an interview with edele winnie - author of 'pry it from my cold dead hands' and winner of the 2019 windsor-essex playwriting contest
Edele Winnie is many things: enigmatic, visionary, hilarious, and utterly unique. Recently she agreed to an interview with Post Productions Managing Director Michael K. Potter and, well, here are the results . . .
POTTER: How would you summarize Pry It From My Cold Dead Hands? What's it about, what happens, and what makes it unique or interesting?
WINNIE: Pry It From My Cold Dead Hands is a wild ride through someone else’s mind. Giselle is a sweetheart, but she’s trapped in a glass cupboard of her own making. Everything has its place. Things are neatly put away. She’s even divided herself into different versions – her work persona, her subway persona, her home persona. All to protect her and help her to survive and succeed in this unfriendly world of ours. Then something happens – something funny and horrible – and all the glass shatters and Giselle must find out who she is all over again. It's a frog in a frying pan story. How much do you know about frogs? If you put one (I would never do this, I read about it) in a frying pan the frog adapts. They can hop, right, frying pan's have low sides and frogs can really jump. They could just hop out but they don't. When you turn the heat on, the frog keeps trying to adapt- altering its body temperature and respiration, because that's how it deals with things. It could hop out at any time. And then it gets too hot and the frog dies. Just like Giselle, like most of us. She would never jump out of the frying pan of her life. And then something happens that forces her to. It’s unique and interesting because, although everyone is different, no one is quite as weird as Giselle. (I don’t actually mean that of course. Giselle isn’t weird, she’s herself. I’m like Giselle in many ways. I’d prefer being called unusual to weird. Evolution makes lots of different versions of people for different reasons, or perhaps by just random shit luck. We glimpse one another on the street, passing by. You don’t know what’s in my head, my heart, my soul, my basement or my freezer. I always want people to be as interesting as I am, but I keep getting disappointed.
POTTER: What led you to write this script? Was it an idea that just popped into your head, an experience that made you reflect, something else entirely? And once you started, what was the writing process like for you?
WINNIE: It’s actually an adaptation of one of my stories. Short story writing is really my forte. I write dark speculative feminist fiction. That just means it’s about weird shit that happens to women. I spend a lot of time in Toronto and for some reason I’m a magnet for deranged people. Maybe that’s where this story came from. It’s like peeing, you know? In the morning you drink coffee, then tea, then apple sauce, then Diet Coke and when you pee what is it? Some of everything, filtered through you.
For me I write to entertain myself. I’m a tough audience. If it’s boring I have to throw it out. Also I’m addicted to truth. If it doesn’t sound true, I can’t write it. Sometimes I break keyboards by pounding on them because they won’t write the truth. Okay, so I only did that once. I know the problem is actually me, not the keyboard.
POTTER: You won the second annual Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest. Tell me about that experience and how it affected the approach you took to developing your script.
WINNIE: I really wanted to impress the people at Post Productions. I’d seen a couple of their shows and I appreciate that they are working on darker, more hyper realistic pieces. So much of theatre and fiction is fairy stories where everyone gets a rainbow in the end. I like shows that challenge me, I like fairy stories about the police where everyone gets a rainbow in their end. I wanted to craft a show that was startling, interesting and rang completely true. It’s just a bonus that it’s funny too!
It was awesome winning the contest. They gave me a lot of feedback that I used to shape and sharpen the play. I couldn't have done it without them.
POTTER: You also, at our request, wrote a little "appetizer" play – First Cut – that audiences will enjoy before the main event. What can you tell us about that script and how it sets audiences up for Pry It From My Cold Dead Hands?
WINNIE: Oh First Cut was too much fun. I think it’s hilarious. It moves like a runaway train and there’s no way a person can guess where it’s going to stop. You just have to hold on. And then it’s done and you think was that dark, or funny, and the ending is complete but nothing that you would imagine. Pry It From My Cold Dead Hands also moves like that, but it’s deeper and more complicated. First Cut is like sampling the goat before you order the rest of it to be served. Though it’s not about goats. And I’m a vegan. A bad vegan.
Both of the protagonists – women of course – are safe in their frying pan when something very different changes everything and they have to jump on the tiger!
POTTER: Which stories and storytellers – in whatever genre, format, or medium – influence your writing? What inspired you – and continues to inspire you?
WINNIE: I like stories that make me squirm when I read them. Not squirm because it's yucky but because it's startling. I also like them to have satisfying endings. That’s really important. I grew up reading O Henry and Alfred Hitchcock collections, Shirley Jackson and some weirdo science fiction. I also read all of the James Herriot books. And Harry Potter. In Harry Potter everything seems nice but it ends up being wild and wonderful and that is cool. There are bad people hiding all around behind smiles.
I want stories that could be about me, but then really wild stuff happens and it goes to places I can’t even dream of and it’s really entertaining and I’m glad that it didn’t happen to me, but you know it could have if the right weird things had happened first.
POTTER: A lot of things appealed to the contest judges about the Pry It From My Cold Dead Hands script—it was unique, funny, endearing, somehow both dark and whimsical. But I'd say what most impressed us were the fully-realized character of Giselle, and your strong authorial voice. You don't "sound" like anyone else – and neither, as a result, does Giselle. What advice could you give to aspiring playwrights about developing their own voices and creating unique, fully-fleshed, characters?
WINNIE: I have a friend, Nandi Comer, who's a great poet (look her up!) She told me one day- better than I could put it – everyone says all her books seem to have a different voice. She said it's because they're all about different people and she tried to write in their voice. And succeeded!
When I started writing short stories they were all about a woman named Sheila. I realized I was writing about the same person, a version of me. Then I wrote about a woman with three arms who was definitely not me, who experienced a life completely different from mine and there was no turning back. If you're going to write about different people, be them. Be different people. Our worldview is so narrow and small. Step in someone else's heels. Fall down their stairs. Sleep outside in the dead leaves. Lick bugs. The world is so huge and we are tiny specks.
Stories are really just about what people do when stuff happens to them. Invent your people – pee out a person that's a collection of many things filtered through you – and then let and make things happen to them. If it doesn't seem real don't break your keyboard. The problem is you. Keep working. Time to go outside and sleep in the dead leaves. Look up. There's an awful lot of stars up there. Ignore the girl in the owl pajamas.
the playwright - edele winnie
EDELE EUGENIE WINNIE (playwright) hates all of her names and half of the people she meets. She sees things that other people don’t and she writes about them. She’s a house sitter, a dog walker, and was once hired as a chef in a fancy restaurant and then fired at sunset. Honestly, it wasn’t her fault. All the bodies are still hidden in the basement. Windsor Feminist Theatre produced her creepy play Nurdles and Waves in 2018. She’s written a large pile of short stories, some of which have been collected as books: Sometimes A Girl Just Has To Kill You, That Feeling In Your Stomach is My Knife, Sorry For Killing You So Many Times, and several more. Don’t ask about the Queen of Forks.She is not currently dating anyone.
REBECCA S. MICKLE is a singer, actress, and horror film enthusiast from Amherstburg, ON. She received her Bachelor of Music in Classical Voice from The University of Windsor and her Master of Music in Classical and Operatic Performance from Wayne State University. Her favourite roles include The Beggar Woman [Sweeney Todd] with Cardinal Music and Korda Artistic Productions, and Nancy [A Haunting in E Flat] with Post Productions. She is excited to be performing another fabulous new work with Post Productions. When she isn’t performing you can find her broadening minds at The Detroit Institute of Music Education, working on her debut album, and hanging out with her fluffy bunny, Mustache Sally.
STEPHANIE CRAGG is making her Post Productions debut. She has been acting in community theatre productions for the past 20 years. Favourite past roles include Ariel in The Tempest (Theatre Intrigue), Bilbo Baggins in the ‘Obbit (Korda Artistic Productions), Moth in Loves Labour’s Lost (Ghost Light Players), Lisa Simpson in Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play (Korda Artistic Productions), and the Owl in the Birds (Korda Artistic Productions). She also plays the Lady in White for the Spirits of Windsor bus tours (Encore Productions). Stephanie would like to say thank you to all the amazing cast and crew involved in this production; it has been an amazing experience! She would also like to thank all her family and friends for their unwavering support and encouragement.
CINDY PASTORIUS is thrilled to be back for her 4th show with Post Productions. Previous roles include: Flauvia/Belinda (Noises Off, The Bank Theatre), Mom (True West, Post Productions), Ms. Winsley (Stop Kiss, Post Productions), Witch 2 & Lady MacDuff (Macbeth, Korda Artistic Productions) Frances (Jenny's House of Joy, Theatre Ensemble), as well as playing chorus in many productions, including Les Miserables (Theatre Alive) and Aida. She has been active both on stage & behind the scenes in community theatre for nearly 20 years. She is a proud wife, mother, grandmother and high school teacher when she is not performing on stage.
COLIN ZORZIT is making his first appearance at the Shadowbox Theatre! Colin, a recent Master of Education graduate, has used theatre over the last seven years as a way to forget about his crippling student debt. Colin usually prefers to work behind the scenes, but has recently taken bringing silly roles to life more seriously. He most recently appeared as Robin Hood in Korda Artistic Production’s Robin Hood: The Panto. Other credits include Horatio/Romeo in Cheer Up, Hamlet!, Ensemble in Mother Courage and her Children, Seyton in Macbeth, and the Spartan Ambassador in Lysistrata, all with Korda Artistic Productions. He has also served as music and/or vocal director for Extension-Korda, Windsor Light Music Theatre, Holy Names Players, Villanova Players, and A Shot in the Dark Productions. If he’s not in a theatre, you can usually find Colin working at Zehrs. He would like to thank the wonderful folks at Post Productions for the opportunity to work with them and for adding even more silly characters to his resume before he moves away to Vancouver in July. Cheers!
GREGORY GIRTY is best known for playing villains: Bamatabois in Les Miserables (TheatreAlive), Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd *Cardinal Music Productions), Orin Scrivello in Little Shop of Horrors (Cardinal Music Productions), and Wolf in Into The Woods (Cardinal Music Productions), and Lawrence in Girl In The Goldfish Bow l(Korda Artistic Productions). His most recent appearance,was as Elliot in A Haunting in E Flat (Post Productions).
