The Next Steps

Well, as of a little over a week ago, the script is pretty much done. As expected, I didn’t have time to update on my process while knee-deep in that very process.

When I last updated, we’d decided to destroy the world – to eliminate all of the adults through some mysterious rapture. Okay. Cool. So we started with a situation as a concept.

And, uh, that was a choice. I documented here.

Theatre is made up of time. It is our most precious commodity. You can make brilliant theatre with no money and lots of time. (The inverse doesn’t exist, except sometimes SNL.)

The challenge, I learned, with starting from a world is that gobs of the time goes to discussing the rules of this world.

Instead of building character or story, my actors debated whether or not there would be electricity. There was a general disbelief at the level of havoc our nuclear facilities would have on the environment in the post-apocalyptic scenario, because Fukushima  happened when my oldest collaborator was nine. 

This didn’t mean that the process was unsuccessful. It meant that I often felt frustrated, and that this frustration was my own fault. It also meant that I was more of a source for the story than I normally am. A third of the play takes place in a communitarian compound before the main crew is expelled – these story choices, which would normally emerge from a devising process, I had to invent.

This gave me an insight: Devising by adapting a specific property works because it’s something that gets the entire team on the same page in an efficient way.  This is true even when we’re adapting a technical element like a set design or genre or even just a picture that a student brings to class (and not a text like The Jungle Book).  Research-based work is challenging because everyone needs to have done the same research. Because I came into class with the sandbox defined, I spent my time sharing about what the sandbox meant to me.

Now, I should mention that we have about 60-70% of the rehearsal hours that my favorite HS-aged company has, and 3 hours per week generating material is not the same as doing two or three or more 3-hour sessions with a group of collaborators. In a perfect world, I’d have more time.

I do think that work created collaboratively can often become about or reflective of the collaboration itself metatextually. (And this isn’t a bad thing: one reason there’s a push for diverse voices of playwrights in American theatre is the accurate presumption that there is something autobiographical in the work that lends authenticity.) In the case of the Apocalypse Project, the first third of the play takes place on a communitarian compound, which is chaotic and loud, and intentionally has the characters discussing lots of subjects simultaneously. And this is what my classroom-theatre feels like.

To build a lot of this, I would give them a prompt, ask them to come to a circle, and ‘popcorn’ out something like, “Rumors you’ve heard about something that’s happening in the country.”

The caveat for this specific activity is that each rumor is independent of the others, so that if someone suggests something that does not fit with the reality we were building, it would evaporate. Someone could say something like, “California fell into the ocean” without it shaping the discussion, so that someone else could say, “There’s no water in LA. They call it The Boneyard.”

One activity that was fruitful had the students writing a character name and then something about them on an index card. “Mr. Avers, a cartographer.” And then we’d draw from this stack and they would improvise a dramatic monologue or scene.

Often I had specific prompts for improvised scenes.  Sometimes these prompts directly pointed at the play (“Scrapper does something to get kicked out of the compound”) while others were exploring the concept through something next to the play (“Show me the world’s worst president.”)

Casting

I should mention that we always establish early on that anything we create belongs to the room. I try to have multiple students inhabit different characters throughout the process. While occasionally it becomes obvious that one actor MUST play a specific character, the shared creation of character prevents hurt feelings when it comes to casting.

In my entire career at Skybridge, I have never had problems with casting, knock wood. That said, this time around I realized that I needed to cast the play before finishing the text. I needed their voices in my head. I needed to know who was comfortable with what.

I had an hour to cast. I pulled monologues from the play for each character, printed a packet for each, and gave it to them in advance. I gave them a cover sheet that asked them their comfort for a variety of actions onstage, including killing, dying, and, of course, kissing and falling in love.

The kissing/love questions had the biggest impact on the play. I was surprised that, with one exception, they were as uncomfortable falling in love onstage as they were with a stage kiss. Based on the auditions, I had to overhaul the action to align with who was comfortable with what.

And Then What

I took a day off of work, rented a motel room, and gave myself a writer’s retreat to finish the play. I’ve never done this before. It was both glorious and hellish.

I had a workshop lined up for when I got back. I had a couple days for tweaking and revisions before printing.

