Playing Status – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Just recently, I was asked to teach a drama lesson for a VCE Literature class who were studying Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It was a fun challenge to plan for a bunch of students who had not signed up to do any drama and who might not have been too thrilled to be acting! So, I chose to design a lesson around a couple of pages in Act 3 of the play and look at the characters’ motivations and their status. We used a few drama activities loosely based on some of the Viewpoints activities (which I studied at a short course at NIDA in 2019), to get them using abstract movement. This was so they weren’t immediately trying to create characters and give a ‘real’ performance – something that I knew would make them anxious and detract from really learning about the script.

One of the main activities that we did was having four students play the four characters in the section – Big Momma, Maggie, Mae and Gooper – and simply read their lines. As each character said their line, we stopped them, and then the audience got to decide if that character was trying to increase their status, decrease someone else’s status, or – strangely enough – trying to deliberately decrease their own status in relation to others. Once decided, that character got to move up or down a step, thereby resulting in higher status characters literally being higher than all the others. Through this exercise, we discovered something very interesting about Tennessee Williams’ play: the female characters will often deliberately diminish their own status if it means their husbands’ status is raised. And if you’re familiar with the play, you’ll understand that they have very good reason to, knowing that their husbands are effectively in competition for Big Daddy’s inheritance. The wives understand that if their husband is the ‘winner’, they will benefit. So, in this activity, we had one wife virtually lying on the floor, willing to accept any rude treatment from others, as long as it kept her husband right at the top of the food chain.

It’s a pretty stunning discovery; to see the women living their lives hinged to their husbands’ status, and it shows what an incredible playwright Williams was. Every single line affected the relationship and dynamics. And it made me wonder how often I really consider status when writing my own scripts. I think I’m often aware of it when crafting characters, but I probably think of it more as a static concept, ie. this character has more power/privilege/prestige than the others and that’s that. I know, logically, that this can change through conflict, but do I really think about this when I’m writing?

I’ve been trying to think if I’ve ever done any writing activities related to status. I’ve definitely done acting impro games like master and servant, but writing games? I tried to do a quick search to see if I could find any good status playwriting exercises, but nothing came up (ok, it was a pretty quick search, but I’m busy, ok?). There must be something out there, surely, so I’m turning these questions over to the internet. Do you think a lot about status as you write plays? Do you have any great playwriting exercises that can help to explore status? And do you ever expect to be as famous as Tennessee Williams so that your characters are being acted out by teenagers from the western suburbs of Melbourne?

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