The Elevator Play

21 11 2010

The other day, I’m not sure which other day, I was reading about formulaic story plots. One of the most commonly used is the Elevator Play, especially in theater. This isn’t like the Elevator Pitch, which is given in an actual elevator in order to elevate one’s status, but rather a theoretical construct in which the characters are confined together in a limited space (like an elevator). “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (sp) is a classic example of this. The action takes place in basically one spot the whole time. You can see how a playwright would love a limited space like this. Screw the setting changes, focus just on the characters.

According to the formula, you put a bunch of characters in the space together and then at least one of them goes berserk, or otherwise instigates the rest of the group. The physical limitations imposed by the setting then force the characters to confront some kind of personal demons.

It’s interesting how that theory applies to many stories. Think about “LOST,” which I’m just about done watching. Maybe down to the last three or four episodes or so (whew!) and I’ve already seen the finale. So a bunch of people are on an airplane (another classic Elevator Play scenario) and then they crash onto an island (there’s the confinement again) and, guess what, they’re not only being chased down by smoke monsters and giant polar bears, but they’re being forced to confront their own personal demons. Be they misgivings about one’s father, as in pretty much all the cases, or something else. Who knows what. And, guess what, some of those people are unstable and they create trouble, but everyone’s trapped there and they can’t leave. And so it goes, until it all gets boring, and then they get to leave the island … all the events from the second half of the show were created to cope with the limitations of the island setting. It gets to the point where the island scenes are less interesting than everything else.

I think an interesting writing exercise is to think about your “elevator” and what kind of people you would want to put in it. If I had to pick one, it would be a subway car late at night, or a family hiding out in a bomb shelter underground, or maybe some kids who eat lunch together in their school’s band room. It could even be a shady motel room on Route 66, or a Seattle office during the dot-com boom. Maybe even the Donner Party in a snowstorm. There’d be some archetypes: the wide-eyed innocent, the sage, the stoic, the trickster, the thief, the cannibal. Naturally, some wouldn’t get along, and some would get hungry.

The theory behind the Elevator Play probably explains what makes reality shows so remarkably compelling. There’s usually a set location or premise that permits a group of attractive young people to stop being polite and start getting real. That is, they get into a fancy house and then start getting naked, showering together, fighting about petty things, doing mandatory volunteer work, confessing to the camera and having pixellated sex on camera. Which is about as real as it gets.

I’m now several years older than most of the cast members, but let me tell you, the Real World kids have nothing on me; they’d better get those elevator pitches ready.

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One response

6 03 2011
Malachy Sherlock

Nicole, Great blog post on elevator plays. I think you should shoot a short film and the location should be your favorite isolated location.

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