Friday, December 28, 2012

Sharing for revision

(portions of this post were originally published on January 8, 2009)

I hope you’ve had a great holiday filled with inspiration for your play. Some scripts have already started to come in to the office and I look forward to being inundated with them over the next two weeks. There is just a little over a week until your plays need to be submitted for entry into the 2013 NJ Young Playwrights Contest. This means that you still have some time for last minute revisions and tweaking before January 14 and 15th. Be sure to follow the guidelines for submission on the NJYPF webpage at

Perhaps this weekend you can get together with a group of friends or family who’s opinion you trust and have an informal reading of the play. This doesn’t need to be a formal presentation, or a fully acted reading (though it can if you want it to be). Often a reading like this works best when everyone is hanging around the living room on couches or chairs. An informal reading will provide you with the opportunity to hear the play outside of your head and see how actors or your intended audience might respond to the piece.

I know that receiving critique on something that you’ve written can be uncomfortable to bear. This is why it is important to keep the event informal and only include people whose opinions you trust. It is also helpful to inform your group that the goal of the reading is for you to hear it out loud and potentially strengthen some areas. You may want to provide your readers with a list of questions you have, or certain sections of the play that you are unsure about. Ask the group to tell you what they liked FIRST, and then get into suggestions, questions, or ideas.

IMPORTANT! - Always remember that YOU are the playwright! Everyone who reads or sees your play will respond to it differently; will have his or her own opinion about how your story should be told. It is important that you listen to what people have to say, but in the end, this is your play and you have the final say in how it is written. Just remember that the goal of writing a play is to communicate an idea to the largest audience possible. The reactions of your reading group may give you an idea of what a larger audience does and does not get from your play. If they are missing something that you want the audience to get, you may want to see where you might be able to make revisions to get that point across.

Rewriting is tough, especially after you've put so much into completing that first draft. But it is well worth the trouble. Have fun!

Happy writing!

Friday, December 21, 2012

So, what are you saying?

(Originally published on December 23, 2008)

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!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Congratulations Madison Young Playwrights!

Today wraps the Madison Young Playwrights Program for two of the five participating schools. (The others will conclude in early January as they make up classes lost to Hurricane Sandy.) We celebrate another successful year of playwriting in the Madison Schools with some pictures from our archives. Enjoy!

Teaching artist Arthur Wilson leads the young playwrights from Torey J. Sabatini School during a residency in the late 1990's. Arthur began our "Advice to young playwrights" a few months ago (linked here).

A teaching artist with the playwriting group at Central Avenue School during the 1993-1994 season.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"Silence is golden."

You’ve probably heard the phrase above before. The saying has ancient roots and can mean different things depending on the context in which it is spoken. Often I hear it used with the meaning that being silent is better than speaking. That may or may not be true under certain circumstances and is an interesting idea to consider when writing your play.

Each character in your play should speak with a unique voice. That means individual speech patterns, favorite phrases, and things like that. They way in which a character talks can say a lot about that character’s emotions, thoughts, ideas, and relationships with others. What might it mean when a character speaks in longer sentences? What about shorter – perhaps one word – phrases? What about one who takes a lot of pauses as opposed to a character who speaks quickly and without much stopping… or thinking? These qualities of speech help to form individual personalities for each of your characters, but also provide actors and directors with a number of cues about how to portray the people of your play, as well as the tone of the scene, etc.

I am drawn to characters who don’t say much. By this I mean those who don’t speak a lot in the play (don’t have many lines), or who answer in short sentences. To me, when a character doesn’t speak it means that he or she is thinking and that those thoughts may or may not always come out for the audience to hear. Much like the unopened door, the unspoken line can be quite powerful and bring the audience into the play.

As you go through a draft of your play and you find sections where there may be a lot of talking, or that are in need of some intrigue and excitement, see how silence might influence it.

Happy writing!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Building... suspense!

“There is nothing more frightening than a closed door.”

