Tag Archives: playwriting challenges

Year Without A Spring

by Chelsea Sutton

1816 was a miserable year. Known as the Year Without A Summer, global temperatures decreased thanks to a large volcanic eruption, leading to failed crops and famine, and…wait for it…disease.

It was also the year Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was born.

Many of us have heard the story. A group of friends, shut in from the cold, locked away from much of civilization, haunted by their own individual fears and worries and distractions, challenge each other to a ghost story contest.

Here is what Mary writes about that challenge, which eventually led to a nightmare that eventually led to Frankenstein:

I busied myself to think of a story, —a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered—vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative…Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. 

We have officially entered our own Year Without A Spring with the COVID-19 pandemic. The sun may shine, rain may fall, the mayor of LA is THIS CLOSE to mandating hikes. The shelves may be empty but food is being delivered. It is not the desperate darkening of the Earth in the same way as 1816 – but 1816 and 2020 are kindred spirits. People are still dying. People are isolated. People are not supported by the systems we swore were solid weeks before.

There is a general chaos, a general undercurrent vibration of uncertainty and anxiety and fear. If you don’t believe me, spend 5 minutes on Facebook.

There is also a lot of hope and community support. Artists coming together. Creating things. Certainly I’ve seen the story of how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague. Ugh. As if we weren’t under enough pressure already.

And then of course here I am offering up Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein during another deadly year. But I don’t offer up this story as an example of unending production. I don’t want to say, “Hey, this is our chance! Write that Great American Rona Play/Novel!” Just because we are locked in our homes does not mean what we produce must be a novel that transcends 200 years of literary history.

Instead, reread that quote from her introduction. Invention comes out of chaos. It comes out of the moment of change, of wonder, of fear. All you may accomplish right now is a lot of walking around in silence, a lot of nightmares. But that, too, is creation.

I went to a writing residency in 2017 in the month between leaving my day job and going off to grad school. As much as I wanted to, I could not turn off the world. I was in a tailspin of work and change and uncertainty. And I was at a beautiful place where I was supposed to be writing. I did, a little. But my writing to-do list was barely touched. Instead I went on walks, hikes, cried into oysters, had nightmares. I felt lonely. I was alone.

When I talked to others who had been in similar situations, I heard many a story of writers going to residencies and writing little to nothing – only taking the time to sit and breathe and try to remember what it was that was interesting or terrifying or beautiful to them….the thing that led them to writing in the first place.

So I think that’s all we can ask now. Wander around your gothic mansion/studio apartment and indulge in a little ghost story challenge. Gather around the fire and let the nightmares play and dance and then burn out. If something lingers on, maybe you got something.

Panem et Circenses

By Tiffany Antone

I’ve let all of my professional memberships lapse this year.  It’s not because the value I place on them has lessened, it’s because I’m absolutely living-off-my-credit-cards broke.

Every time I get a Dramatists Guild newsletter, or an LMDA listserve digest, I feel guilty.  And sad.  I consider tacking their membership dues onto my “I’ll never pay it off anyway” Mastercard, and then get even more depressed because the last thing I need to do is collect interest on membership dues in addition to all the interest I’m already collecting on gas, food, and toilet paper.

I’ve been thinking a lot about money lately.  I’ve been thinking a lot about whether the Universe is testing me or if I’m only perpetuating my personal crisis by trying to find meaning here in the “What am I doing wrong?” zone of under/un-employment.

And maybe this week’s Black Friday Bludgeon-a-thon tipped me over into even drabber waters, because I really can’t help but be so focused on the deepening divide in this country between the “Haves” and “Have-Nots”.

We are not so far from a Hunger Games world as we think.

Which has me thinking: While there are certainly movies and plays being made that address today’s big issues, why aren’t there more  being produced that tap into today’s economic and social crises?  I admit, living in AZ – and now TX (yeehaw!) – has me at a disadvantage; I do not have my finger on the pulse of American theater.  (I’ve had to let my TCG membership go as well – I miss you American Theater Magazine!)   But I continue to read books and plays like a fiend and I consider my $5 movie matinees a forgivable splurge.  I also spend (too much) time online, trying to stay abreast of theatrical conversations and to feed my artistic self with updates about what is happening.

I try to stay up to date on what people are writing about and what audiences are gobbling up.

And I’d like to see more stories about the struggles going on in the trenches.

I read The Hunger Games series shortly after it came out.  No, I take that back… I devoured that series shortly after it came out.  I listened to friends talk about how the author didn’t “demonstrate the best craft,” and rolled my eyes, because they were eating the books up almost as fast as I was.

You see, the story is gripping.  The characters are compelling.  And the issues at play in the series are indeed very relevant, because – thematically speaking – we already live in a panem et circenses era.

Therefore, Hunger Games Fever is stoked not only by the story’s entertainment factors, but by our own class issues, hang-ups, and battles as well.  And it’s a HUGE box office success which means the story is reaching people.  There are many films, plays, and books that never enjoy the kind of commercial success the Hunger Games has achieved – so I’m not arguing that we need to make commercialism our goal!  But what I am suggesting is that audiences, while still wanting to be “entertained”, are also starved for relevance… and that IS a worthwhile goal.

We playwrights need to ask ourselves, thematically, what’s going to move today‘s audience?  To make people laugh harder, gasp louder, and think more fully?  To create the kinds of worlds and characters that compel an audience to act?

I don’t want to pacify an audience.

I don’t want to be part of the circus.

I want to break the circus down and get people up on their feet!

But that’s a big wish.  Even the project I’m referencing – The Hunger Games – which had a profound effect on my busy little mind, is still “just” a book.  “Just” a movie… I don’t see people refusing to buy up bits of tabloid what-not written about Jennifer Lawrence because – as is dramatized in the story – they now see that PR is all just illusion aimed to distract us from the pain behind the “circus” of life.