We’ll continue to revise in rehearsal.

A Couple More Notes

  • I have a heavy hand in my plays because I want a unifying vision. If you are looking for ways of replicating elements of my process, I would recommend creating work that has more of a mosaic final product. The amount of emotional toil that went into Deleted Scenes, Twelve Huntsmen, and even Two Truths and Lies was less than this or Icarus because the moments in the plays were created largely independent of each other until I connected all the dots.
  • Theatre is art in time, and with this kind of intense process, it’s REALLY important to know how much time something is taking. It is also practical: I don’t want to leave an actor backstage for 45 minutes or f**k up rehearsals and spend ten minutes on something trifling without realizing it.
    • A page of dialogue with a ‘standard’ format is about a minute of stage time
    • A better gauge is word count. We clock in at about six minutes for 1000 words.
    • I know that I’ll have a higher word count for moments where there’s simultaneous dialogue, which is part of my style.
    • I know that there will be a lower word count / page count for more action/stage direction, and I try to account for this in my formatting.
  • My philosophy is to make a play where not every actor has the same line load, but every actor has something interesting to do. The fewer lines you have, the more interesting they need to be. In Romeo & Juliet, the Prince has the fewest number of lines, and you best bet they’re some of my favorites. One ‘the crew’ leaves the compound in the Apocalypse Project, the other actors become sundry strangers others meet along the way.
  • The Apocalypse Project feels less finished than my other work, but I like the heart-space it occupies. It took me about three additional days to understand what I was doing with the ending, and now that I know, it’s what I want to say.

 

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A Week Into Devising

Previously: The Initial Steps

Now: A Week Into Devising

A few weeks ago, the premise occurred to me: it’s 2024, and a few years ago, every adult on the planet mysteriously disappeared. Then this happened a second time.

This interested me from a practical standpoint – while I am not opposed to having teenagers portray adults, it’s not as useful as having them play people around their age, and I was excited to create a world that was intentionally young-person-only.

(The same HS theatre teachers who claim that theatre should replicate the professional world are also producing plays where teenagers play, like, 50-year-olds even though these kiddos won’t be cast in these roles for decades. If you are having a teenager play an adult, it should be intentional, and thus you should be commenting on adulthood. Take a look at Very Best Coffee or [a different] Romeo & Juliet if you want to see examples of how I try to activate this concept in a play. In both of these, the fact that you have young people playing these roles creates a commentary on adult world, a fact my friend Patrick Shaw pointed out.)

But it wasn’t just practical. I was interested in the world that a group of teenagers would create. What would disappear – good and bad? What would be utopic? What would dystopic? We’re so consumed by anxiety about our future – as a planet – I thought, well, what would happen if we leaned into this? If we imagined how we’d deal with things?

Prologue

I think it’s important that the students co-create much of this world with me. My nightmare is having a bunch of kids go home and each come up with an idea that they commit themselves to. In a process that uses devising, you have to be willing to give up ideas as quickly as you come up with them. Commitment to an idea outside of the rehearsal room can kill the process.

I held myself to this as well: I wrote a short manifesto I kept to myself, and then intentionally avoided thinking about the premise so I could make room for my collaborators.

Activity 1: Becoming an Adult

The first activity was to separate them into partners. Their job: to create a vignette where someone is experiencing an event of ‘becoming an adult.’ (Yes, a couple kids giggled, but whatever. I knew they wouldn’t go for sex jokes in the devised pieces. That would have been too awkward.) For example, some young person learning to drive.

The second step: make the same vignette, only without an adult impacting the person coming of age. In the example, the character must learn to drive by themselves.

This… kinda worked. Because I didn’t give them context for fear that they would shape it to the concept, they made… stuff. It was okay. It didn’t tell me enough to know we were on the right track.

Activity 2: Apocalypse or Catastrophic Event

I then had them identify a narrative where it’s about the aftermath of an apocalyptic or catastrophic event. Some brought in The Road, which they’d read last year. Some brought in Mad Max. Someone brought in Wall-E. I asked a few questions to get them thinking about these stories from a distance. It’s better to examine the fact that there’s nuclear fallout, authoritarian rule, and desert wasteland in Mad Max. 

