Playwriting Workshop – Recap

Take a bow playwrights. We did it! We learned the rudiments of writing a play, from generating raw material and adapting it for use in scenes, to using settings, character descriptions, and stage directions to frame and develop conflict. We learned how to format scenes and wrote the first and last scenes of a full play. I hope you all continue on to connect the dots between those opening and closing scenes and polish and refine your final product.

But tomorrow is the first day of a new month, and with it a new challenge. So dig out your notebooks, writers, and get ready to WRITE WORDS NOW!

Playwriting Workshop – Days 29-30 – Curtainfall

We’re going to skip right to the ending now, playwrights. We know where we’re coming from and we know where we’re going. The rest should be a piece of cake, right?

Days 29-30 – Write your closing scene. This is the one that wraps everything up. How have your characters grown. Did your primary character get what he or she wanted? Was it worth it? Was the conflict resolved? Adapted from The Playwright’s Handbook, by Frank Pike and Thomas G. Dunn (Revised Edition, 1996).

Remember that this is just a first draft of your final scene. Don’t get bogged down with revisions. Just get through the scene.

Playwriting Workshop – Day 28 – Art

Hi playwrights, did you enjoy our last play of the challenge? Art, by Yasmina Reza, is about an argument between two friends, Serge and Marc, in which each of them tries to drag in their third friend, Ivan, to take sides and settle things. With only three characters, a very spare setting, and a focused dispute over the purchase of an all-white painting, the play is a good example of Reza’s style, which has been called “little-black-dress theater.” I saw a production of this play years ago at the Steppenwolf theater in Chicago. I remember how funny it was, in that late-90s Seinfeld sort of way, where the characters get into an endless debate over something ridiculously trivial. But underlying the humor are serious feelings of insecurity and resentment that have infiltrated the friends’ once easy relationship.

One Thing I Noticed: The characters sometimes stop in the middle of their conversation or argument and face the audience to deliver a monologue that is like a commentary on what is going on in the scene. We get the sense that we are reliving the scene as an instant replay, with the character as our guide.

One Idea: Write a play in which two friends disagree about something–some physical object, where it came from, what it’s worth, what to do about it–and drag a third and very reluctant person into their argument.

August Experience Journaling – Preview

It’s my favorite time of the month writers. Time to start thinking about a new challenge! In August we are going to try our hand at journaling. And not just any “Dear Diary, this is what I did today” journaling. We are going to collect some experiences, those moments of adventure, big and small, that expand our worldview,  that enable us to write more confidently and more broadly about the world around us.

Here’s the plan:

Step 1: Set a journaling goal/schedule. Do you want to write one page each day? Every other day? For a set number of minutes per day? Come up with a schedule that works for you, buy yourself a nice new notebook, and get ready to write!

Then, you can go in one of two directions. Or you can try some combination of the two.

Step 2 (Option A): Try something new for 30 days and journal about it. This should preferably be some sort of tactile skill, something you can do with your hands or your body that is not writing, researching, or learning a new language. And ideally it should be something you can do for at least a few minutes a day or several times a week.  Here are some examples:

  • playing an instrument
  • learning a new sport
  • jogging, hiking, or swimming
  • yoga or meditation
  • taking up painting, sculpture, or photography
  • learning to knit, sew, or quilt
  • trying new recipes or learning how to be a mixologist
  • trying out birdwatching or gardening
  • starting a collection

Whatever you choose, remember, you don’t have to become an expert at it! Private lessons and classes are great. So are YouTube videos and how-to books. This is about trying something new and writing about it. It’s about expanding the universe of experiences you have to draw from when you sit down and write. There is no failure unless you fail to write about your failure.

Write about your experience from start to finish. Why did you pick this activity? What do you hope to achieve over the course of one month? Are you seeing improvement? Experiencing frustration? Have you met any fellow musicians/artists/chefs/birdwatchers? What is your setting? What are your tools? Describe what you are doing using all five of your senses.

Step 2 (Option B): Seek out new experiences to journal about. I’m going to post a list of 31 different ideas for things you can try, one for each day of the month if you’re feeling ambitious. Or maybe one or two a week is more realistic. The point is simply to experience something or someplace new and use it as a jumping off point for your writing. You don’t have to hike the Himalayas to expand your world. You can do it one small step at a time. Want some examples? Here’s a sneak preview of the list:

