Sometimes when I start work on a new play, it’s because I have a story I want to tell. When that happens, I just sit down at my computer and start writing. Well, okay, it’s not necessarily that simple. Sometimes I start with “Act One, Scene One; At rise …” Sometimes I start with a conversation between two of the characters. It may be an important plot point, or just some chatter to help me understand whom they are – in which case that particular dialogue may or may not end up in the play. Sometimes, as in the case of American Honeymoon, I start with the last line of the play, then go back and fill in everything that leads up to it. In any case, when I already know the story I’m going to tell, getting started isn’t that difficult.
On the other hand, there are times when I begin work on a new play and don’t know the story I’m going to tell. In fact, sometimes all I know is that I want to write a play to suit a particular set of guidelines for a particular production I’d like to write a play for or have been asked to write one for. Sometimes those guidelines are pretty vague and one might think that’s a good thing, but sometimes it’s not.
It can be really hard to start a new play when I don’t know the story, the characters, the setting, or anything. (Duh!) It’s like getting in my car to go on a road trip without having any idea where I want to go. I just sit there in the driver’s seat, my laptop waiting at my fingertips … waiting … for something to happen. Hmm … where to go, where to go?
That’s when I like to turn to three people in a confined space. No, not three passengers sitting in my 1991 Corolla – although my car can be pretty confining, especially when there are four of us sitting in the driveway waiting to go on a trip to who-knows-where. I’m talking about a neat little trick I like to use to rouse my muse. I try to come up with some kind of circumstance that involves three characters in some kind of confined space.
I like three characters because odd numbers seem to work well when inciting conflict. With an odd number of people, things are never well balanced. With three, the balance can be shifted easily and dramatically by one person. Also, three people aren’t likely to overwhelm the audience (or the playwright for that matter), if each has her own agenda.
Throwing those three characters into a confined space has a wonderfully liberating affect on their conflicts. Nothing makes conflict rise to the surface faster than pushing people together. And “confined space” doesn’t have to mean small and enclosed. In Scorned, the confined space is an open lean-to in the middle of a vast West Virginia wilderness. The characters are confined by injuries and the elements. In fact, circumstances can be much more confining than actual physical barriers. Those can be overcome, but sometimes circumstances can make a character stay on the stage no matter how free she is to leave or how badly she wants to.
Right now I’m working on three new short plays – two that I want to send to an Atlanta theatre that is currently accepting submissions for a holiday show, and one that I’ve been asked to write for Onion Man Productions’ 2014 Summer Harvest. In each case, I had no idea what story I wanted to write.
With the Onion Man play, I had an idea of what theme I wanted to explore, but a theme does not a play make. Every play should tell a story. So, I started with three people in a confined space. The physical barriers are not impenetrable, but the circumstances definitely are. As I played around with some ideas about whom these people should be, I realized there’s only room for two of them. That’s cool. There are no rules here. The formula is only a place to start.
Of the other two plays, one of them took on a similar mutation – I added a character – for the second time, actually. I decided to play around with a variation of some characters and circumstances I’d created for a full-length play I started a few years ago. In that play the three people are minor characters who mirror the internal conflicts of the lead character whom I’d actually introduced as an afterthought. For this new project, I decided to let the trio have another go at their own play, but soon found out that what they’re best at is agitating another character – probably any other character as I learned by introducing a brand new lead with her own set of issues into their space – which, again is wide open, the confinement originating from their circumstances.
The third play looks like it’s going to be pretty straight forward – three people who, because of the physical barriers, cannot leave the space they share. Sometimes it just works out that way. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes what starts out as three people in a confined space ends up being something entirely different – but at least it’s a place to start. And every great road trip has to start somewhere.