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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.”

Playwriting Process

October 19th, 2007 No comments

As I mentioned in my recent posts, I was given a gracious opportunity by Jonah Knight to speak on his program Theatrically Speaking–for which I am grateful. The topic I discussed was playwriting process and I looked over the breadth of my experience, which has moved from a formal pursuit of the “well-made” play; into the fearful vagaries of just letting images and ideas swell up from the unconscious and surround a set of characters or actions or spaces. In doing the podcast I found that I was hedging against a diatribe and I still feel somewhat that I should avoid doing so outright. However, the more I think about the subject of playwriting process and the more I look at what others say about it, the more I’m convinced that I have moved onto a solid path: one that will guide my future steps. I have just picked up the book Playwriting in Process: Thinking and Working Theatrically, and I have a feeling that I will very much enjoy it. The author, Michael Wright promises a litany of exercises to explore the various aspects of playwriting, and, as I’m always anxious to explore, I will take them up and later comment on them: including which I have found effective, not so much, and, of course, what they did for my awareness and experience of process. Wright’s introduction is very encouraging to my mind. He begins by stating that,

“…this book does not follow any kind of formulaic approach to the making of a play. It’s my belief that formulas impose an inhibitive sense of style and limited theatrical thinking on a writer.”

This is far better articulated than what I managed in my podcast, where I resorted to strange metaphors and comments to the effect that making plays is not like making cakes: that is, there’s no recipe that you can follow: a dash of tension here, and teaspoon of spectacle there: here 3 cups of exposition. Now, I don’t want to imply that just anyone can make a cake either…there is art to most everything that is done conscientiously, tirelessly over time, and well. In my podcast I say that this approach to writing,

“tended to produce plays or create plays that often seemed to be very similar to one another, not necessarily in their content, but in the way that they moved and in their rhythm and in the way that they felt…”

And I think Wright’s diagnosis of the problem is accurate: namely, that there is “an inhibitive sense of style and limited theatrical thinking…” and, perhaps, I was inhibited and limited in the same way all the time, so that my plays were constricted and lacking always in the same way…thus giving them the same feeling or quality that I describe above.

Wright later states that, “Playwriting is an art even though we refer to it as a craft; the latter implies that playwrights simply become apprenticed and five years later have achieved playwright status.” Despite the truth of his comment, I have to state that I would love to be apprenticed to a master playwright and spend five years in such a manner as, say, a printmaker would have in 1778, or a shipwright or whatever. I think there is great value in such an arrangement and I wholly believe that the knowledge of the tools and the forms and constructions, etc., would be invaluable. This is not to say, as Wright justly points out, that having done this one would achieve ‘playwright status.’ But, one would go a long way toward it. I believe, still, with growing certainty, that dropping inhibitions and exploring the different components in a free form of writing would be necessary to making that jump to the status of a successful playwright–and I don’t mean commercially, but personally and artistically: that is, satisfying yourself, exploring yourself, and at the same time creating meanings that truly connect with others and add value to their understanding of both themselves and the world we all live in–limited as my Western perspective on that would be.

Wright writes (I have to say that again and again) that,

“Watching master playwrights struggle with their latest plays would be a great training ground. We could learn by watching how they make decisions about plot, which structure to place the plot in, how late to get into the action of the play, and how much needs to be known about their characters.”

Interestingly enough, I have a book entitled “From Ibsen’s Workshop” which takes the approach of gathering up all known copies of his notes and drafts and then assimilating them and then comparing them with the final versions of the play–so that you can see, for instance, how Nora changes in earlier versions to the final version of A Doll’s House. (It also provides the interesting note that in Germany whoever staged the play forced Ibsen to change the ending so that Nora didn’t leave, saying, instead, something to the effect, “Oh, I could never leave my children.” and then collapsing at the door to their room. I think whatever that line is would make a great title for a play for any of adamant feminist writers out there who want to poke fun at this pathetic alteration of Ibsen’s play in Germany.) But, I digress.

I think one of Wright’s excellent insights is when he comments that,

“Human nature is to copy what we don’t know how to do, and so a student ends up putting together a Xerox of what the sample looks like. But were does the student go from there?”

Wright says this in the context of introducing his exercises and how he uses them. However, for those playwrights out there who have self-taught themselves from books (as I started) and found themselves mimicking the structures and designs of other playwrights, I think there will be general agreement that this leads directly to a very difficult period of adjustment when one must learn to think for oneself–as one eventually must if one is to truly be an artist. That is, there is a sense of dependency that is fostered and one must refer to other plays as guides or reference books–like learning php or css. “How did he do that again? Hmmm. Let me look.” Instead of just taking the proverbial bull by the horns and saying “damn it all, I’ll figure it out myself.” That step took me a while and I think that relying on a manner of creating plays that focuses on structure and building and proper arrangement of pieces for an effect leads to a manner of play creation that fosters this approach to writing. Wright goes on to say that “there is no longer any meaningful single definition of play that applies across the spectrum of what’s being created around the world, beyond saying that a play is a (largely) live event that takes place in a space that all involved have agreed is a “stage.” And that further,

“there is little reason to believe that theatre will retreat to the well-made play or to some rigid Aristotelian framework. Theatre is far more likely to continue its expansive form, subject matter, language, use of space, and so on. In fact, it will continue to embrace its eclectic heritage from the experiments of the twentieth century.”

By both accident and guidance from my professor/mentor Mike Geither I have found my way to this path, this “eclectic heritage.” And for that I am glad and hopeful for the more deeply meaningful and personal playwriting that it has engendered in me.

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