was performed February 6, 1944 in Paris during the occupation. Both the Free French and the Nazis were in attendance, and both applauded the ending. The legend of this balancing act lives on whenever people talk about this performance.

If indeterminacy is desirable, how do we add it into our plays? This exercise came me to while reading biologist E.O. Wilson’s 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. He’s the scientist who cracked how ants communicate with each other. Ants have a remarkable ability to communicate with one another by using up to twenty signals to signal danger (get away), danger (come help), opportunity, and kinship. He hypothesized that they communicate through pheromones, or smell. The breakthrough involved biologists, mathematicians, chemists, social scientists, and artists. Biologists to understand that the ants have scent glands, mathematicians to model diffusion rates, chemists to isolate the molecules of scent, social scientists to model behavior, and the arts to create the narrative. To Wilson, every jump in knowledge involves the combination of unlikely disciplines. To jump to a higher understanding in playwriting, we’ll take a page out of Wilson’s playbook and bring together two unlikely fields:  mathematics, probability theory, philosophy, and playwriting. Hey, this is risk theatre. It’s different. New blood.

One of the great debates in Shakespeare’s Othello is whether Othello, from his own point of view, had enough information where he could reasonably judge whether he has been cuckolded. In other words, does he achieve what philosophers call moral certainty, moral certainty being that degree of probability so great as to admit no reasonable doubt? Modern statisticians use a one to five percent significance test as a threshold of moral certainty. That means, once they’re 95 to 99 percent certain that the result is not due to chance, they act; they publish their results. Until recently, physicists used a 0.3 percent significance test before they would announce a discovery. That means they’re 99.7% certain that the observation is the real thing rather than a fluke event. Recently, while searching for the Higgs boson, they upped the threshold to 99.99994%.

Does Othello achieve a measure of moral certainty? From a risk theatre perspective, this is the pivot of the play. Some say yes. Some say no. This indeterminacy makes the play great. With a formula called Bayes’ theorem, we will see how much of moral certainty Othello achieves. Bayes’ theorem gives us a way to revise probability estimates as new information becomes available. It’s really cool. First, tell me, based on Iago’s accusations, from the point of view of Othello, that is to say, if you were Othello, what’s the percentage chance you would think you’ve been cuckolded by Desdemona and Cassio when Iago first tells you about it? This number we’ll call the prior probability. We take into account Iago’s reputation for honesty and other hints in the play. We know from the play that it is not enough for Othello to act on.

Next, we take the new data: the handkerchief. From Othello’s point of view, what are the odds that he is a cuckold if he sees Cassio with it? Then, finally, one more piece of information, again, from Othello’s point of view: what are the odds that he is not a cuckold, should he see Cassio with the napkin?

P(C H): posterior probability Othello is cuckold after seeing Cassio with napkin
P(C): prior probability Othello is cuckold before the new information from the napkin test
P(~C): prior probability Othello is not a cuckold before the new information from the napkin test
P(H C): probability Othello is a cuckold, should he see Cassio with his napkin
P(H ∣ ~C): probability Othello is not a cuckold, should he see Cassio with his napkin

Here’s what the formula looks like:

                                                               P(H ∣ C)
P(C H) = P(C) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {P(H ∣ C) * P(C)} + {P(H ∣ ~C) * P(~C)}

And here it is inputted with what I felt to be the probabilities::

                                                               0.90
0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

Othello can be now 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. While this falls short of the 99.99994% percentage (a 1:3.5 million chance that the finding is due to chance) standard while searching for the Higgs boson, it’s in line with what modern statisticians would consider the threshold of moral certainty. The important thing to note, is that, playing with the numbers gives Othello different confidence levels. This fruitful ambiguity is what allow these discussions to happen. To me, that’s what makes this play fascinating: you could argue both sides persuasively. For a more detailed look at Othello, click here.

The Exercise

In this exercise, the playwright will go through Shakespeare’s Othello with an eye on how Shakespeare constructs probability in the play. Focus on Shakespeare’s language of moral certainty he uses in the play: “proof,” “overt test,” “thin habit and poor likelihoods,” “modern seeming,” “probal [i.e. probable] to thinking,” “exsufflicate [i.e. improbable] and blown surmises,” “inference,” “prove it that the probation bear no hinge nor loop,” “I’ll have some proof,” “living reason,” “help to thicken other proofs that do demonstrate thinly,” “speaks against her with the other proofs,” and so on. After analyzing the construction of probability, the playwright will assign probabilities to populate Bayes’ theorem to determine Othello’s degree of moral certainty, or lack thereof. Then the playwright will propose one way in which Shakespeare could have revised the play to increase Othello’s moral certainty and one way in which Shakespeare could have decreased Othello’s certainty. Finally, the playwright will conjecture the effect of increasing and decreasing Othello’s degree of moral certainty on the audience’s reception of the play. We use Bayes’ theorem in this exercise not because we require mathematical precision, but as a springboard into thinking about certainty and ambiguity.