LUKE BOUGHNER is 257 months old. Here are a list of things he can do: He can eat food all by himself He can use the stove. He can get all dressed up by himself. He can count to ten without using his fingers. He can run so fast. This is his first play. He has always been passionate about film and the performing arts. As long as he can remember he’s loved entertaining people through every type of performance he discovered. Come watch this play or he’ll tell his mom on you.
MATTHEW BURGESS (Set Designer) has been involved in the local theatre scene for six years, trying his hand at nearly every element involved in bringing imaginary locations to life, though he specializes in scenic painting and design. He has been a crucial part of the Post Productions team since its third show, True West, and has since been the visual master behind ten Post Productions projects –most notably Equus, Stop Kiss, American Buffalo, and Another Fucking Christmas Play. In 2017, he was asked to design the masks and props for Walkerville’s WCCA production, Trojan Women, which was built in Stratford as part of their Off the Wall program. Some of Matt's work includes creating the Moose puppet from Korda Artistic Productions’ Evil Dead, and the scenic painting for both Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike and Company. He also does figurative sculpture of pop culture icons and did all of the chalkboard artwork found at Rogues Gallery Comics, located downtown. Matthew is now a Props Apprentice at the Stratford Festival Theatre.
CARTER DERSCH (Lighting Designer) is an active member of the Windsor theatre community who has worked on several Post Productions shows, most notably The Pillowman, Equus, Autopsy & A Haunting in E Flat, and Another Fucking Christmas Play: A Fucking Musical. You may have seen his work as lighting designer for Footloose (Arts Collective Theatre), Cabaret (Korda Artistic Productions), and MacBeth (Korda Artistic Productions). When he is not lighting up the stage, he can also be found doing various production work at venues such as the St. Clair Centre for the Arts, Foglar Furlan, Ciociaro Club, and Caesar’s Windsor. Carter is also the sound technician and overall roadie for the award-winning Detroit based band The Sun Messengers.
KRIS SIMIC (Poster & Program Designer) is a graphic designer with 10 years of experience in graphic/web design and print and social media marketing. She studied Drawing and Painting at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto before returning to her hometown of Windsor to earn her Graphic Design diploma at St. Clair College. Kris has been involved in Windsor-Essex theatre on stage as an actress and behind the scenes as a stage hand, set builder/decorator and marketing/graphic design since 2013. She’s enjoyed working with the Post Production team since their first production, Oleanna, designing their posters and programs. If you are interested in viewing samples of her work, all of her past posters with Post Productions are featured in the hallway of The Shadownox Theatre.
eric branget as katurian
Eric is an actor and educator. He has appeared in commercials for companies such as Visa, Oxford Notebooks, and Schick. In the television world, he has appeared in programs such as See No Evil, Scariest Night Of My Life and Evil Encounters. In the local theatre community, he has been most recently seen as Fr. Flynn in Doubt (Post Productions) Morris the gargoyle in Raise The Stakes (Larry Silverburg), and Jimmy McCrea in For The Love Of Late Night (Tall Tale Theatre Co). He is also a co-founding member and acting Artistic Director of Tall Tale Theatre Company. In his spare time Eric co-produces the horror/thriller style original radio play podcast, Night Terrors.
simon du toit as tupolski
Simon started out playing bad men and policemen years ago, so it’s fun to return to that territory! Sometimes there’s not much difference between the two. Simon’s theatre career has included stints as actor, director, designer, professor, dramaturg, historian, published theorist, adjudicator, light and sound operator, floor sweeper, van driver, etc. – a typical life in the theatre! Simon is delighted to be working for the first time with the talented Post Productions team. “Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written with his blood.” FWN.
joey wright as michal
Joey is thrilled to be back on the Shadowbox stage after an already exciting 2019 season starting with Korda’s Reefer Madness and the spooktacular Autopsy with Post Productions. Reuniting with Eric after 10 years has been a rewarding and exciting experience. Michal has been a difficult but rewarding character to bring to the stage, and he hopes you’ll find the entire show compelling and entertaining. Sit back and enjoy the dark comedy that is, The Pillowman.
fay lynn as ariel
Creative Director at Post Productions and co-owner of The Shadowbox Theatre, Fay has spent the better part of the last 20 years acting, directing, producing, stage managing, and filling in just about every other role she can in the Windsor-Essex theatrical community. Recent performance credits include Scattered Ecstasies 2019 – Vocalises at SHO Art, Spirit & Performance; Devil's Night (Trish) with Uncanny Visions; No Exit (Ines Serrano) with Post Productions; and Macbeth (Macbeth) with Korda Artistic Productions. Her next onstage endeavour will be as Emma in Harold Pinter's Betrayal at The Shadowbox Theatre in April 2020.
matthew burgess - set & Prop design, special effects & more
Matthew has been involved in the local theatre scene for six years, trying his hand at nearly every element involved in bringing imaginary locations to life, though he specializes in scenic painting and design. He has been a crucial part of the Post Productions team since its third show, True West, and has since been the visual master behind ten Post Productions projects –most notably Equus, Stop Kiss, American Buffalo, and Another Fucking Christmas Play. In 2017, he was asked to design the masks and props for Walkerville’s WCCA production, Trojan Women, which was built in Stratford as part of their Off the Wall program. Some of Matt's work includes creating the Moose puppet from Korda Artistic Productions’ Evil Dead, and the scenic painting for both Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike and Company. He also does figurative sculpture of pop culture icons and did all of the chalkboard artwork found at Rogues Gallery Comics, located downtown.
dave nisbet - composer / graphic designer
Dave has always been a creative person. Visually and musically he’s paved a path all his own over the past 10-ish years creating professionally -- from his years as the bombastic “Dave The Bassist” in a locally loved/hated band called Falling With Glory, to his current status as the freakshow they call DTB and “Junior: The Muscle” in the bank-robbing band called Case The Joint. You could say music is ingrained in him deeply. When it comes to graphic design he started with “Narrow Gate Designs” in 2010, designing t shirts and album covers. It has evolved into Narrow Gate Media, the one stop shop for graphic design, music production, music distribution, and more.
kieran potter a.k.a RAMENSPLOOSH - co-director & animator, animated shorts
Kieran is an up-and-coming artist extraordinaire. At 21 years young he has been creating art longer than he's been able to read. Currently a Visual Arts, and Communication, Media and Film double-major at the University of Windsor, this handsome lad has had a long history with Post Productions: having created the ShadowBox Theatre logo, many online ads, and contributing to a few posters. Kieran's artistic endeavors can all be seen through his slowly growing social-media empire under the pseudonym “RamenSploosh”, where he creates animations, drawings, sculptures, paintings, comics and even music. For comments, concerns, and business inquiries Kieran can be easily contacted through a Twitter direct message to @RamenSploosh, or by email at email@example.com anytime.
mitchell branget - co-director & editor, live-action shorts
Mitchell is a graduate of the University Of Windsor’s Communications Media and Film program, and is currently studying for his masters degree in film production. Mitchell has eight years of experience in the fields of writing, directing, and editing multimedia for film – primarily in the horror genre; his most recent film, Dreamer’s Journey, won Best Horror Film in the 40-minute category in its international debut at the Horror Of The Damned Film Festival in Milan, Italy. Mitchell has also won awards for his work in sound mixing and special-makeup effects.
sadie alejandria - stage manager
Sadie has been involved in theatre since the age of 6 when she joined the chorus in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. She also played one of the royal children in Windsor Light’s The King And I which was the first time she worked with Michael Potter and Michael O’Reilly, two of the founders of Post Productions. Sadie got her first stage-managing role during Annie Of Green Gables Get Your Gun - a holiday panto at the Kordazone Theatre in 2017. Next came Post Productions’ Stop Kiss where she shared those duties for this well-received thought-provoking drama. That was followed by three more shows in the same behind-the-scenes role at the ShadowBox Theatre working with Fay Lynn and friends old and new. Her next project will be Shrek The Musical, opening in February 2020. It is a show dear to her heart because she played Young Shrek during its run 5 years ago and will be its stage-manager this time around. Sadie is grateful to be given the opportunity and experience at age 16 by the Post Productions creative team and she hopes you enjoy their offering of The Pillowman.
carter dersch - lighting designer & operator
Carter is an active member of the Windsor theatre community and is excited to be back at Shadowbox Theatre after designing and operating for the sold-out performances of Autopsy & Haunting in E Flat in October. He was thrilled to be a part of the production team for Shadowbox’s -----------, Equus, Another F** Christmas Play. You may have seen his work recently as lighting designer for Footloose (ACT), Cabaret (Korda Artistic Productions), MacBeth (Korda), ----------. When he is not lighting up the stage, he can also be found doing various production work at venues such as the St. Clair Centre for the Arts, Foglar Furlan, Ciociaro Club, and Caesar’s Windsor. Carter is also the sound technician and overall roadie for the award-winning Detroit based band The Sun Messengers. would like to dedicate his life’s work and this bio to his mother.]
kris simic - poster & program designer
Kris is a Graphic Designer with 10 years of experience in graphic/web design and print and social media marketing. She studied Drawing and Painting at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto before returning to her hometown of Windsor to earn her Graphic Design diploma at St. Clair College. Kris has been involved in Windsor-Essex theatre on stage as an actress and behind the scenes as a stage hand, set builder/decorator and marketing/graphic design since 2013. She’s enjoyed working with the Post Production team since their first production, Oleanna, designing their posters and programs. If you are interested in viewing samples of her work, all of her past posters with PP are featured in their hall. She hopes you enjoy The Pillowman!
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE PLAYWRIGHTS BEHIND AUTOPSY AND A HAUNTING IN E FLAT: ALEX MONK AND JOEY OUELLETTE
Interview by Michael K. Potter
POTTER: How would you summarize your play? What's it about, what happens, and what makes it unique and/or interesting?
ALEX MONK: Autopsy is very much about how toxic our surroundings can be on our emotional and physical well-being. Our life choices and career choices, although they may seem like the safe options, can have effects on us – especially if we're not honest with ourselves. In this play we follow Gary, who's lost himself along the path of life, and now it's far too late. When you start talking to dead bodies and seeing yourself in them, the similarities can be quite horrific.
JOEY OUELLETTE: Thomas Nett is a paranormal investigator. When his niece Charmaine assists on a pair of investigations they uncover more than they had expected in a terrifying way. Why do people get
haunted? Why do other people investigate these things? A Haunting in E Flat answers these questions
but mixes the boos with laughs so it's both spooky and fun.
