So You Want To Be In Pictures…

Screen play 2021

Or maybe you want to write your own film screenplay? Or better yet, a real play for performance on the stage?? Well, you’ve missed this year’s Colorado New Play Festival – a weeklong local gathering of professional playwrights and nationally known theatre companies – but there’s always next year. Well, that’s my column for this month….NO! WAIT!!! There’s more.

More opportunity to learn the unique skills required for play and screenwriting. As usual, I’m not an expert but I can give a few suggestions. Do schedule the New Play Festival in your calendar for 2022 in early June with a lineup to be announced by Jim and Lori Steinberg, the Executive Producers and longtime Steamboat residents. You’ll be able to listen to plays in their infancy and watch the playwrights at work, especially if you attend the rehearsals that are open during the week. If you do, I’ll likely see you there as I’m usually the only one, together with a couple from Wisconsin, who like to watch hours of actors and writers banging away at text and the creation of a stage play.

The process is rarely pretty and filled with stops and starts, false steps and missed story lines. And it’s time consuming and sometimes boring; many plays take years to get ready for prime time (although my favorite playwright, Martin McDonagh, claims to have written his first trilogy of Irish plays in a matter of weeks). He’s also quoted as saying that playwriting is the easiest form: “Just get the dialect, a bit of a story and a couple of nice characters, and you’re away.” But being a bit of a showman himself, I think he’s simplifying the process that takes mere mortals months and years.
But I do think that McDonagh has hit upon a formula that can be followed to write and produce meaningful dramatic art. The most important is coming up with a story that asks a meaningful dramatic question. If we use Shakespeare’s Hamlet as an example, the story is about a young prince who discovers that his father, the king, has been murdered by his uncle; who then marries the boy’s mother and takes the throne. Heavy stuff; but it demands action to bring it to life and the resolution of the dramatic question of what will the prince do in response to the crime?

I’ve always thought that, although there are eight million stories in the naked city, it’s really all the same story told eight million ways: someone you care about (maybe that’s you?) wants something that’s very, very difficult to achieve and sets out anyway, overcoming one obstacle after another, until finally finding success (a comedy) or failing brilliantly (a tragedy). Screenwriter and director Billy Wilder puts it another way: when writing your story, find a way to get your protagonist – the person you care about and for whom the audience will have some degree of empathy – up a tree. Then set the tree on fire. If you recall, this is exactly what J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson managed to do to Gandalf and the Gang; and what George Lucas does to Han, Leia, and Luke; or where Michael finds himself when his father Vito Corleone is almost murdered: up a burning tree. So the good story well told is essentially coming up with characters you can care about finding themselves in a high stakes predicament. A melting ice cream cone only counts as a meaningful dramatic question for two year olds. Don’t go there.

Empathetic characters aren’t always good guys, as the Corleone’s demonstrate with high powered automatic weapons, garrots, blackmail, and extortion time and time again. But their story of immigrants who face discrimination and violence; underdogs who overcome societal oppression; and families who stick together through thick and thin is a tale we all know. If you’ve lived that story, you’ve  already got a great play in your DNA.

These characters must have distinct voices. When McDonagh casually remarks on nice characters and dialect, he’s not just referring to your empathetic and inspiring protagonist who happens to have an Irish accent, but also a voice that’s unique in its pitch, volume, and tempo. If all your characters sound alike (mind do; and they all sound like me!!!), your play will be boring on stage. Even characters in the same predicament have different wants: Leia is fighting injustice in the universe; Han wants to get the bounty off his head and also is attracted to Leia; Luke has the whole father/son dialectic going on. Meanwhile, it’s off to destroy the Death Star and the Emperor.

Reading a play out loud is really the only way to determine if your characters are as unique in their sound as you think they are on the page. That’s the strength of the New Play Festival for writers: they get to hear their characters speak. Maybe you just have a group of friends to support you; or you take advantage of the professional actors of the Piknik Theatre who are living in Steamboat through the month of July and early August for the summer 2021 Piknik Theatre Festival (shameless promotion). Actors are always keen to try on new roles and new characters in exchange for beer and good food and the best ones know how to give insight into creating a powerful and distinct voice for a character.

Paul McCudden, astronomer and former Hollywood screenwriter, who teaches at our very own Colorado Mountain College has some good advice for prospective writers for stage and screen: it’s all about what you hear and what you see. Your story must be told physically, through the movements of your characters, as well as through the words that are spoken. Actions, as they say, do speak louder than words and whether live or on a screen, we watch what the actors do that support or deliberately undermine their text. As Frodo approaches the Cracks of Doom to destroy the One Ring, we know from his body movement and the look on his face that he’s not going to do it. There’s no dialogue other than “the ring is mine” that conveys this final twist but it’s clear where the story is going. Fortunately, the indomitable Gollum saves the day and he has no dialogue at all; just showing us the incredible joy at finally finding success getting what he so desperately wants and has been searching for during all of the thousand plus pages.

So please get started writing your story: the one that asks a compelling and dramatic question with empathetic characters who are distinct in how they look and sound and desperately want something that may or may not be achievable but for whom the journey is equally as important as the outcome. We’ll follow the tale with joy and excitement; and I’d love to put it onstage.

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