Playwriting: Breaking the Block, Part I

Typewriter? For Playwriting?

This is how they used to do it.

 

Eric Barker asks us to consider whether we are more creative when forced to work – or whether we ought to wait until inspiration strikes.

 

Citing Daniel Akst’s book Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess, he concludes that pressure to produce actually results in productivity.

 

No surprise to me—I’ve long known that setting a specific schedule to write almost always ensures that I, in fact, write. The trick is making writing a priority over all other competing interests—some of them compelling interests, such as the need to  go to my day job and actually earn the living that supports my playwriting habit.

 

But what to do when the juices don’t flow? Stare at a blank piece of paper?

 

As a founding member of The Playwrights Gymnasium, a process oriented workshop in Washington, D.C., I assure you there are many ways around writer’s block. And in this weekly feature, I intend to share some of those tricks with you.

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The Drama in Drink, or Vice Versa

Barking Up a Wrong Tree is one of my favorite blogs and here is why:

 

Eric Barker routinely compiles fascinating observations about all aspects of human nature and experience, with the stated purpose of learning to live life to its full awesomeness.  But me being me, which means predisposed to moments of dark ruminations, or in more pedestrian terms, a moody crank, I take perverse comfort from posts like these, in which Eric assures us that the crazy times just might be the best, at least when it comes to literary output.

 

Dionysius was the god of theatre for a reason.

Citing the Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, Eric tells us that:

 

 

In studies of deceased writers— based on their letters, medical records, and published biographies— and in studies of talented living writers, mental illness is prevalent. For example, fiction writers are fully ten times more likely to be bipolar than the general population, and poets are an amazing forty times more likely to struggle with the disorder. Based on statistics like these, psychologist Daniel Nettle writes, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that most of the canon of Western culture was produced by people with a touch of madness.” Essayist Brooke Allen does Nettle one better: ‘The Western literary tradition, it seems, has been dominated by a sorry collection of alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, manic-depressives, sexual predators, and various unfortunate combinations of two, three, or even all of the above.

 

Well that’s no surprise to readers of literary biographies, but what should we conclude?

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The Trickster in Your Play

One of the pleasures of stealing away to a theatre conference such as  the American Alliance for Theatre in Education’s (AATE) gathering in Lexington, Ky., last week is meeting theatre artists with a distinctly different view of process.

 

Such an artist is Steven Barker, who currently teaches at Camp LeJeune High School in North Carolina. Steven outright rejects the Stanislavskiian “get in touch with your emotions” approach to acting in favor of an analysis based in archetype and inspired by the writings of Frankie Armstrong and Janet Rodgers, co-authors of Acting and Singing with the Archetypes.

 

Reynard the Fox, a classic Trickster

The archetypal figure of the Trickster, or Fool, comes to us not just as  the Joker in a card deck, but in the guise of myriad  characters whose dominant trait is to embrace joy and shake off restraints imposed by society.  Huckleberry Finn comes to mind immediately, as does Pippi Longstocking, and The Cat in the Hat. (Coming off a conference dedicated to theatre for children, I can’t help thinking in terms of childhood literary icons.) And of course we see the Trickster in the cartoon characters of Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, and Bart Simpson, as well as in Shakespeare’s Puck and Petruchio.

 

In his workshop at AATE, Steven invited us to get in touch with our inner Trickster—for some that impulse is not buried all the deeply, but for others, the task of awakening him is not so easy. Over the years I’ve grown less inhibited, but not so uninhibited that I don’t balk at kicking off my shoes and strutting around a hotel ballroom clucking like a chicken.

 

The objective to the exercise is to expose drama teachers to the idea that there is a way to assist young actors in analyzing character that does not require them to dig into deeply personal emotional experiences in search of a sense memory that might apply to a key moment in a play. In Steven’s mind that kind of approach can border on exploitation when you are working with impressionable and often vulnerable young people.

