Playwriting: Breaking the Block, Part 2

I have a play in my head that has frightened me for a long time because it will require considerable research to write authentically—and the stack of books I’ve accumulated to begin the work is a bit intimidating. Not that I can’t read; I figured that out when I was six, but there is a gap between book knowledge and lived experience—and what will be required ultimately, is an avenue into the lived experience of  individuals who struggle under constant scrutiny from the state. Now I have a great resource that I will talk about in future posts, but for now, let’s return to this fun little exercise:


Last week I wrote about Marsha Norman’s five sentences, in which you can get  at the arc of a story by filling in these blanks:


  1. This is a play about _____.
  2. It takes place _____.
  3. The main character wants _____ but _____
  4. It starts when __________
  5. It ends when __________.



For purposes of the exercise, as well as this new play, I have filled in the blanks as follows:

  1. This is a play about a man whose ability to recall the most vivid and trivial detail of everything he ever saw or experienced is at first regarded as a medical phenomenon.
  2. It takes place in the Soviet Union at the time of Stalin’s purges.
  3. The main character wants to be rid of a traumatic memory, but soon discovers that his strange gift is a political liability for powerful people who have a strong need for certain events to be erased from public memory.
  4. It starts when he encounters a psychologist who says she can help him deal with his trauma.
  5. It ends when he convinces an agent of the secret police that his phenomenal memory is a mere circus act.


Josef Stalin, no friend to artists

He liked his agitprop straight up

The five sentences give a sense of the story’s arc and allowed me to craft a short summation of the story as follows:



In 1930s Moscow, a man with a phenomenal memory is targeted by Stalin’s persecution machine when he is unable to forget an incident that undermines the official story about the fate of a high-ranking Soviet official.


So that is the elevator speech.


Now to write the play. I have at least 10 or 12 books to read and absorb and while I do that I will start noodling with exploratory scenes.


So the second part of the exercise is to write an opening scene as I envision it right now. I sketch out an encounter between the doctor and patient in which it is revealed that the patient not only has a phenomenal memory for vivid details, he recalls through image and odor and attaches sound to colors, tactile sensations to sound and colors to tastes.

Though synesthesia is a fascinating medical phenomenon, it is not a particularly interesting scene—too expositional—and because I don’t like to embarrass myself, I won’t post it. But to liven it, I will turn to an exercise from Michael Bigelow Dixon, former literary manager of Actors Theatre of Louisville and currently a professor of theatre at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky. He is also obviously a brilliant mind because he once produced a play of mine.


Okay, so Michael gives us this exercise, and for more of the same, check out his book here. Yes, kids, you can try this at home:


Michael’s Step-up-the-Stakes Exercise


1. Put two characters who share something in common in a place neither can leave. And write a scene in which the obstacles and stakes are high and clearly presented.


Obviously, the patient can leave the doctor’s office if he wishes—unless it’s an office in a mental hospital, then perhaps not. But I don’t see that. He is not committed to a hospital; he’s out in the world. He has to be out in the world in order to experience the disconnect between what he observes—and what he is told to understand. However, since I know the state is interested in the patient, one high stakes scenario comes immediately to mind: An interrogator and his prisoner. Fairly obvious.


And what do they share?


Their mutual hatred of the Tsar.



And who are they? Not the patient and the doctor – but the doctor and an official who needs information about the patient. The doctor, then,  is the prisoner.


That adds an interesting wrinkle, and I will share that scene next week.




5 thoughts on “Playwriting: Breaking the Block, Part 2

  1. Synesthesia is a fascinating phenomenon. Have you read The Man who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic? It’s fascinating and illuminating.

    Eidetic memory is another (fascinating) phenomenon. That’s an interesting idea to combine the two in one person.

    If it’s okay with you, I’m going to post about your Breaking the Block series on my own blog.

  2. Pingback: Breaking the Block Part 4: The Worst Case Scenario | Looking Backwards Through a Microscope

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