From this, we did a poster dialogue about tropes we see in these narratives.

This is where I introduced the premise I was pitching to the students by having them read a monologue based on the manifesto.

Activity 3: Improv and Exploration of Tropes

Most of the students were familiar with improv, but I had a quick refresher activity on the concept of “Yes-and” for those who needed it. We then read over the tropes of apocalyptic narratives so that we could hold that stuff in our brains. Then, over the course of about 30 minutes, I had the students do an improv jam based on these ingredients. I specifically asked them to avoid the initial premise – to just make stuff from the tropes. I would ring a bell when I felt the scene had ended.

It was electric. While most of the time they went for the joke, there were enough moments where fear and stillness became a part of the world that I felt we could make the play.

Also, I would direct this process. I would ask them for specific revisions. This will become key in the future.

Activity 4-ish: A Conversation

I checked in with them. They were on board with the premise. Some had ideas. I realized that even though I’d tried to get away from developing the world without them, I’d failed. There was stuff I’d made and committed to.

But at least they were on board.

Next Up: Some World Building

It’s 2024, and they are coming up with a list of things that have changed. This is via a personal imaginative list of, “What I miss/ What I’m grateful for.” Because I want the students to generate their character relationships in class, I asked that they avoid the people they’d miss. Otherwise, the world becomes entirely consumed by grief. While grief will be a part of it, I want to start by figuring out things like, is there electricity? Internet? Cheese? (No, no, maybe.) We’ll also be reading a selection from The World Without Us so we have some starting point related to the practical impact a world where a good portion of the human biomass has vanished. That book is devastating and could force the play into becoming a treatise on environmentalism, and I am more interested in watching a group of young people connect and disconnect with each other, so I will only bring in chapters about what happens to cities without humans.

On Documenting

So. I’ll periodically update on the process, but the next part involves me doing a RIDICULOUS AMOUNT OF WRITING. This means that I can’t spend time writing about the work here.

A new semester, a new play

As you may know, I generate my plays-for-teens with and for my students. A new semester means a new play. This isn’t to say I have a specific process that I always follow: in fact, I often reinvent the process, tailoring it not just to the people in the room but also to my artistic interests. The process is part of the art itself.

  • A year and a half ago, I wrote a play that was based on a student’s set design. Our job was to look at this space and conjure up what could happen there. This eventually became And then, She Picks Up the Sword.
  • Last year, we focused on adaptation – generating improvised scenes from public domain stories. We listed out a bunch of public domain works, brought in summaries, and started to improvise around them. This eventually became Icarus Livingstone
  • Before that, I started by bringing in scenes from established works that would invite us to figure out the desired tone of the play – a scene from Angels in America was clearly better for the people in the room than the scene from Eurydice, so the world that we created was tonally in concert with that. The students then brought in images that were inspiring to them, which we then used to generate… stuff. I quickly brought in scenes based on this material that we played with to figure out what was speaking to us and eventually developed what became Basement Demons.
  • Another time, we started with an aesthetic I wanted to explore with them – realism – and followed this by generating a list of locations in the three broad categories of setting in realism: public, private, public/private. We generated scenes in these locations, and eventually set the play in a summer camp. This became Two Truths and Lies. 

This year, I have a proposed situation – in essence, a world with a major complication imbedded in it. This will serve as a container that the students will play around in. A sandbox, to borrow a concept from OKGo.

Now. Here’s the thing. Last year, I thought that we’d wind up devising around a very different story than the one we landed on, and if I’d committed fully to a different text, THE PLAY WOULD HAVE ESSSSPLODED!

Working collaboratively with a group of people means that you MUST be willing to give up on an idea.

It’s hard. I have to do some prep work, but cannot fully build the world without my students.

Tomorrow, I am going to have them start to generate material from the concept of ‘adulthood’ and ‘apocalypse.’ If this works, I’ll present the idea to them (and you), and we’ll be off to the races. If I have to trash it, however, I will.

Onward….

Playwrights Revolution

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Playwrights Revolution at Cap Stage will have a reading of Basement Demons and Trailer Saints 

I wrote this play with my high school students, then developed it further with undergraduates at James Madison University.

