Tuesday, December 23, 2008

So, what are you saying?

Everything that is created is made for a particular purpose. When an author writes, he or she does so for a certain audience. When you write a paper for class, the audience is your teacher. When you write an email to a friend, the friend is your audience. When you are writing your play, you are writing for a particular group. Do you know who that audience is? Do you know what your play is saying to them and what they might take away from the story?

The theme of a play is the message that the audience is left with after the story. Remember our friend, Penny from a few weeks ago? Well, let's suppose that she decides to steal the money to get her mother a present and she gets caught. The theme, or message to the audience, of that story might simply be "Don't steal." What would the message be if Penny doesn't get caught?

What is the theme if Penny decides for herself that stealing is wrong and as a result, isn't able to get a present for her mother? The theme might then come from how Mom reacts to Penny's decision. Let's say that Penny's mother doesn't mind that Penny didn't get a present, but is happy that her daughter made the right decision. There might be two themes there. First, the audience learns that stealing is wrong; a second message might be "it's the thought that counts." What are some others themes that you can get from this story?

Take a look at your play. Do you know what the theme is? When the play is over, how will the audience understand that this is the theme? Is there a moment where the theme is revealed, like when Penny learns a lesson?

Knowing who the audience of a play is will help a playwright select a theme and determine how it is presented to that audience. Obviously, this does not mean that a playwright will personally know everyone in the audience for their play. What it does mean is that when writing a play, a playwright has an intended audience. Who that intended audience might be can change how a play is presented.

Again, taking Penny as our example, the way that the theme is presented to an audience of 8-year-olds will be much different than how the theme is presented to adults.

A playwright should also consider how well informed an audience might be about a particular setting in the play, or references that the characters make to certain regions, pop culture, and other things. For example, there are things that are specific to life in New Jersey that people from other parts of the country may not understand. I recently spoke with one young playwright who was writing a play that takes place at the beach. There were some terms in the play that people who don't live near a beach may not know, which could lead to confusion about what is going on. To help avoid this kind of confusion, find some friends or family members who may not be familiar with your play, or these specifics, and ask them to read the play. You can use their feedback to find creative ways to include more details in your story without making it too unnatural to the dialogue. It is difficult to do, but definitely worth the try. But the results are very exciting!

Happy writing!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

One month to go!

Hey Young Playwrights! Just a reminder that script submissions to the NJ Young Playwrights Contest are due one month from today - January 16, 2009.

Please remember that this deadline is a postmark deadline. That means that you need to put your script in the mail no later than Friday, January 16, 2009.

I hope you are having a great time writing your play. The Contest Readers and I are very excited to read what you've created. In the meantime, do not hesitate to contact the Education Office at Playwrights Theatre with any questions about the Contest.

Have fun!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Creating Conflict and Raising the Stakes

Conflict is what drives the story of your play forward. This is the tension created between the main character and the obstacles that stand in the way of the character achieving his or her goal(s). Conflict starts with what the character wants. This can be something as simple as a character wanting to earn enough money to get a present for his or her mother. But remember, a playwright wants to get the audience to care about the main character and really root for him or her and that can be done by “raising the stakes,” or to put it another way, challenging the character’s desire to get what he or she wants.

Let’s use the example of the character who wants to earn money for a present. We’ll call her Penny. Keeping in mind the outline from a few posts ago, we need to identify Penny’s WANT and EMERGENCY. We know that she wants to earn money to get a present for her mother; I will leave it to you to decide why she needs to begin that journey (the Emergency). The next step is to figure out what she will do to earn the money. To do that, consider what are some things that people do to get what they want. These are the ACTIONS. Some examples might be:


You might be able to add more ideas to this list, or to change some of these suggestions to be more specific. “Ask” could become “borrow.”

Do you see how each action gets more serious? Not everyone will be comfortable to try each of these things, so the idea is not to choose one of these actions for the character, but to have them try each kind until they reach something that the character is not comfortable doing and needs to make a choice. For example, Penny might try asking a friend, or relative for the money, but is unable to earn enough to the present that she wants. So, she gets a job, but finds that she won’t earn the money quick enough. Then perhaps a friend mentions to Penny that she could steal the money, but Penny knows that stealing is wrong and is not comfortable doing that. Now she needs to make a decision. Does she steal the money so her mother has a present? Does she try something else? Does she get a different present? Not get a present at all?