POTTER: What led you started writing this script? Was it an idea that just popped into your head, an
experience that made you reflect, something else entirely? And once you started, what was the
writing process like for you?
MONK: At the time I was working at an animal hospital where we experienced pet death every day. And
it was the safe choice for me, full time with benefits. But it was really wearing on me, and I really drew
parallels between my life and the play. When I started writing it almost flowed from my fingers, but
after re-reading I found it needed a lot of editing. The most important part was getting it all down, then
polishing it to the finished product that it is.
OUELLETTE: I've been haunted. It really freaked me out. Once you open that door, once you know that
door is there, many things are possible, most of them scary. I began to study the paranormal, and how
people – between hunters – confront it and deal with it. I'd written a series of Thomas Nett plays that
were produced years ago and the ideas and themes were still haunting me, so I opened the door again .
POTTER: You both won the first annual Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest. Tell me about that
experience and how it affected the approach you took to developing your script.
MONK: It was nice writing it within the time constraints that the contest held because I really need a kick in the pants when it comes to writing. I have about 4 unfinished scripts at home that I get halfway
through then have an idea for another that I begin to pursue under the idea that I've got lots of time to
finish the first script.
OUELLETTE: I was very happy to win. Not so that I can brag, but because I love to tell stories and work
in theatre. There's nothing greater than that. The act of creating something – gathering random
meaningless strings of experience and ideas and weaving them into a moving story – is the most
powerful personal experience I've ever felt. Sharing the script— having it produced – is the ultimate
giving and sharing. It's an incredible feeling.
POTTER: Which stories and storytellers – in whatever genre, format, or medium – influence your
writing? What inspired you – and continues to inspire you?
MONK: I couldn't really narrow it down to one medium. I take it many different genres and formats, but
I think my favorite is when, whatever the show or production is, they incorporate improv into the
scripts. Allowing room for flow and new ideas coming in and out of what's written is so much fun for
creators and for audiences.
OUELLETTE: Oh my. I read a lot. I like the work of KJ Parker most of the time. There's really too many
influences to list. I think theatre, for an audience, is to experience things that make them feel. When I
walk down the street I am bombarded by intense experiences. I try to hold onto a few of them and
share them. They're like ghosts that only I can see. Hopefully an audience at one of my plays can
somehow see them too.
POTTER: You're an actor (and/or director, producer ...) as well as a writer. How do the different
positions you've filled over the years in the worlds of theatre and comedy intersect? How do they
inform - or even interfere - with each other?
MONK: Being involved in all those different parts helps a show that I work on in the way that I can see it
from many perspectives. I may think a certain joke is hilarious on paper, but on the stage it isn't very
practical to do. Or when I'm acting, something in the script might bother me, and I'll be able to come up
with effective solutions or see the reason for the trouble spot. When you're only an actor you may have
a hard time seeing the full picture. Just as in comedy if you produce the show, it changes your view on
the overall success of the show and you're more capable of critically evaluating the show, and your own
performance. The diverse roles I've filed have helped me develop into a better comedian/actor/writer.
OUELLETTE: Life is a strange journey. I'm intensely private and shy. In school I'd take a mark of zero
rather than speak in front of a class. From there I became an actor. That's a bit of a jump, I know. As an
actor I was hungry for experience but found many scripts were either not of interest or too expensive.
So I began to write. Not well. It's essential to take ego out of the equation. I began to direct so that
others could interpret what I wrote. Hopefully, over time, I've become better at all three. Theatre is a
team event. For me, writing, acting and directing can all help influence the journey in the best direction.
ALEX MONK (Playwright, Autopsy) is a new writer. Autopsy was one of the first two plays he wrote simultaneously. Usually an improviser, over the past few years he has become more involved in the theatre scene through acting, and now playwriting. The idea for this particular work came to him while he worked at a job surrounded by death - but he'll leave you to guess what that was. Alex is excited to see his vision come to (un)life and hear the thoughts of family and friends about his play. He is a pisces and enjoys tennis.
DAVID DUCHENE (Gary) has been involved in theatre for over fifty years. He was last seen on a Windsor stage in the title role of Korda Artistic Production’s Doctor Faustus. Other Korda credits include Pisthetairos in The Birds, Dottie Primrose in Devil Boys From Beyond and Father in Eurydice. He has performed extensively on several Michigan stages, done theatrical tours of both the US and Canada and has been seen or heard in commercials for television and radio. He has also voiced numerous titles for the Blue Diamond Audio Books series. He is delighted and honored to be performing for the first time with Post Productions!
JOEY WRIGHT (John Doe) is thriller to be making his Shadowbox debut with the cast and crew of Autopsy. Fresh off directing Reefer Madness at Kordazone, Joey has been a member of the theatre community for eight years performing in over 20 productions. Previous roles include Austin in True West, Ed in Evil Dead the Musical and The Man in Hard Hearts. He didn’t earn his nickname as Korda’s favourite corpse for nothing and he looks forward to expanding that monicker to Post.
DREW BEAUDOIN (Michael) has been an actor for his entire time in Windsor, joining the theatre scene relatively late in life. Since moving here from Toronto, he's performed with Korda Artistic Productions and Cardinal Music Productions, and is thrilled to be making his debut with Post Productions. Past credits include Paul in Company, Clopin in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Gabe in Next to Normal. Aside from theatre, Drew spends most of his time surrounded by his three cats.
REBECCA S. MICKLE (Marie-Louise) is a singer, actress, and Oxford comma enthusiast from Amherstburg, ON. She received her Bachelor of Music in Classical Voice from The University of Windsor and her Master of Music in Classical and Operatic Performance from Wayne State University. Her favourite roles include The Beggar Woman [Sweeney Todd] and Rapunzel [Into The Woods] with Cardinal Music Productions and Korda Artistic Productions. She is excited to be making her Post Productions debut with these fabulous shows! When she isn’t performing you can find her throwing hammer and caber, and hanging out with her two fluffy bunnies.
JOEY OUELLETTE (Playwright, A Haunting in E Flat) is super excited to release some ghosts at the Shadowbox with the premiere of his play A Haunting In E Flat! He researched this show by interviewing and accompanying different ghost hunters and groups, as well as including some of his own paranormal experiences. With over 200 produced plays to his credit, Joey’s words have been spoken all over North America. Boo!
JAMES STONE (Thomas Nett) is extremely proud to be performing with the remarkable cast of The Haunting in E-Flat. James, who also teaches high school drama, has been performing in various community theatre productions for over 25 years, including Cabaret, Noises Off, Jitters, and The Teahouse of the August Moon.
CARLA GYEMI (Charmaine) is thrilled to be back at the Shadowbox Theatre in this spooktacular show and channel some spirits! Carla made her Post Productions debut as Sister James in Doubt, and also had the pleasure of being part of their wild Christmas show last December. Joining the theatre community at an early age, Carla has enjoyed playing with, and learning from, many casts and companies. Past roles include Kathy in Company, Roz in 9 to 5, The Baker's Wife in Into the Woods, Demeter in Cats, Tiger Lily in Peter Pan(to), and Agnes in The Divine Sister.
REBECCA S. MICKLE (Nancy) is a singer, actress, and Oxford comma enthusiast from Amherstburg, ON. She received her Bachelor of Music in Classical Voice from The University of Windsor and her Master of Music in Classical and Operatic Performance from Wayne State University. Her favourite roles include The Beggar Woman [Sweeney Todd] and Rapunzel [Into The Woods] with Cardinal Music Productions and Korda Artistic Productions. She is excited to be making her Post Productions debut with these fabulous shows! When she isn’t performing you can find her throwing hammer and caber, and hanging out with her two fluffy bunnies.
GREGORY GIRTY (Elliot) is best known for playing villains: Bamatabois in Les Miserables, Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, Orin Scrivello in Little Shop of Horrors, and Wolf in Into The Woods. His most recent appearance, as Lawrence in Girl In The Goldfish Bowl, was his first departure from musical theatre. He joins Post Productions for his second non-musical role.
Photo Credit Michael K. Potter
JOEY OUELLETTE (Donny Dubrow) has participated in more than 500 different productions as an actor, director and playwright -- most recently Spirals and Best For You with The Purple Theatre Company, Big Green Sky and Riveter with Windsor Feminist Theatre, Yellow Vines and The Man Who Married A Chicken with Paperknife Theatre and Post Production’s Equus and Nothing But The Truth. He’s toured extensively with children’s shows and was part of the Canadian touring production of Cannibal Cheerleaders On Crack. Why isn’t there a regular improv company in Windsor? It’s time there was one. Upcoming he will be directing his ancient Greek style play Doves at War at the Pelee Quarry amphitheatre and performing in Marjorie Prime with Bloomsbury House at Sho. A winner of the 2018 Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest, Joey’s plays have been produced all over North America; this October you can see his latest play, A Haunting in E Flat, at The Shadowbox Theatre.
MARK LEFEBVRE (Teach) graduated from the University of Windsor’s School of Dramatic Art, and over the last 30 years has been performing in and producing professional theatre, film, dance, music and visual art works. He toured internationally with Gina Lori Riley Dance Enterprises, sings with Ian Smith’s Spectrum Chorus and co-founded the award winning troupe Stilt Guys. Mark taught at St. Clair College, and was a therapeutic clown doctor (Dr. Dan D. Lion). Married to the lovely and talented Susan Doucet, he is the proud father of sons Jacques, Sylvan and Cavelle. His middle name is Art.
SEAMUS TOKOL (Bobby) recently graduated from Walkerville Centre for the Creative Arts as a student in drama, vocal and media. Theatre credits include Ariste in The Learned Ladies, Caractacus in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and most recently Jean in Rhinoceros. He also directed Walkerville's entry in the NTS Drama Festival, The Tell-Tale Heart, for which he won an award of excellence for direction. He would like to thank all of his friends and family for their support in his artistic endeavours. He would also like to apologize to Donny.
Photo Credit The Headshot Company
JESSIE GURNIAK as Rachel Klein
Jessie has been active in Windsor's theatre scene for over 10 years, getting her start in Theatre Alive's summer camps. Now she has branched out and been part of productions with other companies such as Windsor Light Musical Theatre, Cardinal Music Productions, Korda Artistic Productions -- and is thrilled to be making her debut with Post Productions. Selected past credits include Joan in Fun Home, Cheryl in Evil Dead: The Musical, Jemima in Cats, and Shprintze in Fiddler on the Roof. Aside from theatre, Jessie has been in a handful of short films and music videos and is in her first year of Public Relations at St. Clair College MediaPlex.
