Dog Eared

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Playwright's Books

Knitter, English teacher and Johnstown, Pennsylvania's self-appointed ambassador to Brooklyn, Shannon Reed is also an accomplished playwright whose plays have appeared in prestigious regional festivals. "Currently at work on a play about fairies, vicars and princesses," as she tells us, Shannon graciously laid down her quill for a moment to share these terrific thoughts on playwriting and related books:

Writing plays is a tricky business because you're writing text that will need to be brought to life. Thus, it's worth any beginning playwright's time to read the text of a play they have seen and enjoyed. You might start by watching the movie of The Crucible. The 1996 version has a powerful screenplay by Arthur Miller that skews remarkably closely to his searing playscript. Then read the play itself, an American classic.

As you read more plays, you'll find a writer whose work you really connect with, and it's a great idea to read all of his or her work. For me, after reading "Pullman Car Haiwatha," I was hooked on Thorton Wilder. Most people remember him as the playwright of Our Town, but he wrote The Matchmaker (which became the basis for Hello, Dolly!), The Skin of Our Teeth, twenty-plus short plays and a dozen novels, including the Pultizer-winning The Bridge of San Luis Rey as well.

Ready to write a play? Great, as I have the perfect book: Milton Polsky's You Can Write a Play!. The self-helpy title is deliberate -- Milton believes that inside of every single person, there's an interesting drama waiting to get out. This book is basic, basic, basic. But you know what? I've sat through dozens of plays, some of them my own, thinking that if the writer had thought more about the basics, and less about her 'vision,' the theatre might have had a fantastic new work.

Eventually, it happens to every writer: the ideas peter out a bit, and the enthusiasm for spending every free hour in front of the computer or pad of paper dwindles. For a pick-you-up-and-get-you-writing, I highly recommend Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. The first thing that helps about this book is that Lamott is funny and wise. The second thing is that she's been wherever you find yourself in WritersBlockVille. The third thing is that she's remarkably clear-eyed about what's worth working for (an audience, yes; publication, not really). And finally, for budding playwrights especially, it's great that she focuses on character. Without good characters, plays are nothing.

Speaking of literary elements, one book that explores these ideas in an interesting way is Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. I just read this a couple of weeks ago, and now Prose's fiction is on my Must Read list. Maybe it's because I teach plot, symbolism and sentence structure at least partly for my living, but I was completely enamored with Prose's building block approach to both reading and writing.

Finally, I'll get around to mentioning the greatest How-to-Write-Plays book I've ever read. It's Alan Ayckbourn's The Crafty Art of Playmaking. Ayckbourn's a highly prolific (64 plays!) British playwright whose plays pop up on Broadway every few years. This book, so British it makes my Anglophile heart soar, takes you from the writing process through auditions, revising, working with directors and actors, press and publicity and opening night. Ayckbourn knows what he's talking about and there's good advice here. But it's also just fun to dream about having his level of problems: what will I do when three Broadway producers are fighting over my work!?

(Thank you, Shannon!)


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Wednesday May 23rd 2007, 11:49 PM
Comment by: Elizabeth G
Timely advice! I'll be taking part in Script Frenzy in June, (www.scriptfrenzy.org), which is the new play writing counterpart to nanowrimo (nanowrimo.org). Both are good for having an incentive to write on a daily basis- they each last a month. And now I have good help to guide me along the way.
Thanks,
EB

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