Writing Raw Materials

Unlike Edward Albee, who famously doesn’t write a word of a play until he’s perfected it all in his head, I often write things that don’t end up in a play. A monologue to get to know one of my characters better. A scene from before the play begins. A scene that the audience won’t ever see but hears about in another scene. The “bad” version of a scene.  Raw materials – all the things I need to work through, explore, practice, build before the polished version emerges.  Most of this stuff is happy to live “in the drawer” forever, never intended for an audience.   When I am just starting to write a new play, I sometimes don’t know which stuff will end up in the official first draft, and which stuff will end up getting cut. This month, some of this unpolished, in-process material will be getting public readings.  So if you want a window into my process, or if you just like to hear new pages hot off the old inkjet, and you live in the Boston area, check out some of these exciting events:

Bostonia Bohemia’s Fly On The Wall Festival will feature a couple of my site specific monologues

Interim Writers’ Have You Read?  on November 16th at 7:30pm at the Democracy Center in Harvard Square – Reading of raw materials from play-in-progress Forever Home

And for a reading of a full-length play a little closer to polished, but still in process check out: Wax Wings Productions’ Reading of Mad Props on November 17th at 7pm (also at the Democracy Center)

Advertisement

Playwriting and Math

One of the many amazing things to come out of the Freedom Art Retreat back in 2011 was that one day, somewhere in between swimming in Pea Porridge Pond, eating grilled corn, drinking cocktails, singing along to ukeleles, hiking mountains and making group projects, I asked the group a question that had been on my mind for a while.  Actually, no, I tried to ask the question, but it was a barely formed, half articulated, bizarre mumbling thing in the general tenor of a question.

It was something like:  “So guys, I’m working on this 8-character play, Mad Props, and it’s a lot of characters!  But I was wondering, if I have 8 characters in a play, how many, um, if I wanted to know, like, how many different scenes are possible, with you know, different characters in different configurations, um, how would I figure that out?”

Now I used to be a math person, back when being a math person meant basic multiplication and division.  So, essentially, elementary school was when I peaked.  But I’m still a person who likes to figure things out, even if it’s not something I know how to figure out. That’s where the amazing powers of friendship and collaboration come in handy.  Thanks to the help of my fellow retreatants, particularly Jason Weber, we figured out what my question was, and then he even came up with the answer in the form of an amazing excel spreadsheet that figures it out for you using formulas.  Formulas!  On a theatre-in-the-woods retreat!

The key was remembering a math concept called “combinations (without repetition)” – just coming up with the right concept took a little while.  Did I mention I was having problems articulating the question?

It turns out what I was asking for was the total number of possible scenes, depending on total number of characters in the play, using different combinations of characters.  So, for example, if there are 8 characters in a play, then the total number of 1-character scenes possible in that play is 8.  The total number of 8-character scenes possible is of course, 1.  The trick is figuring out all the combinations of 5-character scenes and 3-character scenes, etc.  In an 8 character play, there are a total of 255 unique combinations of different characters on stage.  The only thing is, the formulas only give you the number of combinations.  You would have to figure out yourself what each of the unique combinations are.

For example, here are the 28 unique combinations for 2-character scenes in an 8-character play: ab, ac, ad, ae, af, ag, ah, bc, bd, be, bf, bg, bh, cd, ce, cf, cg, ch, de, df, dg, dh, ef, eg, eh, fg ,fh, gh

Here is what the basic formula looks like in my fancy spreadsheet (thank you Jason Weber!!):

=FACT(B7)/(FACT(A10)*FACT(B7-A10))
with B7 containing the total number of characters and A10 containing the # of characters in a scene

Ah, math.  Sometimes you are so helpful.

Knowing and Not Knowing, Part I: Direct Address

When should you let your audience “in” on what’s happening?  When should you keep it a big, heavy, elephant-in-the-room secret?  All plays have some elements of both – one of the jobs of the playwright is to measure the balance between what the audience knows and doesn’t know, and how and when to withhold or impart information. Sometimes when you want the audience to know something, the quick and dirty way to accomplish that is to just tell them.  Why bother with fancy tricks to get your most important exposition across?  Want your audience to know that one character thinks the other one is crazy?  Just tell them!

LORD POLONIUS

[Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.

This is a nice little essay about the use of direct address in a few contemporary plays.

A couple of my favorite examples of plays that use monologues spoken straight to the audience (aka an aside or in a slightly different sense, a soliloquy) are Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation.  These plays are a story being told and acted out for the audience.  The play is aware of itself being a play, and the characters consistently break the fourth wall.  Like a Greek chorus, they narrate story as it goes along.  So, yes it is an old contrivance, and a very effective, if blunt, instrument.  And yes, sometimes blunt is an excellent thing.

