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.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Screenwriting panel at Moniff

The Monadnock International Film Festival runs this week in Keene, New Hampshire and I will be heading up a panel this Friday, April 11th from 4-5 pm on the process of screenwriting with Hollywood screenwriter Clare Sera, whose latest film, Blended, starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, opens nationally on May 14th.
Clare and I have known each other for many years and she is on the faculty of the MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen that I run out of the New Hampshire Institute of Art. The two of us will discuss the multi-layered process involved with creating a successful screenplay and the experiences she has had in Hollywood developing her career as a screenwriter.  It should be a lively and informative session. I'm looking forward to this and hope you can join us.

The panel will be held at the Courtyard Mariott Hotel Bar and Lounge in downtown Keene from 4-5 pm this Friday afternoon, April 11th.  The event is free and open to the public.
Please join us if you can.  And check out the Monadnock International Film Festival website for all the films and events being offered in this jam-packed three day festival.  It's a very special weekend and the films being screened--all in pre-release--are some of the best new projects out there, many of which have won major awards this year at Sundance, South by Southwest, and other leading festivals.

Hope to see you there!

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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 20-29.  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 25, 2014

Script Writing Master Class April 5 2014

Under the auspices of the New Hampshire Institute of Art, I'm teaching a day-long Master Class/Workshop in Writing for Stage and Screen on Saturday, April 5 from 10 am to 4:30 pm in Manchester, NH.

This intensive class is designed to be an introduction or review of the process of developing an idea into a working draft of a play or screenplay.  It will cover the basics of formulating your story idea, techniques of in-depth character exploration, investigating the back story, analyzing the story structural components, inventing plot, charting out the dramatic shape of a story, techniques of good dialogue writing, and tips for writing of the first draft and beyond.   Numerous exercises and handouts will guide you through the writing process as it unfolds.


I've taught a version of this master class for several years around the country.  It's always been a lively and stimulating time for me and participants.  If you're within shouting distance of Manchester on April 5, I hope you'll consider joining us.

More details can be found here and you can register here.

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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 and we are currently accepting applications for entering the program at our June 2014 summer residency, although the April 1st deadline is fast approaching.  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 11, 2014

An essential step in the script writing process

I often wonder why so many playwrights and screenwriters--both beginners and experienced--don't consider pre-writing exploratory work more essential in their creative process.  I know that I harp on this a lot on this blog and certainly to my students in my MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen.  But I am continually amazed by the number of writers I consistently come in contact with who don't have a tried and true method of initial exploration of their characters and other aspects of their story before tackling their first draft.

Is it simply impatience trumping common sense?  Is it a belief that the writer has such innate talent and genius that he or she can just make up a brilliant script as that draft is written?  Or that the backstory is so closely based on the writer's own life experience that there's no need to spend any time upfront exploring it?  Or that these kind of "discoveries"--including what the story is ultimately communicating to the audience--are best left to be surprises that pop out of the writing of that draft?  Or that if thorough pre-writing work is undertaken the sense of adventure of actually writing pages of script somehow vanishes or is reduced to drudgery?

What I do know is that when writers are introduced to a method of thoroughly exploring a story's backstory before plunging into draft, a whole new world opens up for them in terms of their own creative process.  Suddenly characters become more alive and begin to breathe.  Subtext takes on a power the writer hasn't experienced before.  The story being developed opens up and the characters themselves begin to dictate action and behavior to a much greater degree, and as a result true and genuine surprises present themselves.  The writing of the draft becomes much more an experience of writing from the inside out instead of from the outside in.

Because stage and screen stories are about people taking journeys from one place to another and the changes that those people undergo in the process and the discoveries they make about themselves and their world, it only stands to reason that the writers of these stories need to know who their characters are in the most thorough possible way as they walk up to the starting line of the tale they are about to enter.  It's the only sure way that the writer can hope to produce a script that has power and any real legs.

There are a number of useful exercises out there that lead the writer into this pre-writing discovery phase.  Several are laid out in my book The Playwright's Process, where the emphasis is on character exploration, both in terms of straight forward and detailed biography and deeper, emotionally rich backstory events in a character's life that have shaped who they are up to the start of the story the script is going to embrace.  I suggest you try some of these explorations or others with the same focus if you haven't already.  I have little doubt that your writing process will be greatly enriched, taking on a new sense of adventure, and that your work takes on a new power and depth.

