Back in January I posted about a workshop I lead (my favorite) called Relentless Playwriting. I got a few messages from folks all over the country wishing they could attend (I was teaching it during the KCACTF Region 5 conference in South Dakota). After, I thought about starting a new blog series, laying out what I talk about in the workshop but I kept not having the time to fit it in to my routine. Well, I have less time these days, with full-time home schooling my two kids, but not getting anything done is kinda weighing on my soul. I also thought that if I could help inspire someone right now, that would be pretty great. SO! Welcome! This will be the first of a many (it is an info-packed workshop!) part series about how I write plays tackling craft AND business.
Before I get in, I will say, take what works, and ignore what doesn't. My ideas and methods have been formed from lots of trial and error and figuring out what works for me. This will not work for everyone.
Taking the craft side first, I ask you….
How do YOU tell stories?
I figured out I wanted to write plays after I finished my undergrad. It took me years to figure out and discover the way I tell stories. Here's a look at my journey getting there:
I wrote. I rewrote. A lot.
I sent my very first full-length (only the second play I'd ever written!) to my best friends (who happen to be married, it's very convenient for me). I waited. It was painful. They got back. They read it! They had actually read my work and then they told me they thought it was hilarious. Great!
Except…. It was intended to be a drama.
So I shifted. Refigured. Rewrote it as an intended comedy. I must have written over a 1,000 pages of that first play, I kept starting from scratch with page one rewrites.
I also founded a playwright challenge called 31 Plays in 31 Days (read more about the challenge on the website!) with Tracy Held Potter. As a baby playwright I felt in my bones I had to do a lot of writing to figure out how to do it better, and so writing a play a day for month seemed like the obvious solution. I picked August because that was when my youngest would start preschool.
PS finished my 31 plays in about two weeks that first year - yes, I am obnoxious and really competitive (especially with myself), which is why a challenge like that worked so well for me.
Read The Playwright's Guidebook: An Insightful Primer on the Art of Dramatic Writing by Stuart Spencer
I recommend this book to everyone, especially playwrights just starting out. It really spoke to the way I had learned to tackle scripts from an actors perspective (which is how I started in theater!). It was like learning secret magic.
He focuses on what characters want (objectives), what they do to get them (actions), and getting/not getting things (resolutions). He talked about how difficult it can be to have your character go after their objective with every word of their dialogue and every physical action they had. If you want your mind blown, read (or re-read) Tennessee Williams’ A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and see for yourself how nothing Blanche says or does is extra. It is 100% all the time moving her closer to what she wants.
Joined writers groups.
I joined a few writers groups around this time too. It gave me the opportunity to hear my work, get feedback, but also, and just as importantly, hear LOTS of new work, and hear LOTS of feedback. Often even if your play isn't the one that's up and being discussed, the feedback getting said will apply and help you as well. So, be like me and write every word of it down!
I joined PlayCafe in Berkeley, Playwrights Center of San Francisco, as well as the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which technically isn't a writers group per se, but did offer regular meetings for writers to get together and share their work, and I learned a TON from those artists, so I'm including it as well.
Right now there are a lot of online writers groups popping up!
But still something wasn't clicking. So I flipped my process.
Something was missing. I would read and see all these plays that had something to say while also managed to be so entertaining either as comedies, dramas, tragedies, or something in between. My plays were funny, but, if I'm being totally honest, that's about it. Lots of jokes. All the funny. Not a whole lot of substance.
So I started writing backwards. Instead of starting with a character and seeing where it went, I started with a theme or topic, or something that I felt was urgent and needed and now. I know a lot of playwrights who don't do this, and they do great, but if I don't do the grueling work of figuring out what I want to say first my plays turn into funny bits of nothing.
And that's how I write to this day. I start with the WHY. That question loved and loathed throughout MFA programs around the country: WHY THIS PLAY NOW. And honestly, my answers vary quiet a bit:
- RIPPED - I wanted to write something that challenged the way we talk about rape and sexual assault from being a black and white problem to a more nuanced place.
- CHEERLEADERS VS. ALIENS - I wanted to write a fun and silly play for high-schools to perform with a bounty of complex, smart, and funny roles for young women to sink their teeth into.
- LET'S FIX ANDY - Oh my gosh is we don't let men have feelings and deeper platonic relationships nothing in this world can get better. Let the men cry! Plus I was excited to talk about male body image, which I don't often see discussed.
- MOMMY DANCES WITH THE DEVIL - We need more plays about how hard it is to have a baby, and some of the insane surprise challenges that come up, and how lonely it can be, while also giving five hilarious roles for women to be funny onstage.
- BURST - I wanted to create an epic anti-hero for a woman to play on stage.
- THE NIGHT WITCHES - 1. We need to hear more about women doing amazing things from the past which we've just forgotten to include in history books. But 2. Lots of amazing roles for women and/or young women that come together as a unit for the good of all. And they're complex and different and all heroes.
This is just a sample, but I try to find my WHY before I dive in.
I hope this was helpful, insightful, or interesting for you. I feel the need to add a disclaimer to this that right now I am writing very little. Like I said above, I'm full time home schooling my kids (CAN WE PLEASE GIVE TEACHERS ALL THE MONEY????), and with all that's happening my brain is mostly mush. Today I managed a few pages in my notebook inspired by the Norse Myths my son and I have been reading out loud to one another. Which he did to! The one thing I'm excited about teaching is creative writing. But I'm not challenging myself like crazy right now, I'm being really gentle and easy. So if you need to do that, do that. If you need to push yourself, because you have to push something, PUSH IT BABY.
I will be (hopefully) writing up a new section from this workshop once a week. So come on back!
And stay well and sane.
Air hugs from Utah!