Embrace the joylessness (a few thoughts on playwriting craft #4)

Even strangers will tell you that doing something creative must be amazing. Writers can hear it often enough that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Not just to write amazing things but to feel amazing while doing it. If the brain surgeon and the removalist at the party said it must be amazing, then who are we to argue?

The problem with that is, that a lot of the act of writing feels joyless. When we deny this reality and encounter the mundane in the act, we want to. give up. We don’t finish.

And by joyless, I don’t mean disappointing or catastrophic. For example, I’ve had reviews that have suggested that I burn my manuscripts. That’s actually pretty exciting apart from disappointing – because, while everybody wants a bad review, there remain reviewers who actually use the word “manuscript”! I laughed about that one for days. I felt alive.

No. Joy evades many tasks.

Formatting.

Spell-checking.

Proof-reading.

Sitting in a theatre and watching a technical rehearsal. Believe me, for a playwright the tech run is anaesthetic.

I began writing this post while doing some shopping, dictating it to my phone. I’ve been going through the results, adding punctuation and correcting words. I could have left it all alone and posted the pig’s breakfast.

But I’ve embraced the joylessness of sitting down and fixing it. Making it legible.

Just because a violin can sound great doesn’t mean that every moment that contributed to it making a great sound is great in itself. Musicians practice. Listen. Tune-up.

Likewise, a lot of playwriting technique involves doing really boring things.

For example, when I rewrite a play (that is, write the next draft) I need to both read the whole play through, but also read the play all the way through from one character’s perspective, and then the next, and so on. You discover gaps and holes and problems that often only require small nudges. But you don’t discover them without the very slightly varied repetitions.

The myth of the play that is written in a blaze of inspiration or anger over a couple of days conceals years of false starts. My first mainstage production, Post Felicity, I could claim to have written the text of in two and a half days. That’s sort of true, but I had been trying out version after version after version of the core idea – a man so absent-minded that he’s shocked when he hears that his daughter has died, mostly because he’s forgotten that he had a daughter – over around four and a half years.

What allowed the blaze to catch fire was the deadwood of fifty to sixty false starts, half-finished scenes, scenarios and character descriptions. Attempts at different playwriting exercises. The odd mind-map or two. For a long time, this work was drudgery and annoyance.

But one day, a news story caught my attention and sent me to my x386-powered PC. It gave me just enough spark to make the rest catch alight.

I’d love to tell you that I’m a genius struck by inspiration, but I’m embracing joylessness too closely to let you think that.

When the Thrill is Gone – (a few thoughts on playwriting craft #3)

Recently a fellow theatre-maker (yes, you’re allowed to use that term if you’re not comfortable with calling yourself a playwright) got in touch with me because they’d hit a wall with the play they had started.

As with a mad love affair, the initial spark had consumed them. The first ideas were so exciting that they sat down and wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And just when they thought they couldn’t write anymore, they did.

And then Monday dawned.

I don’t know if this was the real story or not, but what they actually let me know was that the excitement that had put them in the writing seat to begin with seemed to have dissipated.

We all can get this. Kate Tempest talks about it in her conversation with Phoebe Waller-Bridge here.

You’ve gone through the agony of taking an idea that is perfect – it’s soaring, it comes from this other place – then you’ve had to summon it down and process it through your shit brain. It’s coming out of your shit hands and you’ve ruined it completely.

When initial sparks appear to us and we decide to run off with them, they’re inevitably perfect because they’re tiny, small and pieces of little danger cupped in your hands.

Then you try to write more. And more. And more. And then you’re not sure what to do anymore.

You might feel overwhelmed. What was contained within your grasp now floats around your table, shoved in notebooks, poking its extremities out, nudging the million-and-one other things in your satchel.

What I said to my friend was that they were feeling something very normal in the writing process. What you could do is to find a way to rediscover the spark that inspired you to write these pages (but not enough to finish what you’d consider a play). When you’re feeling overwhelmed, the answer is not to produce more work but to find something specific.

Do something like the Incredible Shrinking Story exercise out of Will Dunne’s Dramatic Writer’s Companion. Or you could try my following adaptation of it.

Set a timer for 15 minutes. Write as quickly as you can and write down all that you know about your project.

When the timer goes, stop and read what you’ve got.

Now, in sentences of no more than 10 words each, summarise your project in 10 sentences.

Then 9.

Then 8.

Then 7… and so on.

This effort of reducing is harder to do than it to read about. You have to leave some references to material out. You may decide in your shrinking summaries to lose a sense of place and focus on character. Great. You may do it the other way around. Fab. 6… 5… 4… 3… 2…

Keep going. Until you get down to the one sentence.

