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Michael Chekhov's 'Theater of the Future' -- what does it have to do with you?

Playwriting for Dummies/Actors and Devised Work

Lauren Dobbie - 15 July 2012

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Open Space Theatre of the Future 2012
Playwriting for Dummies/Actors
Christina Bryson, Margaret Evraire
Participants: Christina Bryson, Margaret Evraire, Lauren Dobbie, Kristine Gilreath, Becca Rich, Caitlin Goldie, Wendy Thompson, and Stephen Adly Guirgis.

*It should be noted that this session was called to address challenges that Margaret and Christina are having with the dialogue and narration of their devised piece White Noise based on the true story of Nadia Kajouji.

Becca: Try and figure out what the opposite situation is to where you need to end. Improvise the work—or start writing knowing where you need to end.
(Talking about an exercise with Jorg) Find the “Oh”, “Bah” and “Wow” moments within the plot and structure. Make sure to adopt the voice of the character, and separate the self of the playwright from the self of the character.

(In response to a question about showing and not telling)
Becca (talking about a Le Coq exercise) where one actor is having an experience internally and “le mimer” another actor is physically manifesting that internal experience.

Kristine: Characters need to have specific goals that either work for or against the central theme. The choices that the characters make are important and the figuring out how the have to make them. Know the story and how you want them to feel.

Stephen Adly Guirgis arrives.

Margaret: How do you deal with the challenge of a narrator character, where their dialogue seems to be very information heavy?

Stephen: An actor can be given information to covey to the audience, and it is the actor’s job to bring that information to live. What is the character’s point of view about the information? What are they relating? Why are they relating it? What stake does the character have in delivering this information?

Margaret: How do you deal with writing being too obvious, and not subtle enough? Can you speak to subtlety in writing?

Kristine: Make sure you know the theme and the interests

Stephen: She (the narrator) needs to tell the facts that interest her, not just what needs to be brought up to the audience. Figure out why she needs to tell it.

Lauren: How do you deal with stage directions? Do you use a lot?

Stephen: I tend to make the dialogue very specific so that the actors can figure it out. I’ve realized I don’t need to italicize every word that I find important. Trust the interpretation of the actor.

Lauren: Yes, you must trust that the actors can interpret the text well.

Margaret: We are finding it challenging to work as writers and actors… it’s odd to speak text that you have written.

Stephen: It’s great that you are creating work for yourself. That’s important. I used to act in some of my own work, but when I really came into writing was when I listened to my work from other actors. Or sat in the audience and watched how the reacted. That’s where I learned the most about my work. The really important thing is why are you telling the story you are telling. What feeling does it illicit in you? What feelings does it illicit in the audience? Really put yourself into the work. Mine… and try to find where you are in the text. Where you are in the piece and allow that to compel the writing and the text. Find the relationship that the narrator has in the play. Like in Amadeus… he causes the conflict, not just speaks about it. What role does the narrator play in the plot?

Christina: It’s hard to step back from your own work and see it objectively. It’s hard to take the ego out. Stephen, do you find that you start with a large set of ideas and concepts and distil as you write… or do you start with a simple theme and expand?

Stephen: Both. It depends.

Christina: Sometimes it is challenging, because we come from a very “devised” work background, to just sit down and write. I tend to block myself, I tense up and sensor what I am writing. I have a hard time being free, just sitting down and writing.

Stephen. No one wants to sit down and write. You’ve got to do it anyway. But the people who do, who do it anyway are the ones who create work. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Wendy (talking about a class with Joanna Merlin): When you approach writing try and approach with expanding to it, rather than contracting. It is hard to write from a contracted place. Open yourself, expand to the “obstacles” and give them the life of a character. Let them come out and say what they need to say. Then find the gesture that will banish these obstacles from the space.

Becca: There is a really interesting TED TALK with the woman who wrote Eat, Pray, Love that talks about the process of creative writing that I would recommend. Also The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. That motivates you to work.

Stephen: That’s a great piece of writing. Read it.

Lauren: As actors, when we’re stuck we do exercises to break through the surface. Do you have writing exercises that you do when you’re blocked, or do you just write?

Stephen: Just write.

Lauren: We work on character study at school—where we can choose any character living, dead, fictional etc and
write/devise a 20 minute piece and in that work I found it very useful to get up and work on my feet because I was exploring a character I would play. I’m not sure how useful it would be for me to get up on my feet and explore the character of a 55 year old man. I will never play that part.

Stephen: That’s what is great about writing. You can live out those realities. You have to empathetically take on another’s point of view. A 55 year old man has totally different worries, troubles, realities.

