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Beginning Playwriting

Notes for Class

BEGINNING PLAYWRITING FOR SCCT

Class #1 - 3/21/17

  • Introductions
  • Discussion of formatting. 
  • Writing Exercise: Monologue (based on the picture prompts listed in the assignment below)
  • At the end of this process, I’d like all of you to have written a one-act play, one that will run about 10 to 20 pages.  Each class is going to include instruction and the chance to write or to present your writing, meaning you will be bringing in scenes and monologues, hearing them read, and having us talk about them.  At the end of it all, we’re going to have readings of your one-act plays.
  • Lecture on Dialogue and Conflict:
  • Dialogue and conflict are the bedrock of drama and yet, it is something we all want to avoid in our daily lives.  Often, one of the first things a beginning playwright wants to do is get comfortable, and comfort often breeds conversation.  Conversation is the enemy of the dramatist.
  • Our conversations are only memorable when the stakes in or around them are high.  If you’re breaking up with your significant other, that’s a memorable conversation.  If you fall in love with someone as you two are talking at a party, that’s a memorable conversation.  If you’re talking to your sibling while a family member is in the hospital, unfortunately, that’s a memorable conversation too.    When they are full of contention and discord or take place in important circumstance, that’s when relaxing conversation begins to point towards drama.
  • So if you don’t want to write conversation what do you want to write?  Dialogue.  Dialogue is, as far as plays go, the opposite of conversation.  Dialogue has sharp elbowsDialogue has little interest in making people comfortable.  Dialogue doesn’t allow you to sit back and relax.  Dialogue is speech with consequence.  
  • If you want to write plays, and you want to write them well, you have to learn to love the way people talk.  As you walk in the world, take some time to listen to the way people speak.  Trust me, I know this is a hard thing to do.  Observe the way your friends talk, your coworkers, your family.   Love the way people talk, but love it enough to improve upon it.  You’re not learning how to write conversations, you’re learning how to write dialogue.
  • Listen to the way you, yourself, talk.  Pick up on your own linguistic idiosyncrasies, your specific word choice, your habits in speech.  It will make you a better, more conscientious writer when you can see when you’re writing characters and when you’re just writing your own inner monologue.
  • If you’re writing a scene and you’re not sure if you’re writing conversation or dialogue, check to see if there’s conflict.  All scenes must have conflict.  Without conflict, there is no drama,  Conflict from first line of dialogue to the last.
  • Conflict can take a great number of forms.  First, there is the famous, “You’re a liar!”  “No, I’m not!”  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with starting a scene where, in one way or another, one person says yes and the other person says no.
  • There’s also the conflict where character A knows something and character B doesn’t know that.  Assuming that the audience know this secret too, this is the dramatic irony sort of conflict, but an audience can just know that there is something being unsaid, without knowing specifically what that something is, and still see that there’s a conflict. 
  • You can also have a conflict between the characters and the situation into which they’ve been thrust.  If there’s a scene where something horrible is happening in the outside world, and two characters are getting prepared to take on the horrible, they may not necessarily be disagreeing, but the conflict is still heavy in the air as they prepare.  
  • What conflict really is, at its heart, is a difference in wants, and drama is where those wants collide. 
  • ASSIGNMENT: COME UP WITH THREE IDEAS FOR ONE-ACT PLAYS, AT LEAST ONE USING THE PROMPTS GIVEN IN CLASS:
    1. The line of dialogue: "You will take the fall for this"
    2. A character who uses a sling long after his/her arm has healed.
    3. One of the pictures linked below:
    Woman With Lizards in Hair
    Man in Gas Mask Smelling Flower
    Woman in Anger Room
    Post-It Notes on Face

