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8 or 9 things to try with your playwriting this month, as long as you’re at it:
- Be reckless. Give no thought to how a director or producer could ever produce what you’re writing. If your play calls for the galaxy to get sucked down a bathtub drain, how that will ever get realized on stage is just not your problem.
1a. Out there in the wide world are plenty of people to advise you against having 22 characters and five acts in a play that spans seven generations. Right now, you’re not writing for them. Run with the ball!
- Getting something down on the page is the important thing. Don’t worry about elements like theme, motifs, etc. These will emerge gradually; you can always tease them out in subsequent drafts if you want.
- This is an old trick, but it really works: as you fall asleep tonight, think of the place in your script where you stopped writing today and stage it in your mind. When you awake the next morning, you’ll know happens next.
- Hopefully you already do this, but: once you’ve written a new scene, read all the dialogue aloud. Sometimes the characters will wind up telling you what they want to say.
- Once you have several scenes written, go back at look at each one. What if you truncated these scenes at the precise moment where each one achieved its dramatic purpose? How would that affect its linkage to the following scene?
- Writing a play in a month need not mean retreating to your comfort zone. See what happens if you don’t. If you tend to write large, constrain yourself to claustrophobic settings. If you’re usually more genteel, kill a few characters off. Surprise yourself.
- Remember the old Playwriting 101 exercise of cutting every other line to see what that tells you about your story? If you get stuck, this little stand-by can be a nice little jolt of discovery. Or annoyance. But that works, too.
- Above all: have fun!
Mead Hunter has finally stopped shilling for regional theater and instead has hung out his own shingle: SuperScript Editorial Services. Stop by any time...
Thank you Mead Hunter for great tips as rhinos hit the half way mark of Naplwrimo 2009 !
Rhino Bursts* are written specifically for you by people we deem worthy of rallying Rhinos thanks to the magic of their words. Thank you, Dennis for capturing so well what it's like to start Naplwrimo week 2 and for helping us find the motivation to keep going.
*A burst is the sound that an adult rhino makes, though it is barely audible to human ears. A baby rhino on the other hand makes a squeak.
Making it to the second week of NaPlWriMo feels like waking up hung over after a great party, doesn’t it? You get lost in those first days of feverish typing, exhilarated by the frenzy of creating another world and getting to know your characters. And then the buzz wears off, replaced by an overwhelming sense of fear and doubt as the spark of your great idea fizzles away.
Congratulations, you just hit your first wall. You’re probably reading this right now to avoid writing (because everyone knows the best way to avoid writing is to read advice about writing). The usual wisdom is offered: “Press on, don’t judge, stop rewriting your first ten pages, find your voice, follow the rules, break the rules, be the ball, etc.” Good advice, but you want that secret recipe, that silver bullet, that shortcut. You want whatever the hell David Mamet and Neil Simon are eating for breakfast.
I’d like to tell you it’ll get easier over time and there is a secret shortcut. But I can’t lie to you, Rhinos. After fifteen years of writing plays, I’m just like you, stuck in that hangover called the second week and hitting that wall of doubt. My strategy is to write as fast as possible so my most honest impulses will slip past my inner censor. The only comfort of years of experience is recognizing the familiarity and size of the wall.
It’s right about now that the play may not be turning out exactly the way you thought. Your characters aren’t behaving as planned. I’m here to tell you that that’s okay. Go with it. Now is the ideal time to shed some of the conceptions or misconceptions about your play (or about theater). As much as we want to believe it, there is no PERFECT PLAY. There is only your play. Use any tactics available to uncover it wherever it may be buried. Of course, it may not be buried where you think it is. You may think you’re writing a dark drama but surprised to find out all your characters are so darn funny. Again, that’s okay.
It’s still early enough to be brave and indulge your impulses. If it doesn’t work, you can delete it, start over or rewrite. Only you will know if you have deviated from your outline (if you do outline). Venturing into uncharted terrain is scary, but if your character does something that surprises you, there’s a good chance they’ll surprise your audience. If that spear-carrier character is becoming more interesting than Caesar then re-think the plot. If you realize you don’t want the whole play to take place in a smoky bar, add a scene in a circus tent. Change the lead character’s gender or profession. Other ideas may blossom from the most minor change.