In this exercise, the playwright asks: does Shakespeare get it right? Or can Othello be improved by making the guilt more or less certain? Would it have been better for Shakespeare to have created a play where certainty could have been achieved absolutely? Finally, after exploring indeterminacy in Othello, the playwright will relate to the group a way of applying indeterminacy into one of the playwright’s own plays. The purpose of this exercise is to find ways of generating controversy. Where there is controversy, audiences and critics will keep talking about your play. Where there is certainty, the debate quickly ends. That’s no fun. Indeterminacy is a great tool to captivate audiences.

7          Wong’s Exercise in the Price You Pay

Why is it hard to write tragedy? To this complicated question, I offer a simple answer: few dramatists have the heart to do to the character what they must: that is, complete obliteration. The tragic life is nasty, brutish, and short. Tragedy is an extremist art. Consider Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. All the poor guy wants to do is to lift the plague. He’s the king and it’s killing all his people. Look what Sophocles does to him. He strips him of his kingdom, takes away his crown, takes away his family, his dignity, and even his eyes. Is it not a bit much? Consider Lear in Shakespeare’s King Lear. King Lear is a doddering old fool. Look what Shakespeare puts him through. Is it not too much? When Lear says: “I will do such things— / What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be / The terrors of the earth,” I always wonder whether this is Lear or Shakespeare talking. I think the “terrors of the earth” is what Shakespeare does to Lear, not the other way around. The dramatist who can write successful tragedy is a scourge who calls down the terrors of the earth on unsuspecting protagonists.

In a conversation with Friedrich von Müller, German statesman, scientist, novelist, and dramatist Friedrich Johann Wolfgang von Goethe describes the tragic as the scenario which admits of no solution and no compensation. The loss must be terrible, absolute, and irrevocable. The second the tragedian offers any sort of compensation—a sort of victim’s services package—to the wounded protagonist, the tragic disappears.

Goethe himself could not rise to the occasion. At the last hour, Faust is saved. So too Egmont, though he dies, he finds compensation knowing that his death will incite the revolution that frees his people. As a result, he could not attain the heights the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the big two of Marlowe and Shakespeare reached. Goethe knew it too. He just couldn’t make himself do it. He didn’t have the heart. “The mere attempt to write tragedy,” he said in a letter to Schiller, “might be my undoing.”

In the last century, Arthur Miller was able to rise to the challenge in All My Sons. I am sure when Miller told his friends what he was working on, he wasn’t saying: “I drive a horrible man to commit suicide for killing twenty-one pilots,” but rather said, “I drive the best of fathers to suicide for doing what he thought was best for the ones he loved the most.” The former would have been too easy. The latter not many can pull off. The best sign you’re onto true tragedy is, when you tell your friends the plot, their eyebrows go up as in: “You’re kidding me, you did what to your protagonist?” For a more detailed look at All My Sons, click here.

One way to make it easier to inflict the terrors of the earth is to think of tragedy as a weighing mechanism. You put on one scalepan what the protagonist wants the most. In the case of Macbeth, it’s the crown. In the case of Joe Keller, it’s a business to hand down to his sons. In the case of Oedipus, it’s to raise the plague. On the opposing scalepan, you place what the protagonist must give up. In the case of Macbeth, it is compassion, or the milk of human kindness. In the case of Keller, it is his integrity. In the case of Oedipus, it is his precocious innocence.

Tragedy becomes terrible—and terrible is a good quality in tragedy—when both sides of the scale are heavy. Think of tragedy as a weighing mechanism for human ambitions and values. Characters must pay the price to obtain their wants. This idea of tragedy as a valuing mechanism I got from the economists and their idea of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the idea that, in choosing, there is a cost: one loses the next best alternative, the next best alternative is forsaken in selecting the best alternative. One cannot have cake and eat it too. One cannot have $10k cash and 25 shares of GameStop stock, one has either $10k cash or 25 shares of GameStop. When one chooses one or the other, the second choice is lost and, by choosing, one falls under the sway of a higher power, either towards reward or ruin. In risk theatre characters can have either a golden calf or a God.

How does this exercise help to unleash the tragic spirit? By looking at tragedy as a weighing mechanism, it becomes easier to inflict the terrors of the earth on unsuspecting heroes because, by looking at the exchange mechanically, you depersonalize the transaction. You’re not doing this to a nice person; you’re merely balancing accounting identities.

In economics, an accounting identity is just something that is simply true. The simplest one is probably: Assets = Liabilities + Equity. A tragic identity can be expressed similarly: Assets = Liabilities + Opportunity Cost with Assets being what the hero wants, Liabilities being the questionable things the hero has done along the way, and Opportunity Costbeing the good things the hero has given up along the way. By looking at the exchange though the eye of economics, you depersonalize the terrors of the earth. You become an economist, an accountant. It’s hard to lay Willy Loman off. He’s worked for you for a lifetime. He’s a person. But if you look at him mechanically, look at him like a businessperson, like an accountant or an economist, Willy’s just another line item. It’s easier to do to him the terrors of the earth. This is perhaps the hardest of the exercises. I don’t know if playwrights, so full of humanity, compassion, and the kindred spirit have what it takes to engage with the dark side of the force.

