Saturday, August 4, 2007

Playwriting for Dum-Me

I am a playwright.

My relative lack of experience though makes that statement sound jarring (and a little frightening). To calm my nerves, let's start at the beginning. In January I decided it was time to get off the pot and write the play that had been ruminating in my mind for two years. I searched for a playwriting class so I could learn what the hell I was supposed to do and found the Playwrights Showcase of the Western Region and it's adjunct Boot Camp for Playwrights scheduled for six months hence. I registered, scheduled a week off from work, and took a local playwriting workshop with Terry Dodd in the meantime. Thanks to Terry and the other writers in the workshop I finished a first draft of The Bride's Side the day before the combination of classes, workshops, and play readings I had signed up for way back when was slated to launch.

The Boot Camp began on Sunday, July 15 with three days of instruction led by my new favoritest (sic) person in the world, Aosie Stratford. Aoise (pronounced Ay-sha) was imparting the type of information I'd been yearning for since the beginning of the year. She was talking about the playwriting process and what we needed to do to write and rewrite (and rewrite) the best play possible. Thank you Aoise from the bottom of my electronic inkwell.

The Showcase followed the Boot Camp; it began on Wednesday and continued through Saturday. The days were filled with play readings followed by critical analysis. The readings were interspersed with workshops lead by many of the Showcase luminaries. Aside from Aoise, the Showcase luminaries included Dawson Moore and Anna Garcia-Romero, the two other Boot Camp instructors. Additionally, Christine Emmert, Edith Weiss, Scott McMorrow, Richard Dresser, Susan Lyles, Scott Gibson, Chip Walton, and Kent Thompson helped to light our way.

The readings were wonderful to see and hear. It gave me a real sense of community to be with others who call themselves playwrights and discuss their works in development. Two of my personal favorites were The M Word by William Missouri Downs and Bel Canto by Thomas Pierce. I also attended the Showcase workshops which gave me even more invaluable information.

I've organized all the notes I took over the 7 days and have put them here so I know where to go when I need information, inspiration, or innovation. Feel free to come back if you need the same. Thanks to all those mentioned and especially Pamela Jamruszka Mencher and her staff for putting this incredible experience together.

Oh, by the way, I was given this badge on my first day of the Boot Camp. It's nice to see the confirmation as I begin the process of submitting and developing The Bride's Side, and researching my



    • Find your voice and trust yourself

    • Find your own way of working

    • Figure out the most economical way to tell this story

    • In pottery making - the best pieces came from the group that just cranked them out - start cranking

    • There's no such thing as writer's block for writer's whose standards are low enough

    • Playwriting is a 2 part process:

      1. Write what ever comes into your brain: put it on paper without thinking about development, character, craft, etc.

      2. Once you have a draft then ask questions: do I have beats, what is happening subtextually vs textually, issues of craft

    • You can't fake the primal emotion of a play, the heart

    • Sin: NOT revealing secrets and betraying your loved ones

    • If you're boring you are not being true to yourself - don't edit yourself

    • Stay connected to your work on a daily basis - discipline yourself

    • Writing is organizing your thinking

    • Write notes all the time and gradually they coalesce into something

    • Write long hand first, not in play format - when the paper is incomprehensible, go to the computer and type a first draft

    • When the audience has to put stuff together they become a creative part of the process and are emotionally involved in a good play

    • 5 character plays are the best (up to 8 can be produceable)

    • As playwrights, if we provide heroes, we provide people who lead the way to a better world

    • No play is ever finished

    • Plays work by engaging the audience

    • You are the best and worst critic


    • Don't put anything on stage that isn't used and use everything that is put on stage

    • Comedy should arise out of the character's desires


    • All plays are about solving a problem whether it be personal, situational (scene of conflict), or philosophical (theme)

    • The theme of a play is a philosophical idea - the premise is the starting point of the action (often a question as in what if...)

    • You might not know the philosophical question until you've finished a play - once you do, go back and make it a great play

    • EXERCISE to flesh out an IDEA - do this several times to refine it - use it as blueprint

      • This is a play about __________

      • It takes place ____________

      • The main character wants _____________

      • But __________ happens

      • The play starts when _____________ and ends when _____________

    • How can I escalate the play? Make it surprising? Make a reveal? Make a reversal?


    1. linear (cause and effect) a - b - c - d

    2. shakespearean/qualitative/association ( a-b-c gap in storyline of play k-d gap l-z ) woke up had coffee brushed teeth gap checked email

    3. circular form

    4. pattern (a-b-c then a-b-c but a little different)

    5. conventional forms (farces, westerns)

    6. synthetic fragments (all time periods exist simultaneously on stage)

    • EXERCISE: Find form/structure you like and master it (rewrite a fairy tale six times and decide what works best for you)


    • Structure is essential to the value of the play

    • You want the audience to keep guessing but not get lost

    • A play is cumulative. Everything builds on the first scene. Momentum.

    • What promise does the play make to the audience at the beginning?

