Plenty of plays start with “Hello?” and go on to be good plays; I’m not disputing that. What I am disputing is why any playwright, when there is an opportunity to deliver an opening line that creates the world of a play, that establishes something, would choose not to take it.
You don’t have to decide what that line is when you start; you may not even know. But I have found that every time I finish a play and go back to the start, I change/rewrite/tweak that first line to make it introduce the play.
Consider what these opening lines say about the play that follows, and also how it says it. It’s not always on the nose, and, sometimes, is all the more clever for it.
“Can’t sleep?” (Proof, David Auburn)
“To take notice of safe: The slippery are very crafty.” The proper translation should be: “Slippery Slopes Ahead.” (Chinglish, David Henry Hwang)
“These nuts are all rotten.” (Tribes, Nina Raine)
“…you stepped over the line.” (The Shape of Things, Neil LaBute)
“Who are you?” (Sex With Strangers, Laura Eason)
“What do you do when you’re not sure? That’s the topic of my sermon today.” (Doubt: A Parable, John Patrick Shanley)
Isn’t that amazing? These first lines are not accidents. They tell you what the play is about, and, because they are the first words you hear, they automatically put you in the headspace of the play, even subconsciously. The playwright has done this carefully and deliberately, and when I see or hear a great first line, I smile to myself. If I hear “hello?,” you won’t have me–at least not yet.
That said, I’m not even going to tell you how many plays I had to go through on my shelf (or how many more I read for contests or favors or on NPX) before I found these stellar examples. There are very well-known and successful playwrights who begin their plays with “Hello?” or “[Insert name here]?” It surprises me, because, as the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Why squander it?
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