Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Preparing for a script reading marathon

I'm currently in the midst of casting and scheduling twelve full-length script readings as part of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen that I run out of the New Hampshire Institute of Art.

A major feature of the program is to offer our student writers the opportunity to experience their scripts (both plays and screenplays) come alive and given voice for the first time by professional actors--an initial test of their new material written during the semester just ended--and to get valuable feedback from faculty (all professional writers), fellow students, the actors participating, as well as other invited professionals. We are committed to this aspect of our program because it's the only true way for writers to learn what works and what doesn't and to become a part of the collaborative process that our industry embraces.

But pulling all this off is not an easy task.  Our residency is ten days long and two of these days are taken up with other aspects of the learning process--Visiting Artist talks, special elective courses, and talks by graduating students.  And in the eight days remaining, the readings have to be fitted in between intensive classroom work where various elements of the craft and business of script writing are explored in-depth.  Not to mention having to work around actor schedules.

So "marathon" is a pretty accurate word to describe this cornucopia of new work being released for the first time, all of which takes place in various conducive venues in our beautiful Peterborough, NH homebase.  Our residencies have become a glorified script writers' camp where students and other artists from all over the country and Canada gather to celebrate and study our art.  Crazy as it gets at times, it's where our students learn how to be successful storytellers in a field that turns their stories into living performances bound for the world's stages and screens.

We may all leave the residency staggering home from sheer exhaustion (coupled with a large dose of inspiration), but we wouldn't have it any other way.

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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 June 19-28 2015.  We are now considering applications for starting the program in January 2016.  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, May 26, 2015

The importance of backstory in scriptwriting

I was sitting on our porch last night with my wife discussing a character that plays a prominent role in the novel she's preparing to write.  The character is the grandfather of the heroine and we were talking about the wisdom the man has gained in his long life and how he will impart aspects of this wisdom to his granddaughter as she faces major obstacles in the story.

But what was most interesting in our discussion was my wife's understanding of how critical it is to have fully explored the backstory of this grandfather so when she gets to writing the actual draft of her novel--with all it's twists and turns and surprises that suddenly pop to the surface--she is armed with this man's rich life's history and all the lessons learned along the way.

We both agreed that writing a piece a fiction, whether it be a short story, a novel, a screenplay, a stage play or anything in between, the writer needs to approach characters as if they were real people with real pasts that have shaped who they have become.  Then when they enter the story and engage with the circumstances that the plot throws at them, they draw on this accumulated experience and respond to the situations facing them in a way that rings true and consistent with who they are.  Just like in real life.

Pre-draft backstory work, in other words, is one of the keys to good writing.  A writer may have an abundance of talent--even be overflowing with it--but if he or she begins writing the actual pages of a story without thoroughly exploring the backstories of the characters who will populate the tale, chances are good that the effort will end up stillborn.  Because it's the people in the story who must ring true and the only way for that to happen is to know intimately who and what has shaped them and to have an exhaustive knowledge of the life they have led before first walking into the story.  Much of the details of this exploration might not ever be fully revealed in the actual pages of the finished work, but in a very real sense it will be there all the same.

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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 June 19-28 2015.  We are now considering applications for starting the program in  January 2016.  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, May 6, 2015

Pre-draft story development work in script writing...

The biggest issue regarding the script writing process that keeps coming up with writers I work with is their lack of thorough and exhaustive pre-draft exploratory work.  So much so, in fact, that I'm writing a new book on the subject.

The book will dig into how to initially test and develop new story ideas from a structural standpoint and also lay out a process of inventing vibrant backstories that bring characters fully to life.   The overall goal will be to help writers discover, explore, and illuminate the nine-tenths of their stories that will lie submerged under the surface of the script itself.

I can't count the times that a play or screenplay is sent to me for analysis that clearly was written without this pre-draft work being done thoroughly.  The characters remain largely two-dimensional, there are few surprises that turn out to be organically central to the story, and the audience is not consistently invited to "lean into" the unfolding tale and be asked to connect the dots themselves.  In other words, the subtext of the script--the underpinnings of everything your story is attempting to accomplish--is not brought fully to life because it hasn't been adequately explored by the writer before getting into draft.  I would say that this is the biggest single mistake most script writers make.

My book The Playwright's Process begins to address this issue, but my hope is that the new book will lay out in detail how best to approach this critical phase of creating a successful script.  My approach is similar to a builder designing and constructing the plans for a new house, with a concentration on the hidden foundational elements that must be explored and in place before the actual house that's to be built on top of it can hope to stand and endure the load of the structure and the elements of time and weather.  And anyone who works successfully in our business knows full well that any script that stands half a chance of weathering the professional gauntlet it will face once released to the world will have to have its own sub-surface foundational elements solidly in place.

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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 June 19-28, 2015 and we are still considering applications for starting the program this June as well as for a January 2016 start.  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, March 31, 2015

Flannery O'Connor on writer discipline

Recently a successful writer friend of mine sent me Flannery O'Connor's thoughts on discipline for the writer.  It was included in a letter O'Connor wrote to her friend Cecil Dawkins:

"I'm a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound.  You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away.  I see it happen all the time.  Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do.  I write only about two hours every day because that's all the energy I have, but I don't let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.  This doesn't mean I produce much out of the two hours.  Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don't think any of that was time wasted.  Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well.  And the fact is if you don't sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won't be sitting there."

That pretty much covers the topic.

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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 June 19-28 2015 and we are currently accepting applications for starting the program in June.   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, February 11, 2015

A total immersion script writing experience...

Last month we held our semi-annual MFA residency for the program I run in Writing for Stage and Screen out of the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  It was jammed-packed with classes, one-on-one sessions with students and faculty and table readings of the eleven full-length plays and screenplays that students had written during the fall semester.

A large group of professional actors and other theatre and film professionals joined us for the readings and the lengthy feedback sessions that followed each of them.  


By all accounts, this was an extraordinary time for all involved.  We--students, faculty, and all the other artists who were a part of the residency--were given the special opportunity to live and breath our art, to celebrate what we do and to share new work in a total immersion experience.  All students in the program left the residency stimulated and charged to begin work on their new projects for the spring semester with their assigned mentors.  Our team of professionals who serve on our faculty and as guest artists were also recharged.  Everyone was energized and reminded of why we are in this business in the first place--to create good stories that have something meaningful to offer the world.    

The over-arching goal of our MFA program is for every student to explore and develop his or her own writing process--taking an initial idea and developing it through the many phases of creating a viable script, including finding the structural underpinnings, exploring characters and backstory, inventing a workable plot outline, and writing a working draft that is then given first voice by actors. And developing this process--a process that is continually refined over the creation of several scripts as each student develops a body of work--is the key to mastering the craft of writing for the stage and screen.

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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 June 19-28, 2015 and we are currently accepting applications for starting the program in June.   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, 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.