Monday, September 22, 2008

Killing Off A Character Is Tricky Business

In my writing, I'm not big on killing characters. Ghosts, literal and metaphorical, turn up a lot. I'm obsessed with mortality. But if a character is dies in one my plays, chances are when the curtain goes up they're already dead. Then their lingering spirit, or their palpable absence, is the thing that drives the survivors. "Leave," the current play of mine that's running, is different. There's a gravestone on stage from the beginning of the play, so again, they're already dead. We just don't know who. Instead, we spend time getting to know the five characters, and then we find out at the end who's underground.

It's a play, in part, about war. People die. People are dying. If everyone in a play that deals with war gets off without so much as a scratch, that's dishonest.

But killing characters is almost too easy. It's practically cheating. On the one hand, if a character dies, the audience is conditioned to know they should feel bad. Even if the character has led a long, full life, you're sorry to see them go. If the character dies young, that's worse. If, God forbid, it's a child or a baby, well, go ahead and grab my tear ducts and yank, why don't you? And that's why it's too easy. Bad plays go for the death scene because it's easy sentiment – you're not required to earn it. That's why it's cheating. (Brilliant plays that incorporate death, however, leave me in a puddle of my own tears and I don't feel the least bit manipulated. That's good theater. But rare.)

Plus, dying onstage is easy – on the actors, on the writer, on everybody. Living, that's hard. A problem gets a bit knotty, a character dies, well, phew, thank God, problem solved, we don't have to deal with the consequences anymore. We narrowly escaped that one. We almost had to think. We almost had to find a way to continue living with, maybe solving, that problem.

People die. Characters die. But these days, it seems like the people who go through the wars we're fighting, finding a way to live in the real world again is the hardest thing. Some of them can't do it. Those that can, it comes at a price – for themselves, for the ones who love them. They may come out on the other side of it, or at least make their peace with it. But they're never the same as they were before they saw the things they saw, and did the things they did.

Trying to wrap my head around all that while writing, and rewriting, and rewriting "Leave," has been the biggest hurdle, and the thing I was most concerned about getting right. It was the same for the people involved in the production. That's part of the reason why, when they're finished with a performance, they're all completely wrung out. There's laughter along with the tears, certainly, but it's an emotional marathon these actors are running, living the lives of the characters they've taken on.

On top of all this, the characters have to deal with the hypocrisy of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring gays from serving openly in the U.S. military. They can't be supportive of one another. They can't take comfort from one another. Half the time, they can't even see or speak to one another. One of them wants to serve their country, the other stays back home, and waits. I can't tell you the number of times that people told me, "They should just break up. Why would you stay with someone who denies you and your relationship in order to do their job?" But just like death of a character, on a certain level, breaking up is easy. Everyone involved in a relationship with a gay member of the military does not break up with them. Even if they're in the minority, some of them must stay together. How do they do it? What holds them together? What kind of a bond must that be between two people that nothing, absolutely nothing, can break it? And how do you portray that honestly without making it seem like a complete fairy tale? They must have to make compromises. They must have to give up something of themselves to make it work. How do they do it? Why do they do it?

So I don't kill characters lightly. Because living is much messier, and more interesting, and has a lot more potential for drama, and comedy.

I resisted writing the last scene of the play, even though I knew the shape of it long before I knew the shape or content of a lot of stuff in the middle of the play. It was all mapped out in my head, what they'd say, how they'd say it. But I didn't want to put my fingers to the keyboard. Because I didn't want to kill them.

But I did.

The audience cries. Because they've gotten to know the characters, all of them, and don't want bad things to happen to them. Sometimes I sit there and thing, tearing up myself, "It's cathartic, yeah. Particularly at this moment in history, to be allowed to cry. To make a connection with a person, in a uniform, even if they're just pretending under electric lights, and then to lose them." I can't help wondering though, if we all had the same response every time a real soldier, sailor, Marine, or pilot died. If we cried every time we heard that on the news – even if we didn't know their name or see their picture – if just the fact of another person no longer living, could make us cry – would we still be doing what we're doing? I think we've gotten too good and protecting ourselves, at tuning out, at walling it off.

I'm typing this, and people are shooting at each other, bombing each other, bleeding and dying. The lucky ones are just being damaged beyond repair – physically or mentally.

When does it stop being a reasonable, normal thing to go along with that?

When does it stop?

And which people have to die before it does?

As one character says in the play, "I feel this way. And I do nothing."


If you're curious about having this conversation, one that's been dogging me for twelve years now in one form or another, stop by the Bryant Lake Bowl this Thursday, September 25, 2008. We've got one more performance of "Leave" before we close up shop. Show starts at 7pm. Doors open at 6pm. Tickets are pay what you can on a scale of $12 to $15, or $10 with a Fringe button.

You can make reservations by calling 612-825-8949 or visiting or

You can find more about the production at, and you can find sample scenes and monologues of what I'm talking about over at my site,

The production lasts 90 minutes. Then you're out on the street again for the rest of your evening. Plenty of time to think. My characters probably say it all better than I do anyway.

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