The tagline I’ve been using: “In the age of Instagram, what happens when a demon slides into your DMs?”

A lovely article is up at the Davis Enterprise. 

I should note that this is the FIRST time one of my plays for teens has made it onto the stage of professional theatre. A small step as I advocate for the legitimacy of teen theatre as art.

Stage Combat with Teen Theatre

I’ve been tweaking the website to make my “Theatre-for-Teens” page a little more user-friendly.  I haven’t focused on publishing (MFA Playwriting programs emphasize producing and networking), so I want to make my page for teens accessible and approachable.

And as I tweaked, I realized I probably should address something – there’s something of stage combat in every play. This is intentional. I swear.

Swords: And Then, She Picks Up the Sword, The Untitled Pirate Play, Space Carl (plus lasers), [a different] Romeo & Juliet, Nameless in the Desert, Third Street, Basement Demons, Icarus (ish)

Hand-to-Hand: Two Truths and Lies, Icarus, Deleted Scenes from Fairy TalesVery Best Coffee, The Twelve HuntsmenThe Jungle Book

A couple years ago, after we spent hours choreographing a sword fight, a student told me, “I thought I trusted (her scene partner) before, but now I REALLY trust him!” And at that moment, she articulated something I had a sense of, but hadn’t put into words myself – that stage combat required and, thus taught, trust.

And I do love it. Spectacle. Conflict. Tension. If done correctly, if done safely, it’s undergirded by trust. Stage combat teaches the opposite of what you’re pretending to do.

Theatre is, of course, built on trust, so this is hardly a revolutionary thought; however, it does highlight that the dramaturgy of purpose for doing a play goes beyond the audience. Theatre for teens is about the art, it’s about theme and story and character, and about the experience of the actor.

Dramatic Structure

I’ve been obsessed with this clip of a little boy asking Pete Buttigieg a question. I realized why: this video is a masterclass on dramatic structure

  • Starts in medias res
  • Illustrates characters through voice and action. Everything anyone says or does shows who they are.
  • Quickly establishes world and stakes with the parental request, “Ask your question.”
  • Introduces complication.
  • Escalates the complication
  • Has a strong, surprising turn at the climax (the boy jumps from the stage), which is fitting with the ‘bunny’ theme
  • Aces the dismount with Pete’s “button” line.

Note: Chasten, Pete’s husband, is a gay middle school theatre teacher.

*****

In honor of Pride Month, I was on Jimmy Chrismon’s THED Talks again to discuss the LGBTQ+ Romeo & Juliet.

Note to self: never read the transcript of your own interviews. The marbled mess of incomplete sentences and dropped in ‘likes’ will make you crazy.

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Pride Month is over.

Long live Pride!

Praise for THE TWELVE HUNTSMEN

This email from a theatre teacher / director is better than any review I could have gotten. Note: I redacted the teacher’s name out of an abundance of caution for someone who mentions having LGBTQ+ kids in their school.

(Find the Twelve Huntsmen here.) 

Hello Brian,

I just wanted to let you know that we recently closed our middle school production of The Twelve Huntsmen up here in MA, and it was a huge success. We had an all-middle school tech crew (and cast, of course), and we managed to work out the randomization of the text and all the exciting challenges that provided…and  stage it on a 3/4 thrust, all of which were new experiences for our young actors. The audience and family members were completely impressed, our students absolutely blew your fantastic script out of the water, and they were SO proud of themselves for taking on such a unique script.
I wanted to thank you, especially, for the work you did in creating this script and getting it onto NPX. I read MANY plays written for this age group and I am consistently disappointed in what I find. It’s a rare playwright who is tapping into the unique voice and views of this generation. I work at a school with a large population of young women and a large population of students who identify as LGBTQIA+, trans, or gender non-conforming. I feel like your script was a magical unicorn in a forest of mediocrity that was the perfect mix of smart, sassy, dark and hilarious, and I am so grateful to you!! Looking forward to following your future work, and just know you have some big fans up here in western Massachusetts.
With gratitude,
(Theatre Teacher)