Writers Write

It’s a cliché, but here’s the thing about clichés: they’re generally true.

A few years ago, I was a novice playwright turning out decent plays and getting them produced all over Atlanta and beyond, while some folks who’d been doing it longer (and, in many cases, better) weren’t getting the productions I was getting. It was suggested by several of my peers and a few of my mentors that I create a workshop to help other novice playwrights get their plays produced. I eventually obliged; last year I started giving a two-part, six-hour workshop for Onion Man Productions called The Playwright’s Journey: First Steps. In it, I start by examining what motivates a writer to write, work through the entire process of preparing a play for production and submitting it for potential production opportunities, and finally end with a discussion of contracts. It’s pretty much soup to nuts. The only think I don’t cover is how to actually write the play. (You can’t do that with one workshop.)

As I work through the process, one thing becomes very clear (well, it should anyway): there’s a lot of writing involved. Duh! Right? But really, there’s a lot more than meets the eye. Of course, there’s the play – draft after draft of it. Then there’s the other play. And the other one. And so on. Because, you see, a person who has written a play is not a playwright. A playwright doesn’t write a play – a playwright writes plays.

See what I did there?

You can write a great play – Tony award, Pulitzer prize material – but until you get it into the hands of the right artistic director at the right time (which, honestly, might never happen), it’s not getting produced. So, you write the next play. I’d started a half dozen before my first one was even finished.

But the writing doesn’t end with the play. You have to write a synopsis. In other words, you take this ninety-minute masterpiece and boil it down a paragraph or two. And that’s just the one you write for the artistic director who’s trying to decide whether to even read your script. Then, if it’s selected, you boil it down even more – to just a few lines – and make sure you take out the ending so you don’t spoil the play because that’s what’s used to market it to an audience. But before you get that far, you write a cover letter to go with your submission. And a bio. (Now, just in case writing the bio sounds cut and dry, know that some folks want to see a one page bio while others want it in just a few words – and there’s everything in between.) And, hopefully, you’ll find yourself writing a contract at some point, which is, of course, more writing.

If you find that you’re having some success, you’ll want to set up a website so people can find you on line, see how much success you’re having, and maybe send some more success your way. Which means more writing – some of it in HTML. Oh, and then there’s the obligatory blog. (Can’t forget about that).

Now I’m venturing into the world of production (see “New Shoes”) with a project for Out Of Box Theatre Company called Playing in the Dark: Eight Tragic Tales of Hope, Redemption, and Enlightenment set to go up in May, 2014. But, I’m still writing.

Over the past few months I wrote two new ten-minute plays that will premier in December in holiday shows at Lionheart Theatre and Onstage Atlanta, started drafting another that will be part of Onion Man Productions’ 2014 Summer Harvest show, A Different World, and I’m approaching completion on another for the Playing in the Dark program. I’m also working with fellow playwright and good friend James Beck to create a new one-year intensive workshop program in which we are the guinea pigs. Under one another’s scrutiny and encouragement, he is completely overhauling his play The Secret of the Cat as I am my play Last Love. They will go up with the help of Lionheart Theatre Company in August, 2014, and (hopefully) will see a second production shortly afterward. In the mean time, I’m in the later stages of another full-length play, I have the initial drafts of two brand new full-lengths in the works, and I’m researching two others. (Okay, breathe.)

Hmm … am I forgetting anything? Oh, yeah. I hope to participate as a playwright in the 24-Hour plays sponsored by Working Title Playwrights and hosted by OnStage Atlanta over the weekend of November 9/10. Then there’s the dozen or so submissions over the past several weeks (cover letters, etc). And there’s my blog. (Can’t forget about that).

Seem like a lot? It is, but that’s what writers do. We write. Every chance we get. Some may not stay as busy at it as I do; I probably have more opportunity than most. But we all write whenever we can. We have to. For writers, writing and breathing are similarly essential to existence. For some, it’s a pastime, a hobby, a source of pleasure. But for the writer, there’s this strange thing – some call it a muse – that gets in your head, fills it with ideas, and urges, drives, even torments you until you write. I guess I wouldn’t die if I didn’t write, but I definitely wouldn’t want to test the idea.

