I had the great fortune to work on a new play at a school for four days last month. That’s a huge treasure for a playwright! It works out well for everyone – in Ontario students have to do an Independent Study Unit, which working with an outside playwright certainly applies. And I need to hear and see my work tested out by the range of performers who are going to eventually going to put up the play. I used to work out my plays with professional actors, but it doesn’t suit my purposes anymore. The plays are going to be performed by students, they need to be tested out with students.
Also, I’m no spring chicken. If I’m writing for teens, the easiest and fastest way to find out if I’m off track is to watch and listen to teens react to a script.
In four days I was able to do a reading of the play and then block the whole thing out on its feet. It’s one of the benefits of writing one acts; the time it takes from page to stage can be quite efficient.
Because I’ve been writing for over thirteen years now, I have a pretty good sense of what a play sounds like before actors get ahold of it. It sounds rather goofy, but I write out loud in my head, I see the characters walking around on a stage. (Usually it’s the stage from my own high school….) When I work with student writers I often say to them, “This won’t sound out loud the way you think it does” because I can hear it in my head.
But that’s not good enough. Actors don’t have access to being inside my brain to hear what things sound like and no school will perform inside there either. Trust me, there’s barely enough room for the things I got going on inside there, let alone a production! Plays need to be spoken aloud and they need to be brought to life. Plays are not books, they are living things.
And always, always, always, when I hear my dialogue out loud I always (always, always) hear something I didn’t expect. The purpose of testing a play is to find out how students instinctually interpret the work; if what’s on the page is concise and clear enough in production. If they go off in an unexpected direction, it’s my job to go back to the script and make changes.
For example, this certain play is about Pot and I have personified the drug, turned it into seven characters who follow the main character around like a Cloud. I have come up with a number of specific ‘sound’ ideas and soundscapes for this Cloud. ALL of them didn’t sound quite right during the reading. There wasn’t a strong enough line between what I heard in my head and the way the students interpreted the dialogue. By the end of the four days though, I was able to refine the sounds and put them on paper in a clear straightforward way.
There’s truly nothing like hearing your words come out the right way, the way you intended. It gives me goose pimples. There’s nothing like getting great feedback, seeing students engaged in what they’re doing, doing good work and having fun.
This week I’m doing another workshop. I’m tremendously excited because I get to go into the class and be their final exam! Should be very interesting.