Presenting your character with these different challenges raises their stakes in the story and creates greater tension. The result may be a play that draws the audience deeper into the story and gets them more invested in the outcome. And it is the outcome, or what the character decides to do and how they experience the consequence, which delivers your theme or message to the audience. But that’s for next week. For now, raise the stakes for your character – push them to the limit and see how they respond!

Happy writing!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

An Emergency Situation

Consider this statement – Some of the strongest stories have a main character that the audience cares about and roots for to achieve his or her goal.

Identifying the emergency in your story is one way to measure how well an audience is able to root for the main character. Think about some of your favorite stories. Why do you like them? Why do you want to see them succeed?

Let’s look at Cinderella again as an example. I indicated that the emergency is when something happens to the character that prompts them to go after their goal/want. For Cinderella, the emergency is the arrival of the invitation to the ball. Now, imagine her story without all of the scenes that occur before emergency (when the invitation to the ball arrives). If the audience is introduced to the character of Cinderella right at that moment, what do they know about her? In that scene, she is just someone trying to get to the ball, but why should the audience care whether or not Cinderella gets to go?

The exposition scenes before the invitation arrives are the key to the audience’s investment in Cinderella’s journey. Without the introduction to the evil stepfamily, the scenes of the horrible way that Cinderella is treated, and the display of Cinderella’s personality as she deals with these events, is what can lead an audience to care about the character and really root for her to find something better.

So, take a look at your play. What is the emergency? When does it occur? What happens beforehand? Make sure to give your audience plenty of time to get to know the main character and what everyday life is like for him or her. When the emergency arrives, the audience will want to see your character succeed almost as much as the character does!

Have fun and happy writing!

Monday, November 17, 2008

What a Character WANTS; What a Character NEEDS

Now that you have become familiar with your character, it is time to put them into action. One way to do this is to focus on the character’s goals or, what it is that the character WANTS or NEEDS to achieve. To organize a story around this idea, I suggest trying the following organizer. Definitions of each term are provided, but we’ll take a look at an example a little further down the page.

CHARACTER – Character name goes here. You may also include any information from the Character Biography that you feel is important.

WANT/NEED – A better life.

EMERGENCY – What makes this day different from other days? Or… why does the character suddenly decide to go and get what they want/need?

OBSTACLES – People and things that stand in the character’s way.

ACTIONS – What the character does to get past the obstacles.

CONCLUSION – How the story ends.

Now, let’s take Cinderella as an example of a character.

The story of Cinderella has multiple versions, adaptations, and retellings, so when I have approached this in workshops everyone has a slightly different take on the story. (For three versions from the Russian, Chinese and Algonquin cultures, check out Cinderella: The World’s Favorite Fairytale by Lowell Swortzell.) To make things easier, we’ll go with a version that most people are likely familiar with - the Perrault/Disney version.

Cinderella wants, or it may be more appropriate to say that Cinderella NEEDS, a better life. She is trapped in a horrible home with a stepmother and stepsisters who demand that she do all of their work – cooking, cleaning, and making their clothes. It is an abusive situation and she needs to get out.

One day, a message arrives from the palace. The Prince is looking for a wife and plans a ball to which he is inviting all of the young women in the kingdom. Cinderella sees this as an opportunity to achieve her goal of a better life, but her Stepmother and Stepsisters prevent Cinderella from going. However, Cinderella gets help from her Fairy Godmother who magically transforms the animals and objects in the house into the coach, gown, and attendants who assist in getting Cinderella to the ball. However, this assistance comes with a catch. Cinderella must leave the ball by midnight. At that time, the magic will wear off and everything will turn back into what it once was.

So, Cinderella attends the ball, avoids being spotted by her Stepmother and Stepsisters, dances with the Prince, and leaves the palace just as the clock strikes midnight. However, she loses one of her glass slippers at the palace, which the Prince then uses to find her.

That’s enough information for us to go back to the organizer. Given that version of the story, I might fill things out in this way…

CHARACTER – Cinderella

WANT/NEED – A better life

EMERGENCY – The invitation to the ball asks for all young women to attend. Stepmother and the Stepsisters cannot overrule the Prince, so she has a chance to go to the ball, which just might offer her the opportunity to get a better life.