MICHELE LEGERE as Dr. Marilyn Morgenstern
This is Michele’s second show with Post Productions, having recently played Dora Strang in Equus. She was recently seen as Joan in Strangers Among Us with Korda Artistic Productions. In 2017, Michele received the Best Actress in a Lead Performance award at the Western Ontario Drama League Festival for her role as Nora in Ghostlight Production’s Better Living. For that same show, she earned a nomination for Best Performance in a Lead Role at the Theatre Ontario Festival in Ottawa. You can next see Michele in The Drowning Girls with Ghostlight Productions.
SHAYNA REISS as Carmen Garcia
Shayna Reiss is excited and grateful to be performing as a powerful Latina lawyer. Interested in acting since she as very young – and falling in love with it when her first commercial aired in 2006 – Shayna received a scholarship and studied at New York Film Academy for Acting and Performing Arts. She continued to pursue her love of acting by being a part of community theatre, by attending acting seminars and International competitions, and now by acting her first role with Post Productions. You may have recently seen Shayna in the ensemble of Windsor Light Musical Theatre’s production of Mamma Mia last year. Shayna thanks her mother, Christine Cooper, for always being supportive of her passion for acting, and dedicates her performance to the memory of her loving and devoted father, Mark Reiss.
PAUL SALMON as Stan Goldman
Paul has been performing in stage plays since the age of twelve, and feels blessed to have played some powerful characters. Paul has also been involved in some local film productions playing a kidnapper/rapist, a school teacher, and an extremely irritated father at the dinner table. Paul loves the craft of acting completely and is grateful to be a part of this wonderful cast in this edgy drama, working again with Fay, Michele, and Joey Ouellette after many years – and sharing the stage with Jessie and Shayna, two talented young actors, for the first time.
JOEY OUELLETTE as Dr. Jerome Adler
Joey has participated in more than 500 different productions as an actor, director and playwright -- most recently Spirals and Best For You with The Purple Theatre Company, Big Green Sky and Riveter with Windsor Feminist Theatre, and Yellow Vines and The Man Who Married A Chicken with Paperknife Theatre. He’s toured extensively with children’s shows and was part of the Canadian touring production of Cannibal Cheerleaders On Crack. He was there the night the audience stormed the stage. Please don’t do that. Joey’s specialization – and passion – is playing animals. He also played the sheep in a touring production of Charlotte’s Web, the flying fox in What’s Happening In The Rainforest, and as an elephant in the Secret Garden. His favourite role was the cat in The Purple Theatre’s Production of A Cat, A Vacuum and The Colour Orange.You may also have seen him recently in Post Productions’ Equus as the really tall horse at the back (and as Frank Strang). A winner of the 2018 Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest, Joey’s plays have been produced all over North America; this October you can see his latest play, A Haunting in E Flat, at The Shadowbox Theatre.
A playwright, monologist, essayist, and author of a memoir, Eve Lederman’s name is not familiar to the Windsor-Essex theatre audience – yet. With the premiere of her play, Nothing But The Truth, at The Shadowbox Theatre on April 19th, people are going to be talking and thinking and arguing about her work in 2019 – and hopefully for many years to come.
The play – produced by Post Productions and running for five performances from April 19th to 27th – already has quite a history. It was named a finalist and “highly commended play” in the BBC’s International Playwriting Competition, a finalist for the ScreenCraft Stage Play Competition, and was produced as a radio drama with The Radio Theatre Project. The play has been developed in New York City for several years: it appeared in Theatre for the New City’s Dream Up festival and the T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre’s New Work Project and was also a semi-finalist for Theatre Resources Unlimited’s TRU Voices series, the Urban Stages Development Program, and the Normal Ave Playwriting Series. Elsewhere it has been a semi-finalist in Geva Theatre’s Festival of New Theatre (Rochester, NY), The Phoenix Theatre Festival of New American Theatre, the Theatre Evolve New Works festival (Chicago, IL), and the Bridge Initiative/Women in Theatre contest (Mesa, AZ) – amongst others.
The production at The Shadowbox Theatre will mark the first time Nothing But The Truth has been produced as a stage play.
Recently, Eve Lederman chatted with Post Productions’ managing director Michael K. Potter about the play, her writing process, how to handle feedback – and in general, what it means to be an up-and-coming playwright in the competitive world of contemporary theatre.
MICHAEL K. POTTER: For those readers who are coming in cold, can you tell us, briefly, what Nothing But The Truth is about – in terms of story, but also in terms of theme?
EVE LEDERMAN: Nothing But The Truth depicts the volatile relationship between a patient and her therapist enmeshed in a malpractice case. Rachel is a vivacious yet distraught young woman exploring family secrets with her maternal doctor Marilyn. But when Marilyn faces questions in a lawsuit for abruptly terminating Rachel’s treatment, she paints her as violent and an explosive, life-altering battle ensues. The story is about therapy, betrayal and the blurry line between obsession and love as told through the warped lens of the court system.
Furthermore, in our current cultural climate, I think a play that portrays a struggle about what the truth means and how we dispute facts presents a timely and provocative topic.
POTTER: Tell us how Nothing But The Truth started for you. How did the idea for this play occur to you, how did it eventually become a radio play, and what has the process of developing it to this point involved for you?
EVE LEDERMAN: I’m fascinated by the idea of therapy – it’s the only relationship that exists where nobody else knows what takes place between the two. You don’t engage in the outside world; no one else will ever see you interact or be privy to your conversations.
I also think the dynamic of transference is remarkably fierce as well as potentially volatile – I went to therapy in my twenties to talk about boyfriend troubles and my career, and transference hit me like a truck. The power of “unconditional positive regard”—being seen, heard, understood and accepted—caries incredible power, one that a therapist must use wisely.
Finally, I’m also intrigued by the idea that therapists often pursue the field in relation to their own traumas, in the way that addicts become drug counselors. What if they’re not exactly healed?
During the development of the script, one of the early critiques was that the play was too talky and static – factors that are rather inherent to both therapy and depositions! There’s no dancing, screaming, choking, slapping or thumb-wrestling as in my other play To Life. So when I saw a submission opportunity for a radio play – where, of course, visual elements would fall flat – I thought Nothing But the Truth would be a perfect fit. The rewriting process was rather simple as very little dialogue needed altering. Often you just need to add the name of the person the character is addressing to clarify who the dialogue is directed to. The fun part was creating the sound design – every time a door opens or closes, or a character walks across the room, the audience hears that element, and there’s definitely an art to it. When Carmen walks in, do we hear the confident clickety-clack of high-heeled pumps or the shuffle of sensible shoes? And don’t get me started on the range of vomit sound effects . . .
POTTER: During its development, Nothing But the Truth has been a competitor in several contests. I can’t help but wonder how those experiences affected your choices while revising the script – were they helpful to you in some way? And if so, could you give us some insight into how?
EVE LEDERMAN: Several is an understatement – try 740 (over four years)! I believe in submitting to everything as you never know what door will open. The competitions themselves haven’t furthered the script, but sometimes they ask for a list of developmental goals which forces me think about what I still need to work on.
Overall it can be a frustrating process – you don’t want to submit too early when the script is rough around the edges. And by the time they get around to making a decision 8 months later you’ve already made revisions but can’t fire off a note saying, “Wait, read this one!” On the flip side, I had my script rejected recently as a finalist for a playwriting lab because I was told it was too developed and they wanted to see a script evolve.
The contests that lead to readings are the most beneficial—and it certainly helps when the theater foots the bill!
POTTER: Which stories and storytellers – in whatever genre, format, or media – influenced your approach to Nothing But the Truth? What inspired you – and continues to inspire you?
EVE LEDERMAN: I try to just stay open to a variety of media when I’m in the groove, and things serendipitously jump out that speak to me and fuel my creativity. For instance, I read an op-ed in the NY Times about whether pedophilia might fall along the OCD spectrum and I took that debate, gave it to my characters and let them hash it out. Likewise, I saw the film The Tale, which affected me deeply; I introduced it to my character Rachel and let her wrestle with my own questions in her therapy.
Early on in the writing I watched Oleanna and Collected Stories to see power plays in action, and a monologue in the latter inspired me to add one in my play. I loved a review of one Oleanna performance which noted that audience members broke out into a fist fight after the show, and another said that for Mamet, “conversation is a blood sport and words are lethal weapons” – a sentiment that I hope to emulate!
I’m inspired by a wide range of storytellers. I relate to Paula Vogel’s ethos that “the more we tell our own truth, the more everyone can tell theirs.” Neil Simon wrote an essay that I love in which he describes himself as a two-headed beast – one part is the human involved in interactions, and the second is a writer- monster who’s simultaneously observing and taking notes. I live in this duality and find that when my heart gets crushed and says, “Oh my god, this is devastating; I can’t survive,” while my head is yelling at me to take notes because this experience is a gold mine, that’s the sweet spot where I find the most compelling material.
I think theater should make people uncomfortable, as Edward Albee said, challenging audiences to confront situations and ideas that lie outside their comfort zones. Plays aren’t meant to be pleasant and safe, but rather “constructed as correctives” to hold a mirror up to people. My goal, like Albee, is for “the audience to run out of the theater — but to come back and see the play again.” And Terrance McNally said that a woman approached him after Mothers and Sons and told him that the play moved her to reconnect with her child. I, too, hope to create work that reminds us that we’re not alone.
POTTER: Having read a couple of versions of this play, I know you made some changes over the last year to address contemporary events and developments – such as the rise of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The influence of this fascinating politician on the character of Carmen intrigues me. What changed once you decided to include that influence? How did her example change the character of Carmen?
EVE LEDERMAN: Early on, the two lawyers in the play were cardboard cutouts; they didn’t have personalities outside their legal wrangling; they didn’t have anything at stake beyond the case, and there was little relationship between them. Over time, I played with how to create tension and conflict between their characters. At first the female lawyer was very overweight in comparison to her virile male counterpart. I also toyed with a haggard, middle-aged female attorney. In one reading I reversed the roles with a wise, older male attorney patronizing his young ingénue opponent.