Becca: Do you try and not be obvious when you’re writing?

Stephen: It’s very hard to write and edit at the same time. You’ve got to turn the judgement off while you’re writing. Then when you’re editing you turn it back on.

Stephen (parting words): It sounds like you’ve got a really interesting topical piece that you’re working on, but it’s not about the subject matter. It’s about how you feel about it. How you relate to the subject matter. Consider different points of view… maybe the narrator has a non-traditional point of view. Maybe she thinks that Nadia did it to herself? Find the provocative points of view. Get under the hood and really explore the nitty gritty. Find the areas and ideas that are repellent to you and explore them.

Margaret: Yes! The narrator doesn’t necessarily need to start out as a likeable character. The audience and narrator don’t need to get along.

Stephen: Right, but I find it useful if a non likeable character has a sense of humour. That’s a great thing.

Margaret: It’s odd to write characters that you play. It’s an interesting paradox.

Kristine: When I write the characters sort of flow in, they come and go. The characters I write about are not for me to play, but as they develop I find that I have come through in some ways. The author comes through naturally.

Wendy: Do you know The Libertine? Johnny Depp’s character begins by telling us, that we probably won’t like him. He goes on to describe his faults etc.

Christina: That’s really interesting, our narrator audience relationship is sort of implicit. It’s assumed they get along, that they’re comfortable with one another. But what if the narrator doesn’t trust the audience, doesn’t start out having a good relationship with them. She says… “you don’t like me”… “I’m not special” ect.

Margaret: Yes, like she almost accuses the audience of being the people who don’t pay attention to her, or don’t care about her story and then grows and opens up throughout the piece.

Wendy: Yes, you want to go the distance with the character and audience, see a real transformation. You want dramatization, not illustration.

Margaret: Then we could really earn our ending and give the narrator character a much stronger arc, and a much stronger and growing relationship with the audience. The audience is her scene partner… and we need to explore her relationship with them.

Kristine: Are these characters victims?

Christina: In a way, yes, in a way, no. My character is a victim from the world’s eyes, but not from her own. She doesn’t ever realize that she is being taken advantage of. She has made peace with her choice to take her own life. She goes into it peacefully.

Kristine: There’s a movie where the suicide scene is quite beautiful, the music, the movement, and the character is really at peace and calm.

Margaret: That is something we explore. Our moment of suicide is a contact piece, a movement piece, where the chorus sweeps up Christina at the moment she plunges into the water and she hardly touches the floor—Nadia killed herself by drowning. The moment starts peacefully, and beautifully for her and only turns nasty when her body is physically fighting the drowning, not her mind.

Christina: Yeah, she starts out and she is enjoying the moment until her reflexes and her physical being starts to fight back and she realizes that something is against her.

Margaret: It’s interesting, writers talk about just sitting down and writing, pounding it out and then giving it over for interpretation by the directors/actors. We work oppositely. We came to the structure of our piece, we had the movement sections, we had most of the non verbal stuff and then we had to fill in the gaps with writing.

Wendy: That’s a way you can work too. That’s how Ann Bogart works and it is becoming a new way to work on theatre. She allows to see what bits of dialogue need to come out. What are the missing parts. Does someone say something? Do something? Is it with words?

Margaret: We are both trained in Suzuki/Viewpoints from members of the SITI company and in devised work from our UWindsor Professor Gina Lori Riley, so that is how we came to this method of devising work, and where we borrow from in our process.

Christina: Yes, and I find myself hesitant to say we “wrote” this piece. We really devised it and then put it down on paper. I also sometime tend to call it a piece and not a play. We’ve brought SITI work into our devising… now we need to figure out how to incorporate Chekhov. Especially with the text.
Wendy: So is your company involved in the process? How many?

Christina: There are 5 people involved. In the most recent they were 5 women, which we like because it is a piece of work sensitive to a woman’s experience, but not limited to. But we are the “directors”. Sometimes we may have to alter which three women are in the piece with us, but we stay constant. We like to involve our company in the devising process though, it is collaborative, but we are guiding the process.

Margaret: We bring things to the table, and at the end of the day, say what does and doesn’t work, but we like to work in an environment where our company brings things forward too and collaborates. Also, working with 5 women gives our piece a somewhat feminist resonance.

Wendy: Which is a great thing. We need to write more roles for women.

Christina: Yes, that’s how we came to this work! We were trying to find a show for young women to do… Canadian preferably, and there wasn’t really anything.

Margaret: and we didn’t just want to do a play that didn’t really interest us… just because it was the only one that we could find.

Christina: So that’s how we came to do our own work. And to develop our own show.




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