Class #2 - 3/28/17

  • Writing exercise: 2 person scene
  • Lecture on Plot and Structure (adapted from a lecture by Michael Oatman):
  • You can create your characters well, you can have great dialogue for them to say, but if you don’t know what to do with them, you’re just creating a bunch of talking heads, nothing more. 
  • There are no rules to plot and structure a one-act play, but there are a lot of suggestions. 
  • 1.      Smack ‘em in the face – Your play should pull in the audience immediately.  It’s not about subtlety, you don’t have time for that.  Get in, grab them, and don’t let them go.  This need not be an act of violence or yelling; an arresting stage picture with no words can smack an audience in the face.
  • 2.      Something has got to happen.  There has to be a central conflict, we talked about this last week.  And a central conflict isn’t two characters bickering.  There has to be a want in there.  Characters have to want something they can’t have, be it an object, a relationship, a job, or an emotion, they have to want and then do what they can to get it.
  • 3.      Leave an emotional stamp.  Plays aren’t intellectual debates,  Get to the emotional core, reach inside the chest, grab the heart, and shake things up.
  • These two ideas, leave an emotional stamp and something has to happen, lead me to an idea I call the Passover question: Why is this night different from all other nights?  You need to be able to answer this about your play.  You need to be able to say why this specific time should be dramatized.  If nothing has changed, then there’s no reason for it to be up on stage.  The plot has to come from somewhere, it has to be a deviation from what’s been happening in the lives of these characters.  If you can’t answer that question, if there’s nothing special about this day, you need to find a better plot.
  • 4.      Don’t bore your audience.  If something looks or sounds like a cliché, run the other way.  If the play is about an overdone topic or is done a way we’ve seen a hundred times, change it up.  Or kill it.
  • 5.      Write characters not devices.  I’m going to specifically talk about character next week, but a short play should not mean lack of depth in your characters.  They need to be three dimensional, fully-formed characters. 
  • 6.      Action must happen in real time.  Keep it on stage and keep it in the present.
  • 7.      Limit the number of scenes and characters:  One or two scenes, and two or three characters.  There are always exceptions.  If you find an innovative way to do something different, like Thornton Wilder does in The Long Christmas Dinner where he covers 90 years in 30 minutes without any scene breaks, if you figure that out, then I commend you.  But if you don’t have that kind of innovation, then stick to one or two scenes, and two or three characters.
  • You have a limited time.  You are writing something for living-breathing humans to perform in front of other living-breathing humans.  They don’t get a chance to put your play down halfway through and pick it up later.  You are taking their time, and you need to make sure it is worth it. 
  • You should begin your play at the latest moment in the story that you can and you should end your play as early as possible.   Begin at the moment when everything changes and end when nothing will be the same again.
  • How do you get to the point?  How do you start?  Well, unfortunately, you have to start with exposition.  It has to be there in order to let the audience know what’s going on, but it also has to be a part of the natural flow of the scene.  Too little exposition and your audience is bewildered and can’t pay attention to what’s going on; too much exposition and your characters sound like mouthpieces for information            
  • One way of providing painless exposition is to remember that playwriting is a visual medium too; you might say a whole lot with just the picture that you present onstage.  Use opening stage pictures to your advantage.  Plus, an audience will always bring assumptions with them, and you can use those to your advantage too.  Put a man and a woman in their forties at a breakfast table and put a ten year old sitting with them; an audience is going to automatically see this as a family. Taking advantage of what the audience thinks they know is a great tool too.  If what they think they know is a fact, you can skate ahead and get on with plot and character development; if what they think know is false, you can make the bursting of those assumptive bubbles as fodder for comedy or intrigue. 
  • If the audience can’t tell you’re feeding them information when you are, you’ve succeeded.
  • Discussion of one-act play ideas.
  • ASSIGNMENT: CREATE A CHARACTER, AMASS AS MUCH INFORMATION AS YOU THINK YOU NEED, AND WRITE A MONOLOGUE (NO LONGER THAN ONE PAGE) FOR THIS CHARACTER YOU'VE CREATED.  IT WOULD HELP YOU IMMENSELY IF THIS CHARACTER IS SOMEONE WHO COULD BE IN YOUR ONE-ACT PLAY

