Directing Playwriting

A Workshop Tip

danceThis week I’ll be running a kamikaze workshop experience at the Missouri State Thespian Festival. On Thursday I’ll take students from two schools, whom I’ve never met, rehearse for three hours (with a new play of mine) and then put the play up for two shows on Friday. Booya! It’s intense, it’s fun, it’s extreme theatre.

I’m not nervous about the process because it’s something I’ve done before, and I find in general (and so long as I’m organized) that students always work well with the time that they’re given. If they have three hours, that’s what they use. If they have two weeks, that’s what they use. Three months, you get the picture. Of course, the length of piece skews this idea a little bit, I’ve recently learned that three hours is not enough time for a full length. (What? No kidding. You didn’t know that? Huh. ) But for a one act, no problem. And there are also parameters – I’m not talking a memorized fully staged production. I’m talking a staged reading with some action that is heavily directed without too much room for fuss. That, to me, is the difference between a workshop and a production. In a workshop, I want staged my exact vision of the script. In a production, I want to see an interpretation which may or may not fit my personal vision of the script.

One great thing I’ve learned in this type of process is how to get the best work out of students when doing a cold reading. That in itself is a bit misleading as students don’t do well with a cold reading. I know professional actors who don’t do well at cold reading. Cold reading is a skill. It takes practice to look at a script you’ve never seen or maybe only read once and bring it to life off the page. So to expect students to be able to pick up a script and just – TA DA – is unreasonable. Some students have trouble reading at the best of times.

But, if you’ve only got three hours, there has to be some kind of – TA DA – or else the performance will be a train wreck. So how do you get the TA DA?

Physicalize the characters first. 

Spend time with students talking about who the characters are, what their primary character trait is and then have them work on that trait physically. Have them move, have them stand, have them form tableaux. Have them define their character trait as a status and then play status games in character. To physicalize the character puts the character in the body and gives students an immediate direction on how to speak in character. It becomes natural to speak in character after they’ve spent a little time moving as the character. And it’s a fun way to start.

And that’s what’s key to getting a good read out of a student. I never start with a reading of the script. I always end with it. After we’ve spent time on our feet, after we’ve done some movement. It’s amazing how spending a half an hour on the physical element translates into a reading.

About the author

Lindsay Price