The Working Playwright

The Working Playwright

(This is a new monthly column on CreateTheater.com – thank you, Melissa!)

FIND THEE A WRITER’S GROUP

When I speak with aspiring playwrights or writers of any genre, the first piece of advice I give is “join a writer’s group.” If you can’t find one, create one. A writing group has been essential to my growth as a playwright, and it will be for yours as well.

Why? Writing groups offer both a dedicated time to write and a dedicated time to present and receive feedback to your project.

The consistency of selecting and presenting a 10-12 minute section or scene of your play helps you focus on your play one scene at a time, deeply and succinctly. You see the way the scene operates in and of itself and the way it functions within the play wholistically. If you present 10-12 pages per week, within 10-12 weeks you will have detailed notes and comments that will help you edit the play, focusing on what is working and eliminating what is not working.

I have been a member of a writing group that meets once per week, for three hours, 10 months per year since 2015. That’s nine years! I’ve developed each of my plays using these methods and all of them have been presented as staged readings or productions once completed. It’s a method with proven results.

HOW: To function well, a writing group needs commitment, consistency, and structure.

Rule One:

  • Set and maintain a schedule and hold each other accountable for attendance whether once per week, once every two weeks or once per month. The group can’t function if no one shows up. Each member should have a project they seek to create or revise using the momentum a working group provides.
  • Set the length of the meeting to allow for a 10-minute check-in, followed by 20 minutes from each writer. So if your group has 4 writers, your meeting should be 1 ½ hours. If you have 8 writers, your meeting should be 3 hours.

Rule Two: Presentation and Feedback.

  • Set rules. Each writer can present up to ten minutes of new or revised work. The writer “casts” the players from the members or bring in actor friends. The group might invite a few actors to participate regularly—it helps them too!
  • After the reading of the selection, the floor is open for comments. This is not the time to rewrite the play, offer “advice” about what you would do, or talk about your own work. This is the time to tell the author what you heard and what you know from the scene. List the events and how you experienced it. What did you like. What didn’t you understand. What confused you. Don’t offer prescriptive advice.
  • Writers: LISTEN. Reserve the right to remain silent. This is your chance to learn about your play! This is not your time to explain the plot or answer comments.
  • Don’t reveal your intention. Take notes. Write down everything that is said. If one member is confused, let other members answer their questions.
  • At the end of the discussion, if you have one or two questions, ask them, but again, don’t explain. If you don’t get the responses you want, it’s time to rewrite and re-present until the scene works.
  • When people ask me a question my favorite answer is “what do you think?” They often have a response, and surprisingly, it often is the response I was hoping for.

In addition to listening to your own work and hearing responses to it, you will grow by listening to other’s work and responding to it as well. It’s all about learning and listening.

A few more things:

Don’t cancel meetings unless ALL the writers are in rehearsals or productions, which is your goal. If no one has work to present, meet ANYWAY! And use the time to write together, starting with a prompt (you can find these on the internet) and write silently for 40 minutes. You do not have to read what you wrote. Just use the time to focus on writing without interruption. Discuss the prompt, how if affected your writing, then move on.

Discuss plays that you’ve seen, plays you admire. Discuss craft. Use the time to talk about theatre. How often do you get time to do that in your life? Value it. Protect it. Use it.

Use your writing group to prepare your script BEFORE you submit or schedule a staged reading. Those steps should follow AFTER presenting and rewriting your draft within the group.

Submissions and Staged Readings will be topics for other columns, so stay tuned!

For now, keep writing!

Melissa Bell’s work has been featured in the New York Times and nominated for Best Adaptation & Modernization by New York Shakespeare, and as a Finalist for the Henley Rose Playwright Competition for LADY CAPULET. She was also awarded Honored Finalist for the Collaboration Award by the Women in Arts & Media Coalition for COURAGE. TheMelissaBell.com

Why Are You in Theater?

Why Are You in Theater?

I know it’s not for the money.

So… what’s your why?

