authorphotoI just returned from the University of Targu Mures in Transylvania where I had my play, Born in East Berlin, translated into both Romanian and Hungarian. The funny thing is that they could just as well have been doing Cymbeline and I wouldn’t have known the difference if it weren’t for the fact that every so often I’d hear the name of one of my play’s characters.

I place laughs in a play to carefully track the play’s relationship with the audience. If a laugh fails to land then there may be several reasons why. It may be the acting or the directing, but usually it’s the writing. It has little to do with the laugh itself but with those things surrounding the laugh – plot, characters, obstacles, etc. In other words, it’s not whether the joke is funny or not but whether the audience has been paying attention to the play.

When listening to a play in a foreign language it’s difficult to measure a play’s progress by whether the jokes land or not. The joke may just not be funny in a different language (the context may just be off). And then there are the unexpected laughs. These laughs happen in the oddest places. A line placed innocently enough and with no comic purpose may get a huge laugh. In short, to judge a play’s success in a language that is not your own you need to come up with a different way of listening to the work.

You can no longer track the laughs; instead, you must listen to the scene as a whole – a much healthier way of working. Depending on language and pacing a scene may go a minute or two longer or vice versa but not much more than that. What you then start to listen for is scene length. Does the length of the scene match up with how much is being revealed in the scene (I speak here in terms of character and plot).

Conclusion? There’s always room for cutting. By pulling back and seeing the whole of the scene, one soon realizes that there is a bit of overwriting going on. Laughs can trick you into believing the opposite, but listening to a play in a language that is not your own will not. This whole thing calls to mind the one piece of advice my graduate school professor, Romulus Linney, would drill into us each time we met: Cut when you can and stick to the point.

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Laughs (Or Lack Of…)
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Rogelio Martinez

Rogelio is the winner of the first ever Mid-Career Fellowship at the Lark Theater Company. Ping Pong, his play about Nixon, Mao, and the hippie that brought the two together, is part of this season’s Public Studio series at The Public.  His new play, Born in East Berlin, will be given a workshop at the Arden in April.  Some of Rogelio’s plays include Wanamaker’s Pursuit  (Arden Theater),  When Tang Met Laika  (Sloan Grant/ Denver Center/ Perry Mansfield),  All Eyes and Ears (INTAR at Theater Row),  Fizz (NEA/ TCG Grant/ Besch Solinger Productions at the Ohio Theatre, New Theater Miami),  Learning Curve (Smith and Krauss New Playwrights: Best Plays of 2005/ Besch Solinger Productions at Theater Row),  I Regret She’s Made of Sugar (winner of the 2001 Princess Grace Award),  Arrivals and Departures (Summer Play Festival),  Union City... (E.S.T, winner of the James Hammerstein Award), and Displaced  (Marin Theater Co.) In addition, Rogelio’s work has been developed and presented at the Public Theater, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Mark Taper Forum, South Coast Repertory, the Magic Theater, and Ojai Theater Company among others. Rogelio is an alumnus of New Dramatists and his plays are published by Broadway Play Publishing. He has received commissions from the Mark Taper Forum, the Atlantic Theater Company, the Arden Theater Company, Denver Center Theater, and South Coast Repertory.  In the past Rogelio has been profiled in a cover story in American Theater Magazine. In addition to writing, Rogelio teaches playwriting at Goddard College, Montclair University, and Primary Stages as well as private workshops. For several years Rogelio was a member of the Dorothy Strelsin New American Writer’s Group at Primary Stages. In television, Rogelio has written for Astroblast, a children’s television show. Rogelio was born in Cuba and arrived in this country in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift.  He lives in New York with his family.  

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