Archive for the ‘Writing Exercises’ 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.”

Lord of the Burgeoning Lumber

November 24th, 2008 No comments

Well, it’s been a long road for me and this play. It started as an exercise in Mike Geither’s English 612 class sometime in February or March of 2007. The exercise, toward the bottom of this entry:, led to Timothy and Spooky running around a campfire.

As nearly as I can remember the play started off like a normal one for me. Two characters in a rather bland exchange:

Timothy: Hey, Spooky, whachya up to?

Spooky: I don’t like being called ‘Spooky,’ thank you so goddam very much, I thank you.

Timothy: Okay, then Spooky, what is your name?

Spooky: I won’t tell you my name. A name’s power, there’s power in names; power in names over the named thing there is power. That I won’t give you.

Timothy: Spooky, how can I talk to you if I don’t know what to call you by?

Spooky: (Standing quickly and moving toward Timothy. Speaks in a loud voice and stands menacingly close) Ahhh, why doan you fuck off!

It had two male characters interacting and one was violent and domineering and the other somewhat passive and timid. At this point, the play could have gone the same route as an earlier play I wrote, Only Sing for Me. In fact, I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on this comparison and the two are eerily similar, one is simply less imaginative and has less of my “true” voice in it. Although it nearly went the same route as the earlier piece, one exchange popped out that changed things:

Timothy: (Shrinking visibly and stuttering) I…I…m sorry Spp… I’m sorry. Sorry. I didn’t mean to…

Spooky: (Just stands and breathes heavily into Timothy’s face.)

Timothy: (Raises his right hand and taps it on his chest) My, but you have got my heart racing. Simply racing. (He backs up a step and then turns, slowly, and begins circling Spooky) Simply a’goin’ pitter patter, my heart. (In the mock voice of Scarlet O’Hara or Blanche DuBois) Why, whatever is a girl to do with such a… brute as you?

That strategic choice by Timothy to switch to an openly effeminate persona, coupled with the sly strategy of a comedic mockery that challenges the openly violent hostility of the other fundamentally changed how the two would interact. This exchange was followed rapidly by the next exchange:

Spooky: (Sits on the ground again and crosses his legs; he draws idly with his index finger.)

Timothy: (In his normal voice) You know, I don’t often come to the woods anymore. Not like I used to. Not like I used to with Uncle Philly and Brother Gene and Sister Mary May and John the Butcher and Kim the Karate man from down the block. Not like that anymore. I used to come. With them. Used to come out here all the time and lay on my back in the clearing over there and gaze up at the night sky. Orion and Cassiopeia and the Pleiades and Sirius and Ursa Major and Ursa Minor and the Milky Way which was always my favorite way and the vast distance of the immensity that was the greatness that pressed down on my tiny chest and encompassed me fuller than any womb I was ever completely in but not completed in. I used to gaze at that.

This effusion by Timothy is remarkable, for me, in that the character of Timothy now has openly been freed up to allow his innermost thoughts to pour out, uninhibited. It is quite really that by allowing my character (myself) to put on an effeminate voice I freed myself (Timothy) to let an imaginative world pour forth. This is quite naturally followed later by this, not too much later:

Spooky: (Turning) Are you gonna get smart? (Stands) Are ya? (Walks menacingly toward Timothy) Are you gonna get smart. Are ya? Are you gonna get smart, now? (Smacking Timothy on the head) Where’s your dress? Where’s your dress, Timothy? Where is it? (Smacks Timothy on the head) Put it on. Put the dress on. (He turns and stomps back to the backpack and starts rummaging.)

And then…

Timothy steps out of the tent in a pink dress and a blonde wig with braids. He has red lipstick all over his mouth.

So, the course of the play had been set in motion.

Originally, the Ranger was in on it. Later he became a foil against which the other two acted. This is very in keeping with Only Sing for Me, but I do have to speculate what the play would have been like had I kept the Ranger as a part of the other two’s activities.

For the most part the play developed in a natural course flowing out of me quite easily. Toward the end, though, the magic fizzled and my conscious mind started getting in the way. I’ve written about this on several occasions, but my entry on Wallace Shawn certainly foregrounds the problem:

The unconscious mind is the realm of dreams. It is mythological and powerful, spontaneous and frightening. The conscious mind is dull and predictable. Beware you let your conscious mind write (or edit your unconscious material). Of course, you have to do this (allow it) so, as Shawn points out, this is where a talented writer shows up (the ability to edit). I have yet to fully acquire this talent. I read Christine Howey’s review of my play and admired her eye, as she directly caught the problem of my play of which I was acutely aware.

In revising the play, which I had named A Howl in the Woods, I comment elsewhere about the change in name which I admit is much more interesting than my original. The original name, however, reflects the direction I went with the play: there is something in the unconscious tangle that transforms the main character—empowers him to slough off his mutable identity and become the self-defined person he was meant to be.

There was a fundamental failure on my part to instantiate this vision for this play and that left it open to many interpretations. And truth be told, the direction that it went was too much a conscious decision and left it open to the failures I mention above. I think very much that Clyde revived the comedic heart of the play as it was originated—the playful spontaneity that made it special—and helped it to come to something worthwhile. I know that I am fortunate to have him as the director.

Ultimately, there were mistakes made in the writing of this play and I have learned valuable lessons from them—so, I will go on to new mistakes. Hopefully my plays will get better as I move forward, too—the mistakes less obvious and bumbling. In reflection, I had opportunities; including the aftermath of the staged reading at CPT.

Lord of the Burgeoning Lumber is going well and has been very well received (see Tony Brown’s review). I admit that I’m somewhat surprised, but I guess that is because I know its warts and focus on what could have been rather than what is, making it difficult to see that there is good in it yet. Certainly, I have no regrets about placing the play in the hands of convergence-continuum. I cannot say enough about all who have given so much of their time to it: Clyde Simon, Lucy Bredeson-Smith (tireless and omnipotent wielder of the immortal stage manager lash), Geoffrey Hoffman (whose talent as an actor and director shows in his acute perception of and critical inquiry about the flaws in this play), Tom Kondilas, Tyson Rand, Mark K (who should have two more arms to manage the musical gymnastics he accomplishes for this performance), Megan DePetro as the Butterfly Queen, and Sarah Kunchik as Helga. Then there is Terrii Zernechel who put in long evenings working on lights and lighting effects, Tom Kondilas (again) who stop-motioned the video and brought the shadows to life, and Sade Wolfkitten who is always present to make the sound go off without a hitch.

I am grateful to convergence for making this play a success; to Mike Geither for his guidance, and for the input of the 612 class who helped shape it. The play has yet to reach its final resting place, perhaps, as it has been entered in the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival (ACTF) and will be reviewed by a judge from Wooster very soon. Some recommendation will be made at that point.

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