Last week I wrote about an exercise from Michael Dixon to help raise the stakes in a scene. And here it is again:
1. Put two characters who share something in common in a place neither can leave. Write a scene in which the obstacles and stakes are high and clearly presented.
Working on my play about the man with the phenomenal memory, (working title: A Hero of the Revolution) I have decided that because the patient can leave the doctor’s office if he wishes, there is more mileage to be gained from another, less expected scenario. What I come up with is a scene between an interrogator and his prisoner–in this case, the psychiatrist who is treating our guy. For the sake of the exercise (if not the play), the doctor is a woman, Natalia; the patient is Alexei, and the interrogator a tough character named Kreplev. What Natalia and Kreplev share is a seething hatred for this man:
The wrong guy at the wrong time
Tsar Nicholas II, an inept and bloodthirsty ruler of a nation struggling to emerge from feudalism at the end of the 19th century.
If ever there were a nation in need of a revolution it was Russia in 1917 — but ultimately what emerged was a government even more oppressive and bloody than the monarchy it replaced. In the Birth of the Modern, World Society 1815-1830, Historian Paul Johnson explains why, in a nation in which the concept of individual rights did not exist, Russia’s fate could have been no different.
All of that is by way of prologue. For our purposes, we fast forward to the 1930s, when Stalin’s paranoia has kicked into high gear, and here we open our scene:
A HERO OF THE REVOLUTION, SCENE ONE
Lights rise on a drab office with sick green walls and a window overlooking a brick wall that sports an enormous banner picture of Stalin. Only a quarter of Stalin’s face is visible, an eternally staring eye. Kreplev, a government official, sits at a desk and Natalia leans against the wall opposite.
Kreplev has several files, which he taps on the tabletop. Each time he taps the files, the sound is like a rifleshot. Tap — tap — tap. Tap — and last tap, a light flashes outside the window — as if a gun has been fired, and the report of the rifle report echoing, echoing, echoing, gone. Natalia reacts to this by moving away from the window, but Kreplev does not respond to the sound. It is as if he so accustomed to the sound of gunfire that he can no longer react.
KREPLEV: Now then. I have very little time today, comrade doctor. And I imagine you too have pressing business.
KREPLEV: I do my best to keep things cordial. Please never let it be said that I have no respect for your profession.
NATALIA: Of all the things on my mind this morning, comrade, that … that is not something I have been troubled by …
KREPLEV: I will consider that a humorous rejoinder comrade doctor and not make a record of it.
NATALIA: Does it matter? Surely someone is taking notes.
KREPLEV: It is always possible. But if we have nothing to hide—then we have nothing to fear.