Once I wrote this play with two characters lamenting about their love lives in a coffee shop. Bored me to tears. For fun, I moved the location to the Museum of Modern Art and a slew of new ideas sprang into my head. The characters became clearer and a whole new story emerged. Sometimes that’s all you need, one little change.
Follow your digressions. You never know where they will lead you because it may just be your instincts talking and therein resides the truth. (And by digression, I don’t mean distractions, like cleaning your closet or stalking ex-lovers on Facebook.) Don’t think of these digressions as a waste of time. This is part of the process.
Writing a play is hard, but even harder is to ignore what others expect you to write, to break through your conceptions and discover how you really feel about something. It usually takes me a week of writing ultimate crap to finally start writing from a place of honesty. I spend so much time writing somebody else’s idea of a play, instead of my own. But I repeat this mantra; when in doubt, keep writing. Even when you don’t feel like writing, when everything is resisting, because that may mean you’re getting close to a truth worth uncovering.
Dennis has worked as an actor, director, dramaturg and playwright with various companies in New York City including Ensemble Studio Theater, 13th Street Rep, HERE Arts Center, Vital Theater, and Gallery Players and regionally at Washington Ensemble Theater, Portland Theatre Works, Theatre Schmeater and Bruka Theater. He is currently the Seattle Regional Representative for The Dramatists Guild of America, Inc. and teaches at Bellevue College. Some of his work includes an infamous “Miss Piggy” monologue (published in Smith & Kraus’ Audition Arsenal), and the plays Burning Botticelli, Obscura, The Albatross, Love & Death in the Time of Crayola, and 7 Minutes to Midnight. He also writes for The Dramatist magazine as well as in his blog http://fightingthevoid.
To kick -off Naplwrimo 2009 in style, I offer you our first weekly "Rhino Burst" . Rhino Bursts* are written specifically for you by people we deem worthy of rallying Rhinos thanks to the magic of their words. If you are still on the fence about whether you should do Naplwrimo, this week's "call to arms" will surely help you make up your mind. Thank you Aaron Riccio for writing such a heartfelt piece to get us started on the right computer key!
*A burst is the sound that an adult rhino makes, though it is barely audible to human ears. A baby rhino on the other hand makes a squeak.
I’m not a playwright. Given the deleted first drafts of this rhino burst, that’s probably a good thing. (I compared plays to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. You know, because “there’s no wrong way”?) So I can’t really extemporize as to how one goes about writing a play—mine always seemed to involve giant, overly intellectual hot dogs seeking out familial resolutions in abandoned mineshafts haunted by racist Native American spirits. And but so then (to pull inspiration from another writer’s rhythms, which I recommend) there’s the whole parenthetical point I just made: that is, there is no right way.
Instead, like a well-read zombie chasing brains for their knowledge rather than their soft, fleshy delectables, what I can infect you with is why you should write a play. You know, for me, the critic haunting the other side of the footlights, or more appropriately, the Hungry Audience. (By the way, I assume by the fact that you’ve read this far—that you’ve visited this site at all—that you actually have something to say.) And the reason you should write a play is thus: because it allows us, with far less effort than reading and far more intimacy than film, to experience a different world, to see through another’s eyes, and no matter what you choose to show us, there is nothing more necessary than that. We are nothing if we forget how to listen.
Fearing structure, logic, plot, character, you put the pen down. You hesitate. You don’t kill your darlings, you abort them. You’ll quote how it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all, and then you’ll deny those raw feelings the chance to appear on page—where they will resonate with someone—because you have doubts, or worse, fears of what others—critics, perhaps—may say. (Hopefully, in reading this asphyxiatedly purple prose, you’ll realize that those fears are rather silly. We’re in the same boat as you, except that we’ve somehow convinced you to do all the paddling.)