And then a few factors collided – I read an article in The Atlantic about how female trial attorneys are routinely harassed and demeaned and it also mentioned that minorities are sorely underrepresented in the industry. At the same time, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was beginning her meteoric rise and subsequently trounced her white male opponent. I heard that her campaign contributions came from across the country and she raised millions with donations that averaged twenty dollars. I thought perhaps I could tap into the zeitgeist with a Latina heroine (and there aren’t roles for many), which could also help build an audience and perhaps even fundraise for self-production.
From there I took a deep dive into research about female trial attorneys’ experiences to create an authentic character and started to incorporate those stories into the text – for instance, the Bar Association’s resolution preventing men from calling female attorneys by pet names like “honey” or “darling” in court!
POTTER: I now get the sense that the two lawyers, Carmen and Stan, have dealt with each other before, but that Carmen is still a little green – though on the ascent. Stan seems almost bewildered by her in the early scenes, not quite certain what to make of her growing confidence and clear ability. So the audience gets to experience this intriguing relationship between two professionals with very different points of view, different experiences, who also represent larger cultural forces and debates. What about your principal characters, Rachel and Marilyn? What inspired their characterizations, and what do they represent beyond themselves?
EVE LEDERMAN: I’ve seen – ahem – a few therapists (it’s as routine as getting your nails done in New York), and Marilyn is a compilation of many of them. In fact, I often find myself whipping my phone out during a session to make note of something I’m going to use. (Or, alternatively, sobbing while a voice in the back of my head says, “Damn girl, that’s good – write it down!”)
But on a larger scale, Marilyn represents the imbalance of power that medical professionals hold—both in terms of the relationship’s emotional dynamic (in a therapeutic setting) and the fact that the doctor holds the degree, training and expertise while the patient is deemed the weaker “sick one,” mentally or physically. Furthermore, the Hippocratic oath “do no harm” is accompanied by the unspoken oath “admit no harm.” Doctors are cautioned to never acknowledge wrongdoing or even to apologize because that opens to the door to a lawsuit. In fact, a woman I know sued a prominent hospital for malpractice after cancer surgery—the surgeon left a sponge in her which appeared on the x-ray and yet they refused to settle, deeming her pain as malingering. And I was moved by a man at one of my readings who spoke about a family member hospitalized for mental illness; he acknowledged feeling powerless as the doctors who discounted him.
Rachel represents the deep, pervasive and lifelong ramifications of sexual abuse. I think the statistics bandied about – one in four women are victims – as well as the rather generic descriptions of the consequences of sexual abuse (who doesn’t suffer from depression or low self-esteem?) belie the true devastation and destruction.
POTTER: The play asks audiences to consider two very different points of view on an intense relationship that didn’t work out as either party intended or wished. This isn’t easy, but as a producer it’s something I appreciate, as most of the plays I’ve produced feature just this sort of ambiguity, seeking to create ambivalence in the audience – for instance, Oleanna, True West, Equus, and Doubt. How did you try to ensure that each character was heard on her own terms, without undue judgment on your part, and without pushing the audience to favour one side over the other?
EVE LEDERMAN: It was a long evolution and a delicate balance to get to that point. In my first draft, I had a clear villain and heroine; one character had clearly wronged the other. Then I read something that said both characters in an argument must be right and after a reading, a producer told me to consider the Rashomon effect – which takes every character’s point of view into account. I started rewriting with that in mind (more than 30 drafts!), also considering timing: Reveal something too soon and the character is waving a big red flag; too late, and the audience may have forgotten the previous bread crumb I dropped. However, it was primarily feedback that helped to shape the balance over numerous readings – mainly from audiences, but also from actors, directors, producers, therapists and lawyers. I got the play into anyone’s hands who was willing to look at it with a new perspective and a fresh eye and I always walked away with useful critique.
Initially, the therapist was too unprofessional and clearly at fault; then I swung too far and the patient was crazy and manipulative. Reading and talkbacks were critical to hearing what worked and I was lucky to have passionate audiences who engaged in vigorous conversation, illuminating points I wasn’t able to see from the inside.
POTTER: What an amazing opportunity it is to get feedback on your work. We can so easily become lost in our own perspectives, assumptions, and histories when writing. Often what’s necessary is to find out what sort of meaning others are making from our work so we can ask ourselves questions like, Are people interpreting this story in the way I intended – and if not, is that all right? Yet, many writers worry that they’ll lose their unique voices and their intentions by listening to and trying to incorporate feedback. How do you handle the task of attending to feedback while maintaining your authorial voice and intentions?
EVE LEDERMAN: It is a very delicate balance, no doubt! There is no roadmap in deciding what to incorporate and what to discard in terms of feedback, plus I find that can also change over time. Actually, I was a bit misleading in my previous mention of rewriting with the Rashomon effect in mind; I did do so...but not for a year. I initially discounted the idea because I couldn’t envision how to incorporate it. Also, early on, someone suggested I open the play with the ending and I junked that. Then a few years later after other elements had evolved, it suddenly made sense. I think one red flag to look out for is when someone’s feedback aims to alter the essence of your story. I had an agent interested in the play, but she thought the therapist should have her children taken away from her for neglect. “When I go to the playground, you wouldn’t believe how many parents ignore their kids,” she mused. That was her story to tell, not mine, even it if meant losing out on an agent.
Also realize that you can’t please everyone. That sounds simplistic but I read a great quote that said to have a hit play, people have to love it and others have to hate it. Otherwise it’s just mediocre. In fact, one close friend whose opinion I trust loved the first iteration of the play, which revolved around only the patient and therapist, good and evil, and has stated that I’ve since “destroyed it!”
The antidote, I believe, is to have one trusted producer or director who is your rock during years of development and I’m so grateful to have found that in Frank Calo of FMC Productions. I knew him casually from my neighborhood and pulled him into the festival production four years ago to assist with contracts. Our creative partnership blossomed from there and we’ve spent countless hours poring over scripts together. I bounce ideas off him, send him new writing, and discuss feedback and he guides me with direction that takes my work to another level. Writers can spend a lifetime in search of this partnership, but if you find a director who gets you and believes in your work (and devotes years of unpaid hours!), nurture the relationship and cherish it!
POTTER: Why did you end up sending your play to Post Productions? And what has that experience been like – having your play produced by a little theatre company in a small city far from where you live?
EVE LEDERMAN: In the United States, competition for readings and festivals with the faint hope of production is fierce. Theaters get many many hundreds of submissions for a single slot so I decided to branch out to Canada and contacted theaters that had produced plays with similar themes.
I was utterly shocked (and thrilled!) to get an email back from Post Productions quickly with interest in reading the play and indicating a decision would be made in a couple weeks, and I found other Canadian theaters were equally approachable. In New York, a theater can take 8 to 12 months to respond to an email. One took 18 months to reply to my 10-page sample and request the full script. I’m waiting another 8 months and counting to get a response to that.
I will concede that is hard to hand over my first production without being involved in casting and rehearsals, and even more so because I simply love the process of making the play come alive. Ultimately, I have to trust that my vision on the page will guide the way.
POTTER: It’s a strong vision, and I promise we’ll do our best! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.
Pointers, Advice, Guidelines, Tips, and Tricks
By Matt St. Amand and Michael K. Potter
This missive of advice is intended, specifically, for playwrights submitting their work to the Annual Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest. Because of this, some of the advice found herein may not be generally applicable to those writing for other audiences and contexts. Still, most of it is general advice about playwriting and storytelling – even general advice about writing in the broadest sense. Note, however, that we don’t consider ourselves to be infallible authorities on this – or anything, really.
Now: where to begin?
First, let’s get this out of the way: Unless you’re some sort of exquisitely rare superhuman (you aren’t) you need to READ, a lot, in order to write well. Specifically, you need to read plays in order to write good plays. For one thing, reading is to the mind as eating is to the body. Without a steady flow of ideas, without the accumulation of experiences in which you’ve interpreted and analyzed and puzzled over text, without frequent acquaintance with the synthesis of connecting stories to your own memories and beliefs, your mind will starve. Okay, maybe that’s an overstatement. Perhaps it’s just the part of your mind that you need to write that starves. But you get the point.
Secondly, when we read a script penned by someone who doesn’t read plays, it shows. The writer doesn’t know the conventions of the medium, and often seems to be presenting us with a novel rather than a play. Playwriting is an art unto itself, and even if you’re a bestselling novelist, it doesn’t mean you can write a play. What works in one medium may not work in another.
So: you need to read plays. Buy some. Borrow some from the library. Find some online. Read as many plays as possible – preferably good ones.
Now let’s re-start with THE BIG PICTURE. A script is good when its strengths are obvious, so the reader doesn’t have to search for its merits. You don’t want your readers to ask themselves questions like, “Am I enjoying what I'm reading?” or “Am I struggling to get through it?”
What are those merits? Don’t ask us – the particular merits of your writing are, well, particular to you. But one thing all good writers share is ORIGINALITY – ideas and an authorial voice all their own. We’re often surprised by how much writing seems to be created by people who are imitating the sort of writing they enjoy reading (the common downside to the necessity of reading). There’s nothing wrong with a bit of imitation – after all, the entire fantasy genre wouldn’t exist if authors didn’t want to imitate Tolkien—but the hazard is that the result will be a photocopy of a photocopy, lacking definition and vividness. We’d rather read the script others would want to imitate.
So, how do you write a compelling play? The good news and the bad news is that nobody can tell you exactly how to write a compelling play. We can offer advice regarding essentials, share experiences about what’s worked for others, and tell you what to avoid. But writing a play is bigger than all of that. If you care to read further, we can describe at least one person’s process.
At the outset, we need to demystify the whole concept of “ideas”. New writers regard ideas as diamond-encrusted gifts from the gods, believe that they are rare and few and precious. In reality, ideas should be regarded as perishable, plentiful and expendable, like tomatoes.
When an idea materializes, don’t regard it as a miracle. Regard it as a tomato. Examine it looking for flaws and imperfections. Squeeze the tomato to see if it’s mushy. Smell it to see if it’s about to go bad. Examine its size – is it puny? Is it a bulging mutant?
Do not put ideas on pedestals; put them on the ground and step on them.
If we do that, we’ll squash them! a voice cries out.
