Sunday, January 21, 2018

High wire writing

Today I am participating in another one-day play exercise at the Ruskin Theatre in Santa Monica. Five playwrights meet at the theatre at 9:00 am. We are all given the same topic and each handed headshots of the two actors who have been assigned to us. Based on that we each go off to our little corners and write a ten-minute play in three hours.

And there are certain restrictions. They all must take place in a café. (The program is called THE CAFÉ PLAYS.) On the stage is a small table, two chairs and a counter. No internal light cues, no tricky sound requirements. And for the sake of the poor actors who have to learn and perform these plays in only a few hours, no long monologues. Two or three sentences at the most per line.

At 12:30 the actors and directors arrive, receive their scripts and fan out into separate rehearsal spaces. I hear a table reading of my script, offer any insight into how I see it, and then I go home and nap for four hours. The directors stage and rehearse the plays, the actors memorize them, and at 7:30 and 9:00 they’re performed for generally sold-out audiences (the theatre seats 65).

It’s great fun and a real adrenaline rush. But it’s also nerve-wracking as hell. I’m always amazed at the results. Most of these plays are terrific, and the actors learn enough of their lines to pretty convincingly pull it off. It’s also so interesting to see how the same topic leads to five wildly different plays, both in terms of style and subject matter.  Imagination is a wonderful thing.

And at the end, for me as a playwright, I now have another ten-minute play. And I can always polish it at my leisure. A couple of the Café Plays I’ve written have gotten into other festivals. And the Ruskin provides bagels! Another advantage is being introduced to a bunch of really talented actors. It’s a win/win.

Writers always complain of not knowing what to write. They can’t think of a good idea. For some that’s an excuse but for many it’s a legitimate thing -- a form of writer’s block. But this exercise shows there are ways to break through that. Assign yourself a task. Imagine you will have two actors. They can be any age, gender, nationality. Pick a setting. A café, park bench, a street corner. And then pick a topic. It could be an expression, something you saw in the paper, an old cliché. The three I’ve had since participating were “The end of summer,” “The graveyard shift,” and “No good deed goes unpunished.” Pick one of those if you’d like.  You can even impose a time restriction if you like.  Sometimes not having all the time in the world to think about something is a good thing. 

The point is I’ve written plays on topics I never would have thought of had it not been for the exercise. You don’t need the world’s greatest, most unique, dazzling idea. You just need a topic and a relationship between two people. And bagels.

If you’re in LA, come see our Café Plays. They’re tonight and every third Sunday of the month.

15 comments :

Dave Creek said...

Great tip for writers who are stuck for an idea. And it works in other kinds of writing, as well. A couple of my best short stories were written for original anthologies that solicited stories around a certain setting or theme. A particular story might not even sell to the original market it was written for, but might be picked up by another anthology or magazine.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think constraints help a lot: they make the blank page smaller.

wg

Sérgio said...

Hi Ken,

First of all good luck and am actually sure that it will be great. This is such an inspiring exercise. I've not written for a long time, but this kind of challenge is really cool. Maybe one day I'll try this out just for fun. Thanks.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Busted legs on this one. But Ken, how did you find out about this? Did they invite you? Did you scour the internet looking for playwriting competitions? Is there some sort of secret playwrights' cabal that the rest of us don't know about? This sounds like something I'd like to try. Is this type of thing only open to "professional" writers or are there opportunities for beginners?

VP81955 said...

A superb writing exercise indeed. Alas, I'll be at a table read elsewhere in Santa Monica.

alan0825 said...

Off topic here, but why do they keep letting Nicole Kidman ramble on and on when accepting awards?

Mike Doran said...

Off the same topic as alan0825:

I DVRed the SAG Awards earlier tonight.

Just back from rewatching the In Memoriam segment four times.

The storm of messages complaining about Who Was Left Off should be ramping up momentarily.

My modest question:
Did anybody notice which Major Star who passed in this last calendar year was conspicuously missing from the roll call - particularly given the feminist slant of the entire proceedings?

Putting it another way - which Star didn't make it ... after all ...?

Just askin' ...

Roger Owen Green said...

This is a great idea for a blog post or podcast - the WHAT is the hardest thing.

Breadbaker said...

In Seattle, they do the 14/48 Festival, which does seven ten-minute plays in 24 hours and then does it again the next day. We saw the second performance of the first set and they were memorable and poignant. The topic is pulled out of a hat from suggestions by the participants and the shows are similarly cast randomly but there is no set number of players (though since there is a set number of actors they presumably are supposed to total the number of actors). In addition, there's a band that plays music composed on the same schedule. Great fun.

mdv59 said...

@alan0825: "Why do they let Nicole Kidman ramble on..."

I've worked on hundreds of awards shows I can tell you from experience that the producers desperately want to keep the acceptance speeches to 45 seconds. Award shows are very difficult to bring the in on time, they're timed out to the second before they begin and the producers will frequently adjust the content (drop or use shorter taped packages) if they fall behind. The biggest threat to coming in on time are the winner acceptance speeches. At the end of the day all they can do is flash a "Wrap It Up" at the winner and hope they comply. If the winner chooses to ignore the request then the producer can either they let them keep talking or have the orchestra play them off and appear rude. The reality is the more important the award (ie "Best Actress" vs. "Best Costume Design") and the bigger the star, the more reluctant they are to play them off.

Bottom line, if you're a big star, they're going to let you keep talking.

Honest Ed said...

Yep, sometimes the best thing you can give a writer is a set of restrictions and a deadline. It focuses the mind.

Matt said...

Friday Question: have you ever done a cameo in any of the shows you’ve been a part of?

Tommy Raiko said...

@Mike Doran
If you're asking why Mary Tyler Moore wasn't included in the SAG Awards In Memoriam reel this year, it's because she was included last year. She died just a few days before last year's SAG Awards were broadcast in January 2017, and so was added to that year's reel.

Mike Doran said...

Tommy Raiko:

After I posted, it occurred to me that this might be an explanation: "a few days before ..." could mean anything from 48 hours to a week. Fair enough.

That being the case, does anyone have an explanation for why Dorothy Malone and Bradford Dillman, with similar short notice, didn't make the cut this time?

Again, just askin' ...

Wayne C. said...

Okay, I'll ask- who's the girl in the tied off blouse and short skirt?