There’s an old theatre chestnut — that is basically misunderstood — that goes a little something like this: “Every scene needs to end on a button.” Sometimes you’ll even see a director pacing at the back of the theatre asking out loud, “How do I button this scene?”
“Buttoning a scene” is not, as some think, a button like that found on a shirt or a coat. You aren’t “buttoning” a scene in a play in the same way you button your coat to keep out the cold.
“Buttoning a scene” is more like the idea of “button something up” — finding a satisfactory conclusion that both leaves the audience wanting more and also feeling satisfied that the plot is properly, and appropriately, progressing without closing anything off.
In straight plays, the Playwright is usually able to include a proper button for a scene: An action, a particular thought or moving emotion can be just the right igniter.
However, when the stakes and prices rise in new musicals — the search for a proper button “to push” to end a scene is always a concern because you not only have dialogue but music to contend with as well and in American musicals, most scenes end with a song.
So the question of the button — “Button, Button, Who Has the Button?” — becomes one of how do you finish a scene with a song that honors the entirety of the play in structure, form and sound? Not an easy task.
In staging musicals, the button is usually a final, grand, picture that is created with static actors on stage — and while that can be a stale and predictable way to end a scene — it is also an obvious way to beg for applause and, in effect, the applause becomes the button.
A button is not for panic — it is rather for launching irrevocable missiles into the night sky.
Remember, a button on a scene is — in its finest essence — an ignition switch that finishes one thing and starts another.
If you wonder why a scene is never-ending or just seems to peter out without providing a satisfactory bang — you are a Dramatist in need of a proper button pushing.
Look back at the entire scene and find the emotional root. Then take that root and force it up from the ground and into revelation — and in that action, you will begin to hammer on a button that will automagically end the scene for you.
Great word — automagically.
I like a good button to a scene — and particularly to the end of a play. It’s stinky when a play ends and you are thinking, was that it?
Right, Gordon! Buttons are very important because they decide what sort of reaction you want to get from the audience. You rarely want to just end a scene with audience silence. Gasps, moaning, laughter and applause are all pretty good buttonings.