We want to squash and discard ideas by the dozen, by the score, by the gross, by the great gross.
Why? But why? the voice cries out.
To find those ideas that don’t just squish under our foot. They are out there, but the only way of finding them is by digging through all the mediocre ideas and discarding them all. Don’t expect the surviving tomato/idea to be a glowing prodigy of tomatoes. The best ideas are often very simple.
Some people keep writing journals. Michael does; his notebooks and doc files go back to the mid-1990s. Others, like Matt, do not. He used to, and soon found it filled with flabby, half-baked, useless fragments. There came a point he no longer feared forgetting an idea. If an idea is any good, it’ll come back to him. Your memory may work differently. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
One idea that recurred to Matt was simple: two people in a room. The image was so pedestrian anyone else might have thought, “Certainly, that’ll squash under foot worse than the rest!” It did not, however – because Matt sensed (a) the people were trapped; (b) they were not friends, but also not enemies; they were skeptical of each other, but would also help each other – to a degree.
Who were these people? A man and a woman. The man was Reinhart, a name with a bit of bite, unusual so that it was slightly memorable. He worked in Logistics and Risk Management – a very corporate-sounding department, but with little indication about its actual purpose/function. The woman was Rainbow, a softer, more pleasant, unusual name. But every idea is a tomato. After giving the name “Rainbow” the squash test, it didn’t pass. Too hippy-esque. Matt tried several other names. Finally, “Meghan” passed the squash test. She worked in Wellness, which was also relatable, but with an ambiguous purpose/function. Matt wanted to work with audience expectations immediately, to let them make assumptions based on his characters’ names, their departments, all easily revealed in an ordinary introduction to one another.
Why were Meghan and Reinhart in the room? Were they incarcerated? Kidnapped? No.
There was an emergency and they were in a “safe room” in their building.
What kind of emergency? A gunman in the building would be timely. A bomb threat could be compelling. A person who went crazy, stripped off their clothes and did a nude-run could be funny.
But Matt kept stepping on the ideas and they kept squashing.
Then came the idea: Meghan and Reinhart don’t know what the emergency is.
That idea didn’t squash.
At first, it seemed less exciting than the others – but it didn’t squash. So, Matt explored it. As it turned out, the idea allowed him to reveal his characters quickly, as they spoke of their own ideas about why a “shelter in place” had been called. Meghan is a worrier, fatalistic, certain that some disaster has occurred. Reinhart is cynical and dismissive, believing the emergency is merely a drill, a waste of time. This immediately created conflict as they argued about why they believed what they believed. Tensions escalated as each attempted to convince the other that their idea is the correct one. This triggered ideas for dialogue, creating a natural push-pull dynamic.
So, now let’s get into some details about playwriting and storytelling.
With vanishingly few exceptions, the success of your play as a story, as a memorable experience, as a source of intrigue and enjoyment, will depend on its characters. Characters are the heart of your story, the means by which you communicate your themes and plot, the source of investment for your audience’s emotions, and the driving force of everything that happens. So you want to think them through carefully and really work to ensure you get them right.
Most of time, you’ll want to ensure your characters come across as real, distinct human beings with their own personalities, desires, ideas, motivations, voices, dreams, fears, beliefs, values, secrets, talents, foibles, and histories. That’s a tall order, but think about every person you know: all of these qualities can be found in them. Even if you’re a cynical misanthrope who believes everyone is fundamentally the same, that belief won’t help you write a good story with compelling characters. For the purposes of storytelling, treat each character you’re writing as unique – and know what makes them unique. If you don’t know, your audience won’t know, either. And we’re going to add, though it should go without saying, that all of this should be done without relying on racial, ethnic, or gender stereotypes.
In Mamet’s Oleanna, John’s character is established immediately during a phone call the audience can’t really follow. Carol’s character is revealed more slowly, in smaller pieces of information, first in the fact that she lingers outside John’s door, listening to the call, then as she and John converse. By the end of the first scene, the audience has a firm understanding of who these people are – which allows Mamet to turn everything upside down as these characters change and reveal previously-hidden sides to themselves during the rest of the play. John and Carol speak differently, with different vocabularies and rhythms. They understand the world differently. They make different choices. Each of them feels like a real human being. If they didn’t seem believable and unique, the story wouldn’t work at all.
Much of the art of playwriting lies in how character is revealed, in the playwright’s use of dialogue and action to reveal elements of character. The rest of this sections concerned with how to accomplish this.
Compelling characters are themselves, not extensions of you. Not only is it problematic to write characters who are Keanu-esque ciphers devoid of personality, it’s just as problematic for them to be Sorkin-esque mouthpieces for your sermons. Obviously, your own beliefs and values will influence your writing, but when they do you want to ensure their influence on your characters is organic, so that insofar as they represent you, it comes across as part of who they are.
Sometimes the best way to accomplish this is through misdirection. Philosophical plays are notoriously difficult to write, because it’s easy for them to devolve into dull sermonizing and exposition. In No Exit, Sartre side-steps this problem by leading the audience to expect Cradeau/Garcin to be his mouthpiece. Cradeau sometimes seems to be giving near-stereotypical monologues that lesser playwrights would use for their sermons. But attention reveals this is misdirection: Cradeau is an ironic figure who represents a simplistic, childish version of Sartre’s philosophy. Inez – the ostensible villain of the play – is the one relaying ideas closer to Sartre’s actual point of view, which lies in the space between the three principal characters and is never fully explained. Sartre trusts his audience to figure things out for themselves, as they puzzle over his story.
It’s difficult to separate all of the elements of a good play into separate categories with hard borders, so this next point also applies to plot, but: what’s at stake for your characters? What do they care about that is threatened, or needs to be achieved, or prevented? Why does this story matter for them and to them? Whatever the answer is, those stakes should be made clear in the story – preferably as early as possible so your reader isn’t distracted by wondering whether the story is trivial. If the stakes are meant to be important, are they really – from the perspective of the character and/or audience? If they are not, is this done intentionally? Are they interesting, compelling, logical things for someone to care about? If not, that can work too if done with clear purpose – as in some comedies where characters risk their lives for small stakes, or compete for ridiculously high stakes.
Stakes matter not only because they move the story along, but also because they help your audience understand why each character is part of the story at all. Each character who isn’t peripheral should matter to the plot and/or theme, and the plot and/or theme should matter to each character because they have something at stake. Otherwise, why are they in this story at all?
In Shepard’s True West, even the superficially peripheral character of Mom – who shows up for only one scene and says very little – matters to the story, both because she has something at stake and because she matters to the plot and to the two principal characters, Austin and Lee. The men are living in her house, which they’ve all but destroyed by the time she returns home. She wanders about in a daze, and when she speaks she seems utterly detached from what’s happening around her, unable to deal with reality. She and her home represent capitulation to the superficiality, conformity, and materialism of the New West. She represents what Austin thought he wanted, and what Lee briefly flirted with wanting. Her presence causes the long-simmering resentment the brothers feel toward each other to finally erupt into violence.
At least some of your characters should change as a result of the story – that’s part of what it means for the story to matter to them, after all. This is known as character development, and it’s best not to predetermine what its outcome will be before you begin writing. Let it grow organically as you develop your script, as a result of who those characters are and how they’re affected by what happens to and around them, rather then using them to teach your readers a predetermined lesson. Sermons are rarely enjoyable. Unless the mystery is the point, the audience should also have enough information to infer why characters make the decisions they do as they develop, as well, given the character’s personality and circumstances.
Consider, for example, the development of Sister Aloysius in Shanley’s Doubt. From the moment we meet her she is an immovable force, determined and self-righteous, utterly convinced that her every conviction represents objective truth. But there are occasional cracks in her façade, particularly after the confrontation with Mrs. Muller. In the last scene she breaks down, and we discover that she isn’t as confident as she’s been pretending – perhaps she never was. Her development is both a reaction to the encounters she’s had with other characters and a consequence of her own decisions. She has acted and been acted upon – and everything that she’s experienced during the story has affected her.
Unless you’re writing a one-person play, the relationships between your characters are just as important as the details of each character in isolation. Relationships between characters should be, in most cases, dynamic and believable given the personalities, histories, desires, etc. of the characters involved. You also need to think about what the audience should know about these relationships, and when. Some details may be necessary to reveal early; others may be best saved for a surprise later on. The specifics of character relationships – their compatibilities, rivalries, disagreements, secrets, and looming conflicts – provide energy to move your story along.
Some important character relationships may even be offstage. In Schaffer’s Equus, we gradually learn about the strained, bloodless relationship between Dysart and his wife, Margaret. Margaret is never seen, but as we learn about their life together, we learn about so much more. Their marriage is a vehicle for Schaffer to indirectly help us learn more about why Dysart is, why he’s in the vulnerable state in which we find him as the play opens, his dreams and disappointments, and his relationship to both Hesther and Alan.
Finally, don’t forget that plays are meant to be performed: Writ characters that actors will want to embody onstage!
PLOT and STRUCTURE
Let’s return to Matt’s play, Shelter in Place. Once he had the dialogue progressing, and added some action, he needed to pay attention to pacing.
Did he just pile up all the action in ten pages in the middle of the play, bookending it all with roundabout dialogue? No way. There is a natural ebb and flow to events. Characters gain confidence; characters lose confidence. Characters agree; characters disagree. Characters are confused by events; characters figure out a plan of action. Like a swinging pendulum.
How do you know what to do next? Well, what are you doing right now? If your characters are disagreeing, find a logical story-reason for them to agree. If your character is frightened, find a logical story-reason for them to feel assured. And notice we say “story-reason”, and not just “reason”. Why?
Everything you put into a story must do at least ONE of TWO things:
1. Develop character.
2. Further the story.
If a scene or event does neither of these things, it must be cut. Real estate in a story is not free space. Every idea has to pay its rent by developing character and/or furthering the story.
So, Meghan and Reinhart engage in disagreement, and then a mystery sound rumbles through, unifying them in fear. Their speculation regarding the origin of the sound soon separates them, again. This disagreement leads to more dialogue about whether to stay or leave the safe room.
There are no hard and fast rules in writing, but one Matt set for himself is: the first half of the play steers the audience toward certain questions. The second half of the play answers most of those questions.