Class #3 - 4/4/17

  • Writing exercise: Create a one-sentence "(Character) Wants" synopsis of your one-act play from the perspective of the character for whom you wrote the monologue.
  • Lecture on Character:
  • How do you create round characters?  A good way to start is by finding a part of your DNA in a character.  This is the place you’re going to go to when you need to lock into the mind of the character and figure out what she or he is thinking and planning, and why she or he is behaving this way.  If you put down a foundation of how this character is like you, you can start building up all the parts where the character differs from you without falling prey to pitying this character, or, even worse, hating this character.  
  • Finding the similarity enables you to realize when you’re writing your own identity into a character.  You’re not a character in your play.  You have no perspective on you, so it’s not wise to completely identify with a character.  You’ll have too many blind spots and you may be in for a rude awakening about yourself when you see the reaction of an audience to that character.
  • Once you’ve put in that foundation, what you build on it will make your character interesting and memorable to an audience.  You have a very little time to do a lot of work, so find the best ways of doing it.  Such as:
    • Character names.  An audience is going to bring a lot of life experience and collective knowledge with them into the theater, and it’s worth it to use that.  You have a character come on stage and she is introduced as Trixie.  How is that going to affect an audience’s perception as opposed to a name like Joan?  Sparky vs. Mike?  Angelique vs. Mabel?  
    • Character description.  If what characters are wearing, how their hair looks, anything regarding outward appearance, if that matters, make sure you put it in the script.  A man wearing a suit is going to get a different reaction than a man wearing jeans and a t-shirt who is going to get a different reaction than a man wearing a dress.
    • Character jobs.  Drug dealer, clergy, rock star, doctor, politician.  Yes, you know what these specific jobs are, but you also know what kind of people are usually drawn to those occupations. 
    • Find the contradictions.  Everything I’ve been talked about has been using preconceived notions to save time.  Once you’ve done that, blow up those notions in little places to make your characters truly memorable.  Villains who just want death and destruction are boring; villains who love someone or something are interesting and relatable.  Heroes who do good for the sake of doing good are beyond us; heroes who have a spotty past, heroes who are doing good after a long life of doing bad, heroes who have a bunch of flaws, those are the ones we remember.  
  • Finally, what does your character do in the play.  "Action is character.”  If people tell me how great someone is, I’ll listen maybe and I’ll consider it, but if I see that person doing something great, then I’ll be convinced.  Telling me you’re competent is not enough, you have to show me too.  Show me your character is smart by having her do something smart, show me he’s clumsy by having him trip over something, show me this couple is in love by doing something loving towards each other.  This works the same in dialogue, since dialogue is a lot of the action of the play; if you tell me a character has a PhD in English literature and she has terrible grammar, you better be doing that on purpose, she better be a fraud, or you’re doing something wrong.
  • With this action of the character, the action of the plot, the characters, especially the main character, have to change as the play goes along.  You are setting up this person to be the one who is the focal point of the action, so that person cannot be a static entity, or your play will be just as static and uninteresting.
  • Does that mean she or he has to be a completely different person at the end of the show?  Not necessarily.  In life sometimes the biggest moments are very small changes, shifts that aren’t grand and showy, but just a starting down a slightly different path than you were on.  If that’s what is true to your character, then that’s a fine arc for your main character to have.
  • You can still have an interesting play if your main character goes in a complete circle.  If he or she begins a certain way, makes a one-eighty turn and then realizes that he or she was wrong or that he or she can’t live this way and they turn a hundred and eighty degrees back, that’s drama too.  The disappointment an audience will feel in a character’s failure can be just as potent as the joy they feel in a character’s success.  If that’s what you want the audience to feel, then it’s your success as a playwright.
  • Your main character has to go through something and changes have to occur in them.  The world they inhabit, as we discussed last week, will never be the same again, so your main character needs to reflect that. 
  • Your main character will be going through the biggest change, but that doesn’t mean your supporting character needs to be a rock that never moves.  The more change, the more interesting your play can be.
  • ASSIGNMENT: WRITE THE FIRST TWO PAGES OF YOUR PLAY AND BRING IT IN.  I NEED A HARD COPY OF IT SO I CAN CHECK YOUR FORMAT.  IF YOU’RE FEELING BOLD, BRING MORE THAN THAT, BUT I WANT THE FIRST TWO PAGES SO I CAN SEE IF YOU’VE GRABBED ME

Class #4 - 4/11/17

  • Brief Lecture on Titles:
  • Every choice you make is going to affect the audience’s experience of viewing your play.  Sometimes the title is the only thing that they know about your play when they sit down to watch it, so even that has to serve a purpose.  

  • Choose your titles wisely.  What can you use as a basis for your title?
    • The name of the main character (or characters).  (Hamlet, Richard III, Hamilton)
    • The plot of the show.  (Death of a Salesman, The Homecoming, Six Characters in Search of An Author)
    • The setting of the show.  Examples? (Copenhagen, Twilight: Los Angeles)
    • A recurring motif in the show.  Examples?  (The Glass Menagerie, Fences, Rent)
    • A line of dialogue in the show.  Examples?  (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Six Degrees of Separation, Glengarry Glen Ross)
    • The idea of the show.  Examples?  (Doubt, Democracy)
    • An evocative or familiar phrase.  Examples?  (Take Me Out, Crimes of the Heart, Hurlyburly)
  • You can't always come up with a great title, but at the very least, you should have a title that doesn't damage the impression you want to give an audience who knows nothing else about your play but your title.