    • The audience's perception of the play goes in one direction ----> forward. The structure, though, does not have to be linear.

    • WORLD OF THE PLAY is what you make it. It can be magical or direct. You can put things together that aren't usually side by side.

    • EXPOSITION usually includes tone, character, setting/convention. It is not a good tool for creating tension. Exposition should come out of action. Flashback is a type of exposition

    • TEXT/SUBTEXT Hemingway's Hills LIke White Elephants is an artful example of subtext at work - an abortion story but abortion is never mentioned

    • If you have a clear inciting incident, the audience will never ask the question: WHY NOW?

    • 3 Part Structure

      1. Beginning starts with status quo; introduces the world of the play followed by an inciting incident that asks the dramatic question (will Hamlet avenge his father?); mostly exposition - who, what, why,where, when - full length play this is in ten pages, ten minute play this is done in one page - introduce the protagonist (the man or woman that changes the most) - what's the conflict of the play - where and when should come out in the dialogue not the stage directions - you need to educate the audience at the beginning, don't condescend

      2. Middle asks what is at stake for the character (rising of stakes), what are the character's objectives (pursuit of objectives), and what obstacles are in the way (moving of obstacles); the meat - the plot that resolves the major dramatic question

      3. End contains the crisis point which is the point when you can no longer back out of it, a character is put into a situation where they must make a choice. Climax of the play is the decision, the resolution is the moment at the end of the play when you get a sense of what will happen after it is over (run into the wall so to speak) the momentum of the play has no where else to go, you run out of play. End scene has a decision which resolves the conflict we should be able to get conflict from the resolution

    • Types of Structure

      • Quest/Character structure - someone sets out to do something; there is an inciting moment of the play that puts the character on a quest, pursuing objective throughout the play until the end. The character could get what they want or end up dead

      • Event organized structure (wedding play: Five Women and one Dress), dinner party play

    • Major dramatic questions are incorporated in a play like nesting dolls

      • The smallest doll is who, what, where, when, why, and how.

      • The middle doll is a major dramatic question (will Hamlet kill his father).

      • The outer doll is the major philosophical question (is revenge worth it).

    • A beat is a unit of measure in a scene - a complete action within the negotiation of a scene. A beat mark falls in a scene where the character changes tactics. This happens when there is a new obstacle in the scene.

    • When it feels like something is not working on page 9 the problem is not on page 9

    • Vary pace of dialogue

    • An entrance can inform how the scene will end

    • Don't try to solve the play, complicate it

    • At the start of play audience doesn't know the rules (world of the play)


    • Characters are best when active - central passive characters can't push story along because they don't make any choices (Passive + Fear/Desire/Pressure from inside or outside = Active)

    • Believable

    • Relatable/Familiar

    • Complex/Diverse/Opposing

    • Humor/Moving

    • Intelligence

    • Flawed/Human

    • Pecularities/Specificity/Attention to detail

    • How long has it been since your character has made an active choice? Five pages? Ten Pages? If it's been a long time that could be an issue

    • Structure of a character is an arc, up or down (smiley face or sad face). If a boy starts out with a girl and loses her the character's structure is down

    • Whose got the power at any point in time, shifting power gives the play energy

    • The journey of your main character should cost her something

    • Everyone is a want machine and that's how they function

    • Is every character absolutely essential?

    • Discover what your character wants and everything they say is an attempt to get what they want

    • If another character has what they want how do they get it?

    • Every character has a different way of speaking and a unique vocabulary

    • Know what traits your character needs to propel the plot forward

    • Who is the last person your character wants to see - put that character onstage


    • Theatres get grants to do readings

    • Know the reason you are doing a reading

    • Get actors/people who understand your work, esp. comedy if you have to explain it to them they are not the ones

    • A FIRST READING IS FOR YOU: read all the parts in front of a group of people

    • First Actors Reading

      • Cast the play, cast the audience

      • Do a reading in the town library, neighbors, friends, they have no agenda

      • SIT IN THE AUDIENCE and feel what works

      • Before reading put a copy of your script in a manila envelope and seal it - it'll always be there

    • Audiences are never wrong, individuals can be wrong, critics are born wrong

    • Who do you listen to? everybody

    • Don't make changes to your play right after the reading; let it ruminate first; write comments down and put it away

    • Clarity, anyone who tells you aomething that makes the play clearer, use it

    • Give people a compelling reason to produce your play


    • Successful rewrites: accept what you've written - maybe it's not done yet; be honest with yourself

    • If rejected, maybe you have to just write a better play

    • Maybe I'm not good enough to write this play is an excuse

    • You might have to get rid of your favorite scene; there's nothing as pointless as a wonderful scene in a bad play. Remove it.