Part of the privilege of teaching theater on a college level is the constant re-evaluation of the art form as it shape-shifts through human history. For the Greeks it was an integral part of the social experiment to foster loyalty to and identify with the Athenian ethos. Likewise, part of the success of the Elizabethan theater was in response to and encouragement of the burst of patriotic spirit in England following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Throughout the twentieth century, theater was used to express the larger need for social change, to interpret and reinterpret the human conditions in which they found themselves.

Artists make art in response to the culture that surrounds them – and use it to collectively create the social change they desire.

My students often comment on how even a cursory study of theatre history helps them to understand social movements over different time periods, and what life was like “back then” for “real people.” I explain that is because theatre can be seen as a “mirror” on the human experience from one participant’s perspective of life (the playwright) as he saw it. It gives voice to a period that no longer exists.

What needs to be voiced now, at the beginning of the 21st century? What is your interpretation of the human experience?

What’s the Story Only You Can Write?

We live in some amazing times. Collectively I feel that paradigm shift is occurring in our lifetime.

Do you see it?

  • Political division in our country
  • A potential global conflict in the making
  • Little sense of the collective “we,” a loss of community spirit that unites us
  • Economic uncertainty
  • Tribal mentalities that are exclusive rather than inclusive
  • A loss of trust in our leaders and institutions
  • Shifts in attitudes regarding work and labor
  • A pervasive sense of grief for what was and is no more
  • Plus so many others – fill in your own blanks.

In every area, we are experiencing a tectonic change. A profound shift that is breaking our sense of personal continuity with “the way things are.” Referring to 2019 right now feels like a different time and place.

These feelings, both on the collective and individual level, are the 21st century artists’ canvas.

Envision Change

Artists, especially theatre artists, have always said, “Look at yourself. What do you see? Do you like it? Do you really want it to be this way?”

My dear artist friend – what is your message? How do you see life today?

Artists are cultural changemakers, people who stand up and force us to look at who we are, in hopes of creating change.

  • Henrik Ibsen saw the powerlessness of women in their own homes. His play A Doll’s House sparked the women’s movement.
  • George Bernard Shaw saw the degradation of poverty and the exploitation of the poor around him and wrote social plays that led to the improvement of social conditions everywhere.
  • Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank saw the unjust conviction of prisoners on Death Row and interviewed many who were jailed for crimes they didn’t even commit. Their Off-Broadway play The Exonerated led to the overturning of the death penalty in Illinois in 2003.

There are so many more examples that illustrate that when artists’ voices are heard, social and cultural change begins to happen.

How Are You Contributing to the Cultural Conversation?

What’s the story only YOU can write, based on where you are in the world and what you are feeling right now?

What truths do you hold to be “self-evident?” What is not being said that needs to be understood?

What will future academics teach about YOU?

CreateTheater was formed help you launch the plays that need to be told right now. Create theater that makes a difference. Write the play YOU NEED TO WRITE.

I’m looking for new plays and musicals to develop.

Follow us for more information coming soon.

Story vs. Plot

Story vs. Plot

Where in the Story Does Your Plot Start?

 

A discussion about the difference between plot vs. story is anything but an academic question. Instead, like most talks about structure, how a plot is designed from the ground up defines how the audience experiences the story later in the theater. The point of attack is that first thing the audience will see or hear as the curtain goes up.

It’s the first decision that can make or break a great idea for a play, and frankly, I’ve seen too many playwrights who are confused at what point their show should begin in the story.

 

What’s the difference between plot and story?

 

Story is a chronological sequence of events: this happens, then that happens, then that happened next.

However, a plot is carefully constructed by the writer to create a meaning out of those events. A writer sorts and sifts, edits and rearranges the sequence of events in a story to tell the story in a certain way to a certain audience, to create a certain effect on that audience.

This is the craft of writing. A writer uses his own unique perspective to create meaning. A writer is not a historian nor a journalist. There’s a reason that Plot is #1 of Aristotle’s Six Elements. A weak plot will get the dramatist nowhere fast.

 

Early or Late Point of Attack?

