December 2nd, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve cycled back a bit and am looking at Michael Wright’s book Playwriting in Process: specifically, Chapter 3, where he introduces the idea of the etude.

The etude, for Wright, is what he was referring to in earlier sections when he discussed theatre games, and referred to the six line. But here, he expands the definition to include the refinements that attend the notion of an etude in other art forms: music, painting, and acting. Wright also uses the notion of etude in these other arts to highlight the different focus that is possible in using etudes. Specifically, the etude types break down thusly:

  • Musician: “it’s an exercise, such as scales: designed to strengthen key skills and techniques…The etudes in this book apply to playwriting by refining technique–what a jazz musician might call ‘developing your chops.’
  • Painter: “it is literally a study” and Wright points to the common practice in painting of examining parts of a larger painting in detail: sketches, painting smaller pieces and examining how the light falls, or the colors change, or tones, or what have you. “The painterly use of etudes applies already developed essential skills in order to attempt an untried new vision or level of endeavor.”
  • Actor: “sensory exploration,” that is, Wright contends that “actors are routinely trained in sensory work to give them access to a range of choices in their personal memories.” Wright contends that writers do the same thing, but that writers tend to be unaware of what they are doing when they are doing it, whereas actors are trained to be acutely aware of what they are doing when they are doing it.
  • Wright then lays out the scenario of a character delivering a monologue on why he is voting: and all the choices available: you could deliver the monologue yourself and record it for use later; you could have to people argue about who each is voting for; you could present a person who lives in a repressive country and is voting for the first time ever; etc. The point being that “Each [etude] asks you to find the truth of a character’s experiences by getting into his mind and feelings, and each asks you to place your character in a real dramatic world in which he has a stake or a problem to solve.” 23

    The most important points, though are:

  • etudes are for exploration
  • etudes are for groundwork–not primarily for use in a play (though they can be used, of course)
  • etudes are to encourage you to ‘dig into your creation in a thorough and theatrical way so that you have crafted a textured, layered, and truthful work.’
  • etudes ‘challenge you to solve basic problems’ by a ‘reexploration of style, content, or work process,’ and to ‘evolve new levels of expression…and challenging routine ways of thinking.’
  • etudes are useful in discovering stories
  • etudes help to reveal the subconscious; 24
  • Wright’s book then goes on to dedicate itself to specific etudes which he writes “you could continue doing…for the sheer fun of it or begin to use them in a more dedicated and systematic way by looking for etudes to help you explore a problem in a play you’re working on or planning to work on.” 25

    Wright concludes that “each play I’ve written has been a combination of old ground and new turf. The etudes can help with the new turf because their nature is exploratory, but I believe the etudes can be solid foundations for the old ground as well.”

    I personally am looking forward to digging in–to assessing what it is I’m already good at, what I could use some help with, and to just plain generating new material in a variety of different ways, which is always the most fertile source for new play content. I am much in need of an impetus to write to get access to my subconscious, otherwise I write plot-loaded, usually political pieces–mostly predictable, loaded, biased, etc. Anything that can help me gain entry to my sub/unconscious and till up new material is a bonus for me.

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