Mindful Playwriting

img_9677

I began my playwriting journey before it was so common for people to have their own personal computers. So, the first plays I constructed were written by hand on paper with a pen or pencil. Years into my playwriting journey, for a time I did switch to writing my plays directly into the computer, using a script formatting software package called Final Draft. You can learn more about Final Draft by going here. At the time, I didn’t think I was losing anything by quickly dashing out my latest plays directly into the computer. I was doing my editing and rewriting on the computer then too. That all seemed great.

What I discovered later on though, was that the plays I wrote exclusively on the computer were lacking something important that the plays I wrote primarily by hand with a pen or pencil all did have. For decades now I have been a daily journal writer. I write a few pages, longhand, into a blank book almost daily. I aim for daily, but sometimes life interferes.   When I write in my blank book with a pen I always feel a good strong connection to my emotions and my thoughts. I haven’t always felt that same connection when typing into a computer. In fact, most of the plays I wrote directly into the computer weren’t nearly as good as the other plays that I wrote longhand.

In the past few years I returned to writing plays longhand and typing them into the computer only so others can read them, and or produce them. I also returned to doing all my editing and rewriting with a pen on the printed pages after getting play drafts input into the computer.  These more recent plays have been far stronger than the stuff I wrote exclusively on the computer.

A few weeks ago I thought I would try something new for my playwriting. I have ghastly handwriting. My handwriting is so awful that sometimes even I myself can’t quite read what I’ve written later on. So, since I own a working manual typewriter, I thought I’d try out typing my playwriting work onto paper with the typewriter. After all, if I wrote my plays on a typewriter I would be certain to be able to read what I’ve written after the fact.  I was also curious to learn if I would have the same good strong connection to my emotions and thoughts that I always have when I write with a pen on paper. I do!

Writing longhand doesn’t slow me down much as I take dictation while watching plays unfolding on the stage in my mind. But, when I typed a few scenes of my latest play in progress onto paper in the typewriter I found that I had to slow down. To get even ink distribution on the page with a manual typewriter you have to hit each of the typewriter keys with the same force. When I first tried out the typewriter, not all of my fingers were strong enough to hit all the keys with the same force, since I was not in the habit of typing on a manual typewriter. Slowing down my writing, both to get that even ink distribution, and to ensure that I didn’t jam the typewriter made a positive difference in my playwriting. Additionally, the play in my head didn’t seem as rushed as it sometimes does when I write longhand.

Having to slow down to make sure to evenly distribute ink and to avoid causing a jam of the typewriter keys meant that I had to take more time in the writing I was doing. Taking that extra time meant I had more time to pay attention to the words my characters were saying, and the actions they were doing on the stage in my mind. I do have that same connection to my emotions and thoughts on the typewriter that I have always felt when writing on paper with a pen or pencil.

However, there are very practical reasons that manual typewriters aren’t used by everyone any more. Manual typewriters do require far more maintenance than our computers do. And, if I were to switch to composing all my new plays with the typewriter I would still end up having to type everything I wrote that way again to get it into the computer. So, I thought to myself, surely there must be a bridge between the typewriter and the computer which would enable me to not have to type everything twice, and that would preserve my connection with my emotions and thoughts which is so vital to creating authentic and compelling works for live theater. Enter the typewriter inspired computer keyboard!

img_9787

My typewriter computer keyboard is very Steampunk! It has backlighting, and it has keys that both resemble the very early typewriter keys in appearance, and more importantly they also nicely mirror that tactile sense of an old manual typewriter. If I type too quickly on the typewriter keyboard for my computer, the computer and keyboard combination remind me to slow down by deleting everything I’ve written. I have only noticed this happen once or twice, but since those two times it happened I have made it a point to type more deliberately, and more slowly, as I do on the actual typewriter.

Many people these days go on about Mindfulness, and how good it is for us. I agree. I maintain a daily practice of mindful breathing. It is good for me. Turns out, when creating my new works for live theater I am also finding it beneficial to do my playwriting mindfully.  I will still write on the typewriter too. There is something very satisfying about that process. But, I am happy to have found that I can get the same effect by using my typewriter keyboard for the computer. So, this is my happy endorsement of Mindful Playwriting!

 

Crafting Happiness – One Play At A Time…

It is now day number three in the Ultimate Blog Challenge. Well, in my world it’s evening of day number three. I’m feeling throughly exhausted after a enormously busy weekend, but I am here to make my post for today anyway. I’ll sleep soon enough. I promised myself I would write a blog post every day this month and tired or not, I intend to keep that promise to myself. Today the friendly people at Ultimate Blog Challenge recommended that we blog about where we hope to end up; what our goals are, in our blogging enterprises.