 

It’s a generally accepted saying that in writing a play you have to “get in late, get out early.” In other words, start the plot or scene as late in the action as you can, show the action, and then get out of the plot or scene as quickly as possible. This is how most contemporary shows are built, with a late point of attack. This climactic structure allows the story to focus on building the suspense, on engaging the audience in an entertaining way while posing the dramatic question that forms the spine of the story.

Contrast this structure to its opposite, the early point of attack. Look at Les Miserables, written by Victor Hugo in the 19th century, that journeys over many years, over a vast sequence of events that all play out in front of the audience’s eyes and ears. An episodic structure unfolds episode by episode onstage, with little exposition needed. It too has a dramatic spine, but is built to explain causeswhy something happened.

A climactic structure is interested in effects – what happened as a result of the inciting event.

In thinking about where the point of attack should be, keep in mind that every story and every character has a history. The problem is to decide where in that history to begin telling the tale.

Plays typically begin at a point just before the primary conflict erupts out of the world of the story. Successful musicals have a variety of both early and late points of attack.

Plays need conflict to fuel their dramatic action, so from a technical standpoint this “fuel” needs to catch fire a few pages after the point of attack – and this tells you where the point of attack should be. Let’s just say for a point of reference, for a full length play try to have the inciting event happen before page 15, on average.

Since many  contemporary playwrights use a very late point of attack, their plays cover only the last few hours or days of the story’s history prior to the climax of the major conflict logically generated by that story.

 

Climatic vs. Episodic

 

In general, for plays using a Climactic Story Structure,

  • Plot begins late in story, closer to the very end or to the climax
  • Covers a short space of time, perhaps a few hours, or at most a few days
  • Often occurs on one set
  • Casts are smaller, usually not more than six or eight
  • Plot is linear with few subplots
  • Dramatic action occurs in a logical cause and effect chain.

By contrast, in plays using an Episodic Structure,

  • Plot begins relatively early in the story and moves in a series of episodes
  • Generally covers a longer period of time: weeks, months, sometimes years
  • Travels to many locales, often exotic
  • Often employs theatricality (flashbacks, dreams, visions, etc)
  • Sometimes uses a non-linear plot structure to tell the story
  • Larger casts with many actors playing multiple roles
  • Frequently marked by several threads of action juxtaposed together to create a web of circumstances

 

How to Start the Play You Want to Write

 

The opening of your play needs to grab the audience’s attention, otherwise the battle is lost before it begins no matter which point of attach you’re using. In general, think about having these elements in your openings:

  1. Start your play as far into the story as possible. Begin well into the story, just before the inciting incident.
  2. Be sure that something happens early on (the inciting incident) to upset the world of the play and cause your protagonist to take action (no one likes a passive protagonist)
  3. Give your protagonist a critical want and make it clear to the audience. Make the stakes high.
  4. Be sure that the antagonist provides strong obstacles. The more even the battle, the greater the suspense.
  5. Get the backstory in throughout the play, when it’s necessary to do so, by gradually weaving into the dialogue the backstory exposition that happened before the start of the play.

So to sum up, a plot is a roadmap to get you where you want to go, and what you want your audience to experience at the end of the play. A plot builds a definite structure from the story’s sequence of events as determined by you, the writer..

Are you writing a play or musical? Would you like someone to look over your script, or to help overcome writer’s block?

Schedule a free consultation with me here.

 

 

 

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Do I Need a Star?

Do I Need a Star?

The Need for Stars?

 

 “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” – Steve Martin

 

Writing a play and then staying the course to see it produced is a daunting task. It requires tremendous focus and 100% dedication to each step in the developmental process.

 Once you think your play “works,” the next step is to have a staged reading to introduce it to the public, either in NYC or elsewhere. A reading is the step before a workshop or a production.

 So if a staged reading is the step before a workshop or production, what is our goal for the staged reading? Getting people to see the reading. And not just ANY people – specifically, people who could help us get to that next step, a production or a workshop. (We also want to get smart, experienced people to the reading for them to give us feedback as well, but for the purpose of this blog post let’s stay with the people who can help us move the play forward.)

 So, who are these people? How can I get them into my reading?