 

To me the workshop in archetypes presents fascinating possibilities for exploration of character in the creation of plays.  How refreshing to break free of the psychological mire that informs so much of American storytelling and focus instead on the outline of character that must be filled in by its opposite. For every archetype has its shadow after all. The hero is plagued with bouts of cowardice. The Ruler veers toward the Tyrant. The Innocent Child has a bit of a Brat within. And the Caregiver Mother can devolve into an Obsessive Parent.

 

In charting out the psycho-biographies of new characters I find myself falling into the usual preoccupation with childhood traumas, trivial biographical details and hints of emotional upheavals that must surely inform the present action. How much more interesting might it be to chart character based on the qualities of the archetype. The Magician, for example, is on a quest to transform, but his fear is that he will be transformed in the process. Let us transplant the Magician to a cocktail party in the D.C. suburbs and see how this woman works on the Trickster next to her, whose quest is to enjoy life for its own sake but who fears that he might not really be living at all. What kind of fireworks will fly?

 

Steven informs me that Frankie and Darien will conduct a teacher training workshop next summer on Cape Cod that will incorporate voice, body, and imagination, to explore archetypal journeys and, in their words, “apply the work to text.” Interested parties should contact Janet Rodgers at jrodgers@vcu.edu.

 

 

Steven, a trained chef, will be doing the cooking. Perhaps I’ll see you there?

Playwrights Interview Playwrights: Adam & Me

The prolific Adam Szymkowicz is famously prolific in another way—interviewing other playwrights for his blog–and today he honors me as writer No. 484 on a venerable list that includes, among others–yes I’m bragging, yes I am, so what?–Liz Duffy Adams, Lonnie Carter, Kia Corthron, Julia Jordan, Rajiv Joseph, and of course my lovely and wonderful Jacqueline E. Lawton who always greets me with a hug.

 

My new best friend

Yes I am ecstatic to make Adam’s list of people worth talking to. Wouldn’t you be if you’d been slogging away at this as long as I have?

 

So while I’m braggin’ on it, here’s a taste of my own wisdom. Don’t I sound fine?

 

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

 

A:  This advice is borrowed from Ira Glass. Be prepared to suck. Learning to write well requires a long, long apprenticeship. Mastering the form takes literally years and it takes a long time to find your voice and your style.

No. 484, circa 1896

As for me, I would say the earlier you start, the better, but no matter when you start, give yourself five years before you write anything worth showing to a theatre. Don’t try to get your stuff produced right away. Join a group or hire a tutor and write crappy plays. Write a lot of them, keep a journal, develop a keen eye for human foibles and a keen ear for natural language. Don’t underestimate the power of your own story, but don’t make playwriting your avenue for revenge or personal therapy. Nobody gives a s**it what happened to you as a kid. Your job is to write plays so stunning that when I come to see them, I can’t get them out of my head; so make me stop and take a deep breath and think twice about something I never doubted before. Whether I laugh or cry, make me pay attention and never, never let me off the hook. You are not writing to make me feel good, you are writing to reveal the world to me in a way I never saw it before. You can’t do that unless you are willing to go there yourself and bleed along with your characters.

 

Not that I follow my advice, mind you.

 

For the full interview, now that I know you’re fascinated, click here.

The Alchemy of Collaboration

Working on a new play is always a challenge in isolation. After successive drafts, you reach a point where you lose the path forward—or worse, where the path splits into a dozen different trails and there is no clear indication which one is the right one to follow. That is the point, for me, when I need to hear the script aloud. A fascinating alchemy occurs when an actor takes my words and breathes life into them.

 

Sometimes the result is a great leap forward in the development of the script.

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The Soul of the Drama

Plays have to be lived to be written. This much I know.

 

If a character’s heart is broken, the playwright’s heart must be the first to go.  So be willing to live and relive the struggle and loss and hope that drama is made on, because if you refuse to feel these things, you can never write authentically.

 

Dare to suffer.

 

Dare to endure.

 

Endure the sense of inadequacy that comes from slogging through scenes that aren’t working and can’t work and won’t work. Choke back the panic of not knowing how to get started or how to stop, or how to fix that dreadful scene or how to fall out of love with those six lines you know just cannot stay and yet you need them, surely you need them, at least for now.

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