Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Conflict and Raising the Stakes

Originally published on December 12, 2008

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!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Advice to Young Playwrights, part 3 - Summer Hortillosa

Our next installment of Advice toYoung Playwrights comes from Summer Hortillosa, a 2007 NJ Young Playwrights Festival winner for her play, The Not-So Lovely Tale of Strawberry Fructose. Summer is a journalist, playwright, and director whose recent work can be found on her website

What makes a strong play?

I think strong plays have a clear direction in multiple areas -- character development, plot and audience experience. Strong plays feature relatable, consistent characters with believable dialogue that make their needs clear and drive the story. A strong play is one that has many movable parts that are pieced together in a way that the beginning can't help but eventually result in the ending and the ending seems to have only been possible because of the beginning.

What types of characters do you like to portray/write?

I like to both portray and write fantastic characters with fantastic needs. I like unique characters who are almost entirely figments of imagination but who have strong emotional cores that make them completely relatable. I like strong characters, strange characters and characters capable of witty, fun dialogue. Argumentative and honest are some of the best things a character can be.

What do you look for when choosing a play to work on?

Generally logistics play a large role when selecting a play for production, but otherwise I try to select plays I feel I have written well or, when doing someone else's play, that they have written well. I like to choose plays that explore a fair range of emotions, that would be fun to produce and watch and that I feel are strong and have interesting characters.

Please describe the best experience that you had working on a play.

My most recent production, a one-woman show in the SO LOW Theater Festival in Jersey City called Kookspeak, was one of my favorite experiences so far because production was easy. I wrote, directed and performed the piece and used very few props or effects, so I did not have to worry too much about budgeting, aligning schedules or a lot of other stuff that happens when I have to produce/stage manage/do everything for my shows. In this case, I mainly focused on promoting my show and on rehearsals.

Directing one's self can be a challenge and requires a lot of self-awareness (or, if possible, a video or mirror as an outside eye), but was a lot of fun for me. I was able to make myself work whenever I wanted to, and while I had a general rehearsal schedule that I set up for myself and tried to stick to, I had a lot of freedom to rehearse more or less than planned depending on my needs. I was free to push myself as hard as possible and make all the executive decisions, which is always great.

Also, it made the final product very pure -- I will perhaps never have a work as fully representative of who I am as an artist. The words, thoughts and emotions were all mine, as were the staging, direction, acting choices -- it was liberating and fully satisfying, especially when I received a great response from my audience and peers.

Please describe the worst experience that you had working on a play.

The worst -- or rather, most difficult -- experience I had working on a play was a full production of Shakespeare's As You Like It involving about 32 high school students. Having to direct over 30 teenagers with various levels of commitment and talent as well as oversee the entire production -- with very little control over the groups in charge of lighting, sound, costumes and props -- was mindbogglingly tough.

I had to double-cast our leads, Rosalind and Orlando, which lightened the load for four generally equally talented actors who weren't very accustomed to memorizing lots of Shakespearean speech, but made it difficult to make the characters consistent throughout the play. Also, as a requirement for the class, we had to have every student -- even those who were terrible at acting -- play a role. Lastly, as any director can imagine, coordinating the schedules of over 30 people and having to deal with egos, lateness, forgetfulness, mistakes, irresponsibility, and all the other possible vices any group of 30 could have was a monumental task in itself.

Overall, however, we were able to pull it all together and put on several great performances. As any director will quickly discover, learning to roll with the punches and press on to put on a good show is possibly the most important skill they can have.

What advice would you give to a young playwright currently working on a new play?

Make sure every effect has a cause and every cause has an effect when you revise. Tying up loose ends, making sure that important facts are established (in a natural way and at the right time) and keeping characters consistent will strengthen your play. Read dialogue out loud and make sure everything sounds natural; cut what you can. Don't fall in love too much with your favorite characters or with your ability to write, because you might end up dragging out scenes and tiring your audience or worse, finding yourself disappointed when your work is produced and the performance doesn't live up to your expectations.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Creating an Emergency Situation

Originally posted on December 4, 2008.

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!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

NJYPF 30-year history project

This week, Playwrights Theatre of NJ begins a project to catalogue the plays from the 30 year history of the New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival. We will be reaching out to winning playwrights from throughout that history. If you are a past NJYPF winner, or know of someone who was, please have them get in touch with us at We look forward to reconnecting!

Recognize anyone in the pictures below?

NJ Young Playwrights Festival 1994

NJ Young Playwrights Festival 1998

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Character Wants and Needs

Originally published on November 17, 2008

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.

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.

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!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Madison Young Playwrights Program begins today!

At 3:00 today, our 27th annual Madison Young Playwrights Program began with the group of students at the Madison Junior School. The elementary schools followed beginning their programs at 3:15. The start of a new young playwrights' season is is an exciting time of year for all of us at Playwrights Theatre. We look forward to all of the creative work that will be generated over the next three months!