  1. Do something you are skeptical about. Go to a tarot card reader or psychic to have your fortune told. Try praying or meditating, essential oils, crystals, a gong sound bath. Try to keep an open mind.
  2. Learn to fix something. That broken hinge or leaky faucet, that button that keeps falling off. Write a little how-to guide for the project.
  3. Change your appearance. This could be as simple as a new color of lipstick or nail polish, a different shirt-tie combination. Try false eyelashes or unusual glasses frames. Buy (or borrow) a statement necklace. A fedora. Get a big belt buckle or a trucker’s hat. Feeling crazy? Get a tattoo. Chop off your hair, streak it pink, or push it into a fauxhawk. Let your three-year-old pick out your outfit. Write about how the change makes you feel and how others react to it.
  4. Sleep outside.
  5. Go to a bar you’ve never been to before and order a drink you’ve never had. Sit alone and write about it until your glass is empty. Optional: turn the page and order another.
  6. Give things the dignity of their names. Find yourself a good resource (if all else fails, Google is there for you), choose a category of things, and go ahead and identify the things in that category by name. Discover the name of every type of tree on your street, every flower in your neighbor’s garden, every bird native to your state. Learn the names of the fabrics the clothes in your closet are made out of, the representative architectural styles in your town, the names of streets, rivers, lakes, types of clouds, learn the names of the constellations in the summer sky, learn all of the fancy name for ways to slice carrots.
  7. Read a small-town newspaper from somewhere you have never been.
  8. Go to a fancy grocery store with a great produce section and identify a fruit you have never tried before. Buy it. Learn how to prepare it. Enjoy.
  9. Go to a restaurant you’ve never been to and (deadly food allergies aside) order whatever the waiter recommends.
  10. Go to a resale shop, estate sale, Goodwill, Salvation Army, a garage sale, or a yard sale. Find something completely weird that speaks to you, buy it, bring it home, and write its history.
  11. Visit with someone elderly. Really listen to what he or she has to say.
  12. Learn to prepare an extremely complicated dish. I’m talking  New York Times Sunday Magazine fare. Something you love that you have always been too intimidated to try. A flaky pastry or delicate mousse, a real molé sauce. Take your time with it. Write while the dough chills, while the soufflé bakes, while the meat marinades. Write with the windows open because your are trying to get the smell of burned soufflé out of your kitchen. Write about how it was a major success. Write about how it was an abject failure.

Sound fun?  Let’s do it! Join me on August 1 to fill your summer journal with new experiences!

Playwriting Workshop – Days 27-28 – Opening Scene

Today’s the day to plunge in, playwrights! Over the next two days we’re going to write our opening scenes. If you need it, here is a formatting refresher: The Standard Stage Play Format,” a guide by Laura King, MFA, MA, Instructor of Theatre at Gordon State College.

Days 27-28 – Write your opening scene. This is the one that sets everything in motion. How are your characters introduced? How is the conflict revealed? Adapted from The Playwright’s Handbook, by Frank Pike and Thomas G. Dunn (Revised Edition, 1996). 

Remember that this is a DRAFT. You are not asking “how will this play start?” but “how might this play start?” Don’t treat this as a final product and resist the urge to edit. You want to get in the groove and finish the scene. You can evaluate it later. You can throw it in the trash and rewrite it later. Whatever. But write now, you start it, you finish it. You see where it goes.

And remember to keep an open mind. You’ve done a lot of planning but this is where you hear your characters speak for the first time. You may be surprised with what they say, how they say it, and the direction in which they want to move things. Don’t be so rigid in following your plan that you miss the opportunity to write something spontaneous and surprising!

Playwriting Workshop – Day 26 – Plan Your Scenes

Alright playwrights, it’s time to get organized. Time to make a plan.

Day 26 – Plan your scenes. Order your scenes and sketch out what will happen in each scene. Give your primary and supporting characters scene-specific goals related to their overall goals. Adapted from The Playwright’s Handbook, by Frank Pike and Thomas G. Dunn (Revised Edition, 1996).

So, what are we shooting for here? Keep in mind that a full-length play runs for about one and a half to two hours, which is around 90-120 typed pages. You can do a traditional play with 2-5 acts, but the more modern approach is to simply write a collection of scenes. Maybe just one extended scene, maybe dozens of short ones running together. You get to decide.

For each scene, decide the following:

  • What is the setting?
  • Which characters will be in the scene? Give each of them a scene-specific goal and one or more tactics they will employ to try to achieve it.
  • What is the overall purpose of the scene? To introduce the conflict? To bring diverging storylines together? To reveal a twist?
  • How does the primary character grow in this scene?
  • Is there a ritual that the scene revolves around? How is it disrupted? How do some or all of the characters try to get the ritual going again or further disrupt it?
  • If it’s a group scene, is there a central reflector to bring everyone together? Something that happens or that the characters are invited to share their opinions on?

When thinking about the order of your scenes, remember, you have a lot of options. Maybe the play unfolds chronologically. But it could also go in reverse. Harold Pinter’s Betrayal starts with the aftermath of a love triangle and the scenes then unfold in reverse to reveal the triangle’s origin. Your scenes can even go back and forth in time, as long as there is some cue for the audience to understand that this is happening–maybe the season changes, or the way the characters are dressed. In the play I’m working on, there is a scene in which the stage is divided into different parts and similar things are happening simultaneously in the different parts to represent the different trajectories a character could be put on, sort of like parallel universes.