In my case I can answer that question without a lot of fuss. I aim to create lots of theatre. I look forward to both directing new plays, as well as writing new plays. And, I anticipate spending a good long while blogging about what it’s like for me, being a working playwright.

While I’m on the subject of being a playwright, it comes to mind that often when people ask me about being a playwright entails they often have quite a few misconceptions about what the goal actually is. Unlike the goals of writers who create works of fiction intended for reading silently while curled up, catlike, in a comfy armchairs, plays are not written with publication as the end goal. Plays are written to be performed in front of audiences. Plays are written to be experienced; not merely read.

While it is nice to get ones plays published, of course, publication is only really useful to playwrights in one important way. Publication of one’s plays enables a wider variety of theatres to discover and produce one’s plays. Playwrights write plays as a means of creating new experiences in live theatre for the audiences who attend plays.

This is actually why the word playwright is spelled as it is and not as playwrite. The etymology of the word goes something like this:

The word “wright” means a person who builds something, a craftsperson. When “wright” is used as a suffix of a longer word, the prefix of that longer word is indicative of what it is that the craftsperson builds. So, a person who is a playwright is a crafter of plays. A creator of theatre, if you will.

Unlike stories that are written to be read silently by one person, plays are not created to be mere collections of words on a page. Plays are a lot more like blueprints than they are like books. The director, designers, technicians, and actors all come together and use a the words that the playwright has written to build an experience for the audiences who come to see the play. In that way, playwrights aren’t really writers at all. They are more like architects.

So, there you have it. My goal as a playwright is to create theatrical experiences for audiences. My goal in blogging is to spread around a bit of the joy I take from my life as a playwright. By and large, my experiences as a playwright have been joyful. It is my wish that more people are able to discover that they too are the creators of their own life stories. Like me, other people have the option to create happiness in their lives. I create happiness in my life every time I write a new play. If that’s not a noble goal, I don’t know what is!

 

My Playwriting Beginnings…

For this second day of the Ultimate Blog Challenge it is recommended that we bloggers share how we found our way into our particular blogging niche. I’ve been wanting to make a post on this subject for a while now anyway, so since it’s been recommended to write about this topic today I figure why not go for it. I hope you enjoy reading how I found my way here.

Recently I read a fascinating book called “The Play That Changed My Life – America’s Foremost Playwrights On the Plays That Influenced Them.” It was an engrossing read (as it would naturally be for me as a playwright) edited by Ben Hodges, with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Paula Vogel. Reading this book I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the backgrounds of many playwrights whose work I’ve admired for much of my life.

As I read the essays and interviews collected in that volume I began thinking in the back of my head about which play I would name if I were ever asked what particular play changed my life, making me want (or is it need?) to write plays. Answering such a question is simple for me, and answering that question will also explain how I came to be blogging about playwriting now.

In the early 1980’s I was being raised in the theatre. Starting when I was three years old I took acting classes after school at a local regional theatre, and I was performing on that professional stage by the time I reached the tender age of six. My parents took me to see lots of brilliant professional theatre, intended mostly for adult audiences, but the play which made me want to be a playwright wasn’t one of the classics or contemporary masterpieces skillfully performed before me by local equity actors. The play that made me realize that I must write plays was a children’s play.

Despite what is sometimes assumed, my being a theatre kid didn’t in any way dampen my interest in attending plays which were intended for an audience made up primarily of other children. One Saturday afternoon in the my elementary school years I went to see a regional premier of a play called “Step on a Crack” written by playwright Suzan Zeder. There were many things that I found magical and vibrant about Ms. Zeder’s play that day which I couldn’t have described with mere words just after attending the performance. That play has stuck with me all these years. A few years ago I finally tracked down a copy of the play and read it. As I read the play I envisioned the production I watched in my head far more clearly than I anticipated I would be able to after having seen it only once at least two decades previously.

In “Step On a Crack” Ms. Zeder created a leading role for a child actor, and a story for that character to tell the audience, that felt more real and lifelike than other stories I’d seen about children in plays before that day. What was completely different about attending that children’s play which set it apart for me from all the amazing plays for adults which I had seen though was what happened after the play had ended.

At the end of the performance the artistic director of the children’s productions announced to the audience that the playwright who created this magical experience we had all just shared was seated there among us in the audience. He asked Ms. Zeder to let us all know which adult she was. I felt delighted, and not just a little bit awed, when it was revealed to us that Ms. Suzan Zeder had been sitting very near to my brother and me.

Suzan Zeder being present at that performance of her new play, and being acknowledged as the creator of that afternoon of enchantment humanized playwriting for me. By the time I attended that performance of “Step on a Crack” I had already seen at least a couple of Shakespeare’s plays in performance, as well as plays by Neil Simon, Oscar Wilde, and many other theatrical luminaries. While I thoroughly enjoyed every play I had attended before that day, the playwrights who created those worlds onstage had been to me only names in the playbills. They had not seemed like real, living, breathing, flesh and blood people. Seeing Suzan Zeder in the theatre that day struck me with a thought I’d not conceptualized previously about plays. Regular people write plays.