  • What makes a bad title?  Something that is way too vague or clichéd can disappear quickly from someone’s mind.  Terrible titles are also ones that sound clunky or hollow or incomprehensible.  Which is why I hate the title for the movie Gattaca.  I’m well aware that it has something to do with DNA coding, but it’s meaningless to look at, it’s hard to remember, and it’s clunky sounding.  

  • Writing Excerise: Come up with three different titles for your one-act.
  • ASSIGNMENT: GOING FORWARD, THE WRITING ASSIGNMENT WILL ALWAYS BE TO WORK ON YOUR PLAY AND BRING IN SCENES (NO MORE THAN 4 PAGES) THAT YOU WANT TO HAVE WORKSHOPPED IN CLASS.

Class #5 - 4/18/17

  • Brief Lecture on Rewriting:
  • Just because you’re writing a short play you should be taking the time to rewrite, not just during our time in class, but also when our time together is through, in hopes of getting a production of your play.

  • There are no specific rules to rewriting, just techniques you can use.  You can use all of these techniques, some of them, or you can use none of them.  When you’re done with your first draft of your play and you’re ready to rewrite, put it to the side for a day, give yourself a little distance from it, and then pick it up the next day with some fresh eyes.  Once you’ve picked it up, what can you do?

    1.      Read it out loud.  Reading it out loud will give you insight on how the play is going to hit the audience’s ear and how easy or difficult it will be to come out of an actor’s mouth.  If you find yourself stumbling over a sentence or phrase, there’s a decent chance an actor will too, so you might want to think about rewriting those words.  Listen as you’re reading out loud to see if you’re using the same words over and over again.  All of us have linguistic tics and it’s helpful to start realizing them so that all of the characters don’t sound exactly like each other, and so that you won’t bore your audience by using the same words over and over.  Everybody’s got their thing and it’s fine if it’s an idiosyncracy of one character, but give it to everybody or make every line dependent on it, and all we can hear is your voice, not the characters’.

    2.      Get someone else to read it out loud to or with you.  Even with reading it to yourself, you might jump over mistakes or fill in blanks in your head without getting it on the page.  To simply hear another person say your words, you’ll start noticing not only your words, but also the way another person might interpret your words.  You might think a character is being brave and confident, but when another person gets their hands and voice on that character, s/he suddenly turns into a braggart or an overcompensating coward.  We know what we want from our characters and our stories and that’s important, so we need to make sure that that’s what’s best being communicated in our words.  Don’t take another person’s interpretation as gospel, but simply hearing another’s take on your character may change your word choice, your use of slang, etc., so that your intention is as clear as possible.

    3.      Another technique is to score a script, which is usually an actor’s method, but can work just as well with writing.  Scoring, for an actor, is to take each of her or his lines and write a verb to describe what s/he is doing with that line.  "To cajole, to plead for my life, to stomp on my enemies."  Ideally, your lines should be able to be scored by the actors saying them, and there’s nothing to prevent you from doing this yourself for all the characters.  If you can’t come up with why someone’s saying this specific line, then they should probably be saying something else.  Or saying nothing at all.  If you notice that a character is doing the same action over and over again, do you think the audience is going to get bored of that?  Maybe another tactic is a good idea.

    4.      Rewrite from each character’s perspective.  Go through your script and look at one character’s lines alone.  Listen to what they’re saying and how they say it.  Do some lines not feel like they fit that character when you isolate them like that?  Do you see some redundancies in what they’re saying and doing and can you consolidate?  When you isolate their lines does what they’re doing make much less sense?  Sometimes we can get lulled into the back and forth of dialogue and we don’t realize that what we’ve written isn’t all that clear, it just has rhythm.

    5.      Now what if this isn’t a general rewrite, but we’re trying to fix a scene or moment that’s not working?  Well, there are two good pieces of advice. 

    • First, find your favorite line in the scene … and cut it.  Kill your darlings, the shortest thing William Faulkner ever wrote.  Sometimes we hold onto our favorite writerly thing and we twist and turn everything else so that it fits this little gem, this bon mot that we have crafted so well.  When you destroy it, when you are no longer moored to it, you have the freedom to create again.  You can also use this technique on your favorite action of a scene, or favorite plot point or plot twist.  Are you propping up the scene with unstable footing just to support this one thing?  Try it without and see how it works. 