OBSTACLES – Stepmother, Stepsisters, Time.

ACTIONS – Completes the tasks her Stepfamily gives her, Accepts help from the Fairy Godmother, Dances with the Prince, Returns home as the magic wears off, but now is disappointed.


We know how the classic versions of this story end, but I will leave the conclusion undecided to demonstrate that the story does not need to end one particular way. Depending upon the author/playwright’s theme, a story can end any number of ways, based on what the author wants the audience to learn. But we can get into theme another time.

Now back to your character. Try to place your character into this outline and see how the story might unfold. I encourage you to try some different versions by changing the character’s want, obstacles or action. How does that change the story? What do you think an audience might learn from each version of the story?

Another thing to consider is just as each character experiences obstacles along the way, they might also find help. Help can come in the form of people like Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, or things like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, or information like a Jedi Padawan’s training in the ways of the Force. See what works for the story you want to tell.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Building Character

It has been an action-packed few weeks since the last post. I taught two playwriting and drama workshops for teachers – one at my alma mater and one at the annual NJEA Convention in Atlantic City this past weekend. These were great experiences and I learned a lot while running the workshops and look forward to hearing from these teachers about how they may implement playwriting and drama into their curriculum. Thank you to all who participated.

Now, back to playwriting…

Characters should function in the world of your play as a real person, or being, inside that world. They have certain ways of moving, thinking, and interaction with other people or beings, just as we all do in “reality.” Giving a character a name is a simple way to begin fleshing them out.

At the Atlantic City convention, the participants completed a Self-Questionnaire similar to the one in the previous blog post. After that, I asked everyone to take their own name and recreate themselves as a new character by changing at least their last name… some changed both. (I learned this activity during a workshop run by the Director of Education from Young Playwrights, Inc., an organization that runs an excellent national contest for young playwrights. A few former NJ Young Playwrights winners have also been recognized in the Young Playwrights contest. Check them out at http://www.youngplaywrights.org/.) If you are stuck for a character idea, or a character name at least, this is a simple way to get started. Some of the names the Atlantic City group came up with are:

Jean Mercedes
Nicole Moodie
Fran Active
Fresca Visions
Calliope Sky

Do you have an idea of what some of these characters might be like? How old are each of these characters? What do they do for fun? Do they work? What kind of work might they do? What does each character want in life?

Another way to get deeper into a character is to use a Character Biography Sheet. In his book The Playwrights Process, Buzz McLaughlin provides samples of mini-form and long-form biographies. At Playwrights Theatre, we use an adaptation of his Mini-form biography that asks a playwright to consider the character's dreams, secrets, fears, and conflicts. These are all great places that might spark an interesting story idea.

I’ve often found that when I can envision my character I have an easier time writing for him or her. Then I write a description, or even a short (very short) story, to place that person in a location and to get a sense of how they move, think, and interact with others. This doesn’t need to be something that becomes part of the play, but just something that I can use to get a clearer sense of who the story is about and how they function. Once that is set, its time to give them something to want and a problem to face. More about that in a few days.

Happy writing!

Monday, October 20, 2008


"Children want to write. They want to write the first day they attend school. This is no accident. Before they went to school they marked up walls, pavements, newspapers with crayons, chalk, pens or pencils... anything that makes a mark. The child's marks say, 'I am.'" - from Writing: Teachers and Children at Work by Donald H. Graves

You may have heard people say that you should only "write what you know." What does that mean exactly? A lot of young writers get intimidated by this idea and believe that they don't know enough to write about whatever it is that interests them. That is simply not true. While it is important to know something about what you are writing, you will ultimately need to use your creativity and imagination to create the world in which the character lives and breathes. So, don't be afraid to write about that issue, that event, or that feeling that you are itching to get out. Writing is a way for you to tell the world what you're thinking and how you feel.

Strong writing is inspired by things that you are passionate about. Once you have identified an idea that you feel strongly about, draw from your experience and imagination to create a character and a world for that character to inhabit. Send them on a journey to accomplish something and see what happens. You can always go back later to do research about any experiences, time periods, or other facts that you are unsure about. These will be included in your revisions. But for now, to help you get started in generating story ideas, take a look at the following "Self-Questionnaire." This was adapted from a worksheet created by Dominique Cieri, a teaching artist with Playwrights Theatre.

