Posted on March 23rd, 2020
We are thrilled to launch 40 Plays/40 Nights in partnership with our good friends at NHB and HighTide alumni.
Starting on Tuesday 24th March, we will tweet out 40 simple standalone playwriting tasks, the traditional period of a quarantine. We invite writers to share their responses online for feedback, discussion and celebration. All tasks will be uploaded to this blog post and on our social channels and we encourage you to share yours with us via our Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. We will be sharing our favourite responses each day.
We can’t wait to see what you come up with and to get to know some brand new voices!
Whilst characters often exceed their function, character nonetheless
begins with function. So many plays never achieve lift-off because they
are heavy with fascinating but superfluous people, duplicating each
other’s roles in the play without making problematic that duplication (a
technique that drives The Comedy of Errors). For a playwright there’s
always a balloon debate to be carried out with one’s characters – only the
essential can be admitted, and any ballast must be ejected. It’s a useful
exercise with any play to lay your hand over the dramatis personae one
by one in order to see what’s lost from the story as each character is eliminated. Ibsen, whose plays carry in our terms a hefty but not enormous burden of parts, is actually, perhaps with the exception of The Wild Duck, ruthless with his characters. Look at A Doll’s House:
NORA – Evidently indispensable to the plot as she is the plot, both our
moral centre and the protagonist; without Nora there simply is no play.
TORVALD – As the primary antagonist he too is hardly expendable; he
necessitates and blocks the core action and in his resistance to Nora’s
secret project he embodies the world of the Norwegian bourgeoisie.
KROGSTAD – It is possible that Krogstad might be heard of rather than
seen, yet he usefully mirrors Torvald and reveals the seamier side of the
offstage world of the bank; also the imminence of his threat deepens all
the characters’ dilemmas.
DR RANK – If we were to be crudely culling characters, Rank might be
considered for such a fate; yet if we remove him from the drama, Nora
has neither confidante nor hope, and we have no benchmark within the
settled bourgeois against which to assess the predicament she is in.
MRS LINDE – Again a prime candidate for the blue pencil; yet without
Linde’s supplicatory mission to Nora it would be nigh impossible to
extract the backstory of the play – and indeed she offers one.
How essential are each and every one of your characters?
This exercise is taken from The Secret Life of Plays by Steve Waters. Save 30% when you order direct from publishers Nick Hern Books –
use code HIGHTIDE30 at www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/the-secret-life-of-plays.
Character and Inner Conflict
Try and recall a situation in your life – it could be in the distant past or within the last hour – when you did or said something you didn’t mean to. Not because of a slip of the tongue or ignorance or because anyone else
compelled you to, but because of your character (you!) acting under pressure. You may have wanted to ask a girl or guy out but didn’t. You may have wanted to apologise to someone but didn’t. You may have bullied someone when really you meant to be tender.
Now ask yourself a deeper question. What was really going on there? Why did I do what I did? The answer to this question cannot be ‘Because they made me do it’ or ‘Because my father kicked the cat when I was twelve’ (though he may well have done). I want you to find the answer that is ultimately your nature, or your nature which, at that time, was acting under pressure.
I want you to boil the incident down to two very specific things: your goal (what you wanted to do) and the obstacle (what stopped you from doing it that was nobody’s fault except your own). For example, the goal: asking the girl out; the obstacle: your fear of rejection. Of course there are many other reasons you could come up with for why you failed to achieve your goal: ‘I didn’t feel worthy of her’, ‘I was too proud to do the asking’, ‘I was worried about the financial cost’, ‘I didn’t know where to take her’… But what you must do is come up with the single answer.
This exercise is taken from So You Want To Be A Playwright? by Tim Fountain. Save 30% when you order direct from publishers Nick Hern Books – use code HIGHTIDE30 at www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/so-you-want-to-be-a-playwright.
Write a one page page monologue about a character remembering a party. Put the parade at least 10 years in the past. What kind of party was it? Why is the character remembering this party now? Does the character often remember this parade or is this a sudden flash of memory? How does the character feel now as compared to how they felt watching the party?
2. Rewrite the monologue and cut out half a page. What can you remove and still have your character share their experience?
3. Rewrite the monologue and cut out three more sentences. At this point the monologue will be very lean. How can you make sure you say what you need to in the space you have?
4. Rewrite the monologue so that it is only one sentence long. What is the heart of this monologue? What is at the core of the character? You should be able to distill this into one sentence. When writing monologues, keep this exercise in mind. The words Efficient and Effective should be at the forefront of your mind as you work. What about your monologue keeps an audience on the edge of their seats, yearning to hear every word your character says? What exactly does your character want to say? How clearly are you able to word your character’s want?
You can actively improve your ability to create compelling characters by consciously enhancing your observation of everyday life. Examples of the clash between the personality presented to the world and the inner reality are available to us all the time. If you are walking down a street or on a bus or train, or sitting in a café, it is a useful exercise to pick out a real person and to think how you would describe them as a character. First of all observe their physical features. What are they wearing? What is their hair like? What about ethnicity? How do they sit or stand? See if you can write down in fewer than ten words a description of them, which, if it were a stage direction, would engage and illuminate a reader of the play.
Next, try to develop the character a bit further. Make some guesses about this person’s life. What is their occupation? Do they have a partner? Do they have children? How do they feel about their life? Imagine where they have just come from and where they’re about to go. Give them a name. Create from all the evidence you have accumulated or imagined a dramatic dilemma for this person.
This material for characters is available to us all the time. By playing this simple game you will not only be exercising those muscles which bring characters to life, you may actually be able to transpose your observations into a character in a play. If you look at what the character appeared to be, and what they really were, and there was a contradiction there, then that is a very fertile area for developing an idea for a play.
This exercise is taken from Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write by Stephen Jeffreys. You can save 30% on your copy when you order direct from publishers Nick Hern Books – use code HIGHTIDE30 at www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/