Meaning, if you have a character enter, covered in blood, at some point you will have to reveal why and/or whose blood it is. This is where craft enters. It’s easy to create mystery, but too many unanswered/unaddressed mysteries can sink your story. Some writers can pull off stories that are practically nothing but unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries – David Lynch, for example – but odds are you and we are not among their ranks.
Does this mean all questions must be answered by the end of the play? No. But the role of the writer is similar to that of the courtroom lawyer: never ask a question to which you do not already know the answer. Do no create mysteries or questions in your story simply to prod it along. There should be a reason for every detail. Sometimes the answer may belong to a different element of the play, meaning, for instance: sometimes the answer to a plot mystery is found in theme. That sort of thing. In film, this is what Lynch and von Trier tend to do – the answers are there, just not in the place you expect to find them.
You don’t need to use any of the standard models or formulae for storytelling, though it doesn’t hurt to think about them, either – especially when you find yourself stuck. Elements of dramatic action (discovery, revelation, decision) and/or models of plot structure such as Freytag’s Pyramid (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement) or the Aristotelian three-act model (Protasis, Epitasis, Catastrophe) all have their uses, and provide some practical ways to think about story structure. They’re widely used for reasons both positive and negative. What’s Important, when you use them, is that you do so thoughtfully rather than robotically. As long as you ensure that story logic trumps the logic of the model or theory you’re using – that x follows y because the logic of the story, rather than the logic of the model,, demands it – you should be fine. Use them creatively.
At minimum, it’s a good idea to use a simplistic version of the Aristotelian three-act structure: Act one sets up the setting, characters, and major conflicts; act two is the locus of most conflict as the protagonist(s) try to achieve their goals; and act three wraps things up with a climax and possibly a denouement. The transition from act one into act two is critically important, as it sets up the dramatic meat of the story with some sort of inciting incident. The inciting incident should be motivational enough to the protagonist(s) to move the play forward, and the audience needs to feel its urgency.
Now, let’s talk setting. It’s usually best if your play has at least one of these. It’s better still if that setting is clear, that it has a sense of time and place that is integral to the play’s identity. Setting, in other words, should help shape plot, character, dialogue, and even theme. Think of the role setting plays in Shepard’s True West: a remote suburb at the edge of the desert, on the border of Old West meets New West, between wilderness and civilization, in the 1970s. Every detail of that setting influences how the play looks, how characters speak, who characters are, what happens and why. The setting is a powerful and essential element of the play. And the audience is provided with enough information through various means to knows what it needs to know about when and where the play takes place, because those details intensify their experience.
In True West, one way the audience knows that characters are changing is in how they speak about and respond to the setting. However it’s communicated, your characters (at least the principals) should develop over the course of the story or the reasonable inference is that your story doesn’t matter. You could think of character development as a consequence of plot, or you could think of plot advancing through character development, but it’s probably best to think of the matter in both ways.
Generally speaking, characters develop as a result of confronting obstacles and either surmounting or being beaten by them, in the pursuit of goals. You create mounting tension by increasing the level of challenge and/or complexity of the obstacles characters face and, as in life, revealing that each solution creates at least one new problem. The key to character development, we’re proposing, is conflict – which we also happen to see as the key to engaging stories. Conflict moves plot along, develops character, holds the audience’s attention, and helps the audience invest in what’s unfolding in front of them.
Indeed, conflict (A wants x, but faces external or internal resistance) is an essential element of storytelling for many reasons, but they can be summed up easily: without conflict there is no story. Conflict creates comedy, drama, character development, opportunities for dialogue – everything. But for conflict to matter, there must be reasons behind it that are rooted in, and communicate, character and theme. Conflict should matter to the characters in your story, and to the story itself; and it should drive the action from the first scene to the last.
As your plot moves along, and obstacles are encountered and character revealed and developed, the audience should come to perceive a set of possible outcomes. This set may change its members occasionally, but a good rule of thumb is that the set of possible climaxes to your story should shrink in your audience’s mind as the story moves along, because those climaxes should all be logical endpoints to the particular story beats being experienced by particular characters making particular decisions.
By the end of scene two in Son’s Stop Kiss, we know to expect two things: Callie and Sara will become friends and maybe lovers, and their relationship will lead to tragedy. There are many,many ways those two expectations could be met. The set of possible climaxes contains at least a dozen options. But with each scene, new possibilities are added to that set and even more possibilities are removed as we learn more about what happened before and after the incident, as Callie and Sara make particular choices rather than others, as we interpret the dialogue of even supporting characters – what they say, but just as importantly, what they don’t say. Then, in the last scene, Son throws a curveball that makes perfect sense given what’s come before, though it isn’t quite what we expected. It’s satisfying because it’s both logical and surprising.
The climax of your story warrants careful attention: a good climax is remembered even if other details of the story are forgotten. A good climax feels inevitable, yet surprising. It reveals, or casts new light on earlier scenes and decisions. It leaves an audience thinking and feeling. Think again of Shepard’s True West: its climax is inevitable, given what’s happened in the story and the journeys the brothers have taken, yet its sudden violence has been hinted at and backed away from so often that when it comes, it’s still a shock. And it ends without resolution or denouement. The audience leaves the theatre wondering what might have happened next. Consider, again, Son’s Stop Kiss: every scene prior to the climax has either dealt with the beautiful build-up to, or dreadful consequences of, a particular moment of romantic catharsis met with brutal hatred. The play ends with that moment of beauty, but not the brutality that follows, and the audience is left welling up with conflicted emotion because they love these characters and it’s a sweet release of romantic tension, but the audience also knows what happens next.
What the endings of True West and Stop Kiss have in common is this: the audience understands why the play ends at that point, in that way. The playwrights have done their jobs extraordinarily well, laying the foundation for those particular climaxes (which, in these cases, are also the endings of the plays). The narrative logic and ontological rules of the play (the rules that govern how things work in the worlds of those stories) are internally consistent, and each play is cohesive (ploy, character, dialogue, genre, and theme all work in unison), so the intentionality of the playwrights’ choices shines through. The playwrights earned the audience’s trust.
That trust comes from a sense that there is purpose and meaning to what is unfolding. Every scene and every event in the story should be causally and/or thematically linked. There should be intentionality behind everything that happens so that each scene matters and serves a purpose at its location in the temporal sequence of the play. The beginning makes sense as a beginning; the end makes sense as an end, and so forth. Everything needs to be present in your play for a reason. Everything should serve a purpose. Even props and set dressing – if you mention any of these things in your script – should serve some sort of purpose, be it conveying symbolic or thematic meaning, communicating character details, or setting up plot points.
All writers face painful moments where they are faced with cutting details they personally love, but which really serve no purpose in the story. Cut them. Cut them all. If you have to, do a “Save As” with your document, keep a copy with those precious details, and then save another version in which they are deleted. Matt does this. It makes cutting much easier. Then, later, when he revisits his grand, precious idea in the previous version, it has usually paled. Michael prefers to place material he cuts in a special “Detritus” file, so he can return to them later when he needs ideas, scenes, or moments in other projects. Sometimes a deleted scene becomes a new story of its own.
In Shelter in Place, Matt didn’t so much create mysteries, but added touchstone details that he revisited in Acts II and III. A seemingly inconsequential detail, early on, becomes a major plot point later.
In True West and Stop Kiss, the climax doesn’t involve resolution., Indeed, we prefer climaxes that don’t wrap things up in a neat and tidy bow. Others prefer resolution. It doesn’t really matter whether you choose resolution or not, as long as it’s well-written and true to everything that has come before. Still, if the climax leads to resolution, it shouldn’t be so clear or total that there’s nothing left for the audience to ponder and discuss on their drive home.
When Matt was writing Shelter in Place, he found himself with a lot of dialogue ideas to squash: Obviously, Meghan and Reinhart are in disagreement, but he wanted to avoid all the easy traps of having them simply insult each other or demean the other’s ideas. So, he drew upon personal experience: times he had disagreements, experience when he witnessed others who had disagreements. He even thought of how he'd seen it portrayed well in other plays.
This is where craft and experience came into play. No matter how Matt tried, the first thing he put down on paper was clichéd and obvious. This used to bother him. Then he realized he knew enough to fix it. So, he came to a point where he just concentrated on getting his ideas down on paper as well as he could – “What do I know best?” he asked himself, and he wrote that part. Didn’t matter if it’s not in chronological order. He wrote the scene that comes in clearest. When a scene is done, he thinks, “Well, how did they get there?” There are some obvious reasons and he works with those.
So, he writes down his sloppy, clichéd dialogue and then he goes over and over it, zeroing-in on every part that bothers him. Characters who are glib or too clever are insufferable. Characters who are conveniently stupid and need obvious plot-points explained to them can demolish a story.
Matt doesn’t even ask himself for reasons why bits of dialogue rub him the wrong way. If something doesn’t feel right, hr re-examine it and often rewrite it.
The big “fixes” are:
(a) Eliminating obvious dialogue, stuff that makes characters sound like they’re talking in a commercial or an Aaron Sorkin show. People are notoriously passive-aggressive and indirect. Don’t give them all great lines. Use Freudian slips, but don’t overuse them. People often misspeak, but actually say something closer to what they really mean. The other person can jump on this errant detail and make accusations.
(b) Swearing. In Matt’s daily life, he swears continuously. If he wants certain parts of language to have greater impact in his writing, he uses them sparingly. At this point in history, virtually no one is shocked by someone saying “fuck”. Some characters swear a lot. Fine. So long as that is true to their character. When Matt reads piles of profanity in a piece of work, it comes off as being used by a person who has just learned a few of the forbidden words. No writer wants that. Intentionality and clear purpose are your friends.
(c) Speeches. Most people don’t say any more than they have to (or think they have to). They grunt replies. They utter one-word answers to questions. Listen-in on conversations next time you’re in a restaurant, at the mall, anywhere there are people nearby talking. Most people don’t make speeches. People often have a hard time saying what they want to say. So should your characters. But there’s a trick – don’t make your character so indirect and inarticulate that it appears you cannot write dialogue. Also, verbatim dialogue you overhear may not work well in a story. This is where craft comes into play.