I was already bitten with the theatre bug having spent several years in acting classes and in performing professionally too. At that point I was already writing as well. I was writing short stories and a bit of poetry back then. When I saw Suzan Zeder’s play that day I decided that while short stories and poetry were all very nice and pleasant to write what I really needed to do was to create theatre experiences for audiences by writing plays.

To make a novella-length story far shorter, suffice it to say that I ended up studying playwriting in high school, in college, during my Junior Year Abroad in the Land Down Under, and afterwards for two summers at a Summer Writing Institute in Iowa. I have had two plays produced so far with others having been selected for production, and I am still at it. These days I also blog about playwriting. I blog about playwriting mostly to keep myself motivated as I write, rewrite and circulate my plays.

Lastly, my favorite part of this story is that right around the time that I finally tracked down that copy of “Step On a Crack” to read and enjoy again, I also tracked down Suzan Zeder herself. I Googled her and I discovered that at the time she was teaching in a MFA playwriting program here in my home state. So, I looked up her faculty email address and I wrote to her. In my email I told Ms. Zeder that I’d been in the audience that day at her regional premier of “Step On a Crack,” and I sincerely thanked her for inspiring me to become a playwright myself. A short time later she answered my email, graciously thanking me for contacting her, and told me that my email had made her month.

I have felt for many years now that expressing gratitude is an integral part of being happy, and I feel very pleased to be able to end this blog post by sharing my story of my playwriting beginnings which has such an integral gratitude component to it. Thank you for reading, and I hope you liked my story!

Daily playwriting thoughts reinstated!

Hello there!

I know I’ve been away from this blog for quite some time. I didn’t plan to do that, and I do want to change it. I have missed sharing my thoughts on playwriting with you all. Life gets in the way of things we want to do a lot of the time, and I think when you are determined to do something you will find a way. It is this way for me with playwriting.

I have been asked in the past why I don’t just give up on the whole playwriting thing with so much else happening in my life and with these other things happening so often. I don’t give up because I have never wanted to do or be anything more than I have wanted to be a playwright. I have not been able to dedicate nearly as much time to the craft of writing plays as I would have liked, but I won’t give up.

In a renewed effort to keep my promise to myself that I will not give up on my playwriting I have decided to participate in the Ultimate Blog Challenge! Despite the challenge it already is for me to carve out time to write plays, I am giving myself the extra challenge of blogging each day in July. I hope that in blogging each day I will encourage myself all the more to not slack off and stop writing plays, sending them out or making every effort I can to get my plays brought to life onstage.

So please, do stay tuned for my daily July blog posts!

Playwriting IS Rewriting.

The past few days I’ve been out of commission suffering from stomach flu. Due to this unexpected change in my health I’ve not been writing scenes and blogging about them. However, in that time when I wasn’t feeling well, I didn’t entirely quit writing. Instead of composing new scenes from writing prompts when I wasn’t feeling well I spent my most recent writing sessions finishing rewrites on a new play which I began writing last month.

In this blog, I set out to write about playwriting from the point of view of creating new scenes from writing prompts, but now that I’ve spent a few days away from that sort of writing to instead work on my new play rewrites I think it’s time to spend some time here on this blog discussing rewriting.

My very first playwriting teacher, back in my high school days, told us in class that playwriting is rewriting. To my classmates and I this was initially a somewhat alarming statement to hear from her. When we wrote our first plays many of us fell in love with them exactly as they were. They were first drafts.

I learned from that class that what she said about rewriting is true. While I do still enjoy the process of writing first drafts of plays, I have to admit that I actually enjoy the rewriting process more. When you write the first draft of a new play you are exploring who those characters are, what they want, and what stands in the way of them reaching their goals.

A first draft is a first meeting with your characters. That is when you learn about who they are and what they are like. Working through rewrites isn’t exciting in the same way that meeting new characters and discovering a new story to tell on the stage, but it does have its own adventures to be explored and enjoyed.

What I find exciting and fun about the rewriting process is that when I am in rewrites I can delve deeper into exploring the world of my play, and I can closely examine it and find ways to take a story I already know and prune away the  extraneous parts that do not help tell the story, or if I don’t need to take away anything, I can add in new parts that will strengthen the story, and that will also more clearly represent who the characters are for the audience who will eventually watch the play. In rewrites I get to know my characters better than when I met them while writing the first draft.

