I personally was a writer by the time I could pick up a pen. I did not officially become an actor or a director until high school. I have always wondered at people who are in theater without being connected to the opportunity to write their own lines, to fashion their own characters, to shape their own stories. To me, the opportunity to express my own ideas is what draws me to create art. As a theater teacher, I wonder at theater teachers who do not give their students the opportunity to learn how to write their own plays. I have come to realize that most of these teachers are performers themselves. I am much more likely to be approached by teachers of other subjects in asking for help with teaching play writing (history teachers especially, who seem the most likely to appreciate the power of story and character).
While I enjoy group playwriting and devising work personally, I think the students who benefit the most from learning to write plays work best by themselves. They benefit from peer and teacher feedback, but do not need or want a partner to write. On several occasions, I have taken a student who has no understanding of play writing and taught him or her how to write a play, and the play goes on to be staged and even wins an award. Sometimes these students are actors and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they know little about theater. Some of my best performers hate play writing.
With play writing, I have found two tactics to be the most important, and I teach them ruthlessly:
- Reveal information slowly.
- Limit your scenes and characters.
Mostly, you’ll have students with no idea how to get started. Tell them to start with a character who wants something from the other character. Do not allow a third character, and do not allow the scene to end.
Here’s an example from yesterday, involving my most reluctant, difficult student. This student has dyslexia and dysgraphia, so I was walking him through the process, one-on-one, while he typed on his computer. I ignored the mistakes in English mechanics until we had spent twenty minutes creating the scene, and then I had him go back through and clean it up (this took about two minutes more). He made spelling corrections as he went, using the computer’s spell correction program.
He: I don’t have any ideas. I don’t know how to start.
Me: It’s easy. You have two mysterious characters.
(He wrote “misterios caractours” as a file name.)
Me: Okay. Now you need a setting.
Me: Okay. What’s the first line? You have these two characters and they need to talk to each other. One needs something from the other.
This is the line he typed, but with the mechanics corrected–
He: “You want me to get you what? I don’t think I will be able to get you that, and even if I could, why the hell would you want it?”
Me: Excellent. What does the other one want? It has to be important.
He: Something gross. A bunch of grease or something.
Me: Perfect. Now, where are they?
He: In Hawaii somewhere.
Me: No, where in McDonalds?
Me: Not at the counter probably, right?
He: No. In the back, probably, behind the store. The worker is out there to smoke.
Me: Right. And the other guy comes up and asks for something gross. Do you know why?
He: He wants to put it into some guy’s food because the guy is going to run a race and he wants to make sure he loses or something.
Me: Okay. It doesn’t matter yet exactly. You can work out the details later. The important thing is that he wants to commit a crime.
Me: You have to save that information for later. Let the audience figure it out. That’s what makes it fun.
Me: What’s the next line? What’s the guy’s response to the worker?
He: “That’s none of your business.”
Me: Okay, that sounds right. But that shuts down the conversation and it doesn’t get him anywhere. He really wants this stuff.
He: He says, “That’s none of your business. But if you can get it there is a lot of money in it for you and I thought in McDonalds the customer is always right.”
And so on. We spent twenty minutes, wrote ten lines, and he came up with a good opening for a play, without revealing too much too fast. The student established that the worker was willing to get involved because he wanted the money. The writing session ending with the second character seeing how willing the worker is, and asking him if he can get syringes, which he clearly can’t get at McDonalds. This takes the play in a new direction, and allows for continued surprises. I had him name the characters at the end. He called the worker “Rony” and the other guy “Ryan.” At the end of our session, I laughed and said, “You should called it McSterious Characters” and he changed his file name to ‘mcsterious caractours,” and laughed, too. I didn’t make him correct the spelling since spellcheck doesn’t care about file names.
Certainly this student will need a lot of help to continue, but that’s how beginning students learn, and he can probably get the help from a peer. Again, the important things for me to teach in that twenty minutes was that the characters need to be believable, they need to have goals, they need to stick to their goals, the information needs to come out slowly, and no other characters can enter the scene. That’s why it was important to place the characters behind the restaurant, not at the counter. A very common mistake is that students will use too many characters and write too many scenes. They do this deliberately and unconsciously so that when they run out of something to say, they’ll have another character interrupt. Or they’ll have a character exit and end the scene. This kills character and story, but it’s an easy way to write. It will also assure you of writing a bad play. By keeping the characters on stage and having the characters reveal the details of their world a little at a time, the audience stays hooked. Don’t worry about the ending. Well-crafted characters will guide the writer, not the other way around.
For more information on the Young Playwrights for Change national playwriting competition for middle schoolers click this link: Young Playwrights for Change
To order your copy of the anthology of the first Young Playwrights for Change competition click here Young Playwrights for Change Anthology Year 1
Here is the list of organizations hosting a regional competition this year:
Adventure Stage Chicago at the Northwestern University Settlement House, Chicago, IL
Alliance Theatre, Atlanta, GA
Boston Children’s Theatre, Boston, MA
Brave Little Company with Young Audiences, Inc., Houston, TX
Chance Theater, Huntington Beach, CA
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Charlotte, NC
Children’s Theater of Madison, Madison, WI
Childsplay & Rising Youth Theatre, Tempe, AZ
Columbia Children’s Theatre, Columbia, SC
Dana Middle School, Hawthorne, CA
DreamWrights, York, PA
First Stage, Milwaukee, WI
Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
Helen Hayes Youth Theatre, New City, NY
Honolulu Theatre for Youth, Honolulu, HI
Jewish Community High School, San Francisco, CA
Kennedy Middle School (Natick Public Schools), Natick, MA
Lexington Children’s Theatre, Lexington, KY
Omaha Theater Company, Omaha, NE
Oregon Children’s Theatre, Portland, OR
Orlando Repertory Theatre, Orlando, FL
New York City Children’s Theater, New York, NY
The Palace Theater, Hubbardsville, NY
Palo Alto Children’s Theatre, Palo Alto, CA
People’s Light, Malvern, PA
Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Sacred Heart Schools Middle School, Atherton, CA
Sequoyah School & TheatreWorkers Project, Pasadena, CA
South Hills Middle School, Riverton, UT
Stephen A. Halsey JHS 157, Rego Park, NY
SteppingStone Theatre, St. Paul, MN
UVU Noorda Theatre Center for Children and Youth, Sandy, UT
Yocum Institute for Arts Education, Reading, PA
ZACH Theatre, Austin, TX