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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.  We are currently accepting applications for entering the program at our June 2014 summer residency.  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.    

Monday, March 3, 2014

What actors can teach script writers

The process an actor goes through in getting inside a role and bringing it to life has a lot of similarities to what a writer should experience in creating a role on the page.  I know that sounds obvious, a given in our business.  But I think it's worth looking a little deeper.

In my career I've always been struck by how many good writers I've worked with started out as serious actors.  And they have often shared with me that, to them, the creative process is much the same when creating roles, whether on the page, the stage, or in front of a camera.  Of course, not all writers are actors and vice versa, but even those who haven't combined the two artforms in their careers still acknowledge that the similarities are striking and that getting inside a role requires the same prep work and inner emotional connections between artist and fictional character being brought to life.

One of the most important attributes of a great performance on stage or film is the ability of the actor to play the subtext of a scene.  All successful actors possess the gift of being able to bring to life what's really going on under the surface when their actual lines are often saying something quite different.  This is a critical aspect of the actor's craft and what separates the brilliant from the average and raises acting into the realm of art--the ability of inviting an audience into a character's unspoken thought processes and inner life.  The actor who can dig deep and pull those hidden but very operative strings of his or her role in a story is the actor who will build a successful career and often reach stardom.

My contention is that the same principle applies to playwrights and screenwriters.  And that studying the actor's craft and how great actors prepare for and pull off amazing performances will pay huge dividends in terms of the aliveness of a writer's work.  It all starts with thorough preparation, exploring a character's past and present, and discovering what makes him or her tick.  It involves asking the right questions, like what baggage both emotionally and memory-wise is this character carrying with them into my story?  What is really going on under the surface of each line?  What is the throughline of each character and how does the experience of the story change them as human beings?  What does the diction and "voice" of the character tell us about who the person is and what they think of themselves and the world around them?

All good actors ask these kinds of questions in preparing for every role they play.  And it's the writers who supply the answers or at least hint at the answers who will be rewarded by great performances and who will stand a much better chance of experiencing their stories brought to life with richness and depth.

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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 and we are currently accepting applications for entering the program at our June 2014 summer residency.  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 19, 2014

Exposing the subtext of your story

Okay, so you've done a lot of character exploratory work, maybe even written some backstory scenes between major characters.  You've been thinking about plot and central character arc and where you want your script to land--in other words, you've been working at a structural framework or basic bones of the script that seems reasonable.  And you're now finally sensing that maybe you're ready to move on in the process, leave all this pre-writing work behind, and take the plunge into the writing of your first draft.

Here's something to keep in mind as you stand on the edge of that diving board preparing to jump off.

It's basically very simple, actually.  Just remember that your script is only the tip of the iceberg--the surface layer of a deeply submerged whole.  Your job now is to write your pages in such a way that there are constant albeit often indirect glimpses into that submerged part of your story, or subtext--that rich stew of intellectual and emotional "stuff" always hovering just under the surface--that you've explored in your pre-writing work. And you tap into this deeper level and make it felt and understood by what you leave unsaid. As a result, your audience is seduced into making its own connections between the surface and what lies underneath and in the process becomes fiercely engaged with the script to get the whole story.  

Take Downton Abbey for example (there, I admit I'm a fan of this lovely period soap opera).  One of the things writer and creator Julian Fellowes does well is constantly invite us as viewers to "lean into" the unfolding story by never having a character say something that we already know or suspect--especially when it comes to the smouldering subtext that hovers underneath each character's conscious present reality like hot coals in an ash bin.  We are allowed to engage with this inner life of the overreaching story and the characters that bring it to life because the subtext is always operating and "exposed" moment by moment, yet is never directly referred to nor ever actually allowed to crack the surface.  And this is one of the main reasons that the series works so well, episode after episode, year after year.

So always write with this dynamic in mind.  It's this quality more than any other that separates good scripts from bad.

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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 and we are currently accepting applications for entering the program at our June 2014 summer residency until April 1st.  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.






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