    • The problem with your scene isn’t happening in your scene, it’s happening in a scene before.  In other words, something you’ve written before has gotten you to a point where characters are acting or speaking in a way that doesn’t work but it’s a way you’ve forced them into by a choice you’ve made.  What is the problem in the scene, and could it have been solved prior to this?  And if the problem is in the first scene, then maybe it’s the concept that could use a little tinkering.

  • Writing is rewriting, as a million writers before me have said, and at the beginning it’s the worst part, but as you go along and write more, it’s the most fun.  Because you’re not crafting a toy set out of your head anymore; you’re finding a thousand different ways to rearrange these toys you already have in front of you into the best story possible.

Class #6 - 4/25/17

  • Brief Lecture on Where You Go From Here:
  • What do you do with this and other plays once you’ve written them?

  • One option is to produce them yourself.  There are many festivals all over the country that accept productions of new work, or if you just want to rent a space and sell tickets, that works too. 

  • At least starting out, have somebody else direct your first few plays.  A good director can give you a new perspective on your play, especially the things that aren’t working, and will be invaluable in the rewriting process.  You’ll learn a lot about your play by putting it on its feet and seeing how actors and a director work with it.

  • Another option is to workshop your plays with a theater company.  Theatre companies often have workshop sessions where they do new work with the possibility of producing it in the future.  They may not end up producing this play you’re workshopping, but they may be interested in your next play.  You also might find a director or actor with whom you click and who might prove to be an invaluable creative partner in the future.  A good workshop can help you see what’s on the page and what’s just in your head.

  • You can also workshop plays yourself.  You can use Google Hangouts or Skype to read a draft of a play, just email scripts, assign parts, and then pick a time for everyone to get together and read it and give you feedback.  You can also invite people over to your home and have them read a play with you.

  • Where do you find all of these theatres and festivals, workshop programs and so forth?  The Dramatist Guild is one place to get it. The dues are $90 a year for associate members.  The Dramatist Guild is great for protecting your work, especially if you’re in a dispute with a theater.  They have an online resource directory that will tell you what theatre companies are accepting and where to send it.  In the past they published a book, and that was the only game in town, but the growth of the internet has changed that.

  • If you’re looking for other outlets for your work, there are a number of sites that will give you contest and festival listings.  NYCPlaywrights.org, the job section of Playbill.comEn Avant PlaywrightsThe Playwrights Forum, all of these websites have listings, with some of them sorting by the kind of play they’re requesting, while others sort by what the opportunity is: reading, contest, production, etc. 

  • Contests (and festivals where they will produce the show for you) are another great way to get recognition, since most end with a production or staged reading of your show.  When you’re looking at contests, make sure you carefully read the guidelines so that you’re sending the right script for them.  Be wary of contests that charge entry fees.  Whenever you’re thinking about submitting to a theater or a contest, it’s always smart to go to the internet to see what has been produced or won in the past, so you can get a better idea of what’s right for you.

Class #7 - 5/2/17

  • Brief Lecture on Words of Advice for the Reading (from past students):
  • Don't put off printing. If you find a small error at the last minute, don't worry about it, or correct it by hand. Your computer will crash at the last minute, or, like us, you will find your electricity goes out and you can't print. So you have to go to Kinko's. Where there's a line...

  • Not all actors are created equal! If you have a complicated part, make David read it, or one of your classmates who knows the play. If you see someone crucifying the lines in someone else's play before yours, BE RUDE and on the break, tell them you don't want them to read the part you gave them. Or be polite and tell them you need to switch them to a different part.

  • Invite audience members and let them buy you drinks after.

  • Thank Elaine. They are not making much money at Webster's, so buy a coffee or a tea the night of the reading and shop there for Mother's Day, birthdays etc.

  • Time your play.  Read it out loud with someone or have someone read it to you and use a stopwatch to make sure your play isn't going over 20 minutes.

  • There's no substitute for having the play read out loud to you--even by your computer. We think we can "edit as we read to ourselves," but that's only 60% effective. You've gotta hear what it sounds like. Having the computer read it shows whether the words themselves convey emotion. The acting just uses that to greater effect.