 

 It’s All About Relationships

 

Since everything in this business is about relationships, you should be developing relationships and networking like crazy as soon as you realize that you want to be a playwright. Specifically, you want to cultivate relationships with Artistic Directors, directors, producers, and generally, almost anyone in the industry.

 Sooner or later you realize that everyone in the theater lives or dies by their network of friends and friends-of-friends. And it’s helpful to be friends with or in close association with someone who knows or has access to a “star.”

 

Getting a “Star” Interested in Your Play

 

 I can hear the plaintive cry from many of you: “I don’t have access to a star, and don’t know anyone who does!”

 Sigh. That’s where most of us start, but if you’re in this industry for any length of time and make an effort to network, you’ll inevitably meet someone (or hire someone) who knows someone to make a connection for you. And if your work is good enough (and your price is right), you’ll probably be able to hire someone that’s worked on Broadway before to be in your reading. Often it’s not as expensive as you think.

For a quick answer, you can contact your intended celebrity by signing up for the IMDbPro, which is what most people use. You can also try contactanycelebrity.com.

 BUT the real answer is that quality work shows up very early, in the writing and in the score (if we’re talking about musicals). Sometimes I start to read a script and quickly become riveted to the story. When it’s this good, I smile and say to myself that “the magic is starting to happen.”

Losing yourself in a theatrical world established by a talented writer is a completely magical experience. The “magic” is found on the page long before it makes its way to the stage, and if you’ve read a few hundred scripts or so like many of us have, you know it doesn’t happen all that often.

“Star” actors see the “magic” when they read your script; the same with “star” directors, music directors, and yes, theaters and producers. The cream always rises to the top. Eventually.

 Unfortunately it usually takes its damn sweet time getting there.

 

I Don’t Have a Star – Yet

 

Notice the operative word here – YET.

In order to find that “star” you think you need to attract the theaters and producers that you think you need to help move your script forward – the most important thing you need to remember is that the first star of your show is …. your script. 

Let me say it again.

Your writing should be so good that your SCRIPT is your very first “star.”

 So, while you continue to network and develop each of your plays, remember it’s the constant fine-tuning to your scripts that is the real work.

No amount of networking or self-producing expensive staged readings can substitute for the nitty-gritty down-and-dirty daily work of meeting with yourself every day to sit down and write.

  •  In order to make your writing the true star it needs to be, remember to acknowledge the daily discipline to write (or re-write) every day.
  • Remember to recognize the need for real craft in your work, and
  • Understand the need to constantly keep learning.

You must be a constant student of life and of the craft of writing to master the craft of writing.

 

As Steve Martin quipped, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

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Make Submissions Easy

Make Submissions Easy

‘Tis the (Submission) Season

 

Ah, the coolness of the air, the crisp sound of the leaves rustling underfoot. It’s the time of non-profit galas galore and Christmas party networking.

For playwrights and librettists, it’s also the season of submissions.

I’m sorry to say that some of the major submission opportunities have already passed (the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, the Richard Rodgers Award, the Jonathan Larson Grant, and Sundance Theatre Lab, for instance). If you didn’t apply this year, there’s always next year.

However, there is still time for some other major festivals, like NYMF (which has extended their deadline to November 18).

 

Why Submit to Theaters and Festivals?

 

If you want to get your production on its feet and onstage, there’s no better way to begin the process than by participating in an established theater company or festival’s lineup, if you’re ready for it.

What do I mean by ready?

  • Your script has had at least one table reading and seems to “work”
  • You have had a few theater professionals advise you to move forward with the piece
  • You’re through with the re-writes, and it’s time for your script to live and breathe onstage in order to learn more about it.

I believe we’re living in an Age of the Playwright, something akin to the ancient Greek Fifth Century era, where the power of the theater and its storytelling was at its peak. Never before has there been so many writers and storytelling for production (which includes film, tv, and internet storytelling in addition to live theater). Our society is primed to consume storytelling via visual dramatic action, much more so than in previous eras when vital storytelling was shared primarily through words: through oral tradition or through text (novels, newspapers, poems and radio theater).

