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.