Thursday, September 13, 2012

Advice to Young Playwrights, part 2 - Constantine Ligons

A few weeks ago, I asked some of the actors, directors, playwrights, readers, and teaching artists who have been associated with the NJ Young Playwrights Festival for their advice for young playwrights like you. This advice comes from Constantine Lignos, a NY-based actor/playwright who also was a NJ Young Playwrights Festival winner in 2006. Here is Constantine's response below... enjoy!

A strong play is universal. Anyone can relate to any character at any moment in the play. No matter how personal it may be for the playwright, audiences want to see something that they feel they have a visceral connection with, not just one writer's one-hour psychotherapy session. The writer needs to distance himself from the subject matter. To do this, he must delve so deeply into the experience that it is no longer about his own personal and emotional relationship to the matter, but how the world is affected by that aspect of human-ness.

I almost exclusively write strong roles for women. Women who are so down in the dumps that their ascension must be an act of power and control. To portray this in a way that would seem universal, I always add some abstraction to them. We can always universally relate to the abstractions of the imagination. Imagination is something we all share.

As an actor, I look for a fun challenge. A play that lets me push the boundaries of how a character should be played. It's never fun to do what you should do. We're allowed to break the rules as artists, so why don't we?

As a writer, I write plays that I know I won't get sick of in a few weeks. I almost always do get tired of them, though.

My advice would be to keep a journal. Always. And write in it every day. Write everything without hesitation. Also, never be afraid to write a scene, or a few bits of dialogue, instead of a whole play. You'd be surprised how those 4 lines you wrote can turn into a three-act play a few years down the road. When you're feeling down, write. When you're feeling great, write.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Making characters into people

(portions of this post were originally published on November 11, 2008)

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.

A few years ago, I led a playwriting workshop for teachers at the NJEA Convention in Atlantic City. Each of 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 Young Playwrights, Inc., an organization that runs an excellent national contest for young playwrights. I would encourage you to submit your play there, too - 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 were:

Jean Mercedes
Nicole Moodie
Fran Active
Fresca Visions
Calliope Sky

These names give a sense of something specific about the character. It could be a characteristic, a favorite color, an environment, and on and on... 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!