We’re back with my series on feeling my way through a draft of a new play. How to break through the block? In this installment, I’m looking at laying the foundations for an exploratory scene that might not necessarily make it into the play. This is my play about a man with an amazing memory, whose strange gift turns out to be a liability in the time and place (1930s Soviet Union) in which he lives.
In the opening scene that I posted previously, we are introduced to Alexei in the middle of an exchange between his psychologist and the NKVD agent who is questioning her. He enters the space as if he is coming into Natalia’s office at the hospital, rather than into the dingy office where the interrogation is taking place.
This introduction to Alexei and Natlia puts us immediately into the thick of their relationship. It also creates the advantage of a high-stakes scenario for the doctor.
Doctor, my apologies.
NATALIA (to Kreplev)
He simply has an ability to recall whatever he saw or experienced in more detail … than any human should be able to recall.
I missed the streetcar, fancy that!
Is it not true that once he committed something to memory he could never forget it?
For mother was chopping beets for soup and it immediately took me to the time we went to the Winter Palace.
There were things I know he wished he could forget.
Not at the invitation of the Tsar—mind you. But my uncle—I believe I told you about him–he is the one who later took the job in the Post Office. Who kept a copy of Chekhov among his cookbooks, with the dog-eared page to the scene where Lopahin moos at Varya!
He laughs and sits in Kreplev’s seat opposite the doctor
I wish I could tell you more—comrade believe me, if I go into these things, then I am worth nothing to myself and my profession.
There were girls my uncle had mooed to in his lifetime.
You might as well sign my death warrant now as ask me to violate that sacred trust.
The disadvantage of this structure is that there is a lot we need to understand about Alexei and the doctor that might be easier to get across if we are introduced to them as they are introduced to each other. For the purposes of exploration I think it is useful to write that initial scene of meeting.
As we know, in the original story Alexei is referred to the psychologist by his editor, who is mystified by his capacity for total recall. If this is the scenario for the scene, we know at the outset that we don’t get very far if the meeting is merely a friendly encounter between an agreeable man and a curious doctor. So we know from the start that we must make these characters squirm. We must move past idle curiosity to intense need.
What is Alexei’s need? A man with a strong sense of privacy might find an encounter with a psychologist to be a nerve-wracking experience. So he might need to make himself more comfortable somehow. Or he might need to move the proceedings along so he can escape. But even if Alexei is so shy, we have other, external pressures to consider. This is a totalitarian state in which no one can be entirely honest with anyone else. So we immediately have barriers to communication—and they exist for the simple reason that saying too much, in this place, can be fatal. Nevertheless, we need to put enough pressure on Alexei that he might reveal more than he otherwise would care to. Back to the “yes, but” exercise:
YES, BUT, REDUX
This is a technique for pushing ahead from a static situation. We start with a simple statement:
- A reporter has been referred by his editor for a psychological evaluation because he never takes any notes, yet never seems to make mistakes.
And we ask the question:
- What could be worse than that?
His job is on the line. Someone of rank in the party has complained to the editor that the reporter never takes any notes—and the editor is suspicious of some trick.
From there, we go on:
- What could be worse than that? His very life could be on the line. Unknown to him, the psychologist is expected to prepare a report for the editor, who will eventually filter it back to the party.
- What could be worse than that? His sanity is on the line. For that expansive memory makes it impossible for Alexei to forget anything—even the traumatic memories that most ordinary people are able to suppress.
- What could worse than that? The psychologist says she can help him. But she is not to be trusted. For even though she persuades Alexei that she can help him forget—she has no idea how to do that. What she does know is that she is looking for an interesting subject for a medical paper—something that will raise her profile considerably—and Alexei might just fit the bill.
Suddenly we have a five-beat structure for a scene. Not only that, we have a scene full of secrets—because neither the doctor nor the patient is about to tell each other about their real motivations. These things will have to be revealed in time, through some other means. So I will tackle this scene and post it, along with a new exercise, in the next installment of Breaking the Block.