By Patricia Milton
In a recent Online Chat, ICWP Sisters and a Mister took turns speaking about their favorite useful playwriting tips, techniques, tools, and practices. It’s my pleasure to share an edited version here with the entire ICWP membership, with the intention that we all benefit from one another’s wisdom.
Diane Rao Harman shared a writing tip that came from a costume design professor. She recommends using photos, images, and pictures… not as literal inspiration, but to examine the raw form and be inspired. View the colors: how are they similar or different? Look at the negative space. Is the image of something anchored and heavy, or light and delicate?
Then, complete these three statements
- This is a play about x. Diane said, “For me, x was ‘yearning.’”
- This play feels like x. For Diane, x felt like ‘eating a birthday cupcake in a motel,’ a personal image
- Therefore, the visual solution will be x. Diane came up with x as a chicken coop.
The visual solution is not literal, but prod to get to something new. For Diane, the visual of a chicken coop nudged her to consider all its aspects: pulling something in, protecting something, and the concept of hope as represented by the eggs. Diane recommends we try using these statements, and visual anchors, to offer inspiration.
Alan Woods shared several ideas. He recommends we consider writing plays specifically for older casts. His own short plays for senior actors have been widely performed. His suggestion to seek inspiration: go to the website meetup.com. You can join different groups representing all kinds of interests.
A book Alan recommends is “The Year of Lear,” the history of British theater in 1606. Alan says he’s learned about other playwrights that were writing at the same time as Shakespeare, and he’s been inspired to write a whole series of sequels and prequels to Shakespeare's plays.
Collette Cullen’s background is in Special Education. She told us, “These are kids who have trouble getting their voices heard, or who have had their voices stolen from them. I'd write with my Special Ed kids. They taught me. I set a timer that makes a noise, a ticking, and we’d write together.”
Collette recommends using Text Edit or Google doc to listen to your work. You can also use Google Translate, which can read your script back to you in the original language. The other members on the call all agreed that listening to one’s work read aloud is important. Most smartphones can record your own voice reading a scene.
Another suggestion of Collette’s is: Create Your Village, and make it a playgroup. She said, “When I steward others; it nourishes my voice. Play make believe. I create a party to read my work: we do a reading with actors.
Let the baby go out into the world.” Collette said she finds writing very hard, so she makes rules and sticks with them. “Sometimes I don't write till 4 pm, but it's my rule that I must write. Suzi Lori Parks’ ‘Watch me Work’ (a regular writing session at publictheater.org) keeps me in the room longer.”
“Put yourself out there. I printed up a card that said I was an actor, author, and educator. So I was. Honor your own voice. When you apply to fellowships and grants, you honor your work. I made an online portfolio of my work on my website. Hold your work in high regard,” Collette said.
Carol Libman described for us her process, very early, before she has even a draft. She reports, “I don't write in sequence, I jot down my ideas. I do research. Sometimes I don’t know the characters; I have to find them and develop them. I write everything that comes out. It’s messy, and that’s fine.
When I go back later, I read it out loud. I use ‘markers’ on the pages I’ve written on the word processor to indicate what I want to keep and what I want to delete, as well as notes for further development. Yellow for deletions, red for what stays. The notes and markings are great when I’m working with a dramaturg.”
Carol recommends that playwrights become affiliated with a development group so that your work gets developed through a number of stages. Writing a play is a long process, and putting your work through multiple stages of a development process will get it in shape to be produced onstage.
Donna Gordon uses journaling. She recommends two books, “Writing down the Bones,” by Natalie Goldberg, and “Bird by Bird,” by Anne Lamott, that illustrate its value. Donna said, “With journaling, you write every day. Journal prose is more transparent and personal, and you can use the material for monologues, taking out topics that interest you.”
Donna also likes the editing tool in Google docs as a means of sharing your play with someone else. People can read and add comments and questions to your draft, in color. Finally, Donna urged us to make connections between the bits and pieces in our minds, and bits and pieces from our journals. “Write a sentence about x. What interests you about x? Can that be a play?” asked Donna.
Domnica Radulescu writes every day, in several genres. Domnica told us, “It can be hard to find motivation and inspiration these days, so I turn to what I call “Travels through the Darkness to Get to the Light.” I always go to three periods in history. The bubonic plague in Italy and the work of Giovanni Boccaccio (‘The Decameron’). The country was devastated, but wonderful storytelling emerged, including great humor. I also turn to the Holocaust in WWII, and the work of Albert Camus, including ‘The Myth of Sisyphus,’ and ‘The Plague.’
This is motivating me to sit and write. It's what I can do even when the world is collapsing. I also turn to my own strategies of survival growing up during a dictatorship. I believe in the power of creativity: it's my life vest, and it’s what I do best. I give myself permission to explore, and write in all the genres: prose and plays, essays, storytelling, and crossover genres. In March, I started "The Crown Diaries": plays, monologues, essays, short stories, and I’m up to 150 pages. It’s very satisfying, telling the same story in play and story form.
“Promoting other people's work helps me,” Domnica said. “I created the Play Slam. Focus on others: it's life- affirming to be part of writing communities. Giving themes to the group, I also give myself the same challenge. I enjoy (ICWP member) Emma Goldman's workshop, which offers readings by professional actors. There’s a caveat, though. We may have a tendency to join too many groups right now. It’s a danger to spend a full day in Zoom meetings. Devote one hour a day to write. It doesn't matter when.”
Rahmat Zakari couldn’t join the Chat live, but offered this recommendation by email. “What works for me is having to beat deadlines; like the zoom meeting on (ICWP Chat) Writing from Isolation. Knowing that I need to meet up on a group task inspires me. Being part of a group and doing things together is a strong motivation for me.”
Everyone on the call mentioned gathering in community with other writers, even while isolated, online, by phone, however we can. Rahmat added, “Taking inventory of life or events around me especially when I retired for the night is the best quiet and personal time with myself; that is the time that I listen to myself and form my stories.”
I hope you’ve found something useful from this generous group of ICWP playwrights! If you have something to share, we’re enjoying another Tool Exchange Chat 10-11:30 PM EDT , Thursday, May 28. We’d be delighted if you’d register to join us.
After you register, you will receive a link to the Zoom chat. You can join Zoom chats on a desktop computer, tablet, or phone. You can choose whether or not to have video on or off.