Answer each of the questions about you. Be sure to include as much detail as possible.

1. What is your full name?
2. What are some nicknames you have? Who calls you these names?
3. Where were you born?
4. Is there a story about your birthday?
5. Mother’s full name (including her Maiden name, if you know it)
6. Father’s full name
7. One grandparent’s full name
8. Do you call anyone by a nickname? Who are these people? What do you call them? Why?
9. Who do people tell you that you look like? (family member, someone famous?)
10. What is important to you? What would you stand up and fight for?
11. What gets you really angry?
12. What is your biggest dream?
13. What is unique about you?
14. What or who do you admire? Why?
15. Everyone has a life question. This is something that you’re dying to know. Someone is going to walk through the door in 20 seconds and answer this question. Quick! Don’t think about it, just write down the first question that comes to mind.

Hopefully there is an answer to one of these questions that has sparked an idea to jump start your writing. These are the same questions that you might ask your characters to get a deeper understanding of each of them. See where your answers take you and if you can create a character for your story, ask these same questions of that character.

Have fun writing!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

They're here!

The brochures for the NJ Young Playwrights Contest arrived at Playwrights Theatre yesterday.

They should arrive at your school by this Friday. Ask your Drama or English teacher if they received one. If not, let me know and I'll send one right out.

Monday, September 29, 2008


Playwrights Theatre is now accepting submissions for the NJ Young Playwrights Contest and Festival 2009! Please read the submission guidelines below.


Read this carefully. Plays not submitted in this format will be rejected.

Entries must be postmarked no later than January 16, 2009.

Preparing Your Submission

It looks like a long list of things to do, but don't worry, it's easy and we're here to help!

  • Plays must be in the style of the professional format example provided. See the format example here.

  • Submit three (3) copies of your play. Keep the original at home; scripts will not be returned.

  • Include a self-addressed, STAMPED, business-size envelope for return of reader feedback. Scripts without stamped envelopes will not be entered in the contest.

  • Plays may not be written by more than FIVE (5) authors who are residents of, or students in, New Jersey between the ages of 9 and 19.

  • All authors must be within the grade range of the division being entered.

  • College students are not eligible.

  • The choice of subject and style of language is up to you. However, you are strongly urged to use discretion, as the plays may become public.

  • Scripts must be no longer than 20 minutes in performance time and/or no longer than 20 typed pages.

  • Scripts must be typed in Times Roman, font size 12, color black, one-inch margins with pages numbers and stapled once in the upper left-hand corner. IMPORTANT: SCRIPTS SHOULD NOT BE BOUND IN ANY OTHER WAY.

  • Playwright's name and other personal information should appear on the cover page, but NOT appear anywhere else in the script. Playwright must include one (1) cover page with the following information (in this order): See the cover page sample here.
    1. Name
    2. Address (street, city, state, zip)
    3. NJ county in which you live
    4. Home telephone number
    5. E-mail address
    6. Grade in school
    7. Date of birth
    8. Parent/Guardian name
    9. School name and address
    10. School telephone and e-mail
    11. Principal's name
    12. English/Writing/Language teacher's name (if applicable)
    13. If you participated in a NJWP residency.
    14. If yes, then the name of the teaching artist
Please write on the envelope the school division (Elementary, Junior High, High School, Spanish Language, or Rewrites) in which the play or plays are entered.

Very Important: Entries for different divisions must be sent in separate envelopes.

Scripts submitted to previous New Jersey Young Playwrights Contests are not eligible, except for in the REWRITES Division.

Filmscripts, screenplays, adaptations of other author's work are not eligible.

Critiques and contest results will not be distributed until June 2009.

Plays are accepted in the following Divisions:Elementary (Grades 4-6)Junior High (Grades 7-9)High School (Grades 10-12)Spanish Language (Grades 10-12)Rewrites (Grades 10-12)


This division is an opportunity for students in Grades 10-12 to submit a revised version of a script submitted to a previous year’s NJ Young Playwrights Contests. One winner may be selected. Entries to the Rewrites Division must adhere to the submission guidelines, plus the following:
1. Submit three (3) copies of the original version of the script.

