How I staged my impossible-to-stage short play

I’ve written a series of short plays that are damn near unstageable. The dialogue is opaque to the point of meaninglessness, many roles would be impossible to cast (cats and kittens, anyone?), and the stage directions contain descriptions of action so complicated and unlike theater, some people say the plays should be made into an animated movie.

The thing is, I’m a playwright, not a maker of animated movies. Plus which, many of my theater friends love these plays, for their weirdness and their language and possibly because of the sheer fact that they are impossible to stage.

How I came to write these short plays

I go to a drop-in writers group once a week, where we use Natalie Goldberg’s timed-writing exercise: write for 45 minutes without stopping, without editing, just letting the words flow from our pens.

One time, the coordinators were having trouble getting us all started writing on time. Exasperated, one of them said, “This is like herding cats.”

Ding ding ding ding ding ding ding! That was my prompt for the day: herding cats.

I let my subconscious take over, and I wrote the weirdest, freest, liveliest shit I’d ever written.

A sample of the original play

Here’s a PDF of the short section of the original play.

Herding Cats Fragment Original

Where I was staging it

I was staging this short play as part of Freehold Theatre’s studio series. It’s like a lot of festivals: minimal lighting and sound, sets that have to be set and struck in very little time, very little storage for set pieces and props.

What’s impossible about it

The staging

How would you have someone pick the flesh off his bones with a ruby stud earring?

How would you have one character pull out the intestines of another character, then looped them around the stage?

How would you have someone pull out another person’s thigh bones, and offer narrow to the audience?

These things would be difficult enough in a full production, with a full lighting rig, multiple channel sound, and an immense budget for props and costumes!

The casting

What’s more, it required a cast of seven: three humans, one adult cat, and three kittens. How was I going to wrangle the schedules of that large a cast?

Actually, that turned out not to be a problem, in that I ended up with a cast of two! Two young women!

How I staged it

Isn’t there some Chinese saying that opportunity is crisis plus ingenuity? Some culture, somewhere, is reputed to have seen that covers the predicament I found myself in.

I thought about the comments I’d gotten from my playwrights group and actor friends. A frequent comment was how much they loved the stage directions, the language in which I’d written them. They told me, those stage directions have to be read.

The staging

People had said that the stage directions were beautiful language and had to be read. Voila! The actors would read the direction.

I reduced the set, props, and costumes to the minimum: I did away with most of it. The actresses wore nice black dresses and black shoes. They read the text from their scripts on music stands.

The casting

As I said, I got two young women to play a cast of seven, plus the stage directions. So I took the script, and I divided the lines and stage directions between the two. They each played multiple characters. Some of the characters one of them voiced, some of them they both voiced, and one of them they took turns voicing.

Each of the actors read the stage directions for their characters. The rest of the stage directions I divided between them for the greatest dramatic effect.

So they were two bright, perky young women, in nice black dresses and shoes, standing in front of black music stands reading this gruesome text – and actually, that made it all the more effective! With just their voices and their acting, and lots of committed delightful meowing, they brought a fairy-tale quality to this text of loss, mayhem, sacrifice, and death.

The sample of the play, as it was staged

And here’s that same sample of the script, as it was in performance.

Herding Cats Fragment Rewritten


The best reaction was an actor friend of mine who came up to me with a big grin on his face, high-fived me, and said “What! The! Fuck!?”

Some people didn’t like it, I could tell, but most people found it enthralling, mesmerizing, and memorable.
And everyone had a different interpretation of it, which I loved!!

Have you ever written an impossible-to-stage script?

Have you ever written a script that’s impossible stage? What did you do with it?

About playwrightsmuse

Get produced, get published, let your brilliance shine! Follow along as we go through a step-by-step process for getting plays produced with the least amount of heartbreak and wasted postage and printing costs.
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