As someone who appreciates writing as a solitary activity and one that takes place at a safe distance from a stage, I didn’t think I’d be too interested in playwriting. But last week’s Girls Write Now workshop reminded me otherwise. With a stellar guest author and a surprisingly fun group writing and performance activity, I came away inspired by all the possibilities that writing for the theater creates.
The morning began as usual with an Opening Lines activity. This one was focused on conflict — a key factor for developing plot, as any playwright will tell you. Then we heard from our guest speaker, Jessica Blank. Jessica is an actor, writer and director, known perhaps most famously for creating The Exonerated, a play based on interviews with 40 exonerated death-row inmates. Jessica riveted the audience as she told the story of the genesis, research and writing of the play.
Indeed, story is at the center of everything Jessica does. She emphasized that story is the most powerful device for creating empathy for characters and for taking audiences along on journeys they may never have expected to go on — or, even more radically, to relate to. While she acknowledged that much of what she writes is political, her politics only come into play in the parameters and boundaries she selects to frame a story; after that her focus is on the story alone.
Jessica also pointed out that she hadn’t started out as a writer, yet through the process of creating The Exonerated with her writing partner and now husband Erik Jensen, she became one. She learned how to research, how to craft a compelling story and how to listen to speech to create engaging dialogue. Most importantly, though, she learned to edit. Writing, Jessica said, is just as much about generating ideas and letting them flow out on to the paper as it is about repeatedly refining those ideas into a completely new finished product.
Later in the workshop, we mentors and mentees had the opportunity to try out being playwrights and actors ourselves. In small groups we reimagined the conflict scenarios we had written about during the opening lines activity. We wrote dialogue that mimicked everyday speech, and explored the role of setting on character interactions.
I felt nervous about sharing our writing through acting. Much to my surprise, though, when our turn to perform came, I had a lot of fun seeing the words we had written on our pages transformed into a living, breathing, in-person experience.
It turns out writing doesn’t have to be so far removed from the stage after all.