And remember to incorporate some variety. Maybe a serious scene is followed by a comical one, a bustling group scene by an intimate one with only two characters.

Get creative writers! Tomorrow we dive in and write our first scene.

Playwriting Workshop – Day 25 – Mini Monologues

We’ve got some characters. We’ve given them desires. But shouldn’t we let them tell us about those desires in their own words?

Day 25 – Write short monologues for your primary and supporting characters. Discover their unique voices and explore their relationships to one another. Adapted from The Playwright’s Handbook, by Frank Pike and Thomas G. Dunn (Revised Edition, 1996).

Look back at what we did on Day 4. These don’t have to be long. A paragraph or two for the primary character and each of the major supporting characters. We just want to get a feel for how each person sounds before we get them talking to each other.

Have fun writers!

Playwriting Workshop – Day 24 – Set

Hey there playwrights, you probably know what’s next. You need to give your characters a place to play, to go about their business, to confront one another.

Day 24 – Describe the settings for your scenes. How will they inform or reflect on the central conflict of your play? How will your characters interact with them? Adapted from The Playwright’s Handbook, by Frank Pike and Thomas G. Dunn (Revised Edition, 1996).

Ask yourself the following:

  • Is it day or night?
  • What season?
  • Indoors or outdoors?
  • Are there sounds that evoke the scene? Birds chirping or the whistle of a lifeguard at the pool, the sounds of children playing?
  • What objects are there that your characters can interact with? An overstuffed sofa for one of them to flop down onto? A stool to tilt back in? Is one character anxiously wiping or dusting something or straightening a messy room?
  • Is the room a mess? Does something sit there broken or out of place? Do some of the characters care about this but others don’t seem to notice?

Think back to Days 1, 3, 11 of this workshop, where we learned how to establish a setting, get our characters interacting with it, and use the setting to subtly reflect the conflict that is at the heart of the play.

Happy scene-setting!

Playwriting Workshop – Day 23 – Cast

Okay playwrights, ready to cast your play? Time to think about characters. Think back to all that you learned on Days 2 and 8 of this workshop.

Day 23 – Briefly describe your characters and define their goals. Include each character’s name, age, a brief physical description, the relationship of the character to other characters in the play, and a one- or two-line history/profile. Adapted from The Playwright’s Handbook, by Frank Pike and Thomas G. Dunn (Revised Edition, 1996).

Now identify your central character. Who is this play about,  anyway? Then determine whether each of the other characters is a major, minor, or incidental character in the play. Start thinking about what each character wants (just overall goals at this point–we’ll talk about scene-specific goals for each character later) and the conflicts that will arise between the characters. The goals of each of the secondary characters should either complement or oppose the goal of the central character.

Have fun and see you  tomorrow!

Playwritng Workshop – Day 22 – Raw Souce Material

Okay playwrights, are we ready? We understand characters, setting, conflict, and how the three interact. We’ve mixed things up with large and small groups of characters. We’ve played with central reflectors, disrupted rituals, and surface comedy. We’ve read the works of master playwrights and seen how they put these elements together. Now, let’s write a play. Maybe a great play. Maybe a crappy play. Maybe an unfinished play … Nine days is at least long enough to make a very good start. Did you know John Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger in 17 days, from a deck chair on a pier? Or that Arthur Miller built himself a shed on some land in Connecticut, sat himself down, and wrote the first half of Death of a Salesman in a single night (he finished the play over the next six weeks)?

Day 22- Generate some raw material. Do some freewriting to identify the sorts of conflicts and emotions you’ve experienced in your life that could form the heart of a play. Then think of ways to deploy those experiences in a fictional setting. Adapted from The Playwright’s Handbook, by Frank Pike and Thomas G. Dunn (Revised Edition, 1996).

Maybe you already have an idea in mind for a play. If so, do some free writing on that idea. Start with a basic elevator pitch–what you would tell a friend if she asked you what your play was about but only had five minutes before her plane started boarding.  If you don’t have an idea already, or if you have only the kernel of one and need to inject it with something personal and alive into it, draw from your own experiences. Think back on your life to a time that still has a lingering emotional connection for you. Shame, regret, disappointment, confusion, bitterness. Dive into those deep emotions. Identify a volatile or unsettled relationship touching on that time and do some free writing around it. Remember to employ your five senses.

Then, brainstorm how to adapt the raw material into a play with fictional characters. Think of this in a couple of different ways. Maybe you take the red beating heart of that conflict and emotion and transplant it into a different setting, connect the arteries, tendons, and ligaments to new characters in a made-up setting. Then, stitch the whole thing up and give it a shock: some inciting event that gets that conflict pumping. Or … plant the seed of the conflict you’ve harvested in a nice patch of earth, water it, and watch as the first shoots and tendrils appear, barely noticeable at first, but there all the same, growing steadily as the play unfolds.

Have fun writers!