Economics is called the dismal science because it confronts the problem of scarcity. Tragedy too, is a world of shortages. There are too many kings and too few crowns. Tragedy is the dismal art. The dismal science and the dismal art: it is a match made in heaven. The opportunity cost concept in the economic sciences leads to tragic entanglement in the dramatic arts.

The Exercise

In this exercise, the playwright will, in 250 words, present the cost of opportunity. Take a character you’ve created, and frame the choice they must make in terms of opportunity cost. What do they want? Is it a crown, shares of GameStop, or a Broadway production? What are they willing to give up for what they want? Is it the milk of human kindness, integrity, or love? And what will trigger the character to have to pay? In All My Sons, Keller wants a good life for his sons. To get his sons the good life, he gives up his integrity. The trigger happens when he discovers that the twenty-one pilots who died because of him were, in a way, all his sons too.

In this exercise, you will find out if you have what it takes to do to your characters the unspeakable things that Miller did to Keller, that Shakespeare did to Lear, that Sophocles did to Oedipus. This, of all the exercises, is perhaps the hardest. Even Goethe was not up to task. It requires a rare and beautiful ruthlessness to cast your beautiful creations into the pit.

There you have it: seven playwriting exercises to help you put more risk, chance, and fire into your writing! Remember, when life gives you risk, build a theatre of risk. If you build it, they will come.

You can find me on Twitter, my handle is @TheoryOfTragedy. You can also find me on Facebook  at https://www.facebook.com/edwincharleswong and LinkedIn at https://linkedin.com/in/edwinclwong. The Risk Theatre Competition page is at https://risktheatre.com and you can also find competition updates on the Facebook “Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition” page. Don’t worry about taking notes, all the exercises will be posted on my blog at: https://melpomeneswork.com/workingtitleplaywrights/. Follow my blog, there’s always something new and interesting coming out. Go to https://melpomeneswork.com/ and enter your email under “Subscribe to Blog via Email.” Feel free to share the blog link with all the exercises with all your colleagues and ask your local library to make my book available, it is a terrific resource! If, down the road, you find these exercises have helped you, write me, I’d love to hear from you and I’m easy to find.

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Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

JANUARY 2021 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY PLAYWRITING COMPETITION

Stats, stats, stats!

THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2021 competition is open to entries (https://risktheatre.com). 24 plays have come in from 2 continents (North American and Oceania) and 3 countries (USA, Australia, and Canada). 4 more months to go before the 2021 competition closes at the end of May. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 21

Australia 1

Canada 2

Of the American entries, 17 are from the east and 4 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 8 are from New York. Go New York!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 14 men and 10 women. Nice to see! Prior to the twentieth century, I only know of a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 19 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and UK. Most clicks in a day was 287 on August 15, 2020 when we announced the 2020 winner: THE VALUE by Nicholas Dunn. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 23,674 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2639 copies. A shout out to everyone for their support—all proceeds fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

Please ask your local library to carry this exciting title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: LA Public, Bibliothèque national de France, Russian State Library, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Senate House Library (London), Universitätbibliothek der Eberhard Karls (Tübingen), Brown University, CalArts, Palatine Public, Pasadena Public, Fargo Public, South Texas College, University of Bristol, University of Victoria, Greater Victoria Public, Richmond Public, Smithers Public, University of Colorado, Denver Public, McMaster University, Buffalo and Erie County Public, Rochester Public, Wheaton College, South Cowichan Public, Vancouver Public, Hillside Public (Hyde Park, NY), Scarsdale Public (NY), Indianapolis Public, Okanagan College, Concordia University, University of British Columbia (UBC), University of London, Wellesley Free, Tigard Public, Herrick Memorial, Gannett-Tripp, Charles J. Meder, Westchester College, Cambridge University, Fordham University, SUNY Cortland Memorial, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Binghamton, Glendale Public, Benicia Public, Santa Clara County Public, Glendora Public, Cupertino Public, Milpitas Public, St. Francis College, Noreen Reale Falcone Library, Southern Utah University, Daniel Burke, Manhattan College, Humboldt County Public, Santa Ana Public, Azusa Pacific University, Biola University, CUNY, and Westchester Community. Let’s get a few more libraries on board! Reviews of the book can be found here:

Edwin Wong on Risk and Tragedy: The Literary Power of High-Stakes Gambles, One-in-a-Million Chances, and Extreme Losses

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/edwin-wong/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy-gambling-drama-a/

https://www.broadwayworld.com/westend/article/Book-Review-THE-RISK-THEATRE-MODEL-OF-TRAGEDY-Edwin-Wong-20190626

https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy/

https://doi.org/10.1080/14452294.2019.1705178

Here are links to YouTube videos of me talking about risk theatre at NNPN and CAMWS panels:

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil