Thursday, December 4, 2014

Subtext: A key to the script writer's art

One of the most significant elements in this difficult game of script writing is working with that elusive and dynamic "thing" called subtext--that submerged nine-tenths of the iceberg underneath those words on the page.  How do you use it to drive your dialogue and your characters' motivations and behavior and to fill those silences and pauses with potent energy and lightning-like insight and meaning?  Why is it that some writers are able to have the words that are actually spoken in a scene consistently take on a power far beyond what they are communicating on the surface? How do they do that?  What strings are they pulling to create that kind of special excitement between characters that pulls the audience ever further into the story that's unfolding?

The answer to these and similar questions involves backing up quite a bit when it comes to the process of creating a new script.  It demands that you know your characters inside and out before you attempt going into draft--what makes them tick, what specific milestone events have emotionally shaped their lives and how, and in what ways have they been involved with the main issue of the story that the future script is going to focus on--meaning knowing thoroughly their involvement with life in the past, before they first enter the action of your tale.

Subtext is that baggage--emotions, memories, and relationships--that every character is carrying with them as they enter your story.  And if your story is a good one, it will create its own ways that that baggage is felt and exploited as your characters face the dilemmas placed before them.  How they behave in certain moments of crisis or accusation, how they relate to other key individuals, how they respond to a sexual advance, and on and on....   And much of this behavior is nonverbal and very subtle.  A silence when a question is asked.  A hand going for that third drink when a certain topic is broached.  A shift in tone or volume in a character's speech.  These are well-crafted signals good writers constantly weave into their work and that point the audience to that subterranean place where the real story is continually percolating.

One of the masters at this is Harold Pinter.  His work is a study in the dynamic use of subtext.  Here's what he has to say about the famous silences in his plays:  "There are two silences.  One when no word is spoken.  The other perhaps when a torrent of language is being employed.  This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it.  It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in it's place. When true silence falls we are still left with the echo, but are nearer nakedness.  One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness."

That nine-tenths under the surface.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs January 3-11, 2015 and we are currently accepting applications for starting the program at the following residency that runs June 19-28, 2015.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.



Friday, November 7, 2014

This script writing "business"...

It's often been said that the script writer's real work begins once a play or screenplay is written.  And there is more than a smidgen of truth to this.  It's worth taking a look at what kind of "work" this refers to.  

First of all, it's important to realize that once you are absolutely convinced that your script is ready to be released to the world--once you've been through that "final" draft a dozen times and every page is perfect--you have arrived at the threshold of a whole new phase in the project's life.  And this phase has to be handled just as carefully and thoroughly as the writing, rewriting, and early testing of your script.

Of critical importance is that you do your due diligence on the possible places your script could be sent and whose hands you want to get it into.  This is a vast task if it's done right and demands serious research into the various possible venues and people, contests and festivals, theatres and other organizations that are constantly putting out a call for new material.

Every writer--especially those in the early stages of their careers--play the wishing game that all they have to do is land a good literary agent and all their babies can then be handed off to this hard working professional dedicated to finding a home for your brilliant creations.  As all writers realize the longer they are in the business, this could not be further from the truth.  Agents negotiate contracts once serious interest in your work has been obtained.  But with very rare exceptions, they do not find the production opportunities for a writer's work.  And that goes for both the theatre and film/TV.  In other words, it's the writer who finds the interested parties who in turn make an offer.  The agent then becomes activated or a theatrical lawyer is found to deal with that offer.

So that leaves the burden on the writer to shepherd his or her work through its post writing life.  And that means a careful investigation of all possible avenues that that script can be sent down.  It also means developing a realistic strategy or game plan in terms of possible scenarios for the future of each script--from the most modest introduction into the world to the most ambitious and far reaching. For starters, playwrights should join The Dramatists Guild and then carefully investigate their annual Resource Directory (I'd be wary of buying the latest available edition of The Dramatists Sourcebook published by the Theatre Communications Group because it is now seriously out of date).  Screenwriters for starters should scour the Without A Box festival screenplay competition list and investigate every other screenplay competition (a simple Google search will open the door to hundreds of possible opportunities).

The point here is that it's up to you, the writer, to get things going, both for your script and your career.  And you have to be thorough, smart, and assertive.  Believe in your work and be it's biggest supporter--no one else is going to be that for you.

I remember years ago walking into the study for the first time of my friend and successful playwright Richard Nash (The Rainmaker among many others).  It was a small barn on his farm next to his country home and I'd been invited out to work with him on a new play that my theatre was producing.  I noticed that he had a long series of shelves against one wall that held dozens of scripts neatly stacked, one after the other.  I asked him why he had all these different scripts in stacks on shelves.  He said without missing a beat that he was a playwright and this was his business--he had to do this because he was constantly sending work out to theatres and producers.  Then he smiled and said that he was his business.  And it struck me that here was a true professional writer who took himself seriously and who knew that there was only one person that his long career depended on.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs January 3-11, 2015 and we are currently accepting applications for starting the program at the following residency that runs June 19-28, 2015.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Wendy Wasserstein on script writing

The late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein was a lovely person whom I had the privilege of knowing.  And I was fortunate enough to interview her twice on her script writing process some years ago, at the Dramatists Guild in NYC and at Drew University where I was teaching at the time.  Both were in front of rather large audiences.  She was a straight shooter and told it like it is regarding her writing and how she managed to create so many successful plays.


You can find a condensed audio version of my Guild interview with her on the Guild website here.  She offers many words of wisdom to the script writer.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs January 3-11, 2015 and we are currently accepting applications.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A cardinal sin in script writing...

For many years now there's been an issue that's come up repeatedly as I've been working with script clients and playwriting and screenwriting students.  I find myself listening to my own voice laying out the same piece of advice over and over again.  And that is a simple truth in the script writing business:  don't ever send a script out into the world before it's ready.

I can understand a writer's impatience to get their baby out there in the "marketplace of ideas."  All writers crave positive feedback and are sometimes even approaching desperation to break out of their lonely writer's life and see their work embraced by the many artist/collaborators in theatre and film and become a member of an artistic team that wants to bring a script to life. But that impatience can easily overrule good sense and, alas, scripts are continually sent out long before such a move should even be considered.  

So my advice is this:  When you think you've dotted the last "i" and crossed the last "t" on what you are convinced is your final polished and perfect draft of your play or screenplay, including fixing any and all formatting issues, having it carefully copy edited for typos, etc.--when you think you've reached that point after months and months of work--instead of immediately sending it out to those contests and festivals with their looming deadlines, and/or the agents or producers you have an even vague connection with who you are now certain will embrace your script, put it away for a month and forget all about it.  Don't worry about missing a couple submission deadlines, even with the bigger, more significant venues.  And don't pull it out and look at it at all in the interim.  Allow yourself (or force yourself) to get some honest distance from it.  Instead, start work on your next writing project and forget all about that "finished" script in the drawer. 

If you do this, nine times out of ten when you do pull it out and give it a fresh read, "things" small and sometimes large will suddenly pop out at you that you totally missed earlier.  Things that you now can see need more work.  Things that competition readers and producers will spot right away. And in the vast majority of cases, those professionals on the receiving end of your submissions will only read your script one time and one time only.  Rarely, if ever, will that later and stronger draft be picked up again by any of them.  

I'm confident that if you take this advice, the script you actually finally do send out into the world will stand a much better shot of garnering serious attention and perhaps even eventually find it's way into production.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs January 3-11, 2015 and we are currently accepting applications.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.  

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Script writing from the heart...

The other day a script client of mine told me that he thought he was "spinning his wheels" with the kind of story he was working on and that he needed to start paying more attention to what the market is looking for.

This is what I wrote back to him:

"There's always a danger lurking when you start thinking about what the marketplace wants.  The best scripts (and the ones that make their way to the screen or stage) fall into that likability orbit by sheer accident because the writers are writing from their heart and not trying to manipulate their stories to fit what they think the public and the marketplace will be attracted to.  Those that try to write to the market are often left out in the cold because by the time their script is up and out there in the world, all sensibilities have shifted and the "public" is getting turned on by something different--not to mention that the writer's heart connection with the story is at best frayed from the start.  And so the writer is left with a script that's quickly passed over because it was "manufactured" to fit what he or she thought the world would want to devour. 

This game of script writing is all a mystery--including what will turn people on and the luck of the draw that you as the writer just happen to have the right connections to allow your baby to slip into the hands of the perfect person who will champion the story and take it the distance.  I say mystery because in my many years in this business and in talking and working with many, many people in the biz, it has become clear that there's no formula for success except genuine talent, a sense of a good story that rings true to the writer's heart, and more than a little luck that the right opportunities just happen along at the right time and your script ends up in the right hands.

So don't ever shy away from that personal story your heart is urging you to write.  Don't be swayed by what you think the "market" will get excited about.  It's your heart connection with your material that makes it interesting and enduring.  And it's those kinds of stories that tend to attract positive attention and that eventually make it to production."

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs January 3-11, 2015 and we are currently accepting applications.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

MFA student wins Screenplay Competition

This has been a great summer for the family of writers who make up our low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen program.  We had a highly productive residency in June with all eleven student writers and our small army of professional faculty.  And all of our students are now working on new projects with their mentors.

And to top it off, one of our current second-year students, Vicki Peterson, has just won the Best Screenplay award at the California Independent Film Festival with her feature Zoe and the Zebra that she wrote in our program during her first year.  Needless to say, Vicki, pictured below with her daughter, is making us all proud.


I take a special pleasure in this achievement because Vicki, along with all our other MFA students, are a part of a program that stresses story structure and form as well as extensive pre-writing exploratory work on backstory and the characters' emotional makeup.  I have no doubt that her screenplay quickly rose to the top of the stack of contenders for this award because of the strong forward movement of her unfolding story and the richness and depth of her characters.  Not to mention that we gave her screenplay its first read at a recent residency with professional actors--something that allows students to actually hear their scripts given voice for the first time.

Actually, the CAIFF award is the third festival where Vicki's script has received recognition.  Earlier this year Zoe and the Zebra was featured in a reading at the Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto and is also a finalist and official selection at the upcoming  Southern California Film Festival.  

So congrats to you, Vicki.  Can't wait to see you at our next residency in January so we can celebrate these successes!

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs January 3-10, 2015 and we are currently accepting applications.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

MFA Script Writing Residency June 2014

Last month (June 20-29) I ran the residency for our MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen program offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Held at a 700-acre conference center in the foothills of the famous Mt. Monadnock, it was a jammed-packed ten days of table readings, classes, screenings, endless discussion, and give and take among our nine student writers and our faculty of five established playwrights and screenwriters as well as with the eighteen professional actors who joined us and were cast in multiple roles for our readings of student scripts.

Everyone involved in the Writing for Stage and Screen program was also mingling on a daily basis with students and faculty in the other MFA programs in Visual Arts, Photography, and Creative Writing running simultaneously with ours.  All involved experienced a stimulating and exhilarating time full of discovery and breakthroughs and the residency's success made clear that our MFA program is indeed working full throttle.

The highlight of our program's ten days together were the readings of our student scripts--a play, the book to a musical, two screenplays, and a TV pilot.  The caliber of talent evidenced by the work itself and the actors who were brought in to give it first voice was exceptional.

As the days went on, we experienced over and over again that special excitement when new material suddenly lifted off the page and became alive in the room.  One of the most important elements of script development is that first read with talented actors cast appropriately for the roles.  And I'm happy to say that our student writers were well served indeed in this regard and I was especially gratified to be a part of and witness to this initial lifting off the page that took place for these well-crafted stories.  I definitely see a bright future for every one of these scripts and it was clear everyone around the table could sense the same.

To my way of thinking, the point of any MFA program in script writing is ultimately to help student writers create beautifully crafted stories for the stage or screen.  Period.  Simple enough.
But how to do that in the best possible way?  That was the challenge I put before myself as I agreed to put together a new professional degree program in my field--for students to learn what works and what doesn't both in terms of their creative process and the resultant finished works that process produces.

And a critical part of that process is for writers to hear and experience their words brought to life by the other wonderful collaborative artists who inhabit our creative world of theatre and film.  Because in the final analysis, the script is only a means to an end, and the sooner that the playwright and screenwriter understands this the better.  In other words, we craft our scripts to get produced and to be "born" into a whole new life of their own.  Anything less and they remain silent and a promise unfulfilled, merely taking up space on an office shelf.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our next residency runs January 3-11 in Peterborough, NH.  I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter), and a professional script consultant.