Imagine that you are watching a play or a movie in which a character approaches a closed door, but has no idea what he or she is going to find behind it. Maybe this is Alice in Wonderland and Alice is facing the small door through which the White Rabbit just disappeared. She is curious to follow the rabbit, but uncertain what is going to happen on the other side. What should she do? What is going to happen on the other side? Alice doesn’t know and, if we as an audience are invested in the story, we share in that moment with her because it is familiar to us. We have all been in a position where we are faced with something that is unknown. In that moment we might think: What do I do? What will happen when I do that? We may feel any number of emotions at that point – anxiety, adventure, fear, excitement, or maybe all of those at once! Creating that tension for a character can create a sense of suspense within the audience. That draws them in and leaves them wanting to know more. This is called “suspense”.

At the heart of suspense is the idea put forth in the quote above: when a character is faced with something that is unknown, the audience’s imagination will create a scenario that makes the situation personally suspenseful to them. That is probably why the quote above is often attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker who created some of the iconic horror and suspense movies of the 1950s and 60s. (However, it is not clear that Hitchcock is actually the speaker of this phrase giving the phrase its own unknown quality!) Radio plays have also used this idea to trigger an audience’s imagination. This was important because the audience could only hear the story and had to “see” it in their minds. The audience for your play will be able to both hear and see the action, but using suspense and the idea of the unknown can be useful to keeping them (and in some ways, your characters) invested in the story.

This is related to the idea of “raising the stakes”, which was talked about in a previous post (linked here). When you raise the stakes for a character, you are challenging him or her in the quest to get what they need/want. As I discussed before that might including doing things that a character doesn’t think is possible, but it might also mean having to face something, or someone, whom they are not sure about. That leads me to another thought about silence…

… which I will share in the next post!

And now I have you thinking: What is he going to say about silence? You don’t know, or maybe you might now. Either way, your imagination is running and the thoughts are flying. The suspense is building, but you’ll just need to tune in again next time to find out…

Until then, happy writing!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Advice to young playwrights, Part 4

Our advice to young playwrights continues with some thoughts from a few of the actors and readers who have worked on the New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival.


What makes a strong play?
A strong play has great characters and a moving/interesting plot.

A strong play is not necessarily a traditional story, but like any good story, it has a reason for being told here and now. A play's sole purpose can be entertainment, but that does not diminish the importance of the question: Why this play now?

What types of characters do you like to portray/write?
I love to play the comic relief most of the time. The character that can do no wrong and everybody loves him. Though playing a villain is also fun… playing a character that is not who I am.

I like to portray characters that are complicated. In real life, people are not stock characters. Real people have different layers to their character and sides of themselves that they don't always show the public, but are still inside. Stock characters are great in some genres of theatre (such as Commedia dell'arte), but realistic characters are complicated.

I find the most success writing characters whose actions are firmly based in the circumstances of the play. I always try to make sure that a character's actions spring from his/her surroundings or from other characters. Every action should be justifiable, even if it isn't logical (or sane).

What do you look for when choosing a play to work on?
I look for a play that has strong character relationships and a great conflict that those characters encounter.

I look for a play with language that makes the room buzz when it's read aloud. This can be dialogue in the form of a fierce, biting argument, or monologue in the form of a soulful soliloquy. This language seems to come from sincere and causal circumstances.

What advice would you give to a young playwright currently working on a new play?
To keep a positive and open mind. Believe in your work and give it your all.

Writing a play can be difficult, but it does not have to be sequential. Writing the last scene first, a middle scene last or a random scene with no definite place can ease the difficulty of writing scenes in order. Write the part you're dying to write!

Be open-minded. It is perfectly fine to have a clear vision for what you wish to accomplish with your piece, but be open to new ideas from people who haven't been working tirelessly on the script for months. Sometimes outsiders can offer ideas that you never would have thought of before! Try some ideas out and if they don't work, there's nothing wrong with scrapping them.