I call this the Age of the Playwright instead of the “Age of the Director,” since the ideas come from the playwright’s vision. A director interprets the theme and makes it come alive on stage, but the original vision, intention and form – the raison d’etre of a piece – remains embedded within the meaning endowed unto it by its creator, the writer.

And unfortunately more and more, the costs associated with birthing it to life come from the writer as well.

Enter the non-profit theaters and festivals. Drum roll, please.

 

Creative Playmaking in the 21st Century

 

I’m certainly not saying anything new, but the cost of putting your precious show onstage can be daunting. This is the world that I live in too, as a producer and mentor for many writers.

How do we create opportunities to put stories on stage in the 21st century? How can we produce our work, or help others to produce our work, without needing to take out a second mortgage on our home or risking money that we really shouldn’t risk?

The secret is two-fold of course:

  1. Through constant pitching for OPM (Other People’s Money) and
  2. By consistently submitting your work to as many opportunities as you can.

In a field where it seems as if “they” hold all the power, this is a wakeup call to remind you that YOU hold all the power.

  • This is your “baby,” your creation, and no one will foster it and promote it better than you
  • You hold all the cards, because at some point it is really a “numbers game” and entirely within your power to pitch or not to pitch, to submit or not to submit.

Let me say it again: “they” don’t hold all of the power; YOU hold all of the power.

You create your own opportunities.

 

Pitching and Submitting: Make It Easy

 

There are differences, and you must do both.

By “pitching” yourself and/or your work, usually in person, you are demonstrating that you are a professional artist that believes in yourself and in your work. “Submitting” is the process where you submit your work to a person, theater or festival, and then wait to see if you are selected through their process.

Every artist should have their two minute “elevator pitch” down pat, ready to go at a moment’s notice when fate puts an opportunity smack dab in your face. How many times have you felt yourself unprepared for that moment when the universe put someone in your path who could help you professionally,? Get your elevator pitch ready now.

That’s why I now insist that I constantly have a memorized elevator pitch for the shows I’m currently working on ready to “present” when an opportunity shows itself. You can follow up by email with people you meet in person with “pitching” materials prepared ahead of time, that give information about your show, reviews, a sizzle reel, etc.

Pitching should happen in person and over email if you know someone personally. A “cold” pitch is less effective, unless introduced by a common acquaintance. I try to always remember to follow up with prepared material after meeting someone and speaking about one of my shows. I keep their business card in my pocket or in plain sight as a reminder, so I don’t forget.

That may be a good goal for you in 2020.

 

People Are Interested in You!

 

People are interested in hearing about you and your work. They may also be willing to help you produce it or connect you to others who can, because either the work sounds compelling or, more often, they just really like YOU and want to help you succeed.

It’s up to you to sound articulate and represent yourself and your work really well by being prepared beforehand.

While pitching usually happens in person, submissions are done in the privacy of your own home or office. They rely on your organization of material and the productive use of your time. You MUST set aside a regular time each week to submit. Make it part of your weekly routine to submit to at least 4-5 opportunities a week on a regular basis.

 

You Hold All the Power

 

Writers who make a routine of setting aside a regular time each week to submit create more opportunities for themselves than writers who submit in a haphazard “I’ll get to it when I get to it” manner. Ditto those writers who have their pitches memorized and follow up afterward with pitching materials.

It’s all part of being a professional playwright in the 21st century.

 

It’s my job as a dramaturg and producer to inspire you and to help you in every way I can. I’m constantly trying to think of new ways to do this.

Recently I’ve been sitting down with writers to help them figure out ways to send out submissions more easily and quickly, making it “no big deal” to submit their work. If you make it part of your routine and have the needed documents at your fingertips, it actually becomes no big deal.

And that’s how you create opportunities that come to you.

 

Upcoming Submission Deadlines

 

I always advise my writers to join the Dramatists Guild and Play Submissions Helper to keep up with their submitting goals. I also am now reminding writers of upcoming deadlines in my weekly member newsletters. It helps to have the prodding come from a few different places!