    • Steven Dietz after you process comments, look for the 90, 100 degree turns in your play they make it interesting not 5 percent turns

    • EXERCISE: at the top of each page write down what question is being asked by this page - too many pages with the same question means that your play is bogging down

    • EXERCISE: write about the play you want to write not the play that you've written - Start out with This play is about and continue in prose; reconnect with the expansiveness of your original vision


    • Submit everywhere - don't rely on submitting one play and waiting

    • Make them say no to me

    • Assume they will say no

    • Before submitting remember there is only one chance at a first impression; don't put the play out there unless it is ready

    • Keep track of submissions (spreadsheet - theatre company, where they are, when sent, what happened)

    • Follow submission guidelines

    • Cover letter should acknowledge that this is a play in progress (in development)

    • Cover letter should tell what ultimate goal is (reading, full production, looking for an opportunity to hear the play)

    • synopsis is not a marketing blurb - don't tell how funny it is



    • PRO: control the show and how it is done

    • CONS: shitload of work, not fun, $$$$$$

    • Plan a production schedule backwards: pick a venue, add 3 weeks rehearsal time, 6 months out from the first performance is when PR starts

    • Can pay money to actors and crew as stipend (percentage of door)

    • Remember to always include crew

    • Taxes: schedule c profit and loss statement if you don't own a home; form your own 501(c)(3) if you own a home (Three Wise Monkeys)

    • Huge portion of the house comes from friends and family of the actors and from having a bunch of plays by different playwrights

    • Free venues: outdoor parks, elementary schools, community centers, senior centers, houses of worship

    • To choose actors go see plays in your community; check out colleges, craigslist

    • Concessions are the real money maker go to costco and then mark up the stuff

    • Playbill can just be 8.5 x 11 back and front print out

    • Remember front of house help

    • Throw a party for the opening night, cast, or whatever - that's a great thing


    • Need to schedule really well

    • Pay for the audition space even though you can rehearse for free in your living room

    • At least four and up to six people per half hour audition

    • ell them you are roughly looking for nights and weekends rehearsal schedule

    • Callback within the same week

    • Pay for the callback space

    • Call those you want AND those you don't want- let everyone know


    • 1 min on stage time equals 1 hour of rehearsal time

    • Run your rehearsals as professionally as possible

    • When telling somebody something bad you can always say the producer said

    • Find free rehearsal space

    • Tech rehearsal (light cues, sound fx) is most important make sure you schedule this in


    • Vertical response pay as you go email

    • Playbill inserts in other shows: if another theatre has a show in Sept and Nov and you have one in Oct trade the blow in of your postcard in their playbill with theirs in your playbill

    • Dramatist's Sourcebook

    • Marketing yourself is about who you've met and who you've spoken with

    • Identify theaters that do the plays you admire and get to know those theaters

    • Search within organzations for the point person behind their programs and get to know them

    • Fringe festivals are a good way to go - built in advertising, etc. (San Francisco Fringe Festival)

    • Best things playwrights can do

      • Network - stay in contact with writers, go see theatre, long distance playwright services

      • Thank you notes to those who help

      • did I say network, network, network

    • Worst things playwrights can do

      • Being confrontational, rude

      • Taking feedback poorly


    • 2 rules

      • Don't stop writing (free form)

      • Don't edit

    • Take a lot of workshops

    • 10 minute different from full-length play (full length deals with a number of issues, themes and ideas - 10 minute only deals with one issue


    • Tom Stoppard

    • Read Poetics by Aristotle

    • Political theatre is things that concern a community

    • From Spoon River Anthology: In my youth I had the wings but didn't know the mountains. In my old age I know the mountains but don't have the wings. Genius is youth and wisdom.

    • In the dark times, will there be singing? Yes, the singing will be about the dark times.

    • Should playwrights get an agent? No - only motivated if you are already successful - you are more invested in getting your play out there than an agent

    • National New Play Network

    • It takes a first production to really know what is right and wrong about a play

    • First productions don't bely the history of the play

    • Plays don't exist until they are on stage

    • Striking things theatre companies look for in new plays

      • Disease play done in different manner

      • Fresh take on the old stories

      • Contemporary

      • How do you stage this?

      • Compelling fairly quickly

      • Integrity of character development

      • Relevance to what we are struggling with as a society


  1. thank you for your notes!

  2. why the dichotomy between owning a home and not, in choosing whether to form a non profit?

  3. Good question. I've never done a profit and loss (or a non-profit for that matter) but I assume it has something to do with losing your house. As a non-profit you are not legally responsible; the board of directors, et. al. and the organization are so your house can't be taken away from you if you incur losses. Also, maybe the losses you incur in a profit and loss statement eat into the deductions you get for owning a home which doesn't bode well for the amount of taxes you'd have to pay. When I get to this part of the producing process, I will definitely do more research and I encourage you to do the same if you are there now. Hope this helps.

  4. hi,
    thanks a million for the notes, i'm loving it, can't afford to go to one of those work shops, but i'll have to save up and go some day. Looking at doing a creative writing course, you ever done one? is it worth it?
    Ronan from Ireland

  5. My pleasure, Ronan. I have taken many writing courses. I'll probably take a screenwriting course this spring as many people tell me my play should be a movie. Go know.