New Year, New Plays

When I first began to think I wanted to be a playwright/actor/director/theatre maker, I was told to be patient, to stick with it, to learn to define my own success, to work together – and that it would probably take me 10 years to get where I wanted to go.  Here I am, ten years later, and there are so many exciting projects to look forward to in the New Year, my first New Year’s resolution is to stay healthy so I can do it all!

The 3rd Annual Boston One Minute Play Festival will feature a couple of tiny plays of mine, among many many other tiny theatrical moments by many other local playwrights.  I love how this festival captures our local zeitgeist and asks playwrights to write plays that speak to each other, and speak volumes, collectively. If you can’t make it in person, you can watch it on Sun Night at 11PM Eastern on Livestream.com/newplay where it will also be archived for later viewing.

Speaking of collective voices, I am working on a couple of devised theatre projects.  These collaboratively crafted pieces are unfolding bit by bit, and I’m very excited to see where they lead… but there’s no telling when they might be ready for public consumption… I’ll keep you posted!

The 6 Weeks 6 Plays challenge – I am looking forward to leading this as well as trying to write a new play each week myself!

Master Scriptwriting  – professional actors, visiting artists, team teaching, cross-genre discussions, and a public reading are all pretty thrilling stuff, not to mention the plays and screenplays that these students are going to be working on.  I’m beyond excited to see these things grow.

The Spring Play at Mount Ida – I’ll be directing again at Mount Ida College this spring. Following last year’s successful One Act Play Festival, we are putting on a full-length play!  I have been thinking about plays with flexible cast sizes, strong female roles and a minimal design aesthetic for the entrepreneurial band of talented young thespians that is the Mount Ida Drama Club… more on this soon!

Here’s to challenges, full plates, and the pay-offs of long-term resolutions – happy & healthy holidays to you all!

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Frenzy and the Treats

Turns out April really is the month to get inspired to write that new play.  Budding playwrights (and dialogue-based script writers of all forms): meet Script Frenzy!  Script Frenzy dares you to write 100 pages of a new script in the month of April.  So, if November and NaPlWriMo is too far away and you’re ready to get started right away, in fact, you were ready yesterday… www.scriptfrenzy.org looks like the way to go.

They have some great resources on their website, like information about script formatting, a list of all the free and not-so-free software available, and all kinds of articles and advice.  I love love love that all this is available for free online.  And I love that I can share about it here on this blog of mine.

But dare I say it, the more computerized my everyday world becomes, the more I treasure my work as a playwright. After all, I spend all those hours on my computer alone writing because a play brings people together – bodies, imaginations, emotions, and intellects – in time and space.  And because nothing beats being in a room with a bunch of other people hearing the brand new pages of your script you just wrote last night out loud, sharing ideas and feedback, debating and discussing and deliberating and eating brownies while bawling and guffawing and holding our collective breath and leaning in close….  I suppose there’s probably an app for all that now, minus the brownies. And I am indecently attached to my iPhone. But I’ll take a room at Grub Street any day.  BYO brownies.

April Showers Bring First Drafts

The magnolias are blooming, the sun and the rain are playing hide and seek.  Clearly April is right around the corner.  And with April comes more light, more color, the promise of summer and a reprieve from all that darkness and cold that keeps us cooped up all winter. But don’t trade in your computer and your thinking cap for flip flops and sundresses just yet, because April is the perfect time to start writing a new play!  Maybe you’ve heard about those folks who try to write the first draft of a whole novel in just one month for NaNoWriMo. Maybe you’ve even heard about the folks who do this same thing, but for writing plays, also in the month of November, called NaPlWriMo.  Everyone has their own strategies to make this impossible task possible.  They write a certain number of words per day, or per week, but they all just keep those pens and keyboards moving and clicking. It’s an inspiring concept that connects writers from around the globe, gives you a goal and a deadline, and lots of encouragement to write and keep writing.  

My Writing the Full Length Play class begins at Grub Street on April 15th. The course is 10 weeks – which is more than twice the time of NaPlWriMo. My hope is that it will be ample time for playwrights of all experience levels begin writing something new, hear it out loud, work on revisions and even prepare to send it out into the world.   Writing is never easy, no matter how much you’ve written before.  But having others going through it with you can get you to set aside the necessary time and all those unnecessary fears to just do it. I hope we will all be inspired by the example set by NaPlWriMo, and the goal of starting something new and writing it all the way through to the end.  I know I am!

