Three Essential Ingredients For Being A Playwright
How on earth does one make a life as a playwright? I can tell you I didn’t always know, and that I have long been searching for the right balance of tools and supports that will help me get the writing done, get good feedback and get my plays prepared to fly out of the nest. I have found that there are a few things I personally cannot do without (I have tried!) and which I highly recommend for anyone wishing to write plays themselves. Here are my three essential ingredients for writing new plays:
1. Hear It
One thing that is absolutely essential for writing a new play that is genre specific is that a play must be heard out loud as often as possible during the writing process. All emerging playwrights should be part of a writing group. Classes are good too. Or both. Have other playwrights read it. Have actors read it. Have your friends drink wine and eat hors d'oeuvres in your living room while they read it. Listen to the rhythms and the cadences, the pace and the patterns. Listen for how your audience listens – if they laugh or if they lean in (hooray!), if they yawn or lean back or look at their watch (uh oh). Listen for when your readers falter because they have lost touch with what motivates their character (hmm…). Listen for when the whole room holds their breath in silence thick with anticipation (wow!). Take notes, revise, and repeat.
2. Make a Date
The writing groups I am a part of allow me to hear my work read by different people in different settings, and to receive thoughtful and generous feedback from varying perspectives. They also give me another important tool: deadlines. Each of these groups are made up of real human people that I admire, who will be showing up on a certain date expecting 10 new pages - or 100 new pages! – so I better show up with something to share! Deadlines are great motivators – they provide necessary structure with a shot of pristine adrenaline – that often helps me to push a project from the back to the front burner. I highly recommend that you make dates with yourself to write, and make dates with others to share what you’ve written. When I was struggling to finish the first draft of the play that helped me get the Huntington Fellowship, I took Ann Bauer’s How To Write Even When You Don’t Want To class at GrubStreet. Everyone was writing in different genres, but we all had the same issue: we wanted to be writing, but we weren’t writing as much as we wanted. We had ideas bursting within that wanted to come out, but we weren’t taking them seriously enough to pick up a pen. Or we were avoiding what we had to write because it was scary, or because our children needed us, our jobs needed us, our spouses needed us, and we didn’t feel entitled to spend our time on ourselves. It gave me deadlines – a reason to finish the draft, a place to hear it – and encouragement! While deadlines can induce the fear of showing up without having done your homework, they also provide a reason to celebrate. When you show up with your lumpy odd little rough draft, all your friends are there and they rejoice! So I guess I’m saying use the fear and joy of sharing with others as motivation.
3. Keep a Journal
This is not genre specific, but it is no less true for playwrights than it is for novelists or songwriters. In the end, every creative writer must craft their own worlds and characters and situations and emotions and motivations and debates of important questions. The real secret to writing a great play is to observe and record all the time, for a long time. Keep a journal, as my students at the University of New Hampshire do, of sights and sounds and overheard conversations. Keep a record of all your silly little ideas and questions and musings and notes on performances and things you’ve read. Get into the habit of observing and recording and inventing. I have found that I like to set aside large swaths of time for writing, where I put away other distractions. But it is also important for me to have a steady practice of smaller tasks that keeps my writing mind active all the time. Snatches of conversations heard on a train. Structural ideas for revision. These informal little notes keep that conversation with myself going even when I am having a hectic day, or a bad day, or a sick day, or a procrastinating day, or whatever other excuses keep me from sitting down and facing the formal blank page. And then when I do sit down to Write, I have a thousand little ideas bubbling away, ready to be put to good use, and the page doesn’t feel blank at all. It feels just barely able to contain everything that must live on it.
Nina Louise Morrison is a Boston-based playwright, director and teacher with an MFA from Columbia University. She is a 2017 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellow, Huntington Theatre Company Playwriting Fellow, winner of the 2016 Boston Project commission at Speakeasy Stage Company, a Company One Affiliate Playwright, a core member of the devising company Project: Project, and a member of Rhombus writers. Her plays have been workshopped, read, and produced by Company One, Fresh Ink Theatre, Huntington Theatre Company, 20% Theatre Company, Kitchen Theatre Company, Saltbox Theatre, Open Theatre Project, Our Voices, WOW Café, SLAM Boston, Wax Wings, Bostonia Bohemia, and the Boston One Minute Play Festival. She was a semi-finalist for the 2014 National Playwrights Conference and she is the recipient of a Richard Rodgers Fellowship and a Shubert Foundation grant. Before moving to Boston, Nina was the Senior Program Associate at The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage's Philadelphia Theater Initiative. She also trained as an actor at the National Theatre Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, the New Actors Workshop, and received her BA from Oberlin College. She currently teaches playwriting and screenwriting at Grub Street and the University of New Hampshire. www.ninalouisemorrison.comSee other articles by Nina Morrison