Point A to Point B

Date posted: March 27, 2019

By Janet Munsil

A play is about distance. From before to after. Point A to Point B. This play explores two kinds of distance. The first is a specific geographical distance, from coast to coast. From Seattle to Manhattan: four thousand miles, as the crow flies.

Over this distance, a play’s protagonist can’t nap in the cabin of a plane for five hours at 37,000 feet to get to their destination. They need to move, to prove themselves, by doing things the hard way—say, crossing the country by bicycle, loaded down with gear, over the mountains, at the mercy of the elements.

4000 Miles is also the distance between two people, and the journey to connect with each other. It begins with a knock at the door in the middle of the night.  Shaggy and smelly, 21-year-old Leo turns up unannounced at his 91-year-old grandmother’s Manhattan apartment, not knowing where else to be. Leo has all but completed an epic bike trip from Seattle, but has suddenly stopped a few blocks shy of Atlantic waters—his finish line, his Point B.

The idea of play structure as an A-to-B line or map with a mountain in the middle will be familiar to anyone who has studied playwriting or dramatic literature, or film. Known as the Dramatic Arc, or Freytag’s Pyramid, it is the most common structural model for drama, ancient or modern. The play’s journey begins with Exposition, where we meet the characters and are introduced to their situation. A conflict then triggers a chain of events known as Rising Action, as complications build the tension in the story. The peak of the mountain is the Climax: a confrontation or turning point when something surprising is revealed, after which the action slides swiftly down the other side of the arc towards a satisfying Resolution.

Does a playwright have this map in mind, when they sit down to write a play? Do they plan each mile of the hero’s route over rough terrain, up and down the mountain, according to strict rules of dramatic structure? Are the mountains, rest stops, perfect sunrises and points of interest plotted out according to strict rules? Is the destination known at the outset?

Most contemporary playwrights do not use a map. They have an idea to explore, or a character, or a situation, and they begin by writing a couple of scenes. They listen for the knock on the door. Who’s there? What do these characters have to say to each other, to learn from each other? Out of their interaction, their circling each other, the story emerges. The structure begins to reveal itself.

Herzog opens the play in Vera’s apartment with a “Who’s There?” moment, as Leo drops into her world, unannounced. Vera (a character based on Herzog’s own grandmother) recognizes at once that her grandson is in some kind of crisis, that he doesn’t “seem right” – an observation Leo cheerfully denies and refuses to talk about. Vera doesn’t force the issue: she’s been around a long time. If he isn’t ready to talk, she can wait. Leo’s revelation, when it does come, isn’t earth-shattering, but quiet. Very, very quiet.

There’s no plot-machine driving the drama of 4,000 Miles towards a conventional resolution. Hardly anything that happens between Leo and Vera could be described as “dramatic.” Instead, Herzog has created finely-drawn, deceptively naturalistic portraits of individuals who are just barely coping as they struggle with loss and change. This generational odd-couple confronts the tiny domestic dramas of everyday life: the rising action of the laundry pile, the complication of a co-dependent neighbour, the twist of the broken faucet. They find a way to give the other person the space they need, while living in uncomfortable proximity. Their silences, arguments and upsets are common to fellow travelers. This is the drama of longing to confide in someone but failing to find the right words.

Over the past decade, a wave of brilliant women playwrights (Amy Herzog among them) have been ignoring, rejecting, or questioning the traditional or textbook ideas of play structure – and are changing the shape of dramatic writing in the process.  This is dramatic writing that holds a mirror to our un-dramatic, uncertain, messy twenty-first century lives; where characters face tragedy and personal failure with a very modern mix of humility, stoicism, and humour.

Because, hey? What option is there? Like Leo, what can we do but climb back on our bikes and finish the journey we have started?

Janet Munsil has written more than a dozen plays including The Ugly DuchessBe StillCircus FireEmphysema (a love story), and That Elusive Spark (Finalist, 2014 Governor General’s Literary Awards). Her 2012 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for Theatre Calgary and Canada’s National Arts Centre has been produced internationally.