Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cold December Nights and Tips on Playwriting

It has been cold. We're into the minus 20's and most of us aren't quite ready for it. But ready or not, we're in for the ride. With these temperatures, everything takes more time: more time to dress, more time for shoveling, more time for the car to warm-up. When it's this cold, the car seat in my car won't move forward so I spend the first 20 minutes of the drive with pillows piled up behind my back so that I can see out the windshield. And yet, I find myself enjoying winter. It's a perfect time of year to stay home and write or sew or bake or read. And as long as I avoid the commercial rush of Christmas, December can be a truly enriching time of year. The snow makes everything so beautiful. Though the cold air stings our faces, the landscape is soft and soothing. Though we may miss our loved ones during this time of year (as I often have in past years), we can imagine them with us; in the stark, still winter skies when the stars seems brighter than other times of the year and in those not-so-early mornings when the sun slowly draws its brush of colour across the sky.

Last night, I facilitated a workshop on playwriting titled "From the Page to the Stage" (sponsored by 10by10 and NOWW) and given the weather, we weren't sure what the turn-out would be. But the room was full. We all braved the cold; each of us making at least one comment about the cold upon entering the warm building. And, as the evening progressed, we created our own environment in the room; an environment of exploration, questioning and sharing. The group, though mostly strangers to each other, shared their sources of inspiration. What struck me was how much we have in common. And how storytelling is a basic human need, whether or not we are writers by trade. We look to story to make meaning, to probe, to reminisce, to inquire, to laugh, to ignite, to disturb, to comfort, to inspire and a thousand other reasons.

Some of use may need the world to first give us permission to tell our stories. Some jump in and if the world happens to respond in kind, that's wonderful. But if the larger world fails to respond to our story (in whatever form we chose to tell it), we may choose to remain undaunted. Because, perhaps in the end, it is the act of telling the story that matters most. We're better off for forming that story in our hearts and minds; our winter skies may seem clearer and brighter because of it.

And for the playwrights and writers who happen to be reading this blog entry, here are some tips on playwriting that I've comprised. I would be remiss if I did not mention the many wonderful directors and dramaturges who, over the years, have shared their knowledge with me (Jan Henderson, David S. Craig and Thomas Morgan Jones to name a few). I cannot say that I've invented most of these ideas. I've just gradually made them my own over the years. They may or may not be valuable for you but here they are:

  1. Whatever your initial impulse is for your story, do not lose track of it. (And I am not the first writer to say this.) Your script may go through eight or nine drafts, but the essence needs to remain true. This is a difficult thing to describe but when you've compromised that initial impulse, you'll likely feel less connected to the story. It usually carries the seed of why this is important to you; why you need to write about it. I remember being in a playwriting workshop and an actor was emphatic about a change he wanted to make in a character he was playing. He wanted the character to become physically and verbally abusive, upon discovering his wife's alleged affair. However, it was very important to me that the affair (which later is revealed as an affair of the heart), was not spurred by an abusive husband but by her own circumstances of poverty and her own unmet needs. For me, if the husband had become abusive, it would have changed the essence of the play and I therefore could not make the change. In that same workshop, I made all kinds of other changes, some of them quite significant, but those changes did not shift the essence of the story.
  1. This is an obvious point but writing is very time-consuming. It means carving out time, whether or not I feel inspired; whether or not I'm in the mood. Sometimes, I'm full steam ahead and other times, I need prompts to get me started. There are many excellent books that provide ideas for prompts. One of my favourite prompts is to take a deck of archetypal cards and draw one from the deck. I then write a quick monologue from that point of view. If you don't have a deck, you can simply make your own list of archetypes: the fool, the mother, the innocent child, the kind/queen, the warrior, and so on.
  2. Pay attention to how people talk. Listen for the rhythm in the way people speak. Then find the rhythm in your own characters. Read aloud your script. Notice when the words don't sound natural to your ears.
  3. Ask pertinent questions about your work. A good dramaturg will formulate a number of perfect questions to urge you towards that next draft. Here are a few samples: “Who is the story about? What are the themes? What visual images are in the work?”
  4. What challenges do your characters face? Through challenges, characters make decisions for better or for worse, and this will give your play a forward thrust.
  5. Ask yourself with each line of dialogue “Is the character hiding or revealing?” In other words, what is the sub-text. What are the characters really saying?
  6. Some writers begin their story by exploring character and some begin by developing a plot. (I've tried both and vacillate back and forth between the two.) I find that when I begin with a character, the process is slower but it is also very enriching and tends to access intuition. When I've drawn out a map of the plot in advance, I can expect the plot to shift as the characters develop.
  7. It is helpful for me to know what my threads are. By threads, I mean a significant object or the themes behind the play or a plot thread. I like to map out my threads. It's important for me to notice when I've dropped a thread and equally important to notice when I've picked it back up again.
  8. Many playwriting workshops have put forth the question: “What does the character(s) want and how far is he/she willing to go to get it?” A dramaturge friend of mine, Thomas Morgan Jones, once asked me, “What is the character most afraid of?” And what is their greatest wish?” Both of these questions, though similar, will give the writing greater depth. Another useful tip from Thomas was to read the first and last line from each scene and than ask myself, “has anything changed?”
  9. What are you, as a playwright, trying to say with your story? Whatever it is, it shouldn't be obvious. It should be carefully concealed in the work. Most often, a playwright is trying to say something; if only “take a closer look at this issue” or “take a look at these characters and see what they're struggling with.” Be wary of writing a play that falls under the category of “Sledgehammer Theatre.” Audiences do not want to feel preached to.
  10. Invite actors to sit around a table and read a draft. It is amazing what can be revealed just by this process.
  11. I write many drafts. By drafts, I mean that I make significant changes (without losing the initial impulse for the work). I may experiment with time period, I may introduce or remove one of the characters, I may change the plot, I may introduce a new challenge. I often say to myself, while I'm rewriting a draft “If I don't like it, I'll just go back to the old draft.” But funnily, I've never returned to an old draft. I get attached to the new one and that becomes my new reality.
  12. There are certain things that have become helpful for me, in terms of re-visiting the work. Sometimes, I focus on one character only and re-work the piece with that one character in mind. I follow all of their lines through the play and it also helps me to see what their journey is. Then I switch to another character and go through the process again. The other thing I've done is create a visual map of the entire story. It's a bit like creating a storyboard, I suppose. However, rather than focusing on the camera angles, I focus only on the journeys of the characters.
  13. It can be helpful to go through the draft and mark the motivational beats. This is a tool that actors use while deconstructing a script. It involves going through a scene and marking the places where a character's motivation shifts.
  14. A short play has the same components that a full-length play has. It just happens to be shorter and more concentrated.

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