THE PLAYWRITING PROCESS by Mary G. Kron
Playwriting, for me, is an almost physical grappling with ideas, images -- and especially with the characters -- in my head, to get a cohesive, dramatic piece down on paper. At the start, an intriguing idea might blow me a kiss, tweak my nose, and/or give me a good shaking. (Sometimes this initial notion becomes the title though it didn't happen that way with Family Fun.) It could happen while I’m reading, driving, eating, watching TV, scrolling down Facebook, sleeping, walking the dogs…
However, once it’s gotten my attention, the brainchild doesn't stick around. Oh, no! Like a puppy with a ball, its favorite game is “keep-away” and I’m expected to give chase! Sometimes I get close enough to wrestle the image into the computer before it escapes. Even then I have to stay alert because that first concept shakes up a lot of other ideas – flushing them out of hiding like a good dog! Typing as fast as possible, anything and everything – themes, conflicts, little bits of dialog, jokes, running gags, catch-phrases, ironies, character relationships, possible settings, optional endings – it all gets put down with no structure or organization whatsoever. Thinking about any one notion for long would allow the others time to take wing! This process works best at the computer because I type faster than I can move a pen – and unlike my cursive, I can read the results afterwards!
So, now I've got pages of material, but it all just lays there daring me to do anything with it. Maybe it’s because I was an actor before a director and then a playwright. Maybe it’s because plays are all dialog and someone has to say the words. Maybe it’s because the first few plays I wrote were for a specific number of actors. No matter what the reason, I find it impossible to write much without knowing who the characters are. I need to understand how they’re related to each other, and what they want – or don’t want.
Seriously! I’ve tried writing the “correct” way I was taught in school – making an outline, revising it until the story has a clear beginning/middle/end, then expanding into a first draft and rewriting, and rewriting… Just doesn’t work for me! Instead, I name the characters (and they give me arguments about that, let me tell you…), discover what drives them, deciding who wins and who loses and who is changed during the course of the play. Then I type a sort of stream-of-dialog straight down the page without much punctuation or formatting to let the characters speak out. Then -- the characters kind of take over the show.
See, sometimes the characters aren't happy with the decisions I've made or the words I've put in their mouths. They arm-wrestle me for changes that end up moving the play in quite different directions – including who wins or loses. The more I try to keep forcing them my way, the more the characters resist until we’re all pushing so hard in opposite directions that everything just stops. But when I listen to what the characters have to say and where they want to go, they move the play in often wonderful directions. Not one of my shows has become exactly what I first envisioned.
So, each play, regardless of length, is a journey taken in company with a cast of characters. If I wrestle with them, we don’t get very far down the road. When I don’t fight them, we very often end up in a different place than where I pointed them at the start! I intend to write one sort of show – a light comedy, for example – and end up with a serious drama, instead. Try to make character “A” a real villain and he ends up being kind of laughable because he’s so predictably bad. Or mousy, rather uninteresting character “B” ends up being pivotal to the story.
With Family Fun, the two characters had to be strangers, from different areas of the country, and different genders. That set them up for a whole range of misunderstandings, clashing values, and opposing beliefs. But until they started talking to each other, I didn't realize that the two would discover how humorously alike they really are at heart.
Sue Bradford is directing Mary's piece again this year, with returning Stark Turn actors Casey Berg and Sarah Stark. Get tickets now at www.dogstorytheater.com