Fly Fishing with Devon Roberts

One of the reasons I love teaching is that it forces me to learn. You can’t pass on a skill without mastering it yourself.

Or at least without pretending to.

Sometimes – I can’t be the only teacher who does this – you make stuff up and cross your fingers that you’ve gotten it right.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about a lesson that I had seen John Patrick Shanley teach. The point of the lesson was that as a playwright you need to find something that you like about your characters. Mr. Shanley illustrated his point by saying that if you saw him fly fish you would like him. And then, a few hours later, a stage manager I was with said that she liked Shanley; she’d seen him fly fishing earlier.

But as I wrote the post, I had a guilty secret. I knew it was missing something. The lesson is that you should find something to like about your characters. But how do you do that?

I wrote it as though this were a trivial matter. But it’s not. In fact, I didn’t actually know to find something that I liked in my characters.

There was a second problem with my post, and that had to do with the example, the stage manager who said that she’d fallen in love with John Patrick Shanley while watching him fly fish.

The woman couldn’t explain what about Shanley’s fishing was so likable. Over the intervening years, I’ve sometimes tried to picture the playwright fishing in a way that’s especially charming. Sometimes my image involved pirouettes.

So that was my recent post. A lesson I didn’t believe in illustrated with an example I didn’t understand. Perfect pedagogy.

Then an excellent thing happened. Devon Roberts, an Oregon Thespian, responded to the post. He described how he’d managed to unstick himself while writing a full-length play:

“I went back to the drawing board and I started thinking like this. I gave a character something completely unrelated to the story to be passionate about and by doing so I influenced relationships, I created the opportunity for scenes and just general commotion that adds a depth of reality to the show.“

Give a character something to be passionate about.

That has a touch of genius to it. It solves both problems with my botched interpretation of Shanley’s lesson.

First, it makes the process active. Finding something you like in a character is a tough assignment, since the character doesn’t yet exist. But in Devon’s spin on it you don’t look for a quality; you assign one.

Second, he solves the mystery of why the stage manager was so taken by the sight of an unlikely fisherman. What’s charming about John Patrick Shanley fly fishing isn’t his footwork or the way that he casts his line.

It’s that he’s John Patrick Shanley and he’s fly fishing. He’s a well-known, New York playwright engaging in an unlikely, bucolic pastime. That’s appealing. It turns him from remote-because-famous person into a quirky, likable individual.

A character’s passion is appealing even if (and sometimes because) it doesn’t directly relate to the story.

So: John Patrick Shanley, thank you for the lesson many years ago.

And Devon Roberts, thank you for finally explaining it to me.