working you into a lather

Runner

– 24 January 2016 –

Happy Sunday!

An improv maven friend of mine, Deena Nyer Mendlowitz, recently told a story she’d learned from Mark Sutton, about a scene in which two people try to fix a bicycle. Sutton’s wisdom was this: nobody in the audience is going to turn to the next person and whisper, “Gee, I hope they get that bicycle fixed.”

While that phrase might be uttered if, say, a lava flow is imminent or the bad guys will be roaring up on their own bicycles at any moment, the point has to do with improv folks and actors paying more attention to the activities of a scene than its moment-to-moment surprises and gifts.

As a reader for national-level competitions and festivals, I can tell you that a majority of playwrights do the same thing. They’re so concerned with the story they’re trying to tell that they miss the moments of interaction, revelation, even transformation which would make their characters fully dimensional, and their stories even more compelling/wrenching/funny.

So here’s your task: Take a scene you thought was finished, take each beat, each line, and wonder how that might affect the characters PHYSICALLY IN THE MOMENT (yes, shouting is necessary here). Why do I say “physically”? No, I don’t mean falling off a cliff (or a bicycle), I mean, when something pleases you, you get a sensation in your heart or stomach or left elbow, and how you move forward is somehow affected by that sensation. When something scares you, it’s often the pit of your stomach or something in your lungs. You’re alive in the world, living in a body. So are your characters. And those physical responses often inform and impel humans, you know, those folks living in bodies.

In a lot of the plays I read, and I mean the vast majority, I can tell you in the first ten pages not only what will happen, but how it will happen, to whom it will happen, why it will happen, and when, making the presence of an audience (or a reader) superfluous – why be there if you already know? (The Marsha Norman edict, that the audience needs to know what has to happen before the play can end, e.g., in ‘Night, Mother, she must kill herself, is a different topic.)

Again, take that scene and feel your way through one beat – ONE beat – and write it from the characters’ inner moment as expressed through their bodies. No, you’re not writing stage directions. You’re writing from emotional and sensation-al response.

I, and all play-readers everywhere, and all audiences, will thank you for it.

Happy writing!

Improv-for-Success

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