I either learned or re-learned these things about dramatic writing without writing: Action is King. Conflict is King #1-A.
I didn’t learn English until I was 6 years old, when my young and aspiring immigrant parents moved us from a Polish neighborhood in Chicago to the heavily Irish northwest suburbs. As the new runt on the block who didn’t know the language, I thought the quickest way to get picked for street hockey and kickball games was to just jump in and figure out the rules as I went along. I also began repeating the words the neighborhood kids were yelling at such emphatic volumes. It was only a matter of time before my mom recognized many of those street expressions that I was now using at the dinner table which resulted in my mouth being washed out with soap. Fatefully I guess, this experiential learning style still seems to be my default method of acquiring new knowledge.
Fast-forward a few decades where I find myself as a Clockhouse editor and getting the opportunity to read the work of remarkable writers from around the world, making or breaking rules of their own and using the most exquisite language – and sometimes their own street expressions – that help them to define their own worlds. Reading and editing the work of others is typically a great learning opportunity for any writer. But few things teach a playwright faster about what’s working and what’s not than directing someone else’s piece, especially if it’s your first time directing a play to be performed for hundreds of people.
After clearing it with higher-ups at Clockhouse HQ, I reached out to Richard Chin, the author of “137th STREET” and one of the plays my team edited before it was published in VOL 5, 2017. Richard’s story spoke to me from the get-go, and I visualized the entire production after my first reading. He agreed to let me direct his play at my neighborhood theatre where I conduct playwriting workshops, and where both experienced directors and excitable novices like me can pitch ideas. After a two-month rehearsal process and four-night run, I either learned or re-learned these things about dramatic writing without writing: Action is King. Conflict is King #1-A. The harder it is for each character to get what they want, the better a story it becomes and the more enjoyable it is for the actors to play. Dramatic action is not the same as physical action. Give characters stage business. In a battle for attention, audiences pay more attention to action than dialogue. Playwrights should read books on directing. Be sure to break up long monologues with beats or thought-shifts. The attention span of audiences is shrinking at alarming rates so keep those plates spinning and catch them right before they’re about to crash. Lighting and music are your best friends when establishing mood – though those are hard to write in sometimes, or hard to remember to write in sometimes. Show, don’t tell. Characters seldom say what they really want, but their actions do. Just because a character on stage doesn’t have a line doesn’t mean they have stopped pursuing their goal. Lighting and scenic designers love challenges. If the writer doesn’t know what each character’s superobjective (master goal) is, the actor or director won’t know either. These may seem like fundamental pillars for most dramatic writers, but sometimes it’s important to remember them when setting out on new journeys.
On the last night of the run, Richard Chin came in from Minneapolis and brought his family to see our production. After the post-show audience discussion, I privately asked him a similar question of what he learned about writing without writing in this experience. To paraphrase, he said that watching audience posture during our performance revealed what was grabbing them and what wasn’t. He also said he heard more clearly when there was nothing to hear, when the audience was very quiet, holding their breath to see what happened next. It spoke volumes. This kind of language is universal and easy to understand.