Proof is a wonderful teaching play, full of smart writing and fantastic two-character scenes. This scene—start at the marked spot, “Your dress turned out all right.—is a perfect example, and really needs no set up to make sense. Have two students read it out loud in front of class. (There’s an expletive. For teaching purposes you can cross it out if need be.) What does each character want? (Claire wants Catherine to move to New York. Catherine wants to stay.) Note the moment when what’s at stake becomes clear. (I’d vote for “I’d like you to move to New York,” but one can make a case for “We’re selling the house.” Note the smooth escalation, from “I love the dress you gave me” to “I HATE YOU!” What ends the scene? (A third character enters with new information.) Worth noting: that new information leads to one of the best curtain lines ever.
This scene is worth some study. Have four students read the scene out loud. What does Sarah want? (To pass along the road through the little town of Walthamstow) What do the men want? (Not to let her pass.) Divide your class into groups of two or three. Have half the groups find, and label, each tactic that Sarah uses. Have the other half find, and label, each tactic that the men use. What are three tactics that Sarah uses? (Politeness counts as a tactic. So does her little joke about being lost; she’s trying to make him like her. Her certificate is a tactic that backfires.) What are three tactics that the men use? (Misdirection, physically blocking her, reasoning.) What happens to the size of the tactics as the scene progresses? They go from politeness to weapons: gun and dogs and threatened biological warfare, a huge escalation. How many characters are in the scene? That’s a sort of trick question. There are, literally, four characters, but all three men want the same thing. This is a well-disguised two-character scene.
THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE, by Jay Presson Allen, adapted from the novel by Muriel Spark (Act one, Scene 9.)
Ms. Brodie, the charismatic, problematic teacher has been summoned to the Headmistress because there are rumors that Brodie, a single woman, has been spending time in the company of a single man. A bonus here is that you can watch the same scene, almost word for word, in the movie and see how great actors handle it. (Any excuse to watch Maggie Smith, right?
RESOURCES NOT ATTACHED The Gap, by Ira Glass (host of “This American Life.”) Show this YouTube clip to your kids early. It’s less than two minutes, but it’s about how hard it is to do something creative, because you know that what you’re doing isn’t as good as what you like. OUR TOWN, by Thornton Wilder The famous soda shop scene in act two, starting with “Can I carry your books home” through “Wait, just a minute and I’ll walk you home” This is the famous courtship scene. There’s a third character—the Stage Manager plays Mr. Morgan, the druggist—but he’s a prop, just there to keep the scene going. It’s a sophisticated two-character scene. THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS, BY Paul Zindel —The short scene at the top of the play that begins BEATRICE, the mother, saying to her daughter, Tillie, “Matilda, that wasn’t very nice of you to tell them that I’m forcibly detaining you from school” on the phone, and ends the moment the sister, Ruth enters. Backwards and Forwards, by David Ball. This is a homely little book that’s a great resource if you’re looking to really study playwriting hard. It’s technically a book about how to read plays, but in teaching how to read a good play, Ball implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, teaches how to write one. Writing Your First Play, by Roger Hall. Pay special attention to his discussion of the difference between two- and three-character scenes. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey paradigm distilled for writers.