2. Submit three (3) copies of the revised version of the script.

3. Be sure each version is clearly marked on both the cover page, and first page of the script.

If you have any questions, contact the Education Department at Playwrights Theatre (973) 514-1787, ext. 14 or

Send your entry to:
c/o Playwrights Theatre
PO Box 1295
Madison, NJ 07940

Entries must be postmarked no later than January 16, 2009.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival is a project of Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. Funding is provided by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State. ® New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival and New Jersey Young Playwrights Program are registered to the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Where should I start?

Figuring out what to write is frustrating. The stops and starts you experience when first sitting down to write are just the mind’s way of sorting out all the potential places from which to begin. For some writers, starting is simply about putting pen to paper… or fingers to keyboard… and letting the ideas flow. The important thing to them is that words get written on the paper… or screen. Other writers will take time to think things through; perhaps creating detailed outlines or sketches before diving in. And still other writers have other methods - the ways to begin are as numerous as the people who sit down to write. There is no “best” way to start, but the best thing is to get started.

As we reboot the NJ Young Playwrights Festival for a 26th year, plans are in place to post to this blog some ideas, exercises, statements, and other items to help get you started on a new one-act play, and to keep you going once you’ve begun.

We'll begin with an article written by Alexandra R. Moses for Edutopia Magazine, an online and print publication from the George Lucas Educational Fund (yup, that George Lucas). The article centers on young playwrights programs across the county (including those sponsored by Playwrights Theatre) and is mainly geared for classroom teachers. However, there is some good information in there for young playwrights, particularly in the links to writing samples and guidelines/tips from other contests and festivals. The link is http://www.edutopia.org/student-playwrights-project-playwriting

The submission deadline for the NJ Young Playwrights Festival 2009 is a postmark of JANUARY 16, 2009. Submission guidelines will be posted to the Playwrights Theatre website and to this blog in the weeks to come. An official contest brochure will be in the mail to all New Jersey schools by the end of September, so let your teachers know to keep an eye out for that.

Keep checking this blog for writing tips and more information. For now, get writing!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

2009 Deadline

The submission deadline for the NJ Young Playwrights Contest 2009 is JANUARY 16, 2009! This is a postmark deadline meaning that your play can arrive at Playwrights Theatre after the deadline, as long as the postmark isn't any later than January 16.

Please visit our website for submission details and guidelines. www.ptnj.org

Stay tuned to this blog for tips and advice on writing your play.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Reflection from Ben Muzi

A second response:

I was really excited about seeing Impression: Sunrise performed at the NJ Young Playwrights Festival and for weeks I was really looking forward to it. But when I walked into the theatre the Tuesday morning of the performance, I couldn't believe how nervous I was. When I saw the easel standing on one side of the stage I nearly fainted because I realized that was for my play. Fidgeting and hyperventilating was how I passed the time waiting for everyone to get there and for everything to get started. I was extremely anxious, panicky and worried as the play started. What if it flopped? What if no one got it? What if it was boring and dense, just talk, talk, talk? I relaxed as the play started. The actors were remarkable. The rapport between the brother and sister is key to Impression: Sunrise. The actors immediately developed the quick back and forth of the dialogue and they perfectly embodied what I had envisioned. I tried hard to sit back and enjoy, but I did find myself saying the lines along with the actors in my mind. I tried to let go of how I had pictured the pace of the conversation and how the actors moved. I knew the play had been well directed and the actors were well prepared. The best moment of the entire experience came near the end of the play when the brother's injury is revealed and the people sitting around me, who did not know me, let out audible gasps. That moment was so powerful. I felt like I could have floated out of the theatre.

I guess I was lucky to have been the first play because then I could relax and enjoy the other three plays which were terrific. They were so different, so beautifully written and so inspiring. The feedback and comments I received from the judges were also inspiring and really helped me think about the whys of my writing and not just the whats. At this moment, I am not sure if I have another story to tell. Perhaps another idea will find me.