Still… I’m also probably not the only person making such a connection either.

We writers are all throwing stories into the ring, hoping one will catch the eye of the Ring Leader so that he/she will present it to the audience in grand fashion.  (Unless we become Ring Leaders ourselves…)  Isn’t every story just a part of the circus until someone receives it as more than?

I might be stretching the analogy a little thin…

All I know is, I’m out here on the perimeter looking in – as many writers and artists are – observing this spinning world from my own little nook, trying to say something worthwhile.  It’s a tough place to be sometimes, what with also living on planet Earth and locked in near constant financial aerobics in order to stay afloat.  I don’t always have the perfect words.  Sometimes it takes me months to get a scene “Just right”.  But people ask me what kind of plays I write, and I realize that the one thing my works all have in common is that they always tackle something bigger than myself.

Whether my intent is to make my audience laugh or cry, I always want them to leave the theater thinking.  I don’t want to distract them from the ugliness that is around them – I want to point at it, analyze it, laugh and scream at it…

There are a lot artists out there trying to achieve the same thing: to awaken the audience.

I just didn’t realize how important that “awakening” was until my life became less about “Which new boots am I going to buy with this week’s wages?” and more about “How am I going to eat this week?”

And, unfortunately, until I can stop answering that grocery question with my Mastercard, it looks like I’ll have to continue putting off paying all those membership dues.

But I’ll still be here – applying for jobs like motherf***er, trying to write stories that really move people, and hoping that enough someone-elses want to hear what I have to say that those stories I’m throwing into the ring start sticking.


Advice for Aspiring Playwrights

By Jen Huszcza

Recently, the LA Times reported about a meeting between a young novelist and Philip Roth in a deli. The novelist, John Tapper, had passed on his first novel to Roth and was looking for advice and inspiration.

Roth reportedly said:

Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say stop now.

Likewise, I would say to folks who dream of being playwrights, stop. If you gotta do it because of some fire in your belly or blinding light in your brain, well, you’re doomed. If you throw crap out into the world, you’ll feel like a sellout. If you work hard on something with all the best intentions, you will probably be ahead of your time.

Whatever you do, you will probably despise some aspect of your work or yourself. Sure, there’s drinking, drugs, facebook, and therapy, but none of those will put the words on the page for you.

Sure you might love language or love the theatre or love cinema. But at some point, you will hate all that, and you’ll only be left with yourself. And you’ll wonder, why the hell didn’t I become a rocket scientist? I had the grades. 

Still, the writing continues. It has to continue because you have no choice. You have to finish one play because there is something in it that will help you write the next play. You have to finish another play because you promised it to an actor friend of yours who is super talented. You have to think about that next play because it’s a thought that’s interesting. Then, when that is done, then you can stop. Of course, unless, something else has to be written.

The “Who Gives a S***” Test

So, I mention my “Who Gives a S***” Test and then I just leave you hanging for four days… what kind of lazy, no good blogger am I?

The kind that is on HOLIDAY!!!  I’ve been trying to sleep in (too much fun stuff to do) watching lots of movies (Yes, yes, yes) reading lots of plays (finally, my “To Read” stack is going down) and eating as much as I can before I head back (ugh) to work.

However, I promised you an explanation, and so an explanation you are going to GET.

Now, it may not be all that mysterious, but I think some context around the “Who Gives a S***” test would be helpful, so let’s dive right in.

Jessica Kubzansky is a genius director and dramaturg (I hope all of you have had/will have the pleasure of working with her!) who also happens to teach a dramaturgy class to the MFA playwrights at UCLA, and I think she’s the first one I heard telling us to really ask ourselves who’s going to get excited enough about our play to actually produce it?   That it wasn’t enough to just sit down and make out with our ideas, but we had to ask ourselves whether or not that idea was going to get anyone else’s rocks off as well as ours – because honey, being a new or “emerging” playwright is tough business, so why make it harder on yourselves by writing a play no one wants to see?

Fast forward a few years and I’m sitting on a panel at The Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival (oh yes, I felt fancy!) when someone in the audience asks “How do you decide what to write, and how much do you take audience into consideration when you’re developing a story idea for a play?”

There were other (very awesome) people on the panel, and several of them had thoughts on a theatre’s responsibility to audience (not all of us were playwrights- so there were a lot of other awesome perspectives being put forth) but I remember one of the playwrights stammering about how she kept getting commissioned to write plays that never got produced, so she had a hard time thinking about an audience because she didn’t get to see her work in front of one.


Hold your horses, playwright!

You HAVE to think about the audience – unknown or guaranteed – Otherwise you may never see anything of yours in front of one.

Which is the crux of the “Who Gives a S***” issue – if no one but yourself is going to care about your play, then go write a poem or tell the story to your journal – get it out of your system or stick it in your mental crock pot to get bandied about by the muse… It may develop into something better, it may fade into the gray nothing from whence it came, but at least it won’t steal months of your writing-life away from an idea that does have the potential to ignite an audience with all sorts of “I love this play/playwright!” passion!

Because one of our jobs as writers for the stage is to anticipate the theatrical market – and I mean in a “What is going to get butts in the seats?!” kind of way… because that’s what theatres want!  They want to sell tickets, so they can all continue to get up in the morning and get paid to put more butts in the seats!

And it can be tricky – this self-reflective, self-administered standard of story “pruning”… We won’t always be able to get it right, of course, and sometimes a story we don’t think anyone will care about is just too loud to ignore and we have to write it anyway – and sometimes those stories become the ones they can’t get enough of… because it was told with too much passion to ignore… But if we force ourselves to ask these questions up front, we can save ourselves some time, some rewrites, and some self-loathing-“Why-doesn’t-anyone-else-like-this-play”-agony.