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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

October 26th, 2007 No comments

Per Jonah’s podcast, number 1.1: “Theatrical–of or for the theater of acting or actors; calculated for effect, showy, artificial, affected.”

In chapter two of Playwriting in Process: Thinking and Working Theatrically, Michael Wright considers theatricality and the flaws of current approaches to teaching playwriting and deficiencies he often sees in plays created by new playwrights.

In his Theatrically Speaking series of podcasts, Jonah Knight started with podcast 1.1 and 1.2 by considering theatricality.

I think the fact that both of these playwrights have started their works by looking at theater through the lens of theatricality is telling. That is, it must be important. There must be something about it that demands or merits attention. And on my part, theatricality has been the most difficult and elusive of elements and only recently have I started to get my hands on it or my head around it.

My Take on Theatricality

To me, writing theatricality means grasping space as you write. It means apprehending not only the characters and events that you mean to portray, but the physical environment in which they exist; how that physical environment affects your characters and events”and then using this apprehension creatively to your advantage”or more specifically, passing the three-dimensional world of the play that you are creating on to the audience and thereby making that world actively interesting, engaging, and unique to the meaning and content of your play.

In my play A Howl in the Woods one of the characters is in a bad position”he’s trapped in a place where he doesn’t want to be (physically, psychologically, and spiritually)”throughout the first part of the play trash has been thrown about and has covered the ground: including beer cans. It came to me suddenly that this character could flatten a beer can and use it to construct a mock telegraph machine and use it to send a message”and then it hit me next: what if he got an answer? What if that answer were a howl from off stage? A presence that kept encroaching? This, to me is theatricality. In this scene, the character is having a dialogue with himself; his behavior is telling: it shows his state of mind and the mock telegraph makes tangible his struggle to get out; it holds mystery; it reveals his imaginative nature and experiments with the space he occupies.

Before I wrote this play, the extent of my theatrical sense of a stage was limited to people crossing up and down and from side-to-side and motioning and, occasionally, singing something as they puttered around. That is, this was my physical sense of the play. I have always had a good verbal sense; and my plays are highly imagistic and carry meaningful metaphors and themes. This is to say that language is important, too. As is emotion. Getting that sense of what a character is all about by seeing that character move in space, seeing that character break a vase, weep in deep sobs, tackle another person. Theatricality is realizing all the elements of emotional characters; using all the elements at your disposal: language, physicality of action, physicality of expression, etc.

Not Thinking Theatrically

In his book, Wright begins his first chapter by writing that: “One of the most interesting teaching challenges I’ve experienced is dealing with a student population that does not innately think ‘theatrically.’ And Jonah discusses this in podcast 1.2 where he describes a reading in which the characters just sit around and play trashcan basketball. That nothing happens. Nothing in the dialogue refers to what they’re doing (playing trashcan basketball). It, in fact, has no relation to the scene. This, to my mind, makes the activity spectacle”and poor spectacle at that. That is to say, the activity doesn’t advance the plot, it doesn’t expand our understanding of the characters; it doesn’t reflect on the meaning of the play in any symbolic or metaphorical sense. It is just something that for some reason the playwright thought was “active.”

Wright offers two solutions to overcome this state of not thinking theatrically: read more plays, and write as much as possible. The writing, he insists, will force the young playwrights to experience the challenges of creating and overcoming obstacles in the creation process.

A Representation of Potential

One of the things that I like about what Wright says is that:

“a stage is always a physical representation of potential. The stage is a space that contains possibilities, not realities: it is a place for imaging “In itself a stage is theatrical. Even empty, it’s a kind of show because the imagination is engaged by it. In use, there is no limit to what can happen there, unless the imagination itself is limited.”

I think Jonah makes a good point on this as well. He talks of an exercise that he once experienced that asked playwrights to figure out something that could not happen on a stage. Jonah’s idea was “the sky falls down.” He talks about moving the stage; doing it with lighting, etc.

I think what is important is what Wright says at the end of the quote above”unless the imagination itself is limited,” so the real challenge is to break out of your own style and always explore, always challenge yourself, always think and push what is possible: what’s going on here? How can it be different? How can I look at this situation differently? How can I show what is happening and not have people talk about it?

Children’s Theatre as an example

One of the things Wright points to is children’s theatre. That several things happen in children’s theatre: 1) it is usually done on a limited budget so things have to be imagined; 2) children are expected to participate in the act of creating”not just to sit passively and watch.

This doesn’t mean that you have to have your audience help create the play”although, as I pointed out in my podcast appearance on Theatrically Speaking, in people’s theater it is one approach to play generation. But more practically it means always be open to the possibility that any scene holds for you. How can you look at the scene differently? How can you evolve it using what is already there? What haven’t you explored in a given scene? In its setting? What is available to you if you act imaginatively?

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