- Ben Muzi, author of Impression: Sunrise

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Reflection from Julie Earls

I asked each of the High School playwrights to send me their thoughts and reflections on the NJ Young Playwrights Contest and Festival process. The first response is below:

"So, I guess that means I'm going to need to get a violin case for Michelle..." said the stage manager as I walked into the rehearsal space one weekend morning. A violin case? I had pretty much forgotten that the character I had written, Michelle, even played the violin and these adults, who had volunteered to work on my play, saw significance in this prop. This was only the beginning of my wonderful experience with the NJ Young Playwrights Contest.

The first day was the rough reading of all the plays and, to be honest, I was so intimidated. The first play was read and there was such symbolism with the artist and his colors. Then, there was "Treading Water", a delightfully clever play about an affair and a boy who had drowned. There was such profundity in her writing in the most subtle ways that I started to look at my play and say, "now, how did you win?” Next, my friend and fellow winner's play "Sorry Allie" was read. Oh man, what a tearjerker that was. Finally, it was my play's turn to be read and I was a little nervous. Mine sucks compared to everyone else, I thought, my true worst critic coming out as all artists find at some time. But, as the reading went on, I started to smile. The actors found so many different things with my writing that I didn't know it had. I didn't know my play was so funny! Their dedication to my work and their intellect with the piece brought my confidence back in a heartbeat.

But, that's what this experience was all about: real actors taking my real work very seriously. This was invaluable to a young artist like myself. It made me feel like I wasn't just some kid who wrote some play about moody teenagers and their moody rings -- it made me feel like I was a real dramatic force that had something to say and they were there to cultivate that. Adults. Real actors. My own play's stage manager. It was unreal. I clearly remember the director asking me to change the wording of something in my play and the actor saying, without hesitation, "How do you want to change ‘father’? Do you want to make it ‘dad’? ‘Pop’?” I was a little surprised at first when I quickly remembered, "oh, that's right, I'm the writer." I was so touched that he took my opinion seriously! I paused, then grinned and said "Old man".

It wasn't just about me either -- there was a great collaboration between me and the director. In my original ending of the play, I had a spotlight on each character go out as they said their last line. (As a side note, looking at my play again during this process, I became really proud of this visual aspect of my play. I realized that I had a good eye for the stage and that I liked to incorporate images.) But, Dania, the director wanted to try something a little different for the ending. I remember her describing it, how she wanted the characters to look at each other, realize that what they learned about themselves is a lot more than an essay their teacher assigned, and just drop the papers and walk away. The actors started to giggle at me because they saw how I was absolutely beaming when I heard this ingenious direction. I loved it so much that I put it as an alternate ending for my play. She was always willing to listen to my suggestions and I was very supportive of her vision. Dania found such a deep layer to my play and I'm so glad that she did.

My play wasn't the only one that grew from this experience -- I did. Though I see myself mainly as an actor and singer, I realized that writing opens a new and very different door of expression. As an actor, you are somewhat limited to express yourself through an already formed character. On the other hand, if a person wants to discuss an issue, bring life to a character they've had in the back of their mind for ages, or even make a statement, all they have to do is write it. And, I like knowing I have that door available to me. Being in the performing arts field, you want as many doors as possible. The most uplifting thing was feeling like my play could really go far. Seeing my play up on stage for my peers and other people to see made me feel like it could be seen at other venues, other places, for other audiences, Broadway, who knows.

Jim DeVivo had told me that he was thinking of getting blogs/reflections from the winners. Being the organized dork I am, I made sure to take notes because there were so many wonderful thoughts and emotions that I was feeling that I didn't want to leave out. Looking at my notes now, the one phrase at the bottom of the page, written big and in caps that perfectly sums up this experience is: I LOVE BEING AN ARTIST.

- Julie A. Earls, author of The Moodring Monologues

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Festival Recap – Performance Day 2


High School readings
We presented four very strong plays during the High School performance:
- Impression: Sunrise by Ben Muzi
- Treading Water by Kate Douglas
- Sorry, Allie by Bennett Kirschner
- The Moodring Monologues by Julie A. Earls

It is always interesting to witness the first performance of a play with an audience present. A director guides a play with a vision of how to present the story and all of its intricacies. Blocking, technical aspects, and every detail are approached with an idea of how the audience will or should perceive them. The thing is that you just never know how an audience will react until they are there experiencing the piece. This is an excellent experience for the writer as each laugh, breath, and silence from the audience informs the playwright about each of those moments in the play. The audience’s engagement with each of these plays was strong and clear and was very exciting to observe.