There’s more.

Then find a way to make that sentence as small as possible. Noun Verb Noun ought to do it. It may just be a verb.

And now choose the one word.

I recently got my mojo back for a play I’m developing when I did this and realised the final choice I wanted to make for the last word was, Friendship. (I’d been researching emigration and legal tax havens… but, of course, the work is about the two characters at its centre and what they need from one another.)

Do this, and you’ll force yourself to choose what is the engine behind this work. You’ll reconnect with it. And you might just find that you’ve fallen in love with your idea again.

Just as a lover is not all of their clothes, ideas, opinions and possessions, but a singular alive being who excites you, so too is there something singular about the heart of your play.

Find it. Fall in love. Again.

Write Your Play with the help of some recommended books

I used to be paranoid about the number of playwriting manuals I bought, borrowed and read. Now I’m vaguely proud of it, partly because of the help many have given me to think around as well as within playwriting craft.

Below is a growing and curated list (with amazon links) of the books I recommend that I think could unlock different parts of any playwright.

(*NB Please remember that reading plays is the first way in – I don’t actually agree with those who say you only need to watch plays to understand how to write them.)

The first two are Will Dunne’s Dramatic Writer’s Companion and Michael Wright’s Playwriting in Process.

(Disclaimer: Michael is a good friend of mine, who tutored me way back at the 1999 Interplay Festival of Young Playwrights.)

Why these two to begin with? Each is about encouraging practice and craft, as well as reflection.

The focus on doing is something that the best playwriting books from the US seem to excel in.

Conversely, the better examples from the UK, such as David Edgar’s How Plays Work and Steve Waters’s The Secret Life of Plays, concentrate on the philosophies at work within specific examples, rather than exercises in playwriting.

For those who like the idea of beginning without too many notes, I can’t recommend Jean-Claude van Itallie’s The Playwright’s Workbook highly enough. Van Itallie influenced Tony Kushner’s playwriting technique, and if you take the time to absorb chapter two, with its emphases on starting only with a dramatic image (the ‘what’) and brief notes on space and character (‘where’ and ‘who’), you may find the process of discovery revelatory.

A few thoughts on playwriting craft #2

At the moment, I’m working with another playwright (although they might prefer to call themselves a theatre-maker) at the very beginnings of their project. It’s a privilege to be let in to somebody else’s first stirrings. 

Part of making any performance piece is character work – but the question is often, what kind of character work should we do? Working on two main characters, one character is easy to place precisely in history, and to figure out backstory that could contribute to the evolving plot. 

But try this stuff on the other character and she (the character, not the playwright) resists. It’s almost as if this character was not born in time. When we write in ways that differ from realism, this is a stumbling block that can deter us. 

What seemed to work, though, was finding a way into the emotional range of the character. What is she feeling? What is she doing when she is feeling this way? Who else is there? Picturing the character, mid action, gives the insights that we need to keep developing the piece. 

So, some gratuitous advice for the playwright with non naturalistic tendencies: find the emotions, find the picture of those emotions, and then keep asking and answering your own questions. You’ll discover more doing this than by filling out a biography spreadsheet. 

Australian Plays to inspire new playwrights

If you’re a friend of a friend of Ned Manning, there’s a question not dissimilar to the one I asked about plays you’d choose to help inspire new playwrights over on Facebook you can see here.

The question, if you can’t see it, is which four Australian plays would you choose?

It’s great to see people ask these questions. I would love us to think a bit more about why we suggest what we do. For example, Michael Gow’s Away is a great play and what about it are we hoping to inspire playwrights with?

A hot discussion about THE play you’d use to inspire a new playwright

Well, I asked a question on Facebook, and got a gazillion responses.

What would you choose?

I’m particularly taken with responses that are precise (i.e. one play rather than one playwright or several different plays – choose, dammit!) and active (i.e. give the hypothetical new playwright something to do, like edit the script down or take a poem and look for the drama).

Anyway – here goes: https://www.facebook.com/benelliswriter/posts/10155623002791159

Comment here or back there. I welcome it all.

A few thoughts on playwriting craft #1

2016 has been both a wonderful and terrifying year for me. I became a first-time parent. Then came the atmosphere stirred up by the clashing visions over Brexit and the US presidential elections. So, rather than publishing posts, I’ve been crying over many a change of nappy (sometimes with joy, I assure you.)

I have also been a tutor in playwriting throughout the year at City Lit. (You can sign up for the next 11-week term in 2017 here.) It’s an honour to share my take on our craft, and to witness the way small steps become strides for fellow playwrights over the course.

