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Working Theatrically

November 4th, 2007 No comments

Theatre Games

Michael Wright in his book Playwriting in Process: Thinking and Working Theatrically begins chapter two by outlining the concept of theatre games for playwrights.

Wright outlines the approach to playwriting that he rejects:

Doctrinaire statements include saying, the conflict must begin by page 5, or that exposition has to be done in such and such a way. Nontheatrical statements are suggesting that you develop plots from outlines or work up characters from lists of traits such as hair color, politics, and choice of bath soap.

Instead, Wright advocates, per the first sentence, the use of “theatre games; activities that encourage creative and dynamic thinking, playful writing, and immersive engagement in the process of creating scenes, characters, text, dialogue, and, of course, subtext.

Wright mentions a couple of sources for the games that he advocates. The first is Viola Spolin‘s theatre games and improvisations. Wright comments that her theatre games showed him “how to work from a ‘doing approach’ finding a given scene through active discovery‚ÄĚrather than a detached mental process.’ The second source for Wright came from his work with Harold Clurman in the Director’s Unit, which was a subdivision of Israel Horovitz‘s Playwright’s Unit at the Actors Studio. Clurman apparently used a process whereby a group of playwrights began creating new plays all at the same time with a set number of pages to create per week and then these plays were workshopped, i.e. shared, read, critiqued, discussed, etc. This is very like the process I’ve gone through in several of my playwriting classes at CSU/NEOMFA. For several reasons, Wright and another playwright, Jeffrey Sweet, left this group and created their own named the New York Writer’s Bloc. Out of this came an exercise described by Wright as the “Six Line”.

The six-line as a writing exercise is a short scene literally comprised of six lines between two characters with each character having three lines. A line can be one word or five pages and is the sum of one character’s thoughts as spoken in that one response Each week’s six-lines were based on a given topic, which was also known as ‘negotiation.’ A negotiation was defined as the matter, issue, or problem between two people who each wanted a different result and automatically led to conflict The use of an assigned negotiation helped us all because we didn’t have to think of a topic on our own

Wright asserts that writing negotiations is the “center of all theatrical writing” because it encompasses the “show don’t’ tell” writing principle (mentioned in my earlier posts) and creates characters who define meaning by both what they say and what they do that is, not only the action, but how that action is carried out. More importantly, by creating meaning in this way, the audience is forced to pay attention to all aspects of a theatrical production, not just the words that characters speakbecause the words a character speaks can be in sharp contracts with the actions that character performs: the sum of these elements adding up to a complexity and depth of meaning that is much greater than their component pieces alone.

Here is an example from Wright’s book:

#1 A Couple playing Scrabble

KAREN: There. L-O-V-E. That’s, mm, double letter. Fifteen.
HARRY: OK, and I’ll just borrow that L, and add my U, S, T. That’s triple word, forty-five!
KAREN: Fine! I’ll add my F, U, and L up here. That’s now Faithful, and that scores me thirty-six, so I’m still up by fifty.
HARRY: Yeah? Well, here’s one for you in front of your ART, I drop a P, then finish with a Y. Double-word, triple on the Y, and we’re talking seventy-eight points. Now who’s “up”?
KAREN: Yeah, we’ll see. Here, try this: in front of your ANT I’m going to add P, R, E, G, N. [A beat; she gives him a very long look.] Your move. [Beat.] Well?
HARRY: I’m thinking! [Beat.] I’m thinking.

First, going back to the quote I added to one of my earlier posts from Bob McKee’s book, Story: namely, that if the characters in your scene are talking about what they’re talking about: you’re fucked. The point being, in this case, that Karen and Harry aren’t talking about scrabble. They aren’t directly talking about what they’re talking about. It is carried behind the text, or under the text, or is to the text as the spirit is to the body: out there floating, ethereal.

Second, part of the theatricality of this scene lies a) in the fact that they are doing something physical: in time, space, etc; and b) the thing that they are doing they are doing aloud and, while they are literally spelling everything out for the audience, the audience still has to add everything up to get the meaning and what is implied by the activities of the two.

Third, the scene builds tension. The first exchange sets the pattern and the relationship; the second ups the stakes in way Karen and Harry relate within their society; the final exchange raises the ‘game’ to a whole new levelone that ‘check mates’ the other and removes the relationship from the world of college parties to the world of child-rearing, parenting, and adulthood.

Fourth, the words each speaks, the location of the exclamation points (their enthusiasm), their sense of humor, sense of irony, snideness, revelation of interests and what is important to themall of this ‘dialogue’ and ‘behavior’ reveals characterbut it is revealed only in discerning it actively, not by having it told explicitly.

Regardless, this, as Wright admits, is only an exercise, but this could easily be a way of developing a dramatic moment in a play that you are already writingthis play is about Karen and Harry and you need a way of showing the dramatic revelation of her pregnancythis certainly would be a more engaging way of doing it than find some argument or reason to logically wind them up and have Karen blurt it out to silence all things that could be said after it, etc.

In the podcast I did for Jonah’s Theatrically Speaking show I mentioned the exercise that Mike Geither distributed which led to the play that will have a reading next week at Cleveland Public Theatre. That exercise runs as follows:

Five to fifteen pages.
The speaker from the monologue you created tonight is involved in a two character scene. All of the following must occur:

One character has a secret.
A musical instrument is heard or played.
One character has a nickname.
There is a kiss.
One person sings.
For at least ten lines, they must communicate with single, one-syllable words.
A secret is revealed.
One character makes a paper airplane.
Something spills.
Something must be sold.
A history is recounted.
Someone prays.
Someone rubs his/her/its hands together.
One character touches the other’s face.
At the very end of the scene, a third character enters.

