I spend a lot of time thinking about the titles for my plays. It’s an important part of the process, mostly because in the bigger picture I’m an unknown. People who pick up my work do so less because of me, but because the play fits their program, they like the description, they’re looking for a specific subject, and sometimes because the title grabs them. I kind of like that actually, my work has to speak for itself.
I have literally seen customers at conferences look at the front of a playscript, look at the title and decide right then and there whether they are going to pick up that book based on the title. A title is like a door. And a customer is either going to walk through or move on somewhere else.
But there’s also more to a title than customer attraction. The title also acts as a signpost, a billboard advertisement for the actual play. The title has to fit the play and give a little insight as to what someone can expect. What is this play about? Comedy or Drama? Absurd or reality based?
I’ve had to change a couple of titles over the years. I have one script Anne-arky that is a play on the word anarchy because that’s what happens during a production of Anne of Green Gables. But we got too many people not putting two and two together and calling it Anne Archy. They were pronouncing the “ch.” On a consistent basis. So I had to change it to something phonetic. I also changed the title of my play Body Body from Bawdy Body because people (and rightly so, it was totally my mis-step) thought the play had sexual connotations. The title for my play betweenity came about because there already was a play with the title I wanted to use. My most recent play Backspace had the same problem, the first title was Dogfight, but as I was writing it another play came out with the same title. And then it had a working title of Pound You Drums for a long time – it’s a reference to a line of Walt Whitman civil war poetry: “So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.” The play looks at the act of writing like going to war and I wanted some sort of war reference in the title. But the title never quit sat in the mouth right. It was hard to say and hard to grasp and too artsy fartsy and instead I went with a keyboard reference.
Over at The Guardian there is a article on whether or not play titles matter. And then here’s a New York Times article about how some well known movie and book titles were changed, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. The original title for The Great Gatsby is hillarious, and I think I fell asleep in the middle of it. And, the only reason I went and saw the movie Snakes on a Plane was BECAUSE of the title but at one point the movie company was going to change it because they didn’t want to give away the plot. (Trust me, giving away the plot really wasn’t the problem with this movie.)
On Saturday I’ll post a playwriting exercise all about coming up with titles. Stay tuned!