Tag Archives: Playwrights in Mind; Dramatists Guild; George Mason University

Day One: Playwrights in Mind: A National Conversation – Part Three

Christopher Durang – no surprise – was very funny.  He spun great stories about his career and offered a few words of advice.

He says he was influenced by sitcoms of the 1950’s and ‘60’s because of their quick pace.  He didn’t want to write the overly realistic style of plays of the era.  He wrote his first play at age 8: his own version of the episode about Lucy having a baby.   At age 12 or 13, he decided to write the book and lyrics for a musical called “Banned in Boston” with the hit song “I Love Money.”  But he was too shy to tell anyone at the school.  His mother told the head of the drama club at Delbarton High School about the musical.  and they put it on when he was in eighth grade.  He went to an all-boys school.  So he got to audition girls from the nearby Catholic school.

His high school college guidance counselor didn’t recommend a single Catholic school, but did suggest lots of high brow places.  Told him schools wanted individuals.  “You’ve written plays,” he said, ” that’s unusual.”   His mother’s divorce lawyer suggested he also apply to Harvard.  He was so surprised to be accepted, he went there.  He wrote a musical and Al Franken was in it.  It was called the “Greatest Musical Ever Sung.”  It told the story of the gospels in musical comedy terms.  Songs included “Everything’s Coming Up Moses.”  “The Dove that Done Me Wrong” – sung by the Blessed Mother.  They couldn’t get 12 apostles, so they went with 9 and included some women.  Tommy Lee Jones and Al Gore both saw the show.  It ran two weekends and got a good review.  But there started to be letters saying “this show is offensive to Catholics.”  An English professor wrote back saying, “haven’t you heard of satire?”  One critic said Durang was “Pigs trampling in the sanctuary.”  He used the critique in his application to Yale.

Durang has a few bits of advice: the best drama comes from writing about your stuff,  what you know, not what pleases anybody.  It’s important not to just hold onto one play.  Be prolific.  His rules for avoiding writers block: write at least 5 days a week; at least 2-3 hours; and you’re not allowed to quit if you don’t like what you’ve written.  If you’ve written act one and stuck, get a reading.  You start thinking about actors and casting and you have a deadline to finish act two for the upcoming reading.

Day One: Playwrights in Mind: A National Conversation

The temperature in my car reads 103 as I park outside the Mason Inn. Inside to pick up the nametag and schedule and Dramatists Guild lanyard and then we were herded onto a shuttle bus for a short ride up the hill to the theatre. There’s a couple of workshops to choose from. I started off in Jeffrey Sweet’s “Improvising Your Play.”

Sweet says it’s much more effective if you don’t use the “word.” The audience can figure out that it’s a play about divorce and “him” is dad. It’s called pattern completion. If you don’t say the most important word, the audience figures out and believes it more deeply.

He says we go to the theatre to watch actors making choices – in the present. Even if talking about something that happened in the past, use historical present. Or use one line in the past and shift into the present. Then the character is re-experiencing the past in the present. Thornton Wilder calls it “the ever renewable present.”

No adjectives and adverbs: they make an audience passive. Let them make that evaluation. Put the premise on the stage; let the audience reach the conclusion.

Take out that line that spells out the “theme” of the play. 

A lot of very good plays are not very good reading experiences.  Scripts are meant to be performed.  If you have any chance of putting up a staged reading, and invite appropriate people, you’ll have a better shot at getting produced.  But make sure the play is ready.  Don’t invite them to your exploratory work.

The event of a play is not literary.  The point of a script is gives actors an opportunity to create compelling behavior.  And sometimes the language isn’t even first rate.  The passion, the behavior, the emotion behind the language is what works.  The words float on top of the behavior.  The novelist gives you everything you need.  The playwright doesn’t.

Look at those first ten pages.  All exposition?  Think of it as scaffolding for your play.  Take it down.

Here’s a tip from Jeffrey: if you’re visiting a theatre town, find out where the storefront theatres are, which ones are doing new work, write a letter, tell them you’re coming to see the show and want to buy them a drink.  It gives them a face to put with your script.