Archive for the ‘Theatre Games’ Category

Writing from Character

December 13th, 2011 No comments

Silver3 at Conni's

Attended the Writing from Character workshop last night at CPT, which was run by the heroes of Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and that is good as I was somewhat nervous being one of the only playwrights in a room filled with actors.


The workshop, loosely described, is about creating character by using a variety of techniques, including clowning. The main idea being that you have a character in mind based on a prop, and combined with movement and various other techniques you identify some biographical information about your character which then you can develop more fully into three dimensions.

I have been through a variant on this process before in a workshop at CSU. Interestingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, both focused on getting into one’s own body prior to the activity; and it is remarkable how much physicality can influence quirks of character in the development phase.

The evening started with everyone circling up and going through a quick name game to, as much as anything, loosen everyone up. That was followed by a five minute period during which everyone stretched on his/her own just to loosen up. This was the outset of my being thankful for doing, albeit half-heartedly, P90X. The stretch techniques and CardioX came in helpful for not only the stretching but what followed immediately upon it. We were encouraged to move around the room, walking, exploring the space.

We were in the Orthodox Church at CPT which is a quaint, baroque, and highly engaging space. The vaulted ceiling, tumbling into a cupola, is painted the hue of the lightest bluest sky of summer, set off by the brilliant gold paint liberally scattered about. The silhouette of tree limbs peeped at the windows and the wood floors felt immensely real under my bare feet. (I owe that description to the elevated awareness to which my senses were subject by the exercises. )

The exploration quickly turned to simply walking around the room, engaging the eye on whatever it took rest. Then the pace was increased. We were next encouraged to identify open space between all of the bodies moving about and move through them. Circles circled and then reversed, people dashed diagonally across the space. The clip increased. A rule was added that if you encountered a person you were to turn and move the opposite direction, as if you ricochetted off the individual. We were admonished to keep loose and lithe so as not to bash anyone we might bump into. Next we were encouraged to follow persons. Then to either stop or deflect when we bumped into another. The pace continued and we were encouraged to become aware of those around us, to pick a person and keep him/her in our peripheral vision at all times. Next it was two, then three. My eyes seemed to slide sideways in my head as I became increasingly aware of the breadth of the space around me. When the exercise concluded I was drenched in sweat, and yet was strangely un-tired. As one person described it, it was very much a constant exchange of energy from everyone in the room; and it might have been a sort of sustenance.

We did an exercise where we imagined we had extra limbs; where we contorted our bodies into odd shapes and physical expressions. Next we donned our outfits: pieces of clothing we brought along to help us envision a character. I wore a tremendously gaudy dress splattered with a rainbow of colors; I looked, no doubt, like an Amish Moony. We sauntered the room soon after listening to the coaxing commands of Jeffrey Frace to imagine that we were happy, to imagine that this was the happiest day of our lives, to imagine that we were infinitely desirable: that the world’s leading thinkers sought us out; the leading politicians called us on the phone for advice; etc. We were to inflate ourselves as much as possible and strut about the room greeting all the other inflated personas who inhabited the room. It was quite fun.

Then we sat and picked up a pad and paper and in response to Jeffrey’s commands, created a biography for a character that had emerged for us. The questions: Name, Age, Where from, Education, Key Moment in life, personal eccentricity, Greatest Fear, Greatest Dream, etc, required immediate responses (we were given approximately five minutes in which to get the details of our character in order). Then, as the main body of the workshop attendees sat, some several of us where called up in a group and Jeffrey pummeled us with questions about our biography. Many of the questions required on the spot generation of new facets to our personalities. We were then all given a scenario in which we had to act together: the first group was that a ballet troupe was unable to make their performance and the characters in the group had to fill in; next was the same scenario with Shakespeare replacing ballet; finally, (my group) it was a square dance.

All of these aspects are on view in Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant at CPT, which ends next week. Wild characters, bursting with energy, are engaged in running a restaurant and in coordinating the cooking and live entertainment for Conni’s guests (i.e. you, the audience).

The workshop concludes tomorrow night with an advancement of the characters we created and a short stint into cooking and working together to create and serve dinner while working in characters. Should be fun!

For those of you who are interested, my character is Schnickel Fritz, a 41-year-old Ponderer from Middletown, Ohio, who talks like Tom Waits. He can’t remember his education only that he became totally enlightened after a rumspringa acid trip. During the trip he realized that certain core tenants of the Mennonite faith coincided with a mix of Japanese zen Buddhist thought as filtered through a Hippy-style smokendum. Fritz’s personal eccentricity includes making animal faces and expressions (as well as accompanying noises) with his beard–but this only happens during periods of great excitement. Fritz’s greatest fear is being forcibly shaved. This also happens to be his greatest dream. One of the more terrible moments in Fritz’s life was when his pet cow Beatrice, a Hereford-Friesian dairy cow, was given over for slaughter to Butcher Langer.

When interviewed Fritz admitted that his sole exceptional feature is Pondering. “I am especially good and noble when it comes to the art of pondering. I love to emponder others. I am in transition. In my youth I was sought out for my great pondering ability and exquisite pondering poses: for which I was featured as a centerfold in Thinker Magazine: the Journal of the Subsupercilious. (Known in certain circles as “the Bent Brow”.) More recently I have traded my stardom for seeking states of non-being in my pondering, concentrating less on the outward form of my poses and more on a deeper sense of nothingness. In this regard, I have taken to assisting others who seek out deep wonderment.”


December 2nd, 2007 No 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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