I have spent the past three weekends covering the Hollywood Fringe Festival for See It or Skip LA. Which involves seeing large amounts of shows, writing reviews and getting together with my other correspondents to record podcasts about what we’ve seen. After our last recording session it occurred to me that all of the shows that I have raved about, have one thing in common: they all used comedy to make a serious story more accessible.
“Night Witches” – a play about the female Russian bomber regiment in WWII who terrorized the Germans night after night despite encountering heavy losses. Was it inspiring? Definitely! Was it depressing because a majority of the main characters died? Yep! Did I leave the theater depressed? No, because amidst the dire situations of the women were interwoven comedic scenes of the Nazi soldiers. These scenes could have easily been written just as serious as the Russian scenes – which did have some elements of comedy but were for the most part dramatic – but that would have resulted in a very different play. It would have been heavy on top of heavy, leaving the audience feeling, you guessed it, heavy. Instead, this show juxtaposes dark with light and as a result is selling out as people clamber to see an historical play.
On the other hand, I saw a different historically based play that left me feeling ambivalent at best and negative at worst. It was 90 minutes of downtrodden woe-is-me-nothing-is-going-right, with no break or release of the tension. Even at the end when the character gets what he had been striving for the whole time, the victory is tinged with heartache. The one victory in the entire piece was spoiled. The piece was acted well, and quite frankly staged better than “Night Witches,” however without that light to balance the dark I had to recommend that audiences skip it for something else.
For the dark to be accessible, palatable, effective it needs to be balanced with light. Then it struck me, out of all of the critiques of my novel there was one outlying comment early on that I looked at briefly before shoving it aside and disregarding it since no one else seemed to have the problem. What was that comment?
“Be cognizant of providing breaks for your reader. Your first 50 pages are intense and nonstop. It can be overwhelming.”
In other words, at the beginning of my novel about the Civil War, an already super-upbeat topic, I inundate my reader with DARK, DARK, DARK! Hmmmm. I have spent the past three weeks espousing the virtues of how comedy strengthens drama, yet when somebody gave me a similar note, I completely ignored it.
Well. Done. Me. Despite the fact that I have rewritten the beginning of my novel more times than I can count since I received that comment, I will be going back to examine it one more time. Here’s to the light, strengthening the dark.