Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Settings and Senses

Performance by Activate Youth Theatre (Summer 2000)
Old Church Cemetery
Cobh, County Cork, Ireland
Since experiencing site-specific performances by the Activate Youth Theatre in Cork, Ireland, I've been interested in developing a similar work here at home. While I haven't yet engaged in this work, I have tried to excite the Summer Theatre Camp students at Playwrights Theatre about the idea of using environment of the school building where we've conducted our camp, but to no avail. However, last year, the old junior school did help to inspire a group a struggling group to eventually come up with a story idea that everyone liked.

This particular group was interested in the idea of a haunted, or otherwise creepy, house, but couldn't find a compelling set of characters or actions to propel the story. It also seemed that with such a specific, sensory experience as a haunted house, that the clear establishment of a setting would be useful. So, after a few days of failed starts, I set them up with a process drama in which they explored the old school as if it were an abandoned building. We went outside into the park-like front yard and as we approached the school, I told the students that if they were caught inside, the punishment would be severe... so severe it was beyond their understanding. Their tour began as light-hearted novelty, but quickly grew into a much more tense journey as the group created stories about the sights (gates in the hallways), noises (made by the custodial staff cleaning lockers around the corner), and smells (your typical 100-year-old building) that they experienced. Toward the end of the tour, a few students asked if they could head down the hall to our classroom to begin writing while the rest of the group explored one last hallway. Their sudden disappearance surprised the remaining students and sparked a new idea about the dangers of the haunted house. They quickly ran back to classroom to join the others and within minutes had an outline for the story that would eventually become their final presentation. While not a "true"site-specific performance (performed on stage as opposed to in the environment of the site), it demonstrated to me how a location can have an impact in the writing/development process.

This past weekend I was reminded of this story while reading an interview transcript from my dissertation research. In it a former NJ Young Playwright described revising a play that took place in an art studio filled with paintings, sculptures, and the like. After a conversation with the director about the practicality of such a lavish setting during a staged reading prompted the playwright to conduct a series of script tweaks that incorporated the removed visuals into the dialogue. Upon reading this I realized that I don't typically talk about setting in a playwriting workshop like this and that it would likely be an important lesson to my students. So on Monday, we talked about the settings within each of their plays and then I brought the group outside to take a walk around our office building. I asked the students to make note of the things that they sensed all around them and choose one location that made the biggest impact on them. When we returned to the classroom, I had the playwrights take one scene of their play and rewrite it as if it took place in the location they remembered from outside. They immediately noticed how the location changed what each character did and said and then returned to their original writing to make revisions based on the settings of the play. The result has been more realistic character interactions and each day since Monday, at least one playwright has mentioned using something from outside in the writing. I'm looking forward to making that a regular component of my playwriting curriculum.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Digital Master Class for Young Playwrights

A few days ago, as the summer playwriting class was working through their story idea discussed in the previous post, I thought it might be interesting to hear from some playwrights about how they get started on a new work. So, took to Twitter and sent the following question:

I also wrote to a few writers directly and received some excellent responses, which I shared with the playwrights the very next day. The class found many of the playwrights' suggestions very helpful as they wrote that day, so I am posting them below for all our young playwrights to use. You may find these suggestions useful not only as you start writing, but throughout the revision process, too.

Tweets are shared largely as they were received. Some tweaks were made to make any Twitter-speak a bit more readable here. (Websites and Twitter handles included, when possible.) You can find the original suggestions on Twitter under #youngplaywrights.

Pia Wilson (@pwilson720)
 “I usually wind up with an idea for a play & let it roll around in my head for a while B4 I decide it’s worth doing”

 “Then, if the characters keep talking 2 me, I’ll write character descriptions. I usually hear/see a scene repeatedly”

Ramon Esquivel (@Bub1974)
“Start with the strongest element of idea: the character, setting, situation, or question. Fill in the rest later.”

Dania Ramos (@DaniaDania)
 “Depends on project. Usually do basic outline w post-its on foam board. Easy to switch, add, cut scenes as I go.”

“Here’s an example from a novel. For plays there are less post-its. Good luck to the playwrights!”

Storyboard from Dania Ramos

Lauren Gunderson (@LalaTellsAStory
“I envision an ending (maybe not THE ending). Once I know where the story is headed I can really start writing.”

Gabriel Jason Dean (@GabrielJasonDea)
"I ruminate for a long time before I write, figure out basics of my story, driving conflict. Need those first."

D.W. Gregory (@dwgregorywrites)

“often start with questions to myself about the characters”

“many pages of questions; then an exploratory scene to get the characters talking”

"Questions: start with basics -- who is this person, what does she want, why does she want it?”

“What’s the story in two sentences? Why am I drawn to it? What do I want to explore?”

“who else is in the story? Why must they be in the story? How do their needs conflict with the central character’s?”

“I write down as many questions as come to mind. No answers, just questions.”

“Then I visualize an event that I am sure will be in the play somewhere and I write a scene. Pure exploration.”

“I write the scene to let the characters talk to me. This stimulates more questions.”

“after I fill a lot of pages with questions I sometimes think about the events of the play. In broad strokes."

“What do I know must be in the play – things that must happen, things that may. Write these down as they occur to me.”

“Then I look at the events and start to think about the order of events. How does the sequence serve my aims?"

“when I have seven major events in a sequence I think makes sense I start to work on a detailed outline."

“Once I have a rudimentary outline I start writing scenes – and start answering questions.”

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

Yesterday we welcomed our first group of playwrights to Summer Theatre Camp at Playwrights Theatre. Among the many things we've done in the first two sessions was a writing exercise in which the group began a story using this painting by American painter Norman Rockwell.

April Fool's 1948 by Norman Rockwell
from The Saturday Evening Post
According to The Saturday Evening Post website, Rockwell painted a series of April Fool's Day paintings for the magazine's cover page as a reprieve from his famous Four Freedoms work. The first picture was published in 1943; another in 1945; the last in 1948, which is the one with which the class worked today. First, the class discussed what they saw in the painting and then were asked questions about the characters and the setting:

Who are these people?
What is the relationship between these people?
Who is the main character in the picture?
Where are they?
What is going on?

As you can imagine, the group developed a whole host of ideas and quickly noticed the "errors" in the painting: a series of oddities and mix-ups that Rockwell included for Post readers to find. The class was asked to consider this painting as a moment in the story of the main character (they choose the girl with the doll for this purpose) and began to develop a story idea.

The group named the girl Nancy Jane (a combination of the two more popular suggestions) and decided that she was a proper, stubborn, and taciturn (great word!) girl of about 11 years old who is living with her grandfather while Mom and Dad are on a world tour for the summer. Somehow she has discovered these oddities in her grandfather's attic and in this moment he is explaining to her how they are artifacts to a mystical world for which he serves as some kind of gatekeeper.

This is just one scenario that came up in the group discussion. With so many objects in the frame, there is a wealth of possibility as far as what the story is about and how it proceeds forward from the moment captured in the picture. We also discussed what Nancy Jane's journey might be, the obstacles she would face, and eventually how she would find her way home. They were having such a great time with this story that it was disappointing to have to stop, but time is short in our 10 day workshop and they had their own story ideas that needed attention. However, I look forward to using this picture in writing workshops yet to come!