Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Three Things I Learned about Playwriting from my B.U.S. Ride

I’ve had a few days to decompress (and get some sleep) after the wonderful success that was the Bicolage Ubran Sprawl.  It was a such an illuminating evening of theater that it’ll keep my engine running for a long time.

After some reflection, I realize that in the crunch of time that I had to complete a play, some of my bad writing habits were revealed and some lessons learned. 

I was proud of the ten-minute play that I wrote, and even more proud of what the actors and director brought to the performance.  I credit their talent and hard work with much of its success.  I know that the play had great characters and balanced moments of comedy and drama in a real way, and this reflected the inspiration of the neighborhood I visited. 

But, because I’m a writer, I can’t help thinking about what to work on in the rewrite.  There’s only so much you can do in 24 hours, after all. 

Below are the three main lessons learned from my agonizing evening of writing.  They might be lessons to remember, regardless of the deadline.

Lesson #1: Conflict can be tricky

There’s a sneaky habit I saw in my writing (and I’ve seen in other playwrights as well).  It’s when playwrights create characters with negative outlooks or are always contrary to other people (and I don’t mean in an interesting way like Jacques from As You Like It).   I realized, though, this is not a character problem. This is a story problem.  It’s an easy way of creating the illusion of conflict when your story is lacking a major dramatic conflict--a strong protagonist with a goal and obstacle.  Your natural playwriting instincts kick in with this absence, but instead of doing the necessary and most difficult process of looking at the overall story, your characters start acting like trouble-makers—to create conflict, even if only minor struggles.

It’s ironic that last week I wrote about objectives and obstacles and passive characters because the four characters I wrote for HALF FULL are not all that active.  Their activity is waiting for a bus (passive) and their main conflict is about an idea (intangible).  I’m honestly not even sure who the protagonist would be, which would be okay if I decided that was a choice, but at 3:30 am, I was driven not by clear choices but the desire to finish ten pages of a play and make it work. 

Part of the driving force of the play was this idea of the water glass being half full or half empty.  So, obviously, I have two characters at the beginning and one is definitely a half full kinda guy and the other is a half empty personality.  Thing is, that only works for about the first page.  The character needed to be more about what wasn't going to happen--he needed hope (aka wants and dreams).  

A negative or contrary character is like an actor that only plays negative choices (“I hate this person”, “I don’t want to be here”, etc.).  Everyone has hopes, dreams and wants positive outcomes.  It’s what’s in our way that defines our life and our stories.  It’s bigger picture stuff.  When we don’t see the bigger picture clearly, we get lost in the weeds.

This is why having time to rewrite can be so helpful and informative.  You start to see the big picture.

Lesson #2:When in doubt, throw it out

You’ve heard that maxim before, I’m sure.  After hours of pounding out a comedic story that I was tied to, I finally decided, enough is enough. Even though I already had nine or ten pages of the play, it wasn’t working.  The ending wasn’t coming at all.  There was no conflict. There were four characters talking and it was boring the hell out of me.  So I ditched it. I didn’t delete it (just in case!), but I did open up a completely new blank document and started over from scratch.

Not entirely from scratch, mind you.  The nine pages I wrote gave me a lot of clarity on what story I wanted to tell and who the characters were.  Once I let go of some of my preconceptions, I was able to find my story.

This has happened to me before, on other plays, by the way.  It happened once before when I was doing a 24 hour play festival, actually.  It’s also happened many times on full-length plays.  You discover that you’re writing the wrong play.  It’s a tough realization, but every time it’s happened, I’ve never regretted it.

Again, this is why time and space can be helpful in the rewriting process

Lesson #3: Leave space for your actors and your director

In the late night/early morning thralls of creation (aka agony), I was so mired in my creative flow and finishing the damn thing that for awhile there I forgot about what my director and actors would bring to the table. The director shapes the story with the staging and by directing the actors. The actors truly bring it to life and make it their own.  They give characters life and can make clunky text seem natural. I’ve seen many bad scripts made bearable by the talents of a great director and actor. 

While I wanted to give my collaborators the best script possible, I needed to remember I was not alone in the storytelling process.  For instance, the pages I threw out had a lot of exposition.  I wanted to make sure the audience, and the actor, knew exactly what they felt and were doing in the play.  Boring.  Give the characters less to say and watch the actors fill in the hidden life behind it.  It’s more interesting for the audience and the actor. 

There are actually more than just three lessons learned from my night of frenetic playwriting, but those were the three biggest ones.  Next time I do B.U.S., I’m going to put those reminders up on my bulletin board.  

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