Purim Play Essay
This is just an attempt to answer the question almost every single Yeshiva has- why are our purim plays so bad? Camp so-and-so puts out the awesomest plays yada yada yada, why can't our purim plays be like that?
I analyzed the issue, and read stuff on it, and I hereby present my findings. Feel free to take it with a grain or two of salt.
A truly great play relies on several factors- 1) Good general jokes, including lines, slapstick, and the occasional (kosher ) gross-out, 2) good timing and acoustics, 3) Good actors- actors the audience recognize as hilarious, and have good chemistry, 4) good inside jokes, and 5) receptive audiences.
Factor #1- this is a very important factor, but often overestimated. Great jokes can be ruined by bad timing, a distraction in the audience, bad acoustics, or a hostile audience. Nevertheless, good jokes help. A play made up totally of inside jokes can bomb simply because many in the audience aren't in the know. A renowned yeshiva playwright told me that he steals jokes from joke books. It worked wonders. His name is legendary- "Why can't we have plays as good as Ploni's?" Ploni stole from joke books, you can too.
Slapstick is great because no matter how unfunny the actor, it always works; it good especially when kids are in the audience, and works nicely with drunks who can't comprehend complicated dialogue. This is the secret recipe of great camp plays- 500 kids laughing hysterically makes something much funnier. More on this later. Good physical props help out immensely with this- never underestimate the humor factor of a good costume or prop.
Gross-outs are usually done more frequently in branches when the writers have more lee-way. They're low-brow, but can rescue a bad section of play.
Factor #2- I once was listening to the directors' commentary on a famous piece of comedy, and he mentioned that the first screen test bombed because it was too long. He cut it to half the length, and made cinematic history. Cut out extraneous dialogue, and a bombed play becomes funny- the audience doesn't have time to get bored. This part hurts, but it's necessary. You will be amazed how much can be expressed in few sentences by good dialogue writing. Also, making punch lines shorter and punchier can turn a dumb line into a great one. The old days of Yiddish jokes with 2-minute punch lines are gone. They don't work anymore.
Let's take a scenario where the 2nd story bathroom in the Yeshiva suffered a prodigious and memorable flood recently, and you decided it has to go in the Purim play. This would be the right way:
Shlomie (toweling off hair): Wow, that was a good swim.
Berel: Where did you go swimming, the JCC?
Shlomie: No, the 2nd story bathroom.
(pause for laughter)
Now, the wrong way:
Shlomie(toweling off hair): I just had the awesomest swim in the 2nd story bathroom!
The difference- the 2nd version is so wordy that the punchline takes too long.
Acoustics are important too. A great line that has to be repeated because the audience didn't hear the first time around ruins the spontaneity. Try to use a sound system, if possible. You can get little camp kids to be quiet, but forget it with roaring drunks. You just have to overpower them.
Factor #3- You have them in almost every camp. A guy walks on stage, raises an eyebrow, and everybody is in stitches. you show the video of the "best play ever" to your friends, and they're wondering what was so funny. This is because there is a rapport between the audience and that guy, and ergo a belief that everything he does is funny. Try establishing someone as a funny guy before the play (easier in camp than at yeshivas), and the play will be that much better. Furthermore, these are people who usually can improvise when things go wrong ( and something will go wrong). See factor #5.
Actors who don't get along will reflect their disgust in their work, resulting in a tepid (look it up) performance, and an unconvincing one. Try to make your your actors have good chemistry.
Factor #4- This is the hardest part of a good play. There are so many things to make fun of in most yeshivas, but making fun of them properly is difficult. Just because you mention a funny incident doesn't make it funny. It has to be done with subtlety and flair. Using factor #2, timing, can help out a lot in this department. If the joke is too obvious, it's cute, but not funny. Physical inside humor is usually easier to connect with the audience. A good actor who has the aforementioned rapport can often just imitate a well-known character (a Rebbe, janitor, etc) using gestures and idiosyncrasies and have the audience in stitches. However, many hanhalah members stamp out that kind of thing with gusto.
Factor #5- This is the most underestimated part of a funny play. To prove it, rent a clean piece of comedy and watch it by yourself. It's cute, maybe funny, but never knee-slapping funny. Then watch it with other people, especially people you're close with. You'll notice it's funnier the second time around. Laughter is contagious, and changes the way you view something. This is the reason TV sitcoms use laugh tracks. Now, the lonely couch potato watching at home thinks he just saw the funniest show ever, when in reality it was a dud. This is essentially a laughter usage of the mob mentality rule. Starting off a play with slapstick that everyone "gets", and done by those aforementioned known personalities, causes everyone to laugh, loosen up, and subconsciously bond. The rest of the play is that much funnier- mob mentality working for you. Good camp plays use this slapstick trick all the time- never underestimate the power of 500 kids laughing, as mentioned above. Comedy clubs use alcoholic drinks to loosen up their audiences, making them more receptive to humor, and causing the contagious laughter thing. If audiences are too drunk, then nothing will work. A Purim play done after a good Purim seudah will almost always fall on its face, no matter how good, simply because the audience isn't listening, or is doing their own thing. You can also lose an audience if it takes too long between scenes. Make sure there is something going on to entertain them between scenes, so you don't lose their attention- a narrator, or someone doing funny stuff. This is also a problem before a play begins- it takes a while to set up, the natives get restless, and you're toast. Make Murphy's law work for you- be prepared for emergencies. Have someone ready to keep the audience entertained.
Why plays fail:
#1: Bad acoustics. The great lines were never heard. Try getting a sound system, or use visual slapstick to compensate.
#2: Bad editing. The same joke could either do nicely or poorly depending on how it's written. Short and sweet is the rule here.
#3: Unreceptive audience. Avoid this using the factors previously mentioned. Also, don't let them sit there too long while changing props and scenery. Work out ways to keep them entertained. Finally, understand that the audience isn't monolithic. Some are more yeshivish, some more secular, some more into "rips", some too drunk to care. Make sure the play isn't overly geared to one category.
#4: Bad jokes. This, along with factor #2, can arise when one person writes the play, without feedback from others. Or he writes the play with others who are yes-men, avoiding expressing an opinion for political reasons.
#5: Bad actors. Again, this is often the result of politics. Keep in mind that the play is done for the people, not for anyone's egos. Don't let egos ruin a play. If someone who is terrible insists on being in the play, marginalize him politely, and try explaining that he's taking one for the team. If you don't get along with the best actor in the place, set aside your grievances for the sake of the tzibbur. Teamwork and chemistry is essential.
#6: Something went wrong, and you weren't prepared to deal with it. Murphy was a realist. Things can and will go wrong. Be prepared, have backup stuff planned, and make sure the actors have what to improvise if anything goes wrong. Good actors don't need to prepare to improvise. Everyone else should have some extra material planned.
#7: It didn't fail. The guy complaining thought it did because he:) was too drunk to get it, b) was too sober to get it, or c) had unrealistic expectations based on a movie or show he loved. It's very easy to make people laugh using bawdy jokes and bathroom humor. It's a lot harder when trying to keep it clean and respectable.
The bottom line:
Most plays fail. And if it didn't fail, nobody will say anything, leaving the writers with no gratitude for their hard work. People love criticizing, and everyone thinks they're funny. If you're writing the play, accept it, and don't let it ruin your Purim. Try to implement some of the ideas listed here, or ignore them if you think they'll fail. If you're in the audience, accept the failure too, or offer to help out to understand for yourself the difficulties of staging a great Purim play. A bit of alcohol before the play make it funnier. Too much alcohol makes you miss the jokes, and you think the play bombed because you didn't laugh. Enough pontificating. A Freilichen Purim!