Never Look at a Blank Page and Despair Again: Writing Exercises Shine at Dramatists Guild’s Portland Conference March 30-31

Portland Skyline

Portland Skyline

I thought I’d be writing a straight-forward piece about the effective writing exercises I picked up at the Dramatists Guild Playwriting Intensive in Portland. But I’m not. This is an unabashed fan letter for the Dramatists Guild with the writing exercises tossed in—because it was that good. It was worth the three-hour drive in the early morning from Seattle. It was worth sitting in a classroom for hours on Saturday and Sunday after a full week at the office. And not just for the incandescent teachers, and not just for the innovative writing exercises. Being with my tribe – other playwrights – making connections, seeing great theatre together, honing our skills, sharing our work, and writing together, is the tonic and the balm I need to keep going in this often lonely and often rejection-strewn vocation of mine.

Workshop instructor Francesca Piantadosi, Dramatists Guild representative in Portland, said to each of us at our first session: throw me a name, any name. No explanation. No, “this will help you as you develop your characters.” None of that. I said, Sally. Just that. Twenty-five or so other playwrights threw her some names: Mrs. Henderson, Snark, Ophelia, Buster, Randolph. Francesca wrote them all on the white board, and as she did, considered each name, with Sally being first. What she said about Sally—the name I’d thrown out without thinking—blew open a shut door in my mind and transformed my thinking about writing characters.

“Sally. A big first letter, that S. Takes up a lot of space. Then the small, compact a. Now two very tall letters, and a low-to-the-floor, dipping below the surface y. Interesting.” That’s all she had to say. I immediately knew that Sally, whoever she is, is going to be one contradictory character. Maybe both blustery and sneaky, showy and hidden, and definitely hard to predict. Wow! She had similarly unexpected things to say about each of the names our group gave her. I was on fire to write about this Sally. Francesca asked us to write for ten minutes, using our new character and adding another, and starting with what she calls the best first line ever: ‘No, I disagree!’ Or a version thereof. And we were off.

I loved it! Re-reading my scribbled page featuring Sally and Dan just now, I’m intrigued enough to develop a ten-minute play from this start, thanks to Francesca. And she did so much more during her one and a half hour session. She showed us what a loving, compassionate and passionate, skilled and experienced teacher can do to illuminate the one small thing in which the whole world is revealed. What’s in a name? Everything! (A side note about Francesca. See when she is teaching again. She will light you on fire with her passion for teaching playwriting in prison, and inspire you to go out into the world to share your own gifts with the underserved.)

Gary Garrison, the Dramatists Guild Institute’s Director, followed Francesca’s session with a two-hour, completely absorbing, mind-opening session on, of all things, stage directions. What? They don’t have to be passive and colorless? This is my third time in one of Gary’s classes. Each class, like Francesca’s, focuses on a seemingly tiny particular that opens up a landslide of possibilities. He began with “Don’t ever write ‘lights up, lights down’ again.” And continued, in paraphrase, “Write light as active. It splinters, it creeps, it is heavy and hot or expanding or ghostly or merciless.” And then there’s sound. “Sound pulls you into the play with no work.” And, “write your stage directions as fully as your imagination knows the play should look and sound. You, the playwright, are creating the world of the play. We are in control of that world. Write everything you want and the play needs, then describe what is second-best, what you’d be okay with, in case the director has more limited resources.”

For character descriptions, get specific. Gary pulled “ten random plays that I love from my shelves, really without thinking about it” and printed out stage directions from each for us. Included was Outside Mullingar by John Patrick Shanley: “Tony (father) is 75 or so and his eyes are sly. Anthony (son) is 42, and his eyes are those of an intense dreamer.” Gary: “Those descriptions tell you all you need to know about how to cast this play. This describes the central tension of the play.”

Gary asked us to set the scene, all the way up to the first line of dialogue, with this prompt: ‘Old southern mansion moments after a hurricane hits. Two people who don’t know each other.’ I wrote directions alive with sound and light for the first time ever. I began, before describing the scene: “It’s creepily silent, but for the sound of dripping water. Sunlight seeps into the dark room from the porch, rosy and timid, and slowly and unforgivingly reveals the shattered dining room. Off stage, someone explosively wrenches a door open. A 30ish woman in a torn and dirty, formerly white nightgown lurches into the room, sobbing.” Thanks to Gary, I made great strides from “lights up”.

Chisa Hutchinson did a fine job teaching us short and long form synopsis writing, and play-specific and career-embracing artistic statements, and set us writing them for our current and past plays. As we read aloud our short-forms, Chisa helped us hone. See her useful handout here. E.M. Lewis set us writing with permission and encouragement to use magic in our plays, with these prompts: ‘Write a monologue by a monster, by a monster hunter, by a ghost, by someone who is haunted. And then she asked us to start a new play with magic, starting with describing the weather.’ Yes, it stretched me and intrigued me, to see what lay buried in the depths of my mind. That’s the glory of free writing with smart prompts. It will shake you up and get that page covered faster than you can think.

I’m a huge fan of the Dramatists Guild conferences (La Jolla 2015 and NYC 2018) and now an even bigger fan of the Dramatists Guild Institute’s Regional Conferences. I have a fresh new take on synopsis writing, magical theatre, character names, and amazingly, stage directions! All delivered with wit and style, with tips about getting our work out, working with directors and theatre artists, and how sharing our talents with underserved populations gives back far more than we ever imagined.