Improvising Your Play with Jeffrey Sweet

by Robin Byrd

I am here in Chicago at the Dramatists Guild Conference “Having Our Say: Our History, Our Future” enjoying every minute of it.  It is really good to see Stephen Schwartz, President, Dramatists Guild, Gary Garrison, Executive Director, Creative Affairs and hoping to see Ralph Sevush, Esq. Executive Director, Business and Legal Affairs, have to make sure I get to one of his sessions  – playwriting without the business side of things can leave one at a loss…  Some of the sessions are live streaming from HowlRound at http://www.livestream.com/newplay where you can watch them several times after the live event.

My first session was with Jeffrey Sweet, playwright, author, teacher, actor, director, improvisation master – I could go on.  I use his books to help me out of fixes when I’m writing.  I met him at the last Dramatists Guild Conference in Virginia.  He is the nicest man, very down to earth and very giving where knowledge of the craft of playwriting and theater is concerned.

Mr. Sweet talked about how improvising came into being – the people in the germination period, the history of it – how storefront theater started and what that had to do with the Marxist son of a millionaire who loved theater.  He discussed how the question “How do you get plays on a stage when no one is writing them?” gave rise to improvisation.  How improvising theater starting from scenarios –Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm uses scenarios.  He ran through the history like a monologue, full of comedy and facts.  He told us to also look at TJ & Dave for improvisation today.

In “Improvising your Play”, Mr. Sweet discussed set up for Improv and the power of the unspoken word.  A writer must know what to leave out. He suggested conveying what the noun is without using the word.  As in, conveying “I love you” without actually saying “I love you.”  He demonstrated with a skit using two playwrights from the audience giving them clear instructions on what their character wanted but what they could not say to the other character.  The Improv turned out to be a nice little scene.  He runs a Summer Improv writing retreat (http://www.artisticnewdirections.org/retreats.html) that uses improvisation techniques to write scripts.  Then he did an exercise with five playwrights from the audience who were told to describe a noun without using the noun.  We got very good descriptions, of a woman who found solace in watching a puppy through the store window, a man whose horse sounded like a woman until the very end, and the description of finding that a vile smell is of poop on the bottom of a shoe.

He also discussed relating something from the past without writing in past tense.  There is a technical way called “historical present” that gives the sense of dramatic action.  You start in the past but switch to present as you go, for instance, writing “I was walking along the side of the road, suddenly; a large truck is coming right at me.  I have a second to get out of the way or I’m toast.  I jump…” (as I understood him).  There is also “high context exposition” which in essence means don’t explain.  Characters who know each other don’t repeat what they already know; this is why the soaps use new characters to rehash old business that everyone else already knows.  He feels the writer should always go to the future tense.

Another way of bringing more to a script is by negotiating over an object.  “Objects between any two characters will give info about the characters.”  Shakespeare uses three objects in King Henry the Sixth, the paper crown, molehill and the handkerchief which create shock in behavior.  In “The Apartment,” the mirror compact does the trick.

Improvising your Play was a very informative session.  A lot of what he discussed is in his books.  Seeing him bring the techniques to life before your eyes is worth experiencing at least once so if you ever get the change to sit in on a Jeffrey Sweet class, please do…

Jeffrey Sweet’s books:

Dramatists Toolkit, The Craft of the Working Playwright

Solving Your Script:  Tools and Techniques for the Playwright

Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and the Compass Players

2 Comments

  • By Lawrence Aronovitch, August 23, 2013 @ 6:54 pm

    I was one of the playwrights in the imrov scene and agree that this was a great session about how to use Sweet’s techniques in our work.

  • By Robin Byrd, August 23, 2013 @ 7:34 pm

    While I was watching you all do the Improvs, I was thinking that it was a testament to your writing skills to be able to write on your feet like that. Really good job.

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