But those feelings are what make it all the more important that you write. Because now you’ve got subtext—even if you drown it in cluttered metaphors, stretched allegory, inconsistent characters, whatever. You’ve got truth, and you can always go back and dig that out of a first draft. Better still, you can have it read, or you can stage it, and actually see what’s coming out. Best of all, you can share that moment—completely human in its incompleteness—with an audience.
And that’s important. In this community, you hear a constant caterwauling about how audiences aren’t going to the theater anymore: it’s not true. They’re just waiting to hear the voice that appeals to them, be it the one that’s fresh with the eagerness of the slam-poetry beats of a new generation; the iambic melodies of the old; the slow, measured pauses of the meditative moderns; the cathartic screams of the Greeks; or, as likely as any of those, yours. Syllogistically, if they’re not going to the theater, it’s because nothing there appeals to them. Nothing there is yours, or at least, it’s not this new play of yours. Therefore, they’re not going to the theater because your play isn’t there.
And you’re not alone, either, which is what thrills me most about new theater. Your text is going to trigger certain things in actors—especially if they’re Method-trained—and it’s going to spark the imaginations of directors, especially if you’re vague, as they resolve the play in their eyes. I remember watching, through a night-vision camera projected on stage, a man dressed in a bearskin, nursing on a girl’s breast. I remember a man deliberately loading, aiming, and firing an air gun; the other man painfully reacting and then returning the favor: the cycle continues. I remember a man covered in condiments, smeared with desserts and relishing in relish, denouncing humanity.
We are talking about a “play” after all, and what is that but some freeing connection to our minds, the parts of us that we keep locked up in day jobs and closeted within social conventions. More importantly—because there is some work involved—we’re talking about something new, and this is the crux of why you should write. Because if you don’t, nobody else will. Because your voice is unique: even if it sounds like someone else, you’re still the one who wrote it. Because you’re giving far more to the community than you realize, even if it’s just in providing the fuel to the fire, if it’s just reminding the audience, or a peer, that—holy hell—you’re allowed to do that. (Because time and again, we forget.)
Because every way is the right way. So I take it back, I can extemporize as to how one goes about writing a play: you do it by picking up a pen and being honest, even if that’s simply to be honestly silly. And I take the other part back, too. At least for this November, I am a playwright.
Aaron Riccio was forged into a theater critic after being raised amongst and exposed to the endless possibilities of New York City. He has written for Show Business Weekly and Time Out New York and works as the editor for Theater Talk’s New Theater Corps. He proudly prowls the off-off-Broadway beat, regularly posting reviews for his site, That Sounds Cool, and would love to see your play.
HAPPY NAPLWRIMO 2009 !
LET'S DO THIS!
- Naplwrimo 2009 Burst # 2: Follow Your Digressions by Dennis Schebetta
- Naplwrimo 2009 Burst # 1: Every Way is the Right Way by Aaron Riccio
- Naplwrimo 2009 Burst #3: 8 or 9 Things to Try by Mead Hunter
- Naplwrimo 2009 Burst #4: The Ways We Stop Ourselves by Sherry Kramer
- Naplwrimo 2009 Burst # 5: Reflections on Naplwrimo by Elizabeth Spreen.
- Go, Rhino, Go!
- Naplwrimo 2010 Rhino Burst #2: Keeping It Simple by Travis Bedard
- Naplwrimo 2010 Rhino Burst #3: Getting December to Talk: What Happens When Characters are Too Quiet
- NaPlWriMo 2011 Rhino Burst #1: There's Still Time
- NaPlWriMo 2011 Rhino Burst #2: Discovering Theatre
- NaPlWriMo 2011 Rhino Burst #3: The Readiness is All
- NaPlWriMo 2011 Rhino Burst #4: The Time and Space to Write
- NaPlWriMo 2011 Rhino Burst #5: The Home Stretch
- NaPlWriMo 2012 Rhino Burst: Take Your Cuts
- So How Did I Do?
Naplwrimo runs on love, sweat and your generous help.
Thank you to our donors!
Machelle Allman, Holly Arsenault, Will Bond, Karen Chandler, Michael Lee, Leslie Liautaud, Jeff Mackey, Maggie McAleese, Marian McNamee, Marla Porter, and all our anonymous donors.