I am beginning to be obsessed with writing prompts. That is, the act of coming up with an idea for a prompt that can be used to begin writing a new character, scene, or play. A prompt can be as simple as “an empty chair.” An inviting, intriguing, open-ended …something… left hanging, with lots of room for the playwright to fill in the rest. A prop, image, smell, sound, gesture. Or it can be complex: “Write a play which begins with a busy signal, a caterpillar, several watermelons and a noose, has jazzercise and hard boiled eggs thrown against a brick wall in the middle, and ends with a marshmallow suspended in space with the smell of sulfur and an unspooling red ribbon on a dismembered finger.” Ooo. I like that one. Although, it reminds me a bit of the Clubbed Thumb biennial commission. (See What Do These Have In Common? for the elements that were offered in the most recent call for proposals under the theme of “The Matriarch”.) Their wishlist last summer contained so many disparate elements, it seemed to detract from the idea of a playwright as a singular visionary who could come up with plenty of their own reasons to write. Granted, there are problems with the idea that theatre in both process and product should be beholden to the singular vision of the playwright and her script, but should a commissioning process that asks for a singular vision in the end ask for so many required components at the beginning? But, you ask, if I’m so against the constraints of specific suggestions, why am I obsessed with writing prompts? Because writers need rules and a place to start, whether they invent them themselves, or someone else hands these things to them. And because the Clubbed Thumb model seems to work for many writers – it worked so well this year they have given the commission to not one but two lucky playwrights who came up with exciting project ideas. But I digress.
I think the best prompts are somewhere in the middle of open ended and specific. I am becoming particularly prone to prompts that reference another play or playwright. These are difficult to write, because I immediately want to name what makes a playwright unique and wonderful. But saying “Write a play as devastatingly intricate, powerful and consequential as Lynn Nottage’s Ruined,” or even “Write a play about the atrocities of a civil war in Africa like Lynn Nottage’s Ruined,” is to make the task vague, and entirely too lofty and impossible. You must break things down into their component parts. Which I like very much indeed, sir. It is often easier to break down the elements of shorter, simpler plays. But I suspect as I continue to write prompts based on the plays I read, I shall become superheroine-like at prompt writing. Not only is the word “prompt” deliciously difficult to pronounce, but it pairs well with wearing chunky glasses and drinking fruity tea. Which I intend to do a lot of this winter, thank you very much.
Grub Street is offering daily writing prompts for every day in 2012. Check it out at http://grubdaily.org/
Or, come take my playwriting class at Grub Street this winter, and learn to break down plays in to prompt-like components like Hung Huynh breaks down a chicken in a quickfire challenge.