Here are some of the upcoming deadlines for approaching deadlines for November that may be of interest to you:

The Eric H. Weinberger Award for Emerging Librettists at Amas Mustical Theatre

  • Deadline Nov. 29

The Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival

  • Deadline Nov. 30

Lost Nation Theater (see their Artistic Vision)

  • Deadline Nov. 30

Waterman’s Playwrights Retreats (Female Identifying Playwrights only)

  • Deadline 11/30

 

If I can help you dramaturgically with your script, help you achieve your submission goals, or if you would like a production consultation with next steps for your project, email me at cate@catecam.com   I’d love to speak with you.

 

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5 Top Takeaways from the “How to Write a Musical” Workshop

5 Top Takeaways from the “How to Write a Musical” Workshop

The World & The Want

 

Yesterday I taught my favorite workshop, the “How to Write a Musical That Works” Workshop through Theater Resources Unlimited (TRU) in NYC. Along with the Executive Director Bob Ost and a stellar panel composed of Dramaturg/Producer Ken Cerniglia (Disney Theatricals, Hadestown), Tony Award winning Director/Lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Fosse, Big, Miss Saigon), Kleban and Larsen Award winning Librettist and Lyricist Cheryl Davis (Barnstormer, Maid’s Door) and former Artistic Coordinator of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, Skip Kennon (Herringbone, Don Juan DeMarco, Time and Again), we hosted seven new musicals as they presented select song-scene presentations from their projects.

 

In this safe incubator environment, the teams came from all over – New England, Atlanta, Upstate NY, Long Island – to participate in our workshop and solicit feedback about their early developmental work. Some of the songs had just been writen the week before; most had never been performed. 

 

This is a three part Workshop, roughly divided into the “beginning,” “middle,” and “ending” of a script. This first Workshop, “The World and The Want,” spoke about the need for clarity in your storytelling in the very beginning of your script and the presentation of the “I Want” song.

 

Everyone had surprises that day. One person learned that her beginning to her musical didn’t work at all – she is headed back to the drawing board with lots of ideas now on how to make the opening number work. Another writer learned that his I Want song communicated something very different to the audience than what he had thought, and is revamping the beginning of the song. Another writer was happy to learn that we were excited by his presentation, but confused by a few points – he now will be editing his opening for greater clarity.

 

Top 5 Takeaways: The World and The Want

 

Here are the top five things that we learned from the Workshop on October 27, 2019:

 

1. Clarity of storytelling must be established from the very beginning of the show

  • Establish WHO these characters are
  • The audience wants to know who we’re going to watch, and what they’re about
  • SHOW don’t TELL. If you describe your lead character as “the Lady Gaga” of that time period, don’t tell us – SHOW US.

 

2. The Opening Number

  • Why is this day different from any other day?
  • Set up your world and tone immediately, and keep it consistent into the next scene (and the next)
  • Can characters we “know” be used in a different way to tell the story?
  • Don’t refer to pronouns like “this” in a song without having established what “this” is.
  • An opening number should immediately get us into the ACTION of the story

 

3. Don’t Betray the audience into creating the expectation of a group I WANT in your opening number by introducing different characters, and then explain that we never see them again.

  • If you introduce specific voices in the opening number, your audience expects to see them again.Your audience wants to learn whose journey we’re on from the very beginning.
  • Don’t set up the expectation of A CHORUS LINE if we will never see these characters again.

 

4. Every song must have a complete arc – a complete beginning, middle, and end – to it

  • A song must travel and push the plot forward
  • We need to learn something within the song – the ending idea isn’t the same as the beginning idea.
  • By the end of the song, we must be in a very different place than we were at the beginning of the song.

 

5. The style of the song must reflect the action and intention of the character singing it

  • The tone of the song must serve the character in that moment
  • A laid-back, jazzy rhythm doesn’t serve a moment when the character has a driving, insistent intention to her action.
  • Instead of a ¾ time, a driving 4/4 may be more active a choice.Sometimes it helps to read the lyrics of the song as prose to discover the intention behind the action.

 

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