Writing the Full-Length Play

I’m so excited to be teaching at Grub Street this spring – it’s going to be a really fun class. For those of you considering taking my Writing the Full-Length Play class, here are some details about what the class will cover. The class will be tailored to the needs and interests of the students. If you are writing a musical, for example, you should take this class. If you are writing an experimental hybrid multimedia puppet dance piece that includes spoken words, I can help with that too. If you are writing a 3 character, single set, 90-minute comedy-drama, you can write it in this class. If you want to adapt a short play into a longer play, something you’ve written in another genre or something from the public domain, you should totally take this class. Ok, you get the idea. Feel free to contact Grub Street with any further questions if you are wondering if this class will be right for you.

Writing the Full-Length Play is designed for both beginners and more experienced writers.

If this is the first time you are writing a play, you will:
• Discover a supportive community of other writers.
• Learn the fundamentals of playwriting including character, dialogue, conflict and plot.
• Get lots of help getting started with writing exercises, prompts and assignments.
• Plays are meant to be heard out loud – hear new pages every week!
• Get feedback and encouragement.
• Read and discuss inspiring new plays, and learn how to use them for inspiration.
• Learn how to format your play and other professional skills.
• Suddenly have a whole play – that you wrote!
• Get detailed advice tailored to you and your writing about what to do with your work.

If you have written plays before, you will:
• No more writing alone – discover a supportive community of other writers.
• Brush up on those fundamentals including character, dialogue, conflict and plot.
• Plays are meant to be heard out loud – hear new pages every week!
• Learn to articulate your writing goals and challenges, and receive feedback and encouragement.
• Discover new methods for writing and revision.
• Read and discuss inspiring new plays, and learn how to use them for inspiration.
• Learn professional skills including writing synopses and artistic statements.
• Get detailed advice tailored to you and your writing about what to do with your work.

Class Structure
Each class is 3 hours long, giving us time for writing exercises, discussions of outside readings, reading newly written scenes out loud and giving/receiving feedback.

Reading
Every week the outside reading will include one or two new plays from the contemporary canon. These are plays that have been produced in the last twenty years, received multiple productions, been hailed by critics and audiences, are innovative or provocative, etc. They will give you a good sense of the variety of writers, subjects, structures and styles that are flourishing in contemporary theatre today. I’m still finalizing the reading list, but I will likely include plays by Neil LaBute, Sarah Ruhl, Adam Rapp, Lynn Nottage, Stephen Karam, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Suzan-Lori Parks, Douglas Carter Beane, Sheila Callaghan, Kenneth Lonergan, and Paula Vogel. We will also read Backwards and Forwards by David Ball, and a few fundamental acting and directing theories for reference.

Writing
We will do writing exercises at the beginning of each class. There will also be several writing prompts based on the discussion topics and outside readings that you will be able to use in any way you wish to do writing on your own. Most prompts will focus on a particular scene, character, element or moment from one of the plays we’ve read. An example of a prompt is “Like Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate, write about three misfits teaming up against a common enemy.” Other fun writing assignments may include overheard conversations, guided imagery, writing the bad version, improvisations, playing with status and tactics, etc.

Discussion Topics will include:
Structure and Story
Things Audiences Love
Character and Empathy
Conflict: Objective and Obstacle
Action: Cause and Effect
Is Crying Dramatic?: Internal and External Events
The 5 W’s of Revision
How to Listen to Your Play
Breaking the Rules & Other Practical Stuff

And this is so cool: Grub students can get an exclusive discount on Final Draft screenwriting and playwriting software! Final Draft gives you templates for every kind of dialogue based writing you will ever want to do, and makes sure your scripts are automatically formatted properly. It also has all kinds of other helpful shortcuts and things. It’s what most professional playwrights, television writers and screenwriters use.

For more about Grub Street, their fancy new HQ, and to sign up, visit www.grubstreet.org.

Writing the Full-Length Play
10 Sundays from 6:15-9:15pm at Grub Street headquarters.
Begins April 15th.
Start and finish a full-length play in this workshop for both new and experienced playwrights. Students may be at any stage in the process– you may be hatching ideas, have a few pages written, or have already completed a draft. Conquer the blank page and revisions with interactive exercises and assignments. Master strategies for creating compelling structure, action and character development. Hear new pages out loud and learn how to make the most of feedback. Learn what to do with your completed play.


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.