Each session is very workshop-orientated, usually prefaced with a discussion about the week’s set-play-to-read that leads into a technical exercise that the reading helps illuminate or inspire.

My favourite session this year involved a paraphrasing of something said by Ionesco – that all great plays at heart are crime mysteries – and an early 20th century feminist play. Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” is a fantastic (and short) play that demonstrates some useful principles of playwriting – among them negotiation over physical objects and characters facing a crucial dilemma. The story involves the aftermath of a death, and the more that two women discover objects around the house the death took place in, the more they are forced to confront a truth about a woman they know, but also a truth about their relationships with their husbands. It’s a great read. Use your search engine to find a pdf.

And afterwards, thinking about your own play, ask this: what is the crime that takes place in your play? Might there be more than one? If you can’t detect a crime, then what is the transgression at your play’s heart? List it/them. Now, looking at these crimes and transgressions, what character/s would find a convincing justification for it taking place?

Sometimes a play starts with a small transgression, something left outside or put in the wrong place, that leads to a grand collapse. But sometimes when writing a play, the urge to insert something “dramatic” leads to an unwise decision – for example, a murder, or more precisely a murder that no character can defend. But characters fighting over what is right and wrong, while both being right in their own eyes – that’s actually dramatic, whether they are arguing over whose turn it is in a card game or whether to kill the king. Being clear about what and who is doing the transgressing will help you write the play you want to create.

 

 

Story of the Red Mountains, now published by RedDoor

Story of the Red Mountains, commissioned by NIDA, premiered at Sydney’s Carriageworks in 2012. Tom Healey introduces the play, now available for download.

It’s a play dear to me for all sorts of reasons. I got to work with the wonderful Anthony Skuse during its development with second-year NIDA students. The production gave me the chance to reunite with director, Tim Roseman, with whom I had worked with on productions at Theatre 503.

Set on the night of the referendum to ban communism and anyone “who may become a communist” in Australia, 1951, it’s a large cast play, juggling hope, politics and violence. (Does this dynamic ever go out of fashion?)

National Play Festival 2015, Adelaide, Australia

I’m extremely pleased to share the news that my play, Keith, will be one of the plays featured at this year’s National Play Festival at the Adelaide Festival Centre in Australia. Playwriting Australia’s annual event really is on the bucket list of every playwright born or living in Australia.

More information about the Festival, the other plays and participants can be found here:  http://www.pwa.org.au/npf-2015-homepage/

What happens when I read a play

Writers need to read. Playwrights need to read plays. What writers & ‘wrighters do is enter into a discussion not only with their audiences but with a history of existing and surviving work. Some writers claim that they steer away from the works of others, but that just means that they are entering unknowingly with their work into discussions with the advertising and propaganda of the day. (For advertising and propaganda employ story technique on a hyper scale.) Ignoring the work of others potentially dooms you to repeat the worst of it.

As a professional playwright sometimes you can be engaged by a theatre company to deliver script reports that the literary department cannot conceivably cover via its own, usually minuscule, staff. The pay to deliver a report is fairly modest, but I can assure you (if you’ve ever submitted your script to a theatre company and you’ve wondered what happens) that every script reader I’ve met wants to find a play they love.

In terms of writing up my reports, I’ve tried to follow this process for a number of years now with these questions.

– What does the playwright intend as the experience for the audience with this work?

– What dramatic elements do they emphasise to support that intention?

– What excites me about the work?

– What intrigues – but not necessarily convinces – me about the play?

– If I have criticisms of the play, the intention or the chosen emphasis on dramatic elements, how might I phrase these as questions for the playwright to address?

These questions help to focus my reading upon whether the play works on its own terms; once I can determine that, I can produce a report for the company as to whether the play could work for them.

Usually, a script report is no longer than one A4 page, often with a half-page synopsis followed by a half-page of comments, along with the reader’s recommendation. You put a reader in a very bad mood if you forget to put a cast list/breakdown at the front of the manuscript, because knowing how many actors a play requires is part of the bread and butter of running a theatre.

Sometimes companies will ask a playwright to submit a synopsis along with your manuscript; if a synopsis isn’t asked for, don’t include one – the play ought to be clear enough to be summarised by a competent stranger. However, that’s not to say you shouldn’t write a synopsis of your play in a half-page for yourself. Because if you can’t summarise your script that way yourself, you shouldn’t expect somebody else to make more sense of it than you: don’t send it in. Work on what you really want to say in your half-page summary, and then work on another draft with making that story clear.

In other news, check out this brilliant post by John O’Donovan following his workshop on structure with Simon Stephens.