“So, that’s one for “Cah-nahl Knah-ledge…

That’s how they sold tickets at the old Hahvahd Squah Theahter Harvard Square Theatre where I first saw the classic Mike Nichols’ film.  The Harvard Square Theatre – before succumbing to the sweeping home viewing revolution – used to host both old films (different daily double features!) and live shows in its old-school cavernous auditorium.  In fact, you wouldn’t be awarded your Boston-area university diploma unless you could prove you made at least one trip to the theater to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with its live stage show.  The theater’s unusual mix of both filmed and live shows also happens to make it an appropriate starting place for our discussion comparing the art of films and plays.

Some of the ways a play differs from a film are obvious.  Like limitations in types or number of settings.  Like the fixed viewing distance to any actor or action.  Like not having to deal with network or studio notes.

No one said all the differences were challenges.

Plays have been successfully turned into films (Amadeus) and films have been successfully turned into plays (The Producers).  Today, playhouses have access to modern sound and projection systems that allow for a variety of magical effects to transport us well beyond the flat, painted backdrop.  In fact, the immersive nature of theater allows such effects to easily provide the same level of emotional impact as the big-budget CGI effects of film.

With imagination, today’s playwright need not have to place vast armies off-stage as required in Shakespeare’s time.

Which brings us to the curious case of Cah-nahl Carnal KnowledgeJules Feiffer had written this work as a play, but upon reading it, Mike Nichols saw it as a film.  Remember our discussion that performance writing is for the actors and director?  Here’s an example!  The writer thinks one thing, the director thinks another.  This makes Carnal Knowledge an interesting case study on the differences in storytelling methods between play and film.

The basic “play-ness” of Carnal Knowledge is obvious upon viewing the movie (here’s a trailer).   It’s an episodic story that explores the sexual mores and attitudes of two college roommates, the cynical, misogynist Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and the eager-to-please, nice guy Sandy (Art Garfunkel), from their sexual awakening in the late 1940s to their midlife crises in the early 1970s.  Along the way, we meet Susan (Candice Bergen), the college co-ed who gets involved with both men, and, later, Bobbie (Ann-Margret), the buxom starlet who seems the perfect match for the grown-up Jonathan.  Like a play, the film’s scenes are mostly static with little camera motion.  The film is primarily based on words; including little writerly touches like the narcissistic Jonathan’s last name being “Fuerst.”  If you watch Carnal Knowledge with the sound off, you will have a hard time following the story – unlike many acclaimed films which are far more visually cinematic.   As if to immediately announce the triumph of word sounds over visual pictures, Carnal Knowledge opens as credits on a black background with an extended, 3-minute, off-screen conversation between Jonathan and Sandy running underneath them.

Feiffer thought he had a play.  And Nichols obviously saw the power of Feiffer’s words because he followed Feiffer’s script very closely, both words and feel.  But Nichols also saw how to add richness to Feiffer’s story-telling words through techniques unique to film:

Performance Intensity – In a play, once the house lights go down, the actors have to get through the full story, from beginning to end.  Any actor worth his equity card finds this a draining experience.  Most of us don’t have the energy to live fully immersed in emotion for even a few minutes, let alone several hours, which is why we are willing to pay others for the experience of it.  But even with an actor’s training and skill, there’s only such much energy they can humanly produce in the course of a single evening.

Film, of course, allows the director to piece together bits of various acting from multiple takes to craft a performance that might never even have existed as a single event.  One of the most famous scenes in Carnal Knowledge is a 7 minute lover’s quarrel between Jonathan and Bobbie that climaxes in a screaming monologue by Nicholson that must be seen to be believed.

And that 7 minutes of screen time took one week to shoot.  And at the end of that one week, both actors had lost their voices.

Imagine the actors being able to reproduce that scene, at that emotional pitch, on stage, in one take, even once.  Now imagine the actors having to perform it 3 times a week!  Clearly, Nichols understood that the only possible way to experience Feiffer’s words at this level of intensity was to put the scene on film.

