Tuesday, February 12, 2013
HOW TO BE A PLAYWRIGHT or HOW TO ENJOY REPEATEDLY BANGING YOUR HEAD AGAINST THE WALL
Hello everyone, and welcome to Theater is a Sport. I'm excited today, because it's Tuesday, and Tuesdays are going to be the days where I talk about one of my favorite subjects: playwriting. I hope the title of this blog post does not deter any potential playwrights--- trust me, banging your head against the wall can be very rewarding, especially if you have a finished play to show for it. Perhaps the greatest perk of writing plays for me, is when I am in the middle of writing, everything else goes away (just like practicing music for Natalie in Next To Normal). This is a source of great peace, no matter how frustrating composition may become. So, if you've got the discipline and the courage, I would like to welcome you to the odd and beautiful world of drawing the blueprint of a play, so that other artists may build the house which is known as a production. Feel free to bring a helmet.
I would like say in earnest, before I begin, that I love playwriting, and love everything about it, the highs and the lows. And while I can teach you all some simple tricks to help you along the way to avoid the many pitfalls, I cannot make anyone a great playwright. I can assist you in avoiding some common mistakes, give you some exercises and reading material that may serve to build some skills, but being a "great" anything comes from within. It is a matter of love and drive (and for some lucky few, genius). Person A may write a really good rough draft of a script, while Person B writes an absolute stinker. Person A, however, may settle for good enough, while Person B writes draft after draft, mounts workshop after workshop, and keeps fixing the PU script until, perhaps after years, it becomes a great script. So, there you go.
All right class, I like to begin my playwriting classes by talking a little bit Aristotle and his Poetics, which is his guide to tragedy. Aristotle had an opinion about everything, but there is a great deal of merit in how he discusses the structure of a play. Here is a link to perhaps my favorite outline of Aristotle's theory on tragedy. It helps cut through a great deal of dry reading. http://www2.cnr.edu/home/bmcmanus/poetics.html
I'm going to apologize in advance for the inherent sexism of Aristotle's day and age. Some of my favorite playwrights are women, including the nearly divine Paula Vogel and the breathtaking Suzan-Lori Parks.
I have my own language when I describe the overall structure of a play to my high school students. It begins as follows:
CATALYST: This is what I call the beginning of a play. Others may call it the "incentive moment", but I prefer catalyst. It is the moment or moments that cause every other moment of the play to occur. For example, in Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire, I might argue that the catalyst is Blanche moving in with her sister Stella, and her sister's husband Stanley. This action allows every other action to happen.
After the catalyst, we have RISING ACTION, or what I call CHEMICAL REACTIONS, where we learn about the characters, how their wants fizz and bubble, we discover the protagonist and antagonist, and, most importantly, we learn the major CONFLICT of the show (more, heck, MUCH MORE on CONFLICT as this online tutorial continues).
So, as the characters and actions fizz, bubble, hiss and steam, and, in time, come to a boil, we have what's called the CLIMAX ( I could pretend I call it something more chemical sounding, like the BOILING POINT, but that would be a lie--- I mean, who doesn't like the word climax, after all). People think of the Climax as the turning point, and event or action that alters the rest of the play. Think Hamlet killing Polonius. Romeo killing Tybalt. Corie and Paul's big fight near the end of Act II of Barefoot in the Park.
Important Note: You may not know the plays I talk about. That's okay. One of the first assignments I'm going to give you is designed to help remedy this.
Okay, so after the CLIMAX, we have FALLING ACTION which leads to the RESOLUTION, or, more appropriately, the DENOUMENT, where all the loose ends and subplots are tied up and, in a tragedy, everybody of importance dies, and, in a comedy, they live happily ever after. Of course I'm being a bit over-simplistic here, but I think it's good to start with a generalized version of things before moving into the areas where black and white become a gazillion different shades of murky grey.
This is a good deal to throw at you all at once without being able to stop and have you ask questions. Don't worry. Take from this what you can. Digest what you can. And, of course, if you have a question, I'll give you my e-mail at the end so you can ask it, or you can always drop a question in the comments.
If you will allow me to turn on some headlights as we drive this road together, I'd like to offer some thoughts I find illuminating when first tackling the craft of playwriting:
1. Characters have to WANT something. Every character, always. This is where CONFLICT, and, hence, DRAMA come from.
2. Most great plays are about an event. George and Martha having guests in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", Hamlet's mom gets married to his uncle and he sees the ghost of his father, Aleksandr and Yelena visit Vanya and Sonya, throwing their quiet life into disarray... you get the idea.
3. Point A leads to Point B, Point B leads to Point C, etc. This may seem fairly obvious, but, trust me, it's not always.
4. Human beings are not perfect. Characters shouldn't be either. Audiences like characters with flaws. It makes them relatable, human.
5. This is very important: don't be afraid to get messy. Playwriting is messy. Allow yourself to make mistakes in the act of writing. And don't stop when it gets hard. It is much easier to fix a draft of something than recapture an idea you have completely deleted when the going got tough.
This is a very rough overview of ideas that will be explored in greater detail as Tuesdays come and go. Your assignment for next Tuesday is to take a look at the Aristotle link, but, beyond that, READ SOME PLAYS. The best way to learn to write plays is to read plays and to watch plays. Now, you may not have a chance to watch a play before our next class, but I still want you to do this for me: if you watch a movie or a TV show, try to break it down from a structural standpoint (old reruns or "Law and Order", the original, are good for this: crime is committed, detectives work to find the person, the lawyers try to convict, and either they do or do not. Beginning, middle, end). See what works. See what TV shows or movies do this well (believe it or not, in TV and movies, they do refer to having and Act One and an Act Two, sometimes even an Act 3).
If you want some suggestions for plays to read, drop me a line. Better yet, think of the types of stories you would like to tell, and try to find plays of that genre. At this point in your lives, reading should be enjoyable, so I don't necessarily want to dictate what plays you read, just so long as you read some plays. Still, I'm happy to offer suggestions.
Next Tuesday, our class will be discussing monologues, and we will begin writing them. How 'bout that? Soon, you will be an honest-to-God playwright. Aren't you excited?
To go right to LESSON TWO, simply click HERE
Thanks for reading this installment of Theater is a Sport. If you would like to drop me a line, please do so: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to learn more about me as a playwright, feel free to visit my facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bobby-Keniston-Playwright-Page/148232788536601
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So, thanks again. Tune in tomorrow when I'll be giving out some simple audition tips for community theater actors. Until then, have a great time in your lives, and remember: Theater is a sport.