I find that it’s helpful to wait a bit of time before I begin rewriting. Letting a new play sit for a while, without even reading it, is part of my rewriting process. When I spend some time away from a new play I can look at it again with fresh eyes when I finally sit down to rewrite. Oftentimes taking that time away from the play enables some of the changes which need to be implemented to jump out at me when I finally go back and reread a new play. In the time I take away from a new play after completing the first draft my subconscious is busy working on the play.

Rewriting can be addictive. So, these days I have to set deadlines for myself to complete rewrites and then to send the completed play out into the world so I won’t feel tempted to tinker with it in rewrites forever. New plays could be rewritten endlessly, but at some point you have to get out of the way and let your plays proceed to the next step in the process and allow other theatre artists to add their input on your new plays.

So, enjoy writing your first drafts. And do your best to get your play into its best shape in rewrites, but eventually, let your new play go. When you do you the production process awaits and that is just as exciting a the writing process, usually far more so!

Create Conflict!

My new scene for today is the result of looking through a list of playwriting exercises found here:

The exercise I selected to write my scene today is in the section of playwriting exercises labeled: Exercise Three: Practice the Craft. My scene developed from number three in that list: I have to talk to you right now.
My scene that grew from the writing exercise above was a quick study in what happens when one character wants another character to do something that the other character doesn’t want to do. The scene reminded me that conflict in plays doesn’t need to be complicated to be engaging. It just needs to keep things happening. My scene I wrote today has a simple conflict, but it kept the scene lively and also kept it moving.
In the past when I have attempted to outline the plot of plays, and pre-plan the writing of plays, I often found that I would lose sight of my conflict in all that outlining and pre-planning. I am sure outlining and pre-planning doesn’t affect all playwrights in this way, but that is how it tended to turn out for me. So, these days, I’m back happily writing plays in my pleasing organic way. I find that when I don’t know what’s going to happen in a play I am far more likely to keep the plays’ conflict in the forefront of my mind as I watch the play developing onstage in the theatre in my mind’s eye.
Whether you write plays after crafting an outline or if you write plays organically the way I do, be sure to always remember when you write plays that conflict is what will keep the audience interested and engaged. In real life most of us want to avoid conflicts as much as we can in our lives. In plays however we need to cultivate engaging conflicts, because that is what the audiences come to see. They want to watch a conflict unfold, and eventually be resolves in some satisfying way.
Conflict in plays requires one character to want something, and another character to want either the same thing, or something different. The main character in a play must want something and what they want needs to be a challenge to get. Seeing the conflict of the character going for their goal is what our audiences go to the theater to witness.
Watching people get along well and interact nicely isn’t very interesting. Seeing people work toward a harmonious resolution to the conflicts between them though, that makes for an entertaining and even often enlightening evening of theatre, whether or not the characters in our plays get what they want!

Let Your Characters Run Amok!

Yesterday I was unavailable to write a scene and a make a blog post, but I’m back again today. I know this blog is a good one for me to be writing because I missed it when i was away!

Since I took a day away from scene-writing from writing prompts, that gave me time to look for some new writing prompt material from which to jump-start my new scenes. The prompt I’m using today is not a pair of dialogue prompts, though many of the other scenes I have written have begun in just that way. Today, instead, I selected a prompt from a list I found on this blog:

http://bcsplaywriting2010.blogspot.com/2010/04/writing-prompts-for-your-future-use.html

The prompt I chose is the number four in that list: Two people in a room find a box.

After completing writing my new scene, and having read over it a couple of times, I have the concept of forward action in my mind. When we write plays the goal is to keep the audience interested, and keep them emotionally invested in the story as it unfolds. It also helps to keep them guessing what’s going to happen. Plays need stay one step ahead of the audience. We want our audiences to feel comfortable with the plays they’re watching. We want them to feel like they can understand and relate to the world they’re observing in the play, but we don’t want them to be able to sit back and figure out what’s going to happen before it does happen.

In my new scene this evening, since I prefer to write plays organically, I didn’t know what would happen when I sat down to create my new scene about the two people finding a box in a room. There are multitudes of different directions my characters could have gone with that box. The choices they made were, I hope, good ones that an observing audience would not have guessed. I myself was a bit surprised when the scene reached it’s conclusion. I won’t give away my ending, but I will tell you that the ending of my new scene had far less to do with the box that was found than it had to do with the relationship between the two characters who found it.

That’s what theatre should always come back to, in the end. The relationships characters have with each other are what make theatre. As we explore those relationships though, do give your audience a run for their ticket money. Let them get confused and surprised by your characters. Let them get a little bit frustrated with them even. Characters who make healthy choices, who are level-headed, and plan the events of their lives well are not very interesting for an audience to watch. So, in your first drafts especially, let your characters run amok a bit. Let them get whatever chaos they need to out of their systems. You can always edit them back into good manners and sensibility in subsequent drafts.