Visual Composition – In a play, the audience’s eyes can wander anywhere on the stage.  It’s likely they will be looking at the character who, at any given moment, is talking or the most active, but that’s not guaranteed.  In contrast, a skillful film director will focus our vision to advance story or character.  This is not about the close-up but rather about the frame.  Consider how Nichols composes this shot of Sandy meeting Susan for the first time.  In the script, it’s an awkward, realistic conversation between two college students.  In the film, Nichols reminds us that Jonathan is watching the proceedings, hoping to swoop in the moment his “friend” Sandy fails.  In fact, we don’t cut to a two-shot of Sandy and Susan until after Jonathan decides there is no opportunity and walks away.

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Nichols also shoots many conversations in the movie by framing the actor looking straight at camera.  At no time, however, do we feel that the actors are breaking the fourth wall, speaking directly to us, the audience.  Rather, we instead feel like the off-screen character to whom the on-screen actor is talking.  This creates a highly intimate environment and makes the dialog more deeply personal.  The technique immerses our psyche into the story itself.

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Editing – Of course, being able to edit film allows the director to manipulate time and space in a way simply not possible with the limitations of the stage.  In fact, he can achieve very subtle effects from judicious editing and this is the true art of the motion picture.  Consider how Nichols is able to advance both story and character during a sequence where the two-timing Susan dances with both Sandy (who is unaware of his cuckold status) and Jonathan.   This trailer (for VHS sales) has some clips of that scene which, though not juxtaposed as in the film, give hints of the scene’s power.  Nichols cuts, in the music’s rhythm, between the awkward interaction of Susan and Sandy’s dancing to the more obvious chemistry of Susan and Jonathan’s Lindy Hopping.  Without a single word added to the script, we see what attracts Susan to the fun, relaxed Jonathan over the tepid, uptight Sandy.  Economical film making at its best.

In fact, none of these three film techniques required additional dialog to enrich Feiffer’s story.  Even in areas where Nichols could have “opened up” the play to visual action, he chose to shoot sequences as one might block the action on stage.  Consider a tennis match where characters could have been easily filmed hitting a ball back and forth across the net.  Nichols instead focuses solely on those watching the game, while the “game” is indicated entirely by the voices of the off-screen players:

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Is Carnal Knowledge a fine play?  Yes, certainly.  But in Nichols’ hands, it’s a better film.

And that’s because Nichols didn’t alter Feiffer’s play.  Nor did he merely film it.  Instead, Nichols added a new artistic layer to augment the experience that was already part of Feiffer’s work.  It’s a great example of how a director successfully played intermediary between writer and audience.  And it worked because writer and director were, quite literally, on the same page.

All this, then, begs the question:  why write a play at all?  If a skilled director can eschew the physical limitations associated with performing onstage, does live theater still provide writers with an efficient means of expression?

Well, for starters, directors like Mike Nichols – who has been fêted with multiple Emmys and Tonys and even an Oscar – are in high demand and (not entirely independently) somewhat short supply.  Best of luck finding one to midwife your journey from stage to screen.

But there is another, far more fundamental, reason to write a play.  (Besides the bit about not having to deal with network or studio notes.)

Humans are not mere sensory boxes.  We also radiate a life energy.  Even when we sit in the dark, viewing a screen or a stage, we are aware of each other.

And not just because some bonehead is fidgeting with their smart phone.

We are conscious of each other’s life energy.  That’s why a surrounding audience enhances our emotional experience.  We will laugh harder, we will cry more easily.  We are influenced by the crowd’s energy, social animals that we are.  And for live theater, that connection doesn’t stay on one side of the footlights.  It couples us to the actors and the actors to us.  There is an ethereal bonding between artist and audience that is hard to replicate in any other way.  In all other art forms, we feel the artist’s touch.  In live performance, the artist feels ours as well.

And that will elevate the art.  And, in turn, elevate the audience’s experience of it.

We are not just minds.  We are corporal, of the flesh.  And therefore connected to one another.  This carnal knowledge is the secret to live theater.

Originally published October 29, 2013 in Script Magazine.