Step By Step How I Write a New Play (and you can too!)

I’m really really really hoping that some of you will take up the challenge and write a play for the VTA one-act or full length playwrighting contest, but I know that the hardest thing is trusting that the idea you have is good enough. Or maybe you don’t have an idea at all.

Here’s what I do.

When it’s time to write a play, the first thing I do is think about what I’ve been obsessing about lately.

  • My adaptation for “Trojan Women” was fueled by my grief at leaving the theater company to come to EHS, which I hated at first.

  • My adaptation for “The Learned Ladies” was fueled by my irritation at the self-satisfied pettiness of some of the culture here.

  • “Helpless Doorknobs” came about because I was feeling panicked because so many of my beloved students were suffering from depression, grief, and adolescence and these problems were much bigger than and more complex than I could help them “solve.” And there were so many kids with so much need, and I couldn't help kids who needed me to help. I was foundering. I was also spinning on my constant rage that people are disappearing from each other, obsessed with tiny screens and not able to be present for each other.

I’m starting to write something this summer, as yet untitled. My plays always come out of multiple influences, so here's a dream ballet of my thought process, which happened over a week:

I’ve been reading a lot about the NSA and wiretapping. I’m also always trying to figure out how to live my life in this EHS fishbowl without being constantly seen and commented on. “Privacy” was mentioned in a West Wing episode as the main issue that will plague the 21st century, and so far, that prediction seems to be coming true. I started thinking about this while in a fabric store holding a “retro pattern” for a 1960’s mod dress, and so I started thinking about merging those modern ideas of privacy and spying with Cold War era stuff. Then I was thinking about Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys mysteries that I used to read (I watched the tv show “Veronica Mars” earlier this summer, which is a Noir Mystery set in a CA high school). Ideas started to percolate about a team of Teen Sleuths. When the phrase “Youth Sleuths” came to mind, I knew that this gang was going to be largely unhelpful and cheesy, but very proud of themselves. So I began to think about the true protagonist. Someone who needed help. “Why is the Protag in Need?” I wrote on a piece of paper… “Privacy?”

I’ll get back to the story of that play in a bit, but wanted to talk big picture. As you see from the examples above, my plays typically come from an issue or event that affects me emotionally in a strong way. I cannot recommend that to young playwrights enough. Write about stuff that moves and motivates you. Think about how much energy you have when you get on a good rant about something that makes you so mad, or which you think is so unfair, or which you are so excited and amazed by. That kind of energy fuels good playwrighting.

I’m going to write a series of “steps” to explain how I personally start writing a play. These steps are Not approved by the celestial board of excellent playwrighting. This is just what I do. You can see if any of it fuels you. If it doesn’t, invent your own path!

Step 1: identify an issue or idea or event that you have a lot of strong feelings about.

Next, you’ll notice that I pull in other influences when I’m building the idea for a play. I turned to Edward Gorey this year because the calm acceptance of inevitable violent tragedy seemed so alien to my own flailing, saddened response. But sometimes it’s just something like picking up a sewing pattern. Or realizing that the reason I’m watching so much “Veronica Mars” is that I am interested in the structure of a mystery. You could write a play based on some event you like in history. Your creative mind is at work all the time; noticing things, collecting things, connecting things. If you take time to sit down and draw/write/collage all the current influences percolating inside you, you’ll start to find a play.

Step 2: grab a piece of paper and start doodling words/phrases/ideas. I like to use multiple pen colors. I also like to use blank computer paper because I need to jot ideas at odd angles, write some things bigger than others, and frequently doodle along with the ideas. At this stage, I want to stay loose and open to ideas. I don’t want to limit my play to early.

Because a play script is only a blue print for a production, and because I am also a director and designer, when I think of “the play” I’m envisioning the chunk of time I’m eventually going to carve out and shape for my audience. I think about what colors, shapes, movement, music, and emotions I think might be in this event. If a production is a gift from the artists on stage to the audience who agrees to watch them, I think about what kind of experience I want them to have.