As with the readings on Monday, the high school playwrights and their schools were presented with certificates to mark the achievement. We also presented an Honorable Mention to Brianna Delfs for her play Some People Never Go Crazy (What Truly Horrible Lives They Must Lead).

High school playwrights and some of the cast.

The directors of the high school plays forwarded me the following words of congrats and advice to the playwrights whose work they directed:

“Congratulations to all the young playwrights on a job well done! To Bennett and Julie -It was a thrill to take part in the process that brought your creative work to life. Keep writing! Big smiles,” - Dania Ramos

“I had a great time working on the high school scripts. The plays were well-written, complex and explored some very interesting subjects. I was excited by the talent I saw, and encourage all the writers to keep working and honing your craft. You will be the voice of the next generation of theatrical artists. Fine job!”
– Jim Ligon

Congratulations again to all 13 winners of the NJ Young Playwrights Contest. We hope you will continue writing and look forward to seeing your work in the years to come.

And to all young playwrights out there… keep writing! The Contest will begin again in the fall. The submission deadline and guidelines will be available in early October at our website – http://www.ptnj.org/ - and on this blog. In the meantime please keep coming back to this site for playwriting advice and information. We hope to have reflections on the Festival from playwrights, performers, and crew as well as playwriting tips and exercises from many of our teaching artists and staff. So, come on back and see us then!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Festival Recap - Performance Day 1

MONDAY, May 19

The Festival moved from Playwrights Theatre to Kean University in Union, NJ. Premiere Stages and Kean University provided space in the Little Theatre located inside the University Center. This was the first time that many of us saw the space and we were all very pleased it. The Little Theatre is much smaller than the enormous Wilkins Theatre where the Festival was held in the past. However, the Little Theatre provided a more personal setting with the audience seated closer to the action. The directors, crew, and cast had a wonderful time working in such an intimate environment.

Junior High School / Elementary School readings
A company of seven actors and one director (Stephen Davis, a teaching artist with Playwrights Theatre and adjunct professor at Kean) presented the eight plays of the Junior High School and Elementary School divisions as a reading. In this format, the actors read from scripts placed on music stands, which also display the character name and a brief description of the character played by the actor at that stand. (You can get a sense of how things were set up from the pictures included in this entry.) The reading structure is certainly not the picture that a young playwright has in his/her mind when writing the play. However, we find that presenting the work in this format allows the story to maintain the focus of the event and brings the audience to use their imagination to fill in the gaps – much like a storyteller’s performance.

The stage being prepared.

Each actor took part in nearly every play of the reading. Playing a variety of characters in such a short period of time is not easy, especially while using only small props and costume pieces – glasses, hats, and a few props – to indicate something about the character’s physical presence. The actors’ vocal and physical performance and the audience’s imagination filled in the rest. There were a number of complements from the audience on how seamlessly and effectively the cast achieved this task.

Junior High and Elementary playwrights and cast.

The playwrights and representatives from their school were presented with certificates to mark their achievement. The cast signed the display cards that were used during the reading to announce the title of each play and these were given to the playwrights, too.

High School tech rehearsal
After a quick lunch break, the High School casts and playwrights took the stage to work through a brief tech rehearsal. In a staged reading like this, the stands are removed and the actors perform blocking and use a few props. There are more technical aspects like light and sound, but the actors use their scripts and the setting is largely indicated. This technique provides more of the playwright’s original vision while still maintaining the story at the forefront, like in the Junior HS and Elementary reading.

There was enough time in the afternoon for a tech rehearsal and another run-through in a separate space – a last opportunity to work with rewrites and polish certain aspects before Tuesday’s presentation!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Festival Recap - Part 2

Blocking rehearsals

The high school casts returned to Playwrights Theatre on Sunday to begin staging the plays. The main focus was to get the plays up on their feet and to go through any revisions the playwrights might have done overnight. Each play had roughly 2.5 hours of rehearsal time with a lunch break in between. (Lunch was donated by Java Lou’s just up the road in Chatham. Thanks, Lou!) This proved to be ample time to block out each scene and do one or two run-thrus.