Very like poetry in meter or within a rhymed system, the act of constraining your writing and forcing yourself, technically, to do certain things sparks creativityit demands inventive solutions to rules that, in this case, you must abide or meet. But more, this approach to writing forces you to think about possibilities you never would normally consider. I, for instance, never would have a character pray. It is not because I am opposed to prayer. It is because, while I prayed throughout my childhood like a good little boy, I rarely do now. So in this regard, how does having a character pray connect me with the character? What dormant emotions, images, longings, and connections from my childhood are stirred uplike sediment on a river bottom? What does this bring to my writing? What does that bring to my characters? How does this deepen them, strengthen themand what does it do for my writing as a whole?

As Wright remarks:

“This active process allows the writer to explore the play, the characters, events prior to or following the play, and so onall in a very theatrical way because the exploration itself is through playwriting.


I just was reading Intermission’s site again and she has done something cool, she uses a box that “displays qualities about the character or meaningful aspects of the play,” but this time she’s used a mask. That is supercool. But beyond this, she notes that she uses a collage to think about her characters and the play and that kind of approach has to create some really original insights and develop powerful connections between characters, events, attributes, etc.

Playwriting Process–Thinking Theatrically, Part II

October 27th, 2007 No comments

The Mystery Play

Continuing my consideration of Michael Wright’s book, Playwriting in Process: Thinking and Working Theatrically:

Wright writes,

“I try to encourage my students to think of watching a play as being involved in a mystery no matter what the style or subject matter of the play may be. The audience is there to figure out what’s going to happen (in conventional theatre)the concepts ‘suggest rather than spell out’ and ‘show, don’t tell’ are about giving the audience the chance to try to figure things out for themselves, of sustaining its agreement by actively engaging its imagination.”

What’s Most Important

Wright goes on next to talk about what he considers the two most important components of plays: dialogue and behavior.

Wright discusses the complexity of dialogue: namely, it goes beyond what is said and how: the richness, symbolic nature, imagistic expression, etc. It includes also what is not said, or left unsaid. It include subtext. Bob McKee in his book Story states that it is commonly held in screenwriting that if your characters are talking about what they’re talking about, you’re fucked. That is to say, what characters are talking about hides or masks their motivations. This fact is one of the big flaws in my play The Empiric. There are too many times when people are saying out loud what people don’t say out loud: people hide stuff. There is much that people would rather die than say aloud. How do you show what pains a person, without having that person state it? That is subtext. That is mastery of dialogue and behavior. That is theatricality.

As examples, Wright uses “I’m fine.” Think of your encounters with people in the morning at work.

Me: “Hi, Bob, how are you today?”
Bob: (Smiles) “I’m fine.”

Me: “Hi, Bob, how are you today?”
Bob: (Scowls) “I’m fine.”

Subtext is in behavior. With regards to behavior, is your character flighty? Is she clumsy? Is she hysterical? How do any of these behaviors play out in a scene? What do they reveal about the character–without that character ever saying a word?

So give your audience something to see and figure out–let them discern what a character is about based on what that character does and let them judge if what she says jibes with what she does.

Plays are meant to be seen. You need an audience.

As Wright states,

“a play is a human event that is being observed by other humans–it is witnessed”

Wright speaks of the “witnessed present,” that any play we watch happens right now, in the present. It doesn’t matter if the play was written 500 years ago, or 20 years ago, when we, as an audience, watch it, it takes place in the present: right before our eyes.

Wright notes that,

“it’s our present at the same instant, because the problems of the characters reflect our own lives. We may not have the literal dilemmas that Oedipus struggles with but we all have to deal with issues of morality and personal integrity”

Next, Wright points out that thinking theatrically is “rooted in an awareness of the existence of the other”–that is, the play is being performed by real people right in front of you–they are aware of you, and you are certainly aware of them. This reciprocality of awareness make the event itself more real.

Wright comments that we all like to watch others. That it’s a natural human tendency which goes a long way toward explaining the ascendency of “reality” television. He writes,

“we know without hearing a word that the couple over there is arguing, or the man sitting to our left is really nervous. We read these things in the behavior of the people, but we also feel these things because we are in the same environment. When we’re in a theatre, we are focused by a successful show by the same kind of immediacy one experiences [in life]. There is no filter between you and what’s acting on your sensory receptors: we listen, watch, and feel the human struggles on the stage directly.”

4 Points on Theatricallity

For Wright, thinking theatrically means writing with all of these elements in mind:

  1. to write dialogue that is crafting language: both text and subtext and delving into the inner feelings of characters;
  2. creating revealing behavior that allows us to “witness the struggle with those feelings;”
  3. Using the stage space in the most imaginative ways possible to engage the audience “emotionally, intellectually, and viscerally.”
  4. Crucially, expressing your imaginative impulses–that is, as I said in my podcast regarding “censoring” and Intermission has said about the “editor’s mind”; follow your instincts and don’t squash what rises up from your unconscious.

At the end, Wright asks,

“The question that plagues all playwrights is how do we craft stories and people who are truly theatrical? How can we use the real potential of the space we call a stage?”

This is the challenge of Thinking Theatrically.

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