Tuesday, August 5, 2014

An update from our current Playwriting Workshop for grades 6-12

The following was originally published on the personal blog of Jim DeVivo, PTNJ's Director of Education. It is reprinted here with his permission. You can follow Jim's blog here.
After teaching young playwrights for twelve years, I knew it was high time to evaluate my curriculum and consider some fresh ways to get my playwriting students started this summer. I have changed things consistently throughout those years, but the time felt ripe for something completely new. I browsed through my old plans and revisited my young playwrights bibliography and decided to try a few new things during Full Day Theatre Camp. In the process of that program last week, I discovered a tendency to model different steps in the process using examples that were independent of the others.

Today we began the class with a neutral scene of four lines between unspecified characters that I borrowed from CenterStage’s Teaching Playwriting in Schools: Teacher’s Handbook and set up the students with a scene between characters A and B. Students copied the dialogue and then continued the scene for three minutes. The difference between their stories was vast and best exemplified by two: one that involved an evil Lord commanding one of his servants and the other a more informal argument between friends about breakfast foods. This sparked a discussion of how dialogue can change depending upon the characters who speak them, the conflict between characters, and the location in which the conversation occurs. Students wrote a bit about their own characters using this information and then we moved on to an activity for outlining a story using the main character’s wants, the actions that character would be comfortable (and uncomfortable) taking to get what they want, and the obstacles that might stand in their way. Typically I start this exercise by referring to a common story with which everyone in the class (myself included) is at least casually familiar. However, finding such a story has become more difficult in recent years. My original reference (Star Wars) had become complicated by time and prequels. After a brief attempt at Harry Potter – of which I haven’t read enough of the series to keep up with the students – I moved to Cinderella. This has worked well given the variety of versions found in different cultures and the resulting discussions we’ve had about point of view and theme. The problem is that Cinderella works well with elementary students and adults (I love discussing Disney princesses with adults), but teens tend to tune out when I mention her name. So, without a strong common story to use with this group I planned to launch into the old Cinderellaroutine when I realized that we had just discussed a handful of perfectly good story ideas that developed from the neutral scene. Why not choose one of them?

I choose the story of the evil Lord and his servant and the class was immediately energized by the prospect of creating a new story. Actually, I was surprised by how quickly they jumped into the process – none of the usual prodding questions and encouragements needed here! In fact, I think using an example from the students’ writing may have deepened their understanding of the Want-Action-Obstacle model as they were applying it to a new story much as they would when they set off to outline their individual plays. They’ve been so involved that I’ve been able to write this post as they continue to work well beyond when I told them I would first interrupt! Can’t wait to see where their stories take them next.