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.

Important Stuff

I found out this morning through a barrage of e-mails – one from the producer and several from friends of mine who actually saw the announcement before I did (thanks for all the kind words, folks!): my ten-minute play Common Ground has been selected by Lakeshore Players Theatre in White Bear Lake, MN (near Minneapolis) for a November 7 production. It will be part of an arts festival called Food for Thought: Hunger in the Suburbs, created by local nonprofits to draw popular attention to the issue.

I’ve been writing all my life. Over the years, I’ve engaged in nearly every discipline of the craft I can think of. I’ve been a technical writer, creating equipment operating and service manuals hundreds of pages long. (If you think that stuff is boring to read, try writing it.) I’ve written for instruction, training, and education in a variety of environments including school, church, business, and military. I’ve been called upon to write policy for business and military organizations. I’ve written advertising and marketing copy from one-liners in small print ads to billboards to multi-page 9×12 glossy brochures and catalogs. I’ve written open letters that have been published in newspapers and more direct letters to government officials, some of which have incited responses ranging from published replies in open debate to the initiation of Unites States Senatorial investigations of such agencies as the Internal Revenue Service and the United States military. On the more creative side, I’ve written fiction for children and adults, creative nonfiction, radio drama, and quite a few stage plays. I’ve even dabbled in poetry and screenwriting.

You might say I really enjoy writing, but you’d only be partly right. What I really enjoy is creating things that get inside people’s heads and affect what they know or how they think. But fear not; I’m not into mind control. Reading this blog will not turn you into a minion programmed to execute my bidding without question (at least I don’t think it will – although a few minions would be nice to have, if anyone’s interested). What I am into is stirring people, giving them something to think about, or showing them things from a little different perspective than they may be accustomed to.

Whether it’s helping someone to better understand a task like repairing a machine, or motivating someone to right a wrong, or just helping someone shop, I most enjoy writing with purpose. You know: Important Stuff. That can be quite a challenge when I’m writing a play or other creative piece. My primary intent then is simply to entertain – to provide a momentary respite from the serious business of living and make people laugh or gasp or cry or laugh (laughing is my favorite). When I’m writing a play, the desire is always there to write about the Important Stuff – but there can be great folly when attempting to mix Important Stuff with frivolity. It’s not that it shouldn’t be done – but there’s a right way and a very, very wrong way to do it.

I’ve seen, read, and heard a number of plays in which it’s clear that the playwright is desperately trying to say something important. It may be a very good point – it may be something everyone should know and heed – but writing a play around Important Stuff just doesn’t work. The play suffers (and, consequently, so does the audience). When I write, I try to keep in mind that almost nobody goes out to see a play because they want to know what the playwright thinks is important (and the few  that do are a little weird). No, people go to the theatre for the same reason they go to a movie or a ball game or a tractor pull – or just stay home and watch television: to be entertained. So I write things that I hope will entertain. When I see an opportunity to get some Important Stuff in there, I take it, but only when I can do it without interfering with the entertaining part.

All plays, movies, television shows, and books have one thing in common: they’re all based on true stories. Like it or not, none of us has the capacity to come up with something completely new. We can twist, crunch, flatten, combine, or simplify, but what we start out with is what we’ve seen, heard, lived, or otherwise know. And there are always lessons in life. So, it’s not surprising to find a lesson in a story, whether it unfolds on the stage, the screen, or the page. Writing a story and getting Important Stuff in it works if you do it right, but draping a story over Important Stuff doesn’t make good entertainment any more than drawing a big red “S” on the cover of an equipment operation and service manual would make it a comic book.

The difference is subtle. It might help to think of it like this: rather than trying to write Important Stuff and make it fun, write fun stuff, and look for ways to make it important. Trust me – it works best that way. When I wrote Common Ground for Onion Man Productions’ 2010 Summer Harvest festival of short plays, my intent was to entertain my audience. I just found a way to use the story to bring attention to some Important Stuff that many (most?) people know very little about – the suburban and rural homeless. The Lakeshore Players production in November will be the third for Common Ground.

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.

Road Trip

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.

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.