Gearing up for that new play: take the process on the road

I was invited to teach a playwriting class this morning at a DC charter school. More than a dozen kids had signed up – or had signing up thrust upon them – for playwriting! They’d slogged through Hamlet and play analysis. I wanted them to WRITE.

We did my favorite “build a play” exercise. It works with writers of all ages (hint to myself: try it this week…) Here it is:

-What’s your character’s name?
-Who’s his/her family? (often when I do this with kids, they say their character has no family. So I tell them to describe the people they’d spend Thanksgiving with, the person they’d call if they needed a ride home from school, etc.)
-Habitat – be specific
-What’s your character’s greatest wish?
-What’s their secret fear? (I would run into kids who insisted their character wasn’t afraid of anything. So we ask the secret fear question)
-Extras – anything else that doesn’t fit in these categories.

Then I ask the class to pick the person who gets in the way of the greatest wish or pushes them toward their secret fear. Then write a character sketch of them.

And then write a scene.

And I watched firsthand exactly my own struggles with writing a new play.

One girl kept changing her mind. Her play would take place in a car – no, in a hospital room – no, the girl’s bedroom. All that second guessing stopped her from writing anything. Note to self: pick one. You can always change it if it doesn’t work.

One young man couldn’t begin at all. He sat there paralyzed for half an hour. But he finally put pencil to paper. He didn’t want to read his few lines of dialogue in front of the class. He kept apologizing for the work. But when he finally did, it was really good. He didn’t believe it. But it was. He was the only one in the room who’d set up a mystery that every one of us wanted to find out what happened next. Note to self: stop kvetching. The work might be better than you think. But you’ll never know if you don’t write it.

Several kids decided to write about ghosts. One decided to write about an alien whose planet was polluted and had to live on earth and lived in fear of being found out by the other kid who was a paranormal hunter. These were fearless writers, willing to take a step outside the ordinary and create something fun and scary and interesting. Note to self: think unconventional.

One other observation: it took FOREVER to get started. They plowed through the character sketches in a heartbeat. But the entire room moaned and groaned when it came time to write a scene. Sounded a lot like me. Note to self: you’re not alone. We all hate to write. Except when we’re doing it.

Tomorrow, I try to take my own advice.

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