Just like hearing the play for the first time can lead to changes, so can seeing it performed. Kate Douglas, the author of Treading Water, and Julie Earls, the author of The Moodring Monologues, were on hand and made some changes and tweaks to the scripts, as needed. It was exciting to observe rehearsals and the collaboration that took place. There is often a misconception that rehearsals are dictatorial settings; that the director simply tells an actor where to go and how to say each line. While that may be true of some directors, it can work against the artistic nature of the process. Jim Ligon and Dania Ramos, the directors of the two high school performance groups, established an open rehearsal environment that encouraged discussion about the play. Actors and playwrights freely offered suggestions and ideas to strengthen the play and to emphasize specific moments, emotions, etc. This is the most important part of the Festival process.

On Monday, the groups will move to the performance space – the Little Theatre inside the University Center at Kean University. The day will begin with the Junior HS/Elementary reading at 10:00 am. Immediately following that, we will begin tech rehearsals for the high school groups. They will also have the opportunity to work out more blocking and to work through any additional rewrites that may be necessary.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Festival Recap - Part 1

The NJ Young Playwrights Festival 2008 has come and gone. It was a most excellent event with four days full of information to share. So, let’s start with the first day…

Read-thrus at Playwrights Theatre, Madison

After two months of preparation, the Festival kicked off with first rehearsals on Saturday, May 17th. In order to have enough time to rehearse all 12 winning plays from the NJ Young Playwrights Contest, the scripts were divided into three performance groups. Two of these groups were for the high school plays (two plays per group); the third group for the junior high and elementary school plays. For this first rehearsal day, the time was split to allow all groups to get in some time together.

High School plays
The afternoon began with a read-thru of all four high school plays. The playwrights were also in attendance. For most of the playwrights, this was the first time in a while – if not the first time ever – that they heard the script read out loud. This initial reading is often a jarring experience as the play takes on new life in the words and expressions of complete strangers. But as we often tell our playwriting students, this is the manner of the art form. Plays are written to be heard and the challenge to a playwright is to craft things in a way that can be understood not just by the audience, but the actors, directors, and remainder of the creative staff.

The initial read finished 30 minutes earlier than expected, which allowed time for discussion. The directors and actors engaged the playwright with questions about the script and encouraged the playwrights to make revisions for rehearsal on Sunday.

Junior HS/Elementary plays
The latter half of the day was spent preparing the plays from the Junior HS and Elementary divisions. The biggest challenge facing this group was to present 8 plays in about 90 minutes of performance time. Also, these plays get presented as a reading, which means that the actors are stationary with little opportunity for blocking or movement. Character interpretation comes from facial expression and vocal inflection.

A reading also involves having a cast member read the stage directions to the audience. This provides them with a general idea of the setting, how the characters look, potential costumes and props – all of the things used in a performance that are not present for a reading. Reading stage directions can take up a lot of time, so in order to save time, Stephen Davis, the director of the reading (and a teaching artist with Playwrights Theatre and adjunct professor of theatre at Kean University) had the idea of using signs to provide the audience with the information they needed. Each actor had a three-ring binder with a series of inserts that stated the character they were playing and a brief description. This was placed on the stand in front of the actor to remind the audience who is who. A large easel to one side of the stage would give the title of the play, author, and the general location of the setting.

This is the only formal rehearsal that the Junior HS/Elementary reading will have until the performance on Monday. The cast was able to become familiar with the scripts and planned to walk through it again before the presentation on Monday morning.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Announcing the NJ Young Playwrights Festival 2008

Playwrights Theatre and Premiere Stages at Kean University
present the
25th Annual New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival

The Elementary and Junior High Division plays will be presented on
Monday, May 19 at 10am

The High School Division plays* will be presented on
Tuesday, May 20 at 10 am
Both readings will be held at the University Center's Little Theatre at Kean University
*please note that the high school division plays may not be appropriate for younger children

The readings will feature professional actors and directors.
Reservations can be made by calling
Premiere Stages at 908-737-4092.
Admission to the readings is free, but reservations are suggested, as seating is limited.

We hope that you will join us to celebrate the work of these young playwrights!