Sometimes, however, my writing is more mercenary than that, and there’s a possible path there, too. “Order Up” (Acting 1 restaurant play) was fueled by the need to write a play that Acting 1 could memorize in a week, while capitalizing on the strengths of the kids in that class (some of whom had very few.) I was also trying to get everyone to buy in to the idea of theater, so I had to write parts that they would not feel threatened to play. Finally, I needed to give Annabelle a chance to shine. “Order Up” is not a good play. I wrote it in a single afternoon and never looked back. As a class assignment, it was exactly what I needed, and it did achieve all of my goals. So it doesn’t matter that it isn’t a good playscript. A bad script is still much better than a blank page.

Step 3: On one of your doodle sheets, include ideas for what you want the audience to think/feel/learn from your play. Include visual images as well.

The other thing that I contend with in my writing these days is a need to include as many of you as I can. I notice that the top two schools at VTA--Stafford and Albemarle—pick plays that tend to have smaller casts. Not only does this mean the director can stack the cast with only the best actors, but each individual character has a greater percentage of stage time which translates into multiple acting awards. But we're a small school. At a big school, you live every day knowing you won’t get accepted into everything, so you keep trying. Here, getting cut feels more personal. If there are 9 guys up for a role, and you don’t get it, it’s easier to take than when there are 2 guys up for a role and you don’t get it. Getting cut here means you're more likely to give up and not try again. I need every breathing body I can get, so I can't choose scripts that turn kids away.

So I’ve got to make sure that I have decent parts for anywhere from 10-16 actors, which means that at the early stages of planning a play, I’m often thinking in terms of “how do I cram more people into this event?” Of course, every character needs distinct desires, vocal patterns, and relationships, so it’s not a matter of just adding cowboys. When I write, I do frequently write “for” specific actors. I imagine the kid playing the part and saying the lines. I’m often inspired by certain energies or vocal patterns, and I use that to fuel the characters. I often write using my old students in mind, so I don't get stuck during the casting phase. Helpless Doorknobs was written with about 30% EHS actors,60% kids from my past, and 10% complete fabricated voices. I didn’t cast all the EHS kids in the roles I wrote around them, because auditions are funny things--actors really do tell you where they need to go. Anyway, I do find it helpful during the writing process to think of how certain actors would play a role I’m writing. It also keeps me from allowing a role to become boring, or too small, or pointless. The teacher in me asks the writer "what dhallenge or excitement does this role offer the actor?"

Step 4: Write down the names of 3-7 actors, and start brainstorming what they could contribute to the world of this play. I do find that having to cram more people into the play can help expand the world. I don't recommend having more than 10 characters, unless it turns out you need them.

And now it’s time to just start writing. What I do is read over my notes and drawings, then I go and take a walk. While I walk, I “listen” and usually lines of dialogue will start coming to me. Sometimes I see a stage picture instead. With this spy play, I heard canned sitcom laughing. I keep walking and listening. When I can’t take it any more and I have to start getting things down on paper, I walk home and start writing.

The key to drafting is to turn on the nicest voice in your mind, the one that says “YES, and…” don’t edit yourself, don’t limit yourself. I often jump on the first or second idea that I have. By saying “YES” to every impulse/idea, I keep my brain warm and willing to keep creating. I know that I can change and fix things later. The drafting stage is all about saying “yes.” That’s why the Youth Sleuths are currently named Francie, Cheeks, Lorna Doone, and Skeeter. I’ll reason out whether or not those are right later.

Step 5 is to take a walk, “listen,” and say YES to every idea, knowing that happily following your impulses is the only way to ensure that your brain keeps creating more. Sit down and just start drafting. Hear it in your ears, imagine what parts of the stage look like.

Keep Writing.

Keep saying YES.

Keep Saying YES.


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