Playwriting: Minimalist Strategy

The semester is winding down and with it comes the end of my first playwriting class, which also means public readings of some scenes that students have written.

As the deadline for a finished play and the staging of scenes  approaches, and I look back on the experience, I’m thrilled that my writing strategy paid off. The informal public reading is the class’s final project in which we pick out a bit from our play to be read by actors. This requirement for finding our own actors was stated earlier in the semester by our professor, who also told us that we would be in charge of directing them–providing the necessary input to let actors know how to read and perform the scene. With this information, I hatched the idea to write in a minimalistic style and develop a play that would appeal to an actor’s creative and collaborative instincts.

As most of the class’s members kept going bigger and bigger with their plays–adding more characters, special effects, and writing long, descriptive passages about the setting and characters–I took an opposite route. I slowly decreased the number of characters in my play and began to eschew all stage and character directions in order to try to create a more organic play for both actors and audiences. Then I settled on writing in the monologue style to double-down further on this minimalist strategy.

Also, after reading a recent New York Times article where Alec Baldwin said that plays with less actors and settings are the fastest and easiest to produce, I knew that having a play with less characters and directions would make it more practical — whether it was just for a small class reading or an actual production. But it wasn’t just practical reasons that pushed me towards a minimalistic route. As a personal goal, I also wanted to curb my controlling and filmic writing habits that appeared when I tried to write more traditional plays. And, in hindsight, it worked.

The play ended up with two characters, dialogue embedded with imagery, and a conversational style that would be accessible to the audience. The play felt raw, human, and natural — all of the things that I wanted to see in a play. Yet it still has room for input from directors, actors, musicians, and others. In addition, within a few days, I was able to line-up an actor for the informal reading in early May.

As I start to finish my first full play, it’s changed a lot. It’s not as long as I had originally intended nor is it heading towards the ending I had first imagined — but it has a feeling of completeness. Yet, more importantly, it feels like a play: a script that is complete all by itself — but open for collaboration and with plenty of room to expand.

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