What Happens? – or – How To Be Inspired By Great Writers

What would you write if I said “Write a play in which the characters learn they are about to die”?  My mind would immediately jump to the Titanic, a jail cell or a mine where the air is running out and the rescuers just decided to stop trying.  Some bleak, dire landscape.  In other words, my first impulse would be to telegraph from the beginning what’s about to happen.  If you were David Ives, however, you would write a cheeky little rom-com about the dating and mating of a couple of cute mayflies. In David Ives’ “Time Flies,”  two effervescent  little mayflies (you know, mayflies, the tiny creatures whose lifecycle lasts for only one day), come to understand, after much clever banter, that they have only hours left to live. And then they decide to make the best of what little time they’ve got, which is what the play is ultimately about – making the most of fleeting time. Or, rather, flying time. Because they are time flies.  Get it?

Ah, puns.  David Ives is insanely good at inventing and utlizing them. “Time Flies” is one of the plays I am assigning from the book Under Thirty: Plays for a New Generation in my Playwriting I class this winter at Boston’s Grub Street.   I admire Ives’ masterful wit, rhythmic repartee, and generously inviting sense of play, word and otherwise.   He does telegraph what’s about to happen, but he’s using dramatic irony, where the audience knows something the characters haven’t figured out yet, which is a delight. But all these qualities are not why I will be teaching the play.  Or, rather, those are not the only reasons.  It’s also a good example of the difference between what literally happens and what it feels like as it’s happening.  This play is fun, silly and sweet.  It doesn’t seem on the surface of the thing to be concerned with issues of fate, mortality and facing the truth about who you are.  But because it is about these things, it is not simply a sketch with funny costumes.

A natural first impulse for a playwright is to look at any play and ask “how can I do that, but do it better?”  But when using master playwrights who weave plays with hidden seams as your models, it can be hard to figure out where to begin without being tempted to produce shoddy imitations.  After all, the point of writing is to develop your own unique voice. Because the world doesn’t need another, almost certainly lesser, David Ives.  So, I could say to my students: “Write a play that’s funnier and cuter.” But that would be too prescriptive, setting them up to fail.  I probably also wouldn’t say, “Write a play that’s about fate, mortality and facing the truth about who you are.”  Because aren’t all plays about that on some level?

Instead, I will look to what happens in the play as a springboard for inspiration and say “Write a play in which the characters learn they are about to die.”  Because doesn’t that sound tantalizing?  I can’t wait to find out what happens next!

Playwriting Prompts

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.

How To Make Freedom Art…

I am always returning to the question – why this right now? – as I sit and write, alone. I do this because I want the plays I write to mean something, not only to me, but to be worthy of other people’s blood, sweat and tears.  A play asks for the time, attention, spirit, and money of so many people.  So, whether my play is intended to make an audience cry, think, sigh or laugh, I take my job pretty seriously.  Probably, often, too seriously.

This summer I made a few discoveries on the Playwrights Commons’ Freedom Art Retreat that released me from my own silly, grandiose perfectionism and reminded me why theatre is so much fun to make and to experience.  (Whether great fun always equals great art is another question for another day, and one I was grateful to have the opportunity to leave behind for a week.)  Here are the things I was reminded of again and again as we worked in different small groups over the course of the retreat:

  1. Pick something to make and then make it.  Finding a way to do this is going to be different with every group, every time. Some of the most exciting stuff came from starting with a strong visual image, like paper boats on a pond at sunset, or someone crawling haphazardly down a flight of stairs.  Sometimes it took all day to agree on what to make, sometimes it took just a few minutes. It was always more fun when we were done with the picking part and had moved on to making something.
  2. If you’re worried about something coming out bad or clichéd, just go ahead and make the “bad” version.  Make it SO SO bad.  Clothe yourself in cliché. When I was working in a group of five people on a site-specific play, we discovered early on that the place we had found in the woods was suggesting 1960s-nostalgic-teen-car-crash-after-school-special-melodrama to us.  So we ran with that as far as we could. And I don’t think any one of us would have made what we ended up with had we been working on our own, which is great.
  3. Take every functional idea. Even keep stuff that doesn’t feel quite right, call it a placeholder, and come back to it later. Don’t worry whether that line, image, character or concept is cool, funny, poetic, intricate or sexy enough.  If it moves the process forward, keep it and move on to the next thing.
  4. Just play.  Play ukuleles. Play charades.  Eat popsicles and drink alcohol and go swimming and have a dance party.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Also eat an unholy amount of delicious homemade food, play with dogs and tiny frogs, and travel to the top of mountain.  You’ll know it’s the very top because you can see the other side.