(d) Exposition (verbal text). This is dialogue that only serves to inform the audience – a character makes a phone call and says to the person on the other end: “Don, this is your brother, Frank.” Nobody speaks like that. In a novel, the writer has more freedom and tools available to convey information to the audience. The playwright has stage directions and dialogue. Exposition is a beacon of bad craft. Writers should be subtle, yet strategically obvious. The great pitfall is having one character explain something to another character that he/she should already know – it’s only being said because the audience needs to know. One way to avoid exposition is to trust your audience. Nothing should be explained by any character more than is necessary for audiences to grasp the point. People know stuff. They’re not mind-readers, but people know stuff. A good rule of thumb: Always prioritize action and dialogue over monologue and exposition.
With Meghan and Reinhart in the corporate safe room, Matt had their initial efforts at trying to convince the other about what is happening and/or if they should stay or leave the safe room. But having two people just standing and talking gets boring. Something needs to happen.
So, he looked to external forces for action prompts. Meghan and Reinhart both have cell phones. Could they get news of the emergency over those? No. No cell phone reception. Is that because of where they were located in the building, or was there a more sinister reason? Matt explored this in dialogue.
Then, he introduced a strange, intermittent sound – something rolling through the duct work in the ceiling above their heads. The sound was enough to spook his characters. They both had their own guesses the source of the sound and what it meant to their safety. He explored this in dialogue.
After the mystery sound fades away, and the back-and-forth speculation dies out, Matt came to a natural break in the action. Meghan and Reinhart, decide they are trapped, and having decided to stay (for the time being) they need to kill time. How do two strangers do this? They talk about themselves. They ask about the other.
As a further change of direction, Matt created reasons for each character to temporarily leave the safe room, with the promise of returning. This afforded the remaining character a soliloquy where they revealed thoughts and ideas they never would have said in front of the other.
Eventually, Matt hit upon an idea – the company had been sold, sometime in the recent past – which sent the story into a new direction, allowing him to create a few different dynamics between Meghan and Reinhart. Meghan, the worrier, soon shows confidence. Reinhart, the arrogant yuppie has a few strategic moments of doubt. No person is monotone. People are complex. They experience a range of emotions. Your characters can feel anything – it’s the writer’s job to pave a realistic route from one emotion to another.
Dialogue belongs to particular characters, particular people, and no two people speak exactly the same way. Different characters should speak differently, with their own rhythms, vocabularies, sentence structures, personalities and tones. Dialogue should sound as though it must be spoken by THAT character in THAT situation, based on what the audience knows of their personality and the plot. Keep in mind, too, that people change how they speak based on the person they’re conversing with.
When Michael was co-writing The Worst Thing I Ever Did, he and his collaborators had the good fortune to be writing a three-person play in which each of them would play a character. So, while the plot was worked out collaboratively, each writer took primary responsibility for writing the dialogue for their character, to ensure the characters’ voices were as distinct as possible. Other writers could make suggestions and edits, but the responsibility and final say rested with the person assigned to that character. As a result, each character in the play has a unique voice.
In most plays, dialogue should be used to convey thoughts, feelings, setting, and conflict – with exposition kept to a minimum, conveying only necessary information, as naturalistically and indirectly as possible. Yet, the style of dialogue you use should fit the genre and/or purposes of the play – and even the scene. Consider Schaffer’s Equus: when Dysart is alone, he slips into a refined style of speech and delivers monologues to himself, in his head – and sometimes to his friend Hesther. But when he’s with Alan, his style of speech becomes more naturalistic, and he speaks for shorter periods of time. In those moments he’s in conversation, and his purpose is to elicit information from his patient.
THEME and GENRE
Does your play have anything to say? Does it have a point? All the best plays do. That point is theme. Sometimes it isn’t a particular point, really, but more of an exploration – questions it’s raising, answers it’s toying with. Your play should have a theme, but it’s often a mistake to predetermine that theme. Instead, it’s best to allow it to emerge, inductively, from the story you develop. We often don’t see the themes of our work until we’re into the third or fourth draft, when as if by magic they appear before us. Once visible theme can be developed. You can start to look for its traces in scenes and characters, and build on it more consciously.
Theme should emerge from a well-crafted story with well-defined characters, rather than plot and character being used as didactic tools to make thematic points. That way lies a sermon, not a story – and few people want to pay to see a sermon enacted in front of their eyes. Theme should be indirect, inferred from what’s happening in the story. It should rarely be stated directly by a character, unless that’s done as misdirection or to give part of a larger thematic whole. Sometimes it’s provided in the title. Shanley’s Doubt, for example, states its theme right there in the title – and he wants you to keep that in mind as you read or watch his play. If you don’t – and many audiences do not—you’ll misunderstand what the play is saying. The title is meant to help us avoid the human tendency to rush to judgment or pick a side.
Universal, timeless, themes are best. A theme that is particular to the year it is written, or to a particular audience, will die quickly even if it’s lucky enough to be produced at all. That way lies faddishness rather than art. Consider Son’s Stop Kiss again: it would have been easy for the playwright to make her theme something like “LGBTQ people deserve basic rights and protections because they’re human beings like anyone else”.Indeed, that’s both true and a clear message one can take from the story. But she’s a better writer than that. The themes of Stop Kiss are the unpredictability of love, human tenacity in the face of adversity, and how we can create our own lives rather than accept the lives others try to force upon us.
Several months into co-writing Another Fucking Christmas Play, Michael realized its themes were Nietzschean – the necessity of embracing one’s fate no matter how painful, the location of true power in self-determination and self-control, and the difficult task of facing up to reality rather than hiding in fantasy. None of these themes is explicitly stated (except at the end of a bonus track on the Original Cast Recording), but they’re all present, in some form, throughout the play. They’re revealed by the choices characters make and what happens as a result, by what helps “un-stick” characters from their ruts so they can make progress. At least one of these themes is present in every scene of the play. But they’re indirect, hidden behind filthy jokes and bizarre songs. And they are themes as relevant now as they were in 19th-century Germany. They will always be relevant, because they’re universal themes about what it means to be a human being who wants to live the best life possible.
If your play fits into a genre, it should demonstrate awareness of the conventions and tropes of that genre and do something interesting, creative, even subversive with them. At minimum you should know what genre your play falls into. Is it a comedy with dramatic moments? A drama with humorous moments? Is it sci-fi, Gothic, or fantasy? Whatever its genre, know what that means for what and how you’re expected to write – and if you’re going to flout the genre’s conventions, you’ll need to so do in a way that communicates a facility with those conventions, so your audience understands the purpose and intentionality behind your choices.
To return to Another Fucking Christmas Play, Michael and his co-writers set out to write a Christmas musical on the surface that was a send-up of the genre underneath. So they compiled a table of every trope and cliché in the genre, then developed the plot and characters by trying to combine and include as many of those as possible, with a twist. The next step was to figure out what was irksome or false about those tropes and clichés and, one by one, subvert them.
CRAFT and MECHANICS
Many people find matters of craft and mechanics boring, even trivial. Maybe so. But guess what? They could mean the difference between writing for yourself and writing for audiences that want to read your plays and see them performed, because craft and mechanics get your foot in the door.
We all want our work to be taken seriously. When submitting work for publication or performance, or submission to a contest, writers should hope for a sympathetic reader, but prepare for the unsympathetic reader:
Spelling counts. Grammar counts. Punctuation counts. Diction counts. Typos, such as “quiet” for “quite”, are difficult to catch when spell-check glides right over them. Even the most sympathetic reader pauses to mull the meaning of a word when the wrong one appears in a sentence. For unsympathetic readers, the first appearance of a typo may be justification enough to put your work aside and move on to the next manuscript in the pile. Proofread your work carefully. Have a trusted reader proofread your work as well. Maybe more than one.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Typos creep into our work, as they do everyone’s, but we always do our utmost to ensure there are as few as possible.
Formatting is important. For one thing, formatting affects readability – and you want your work to be readable, don’t you? Ideas come first, certainly. Get them down on the page any way you can, but be sure you do not submit your work that way. Formatting is an easy way to show you know your craft and you respect your audience. For the sympathetic reader, a poorly or erratically-formatted play is difficult to read. The unsympathetic reader loves bad formatting because it’s a clear indication the writer has not learned their craft, or taken the time to present their work in the best light, and may cast your manuscript aside without even reading it. It’s a harsh reality, but it happens all too often.
Guidelines matter as well. If a publisher or contest has guidelines, it is a good practice to follow them. If a contest specifies “No entries longer than 5,000 words”, it would be unwise to submit a work that is 12,000 words in length. Similarly, if entering a manuscript in a novel-writing competition, it would be unwise to submit a 15-page short story. Rules are not the enemy of creativity -- they are indicators of whether or not that venue is right for your work. The sympathetic reader may look the other way if guidelines are disregarded. The unsympathetic reader has just found another reason to put your work aside. Don’t give them that easy out.
Play Manuscripts have their own formatting conventions. At a bare minimum, the following should each be given their own dedicated page:
Ultimately, if you’re writing to be read, you begin your story for yourself, but you complete it for your audience. The craft demands that, at some point in the writing process, your focus shifts from your own enjoyment to the needs of your audience. The two are not mutually exclusive, but they are also not conjoined. Craft is knowing the difference.
Originality helps your play stand out, giving it a unique identity that brands it as your work. And originality comes in many forms, including the topics you choose to write about. Few people enjoy "canned" drama, where someone writes about a hot button issue and simply lets the built-in drama do all of the work. Writing is not about hitching wagons to a moving objects, it's about creating your own momentum.
Scripts that demonstrate creativity and risk-taking in their ideas, interpretations, and choices are inherently more interesting. A script that risks making unpopular or even odious statements to tell their story (beyond merely being sensationalist) catch the eye and compel attention.
We want to read work from writers who have a handle on what they’re creating. We ask, as we would a dog walker -- are they guiding the story (not leading or forcing it), or are they pulled off their feet following the story? We want a story that gallops, but we also want the writer to be in command. If the writer is just a passenger, where is there room for the audience? The audience is supposed to be the passenger. Attention to detail matters. As we mentioned earlier, you should always show rather than tell, when possible. Exposition can kill an otherwise good story. But when you tell, do so with concrete, vivid, well-observed human details.
Central to conveying a sense of control is voice. Your script should demonstrate a unique authorial voice: it sounds like this you and no one else. It should have a point of view and a mood and a character of its own. This comes with practice – especially the sort of practice that comes from re-drafting. First drafts are easy to spot. They’re rarely impressive. They really aren’t supposed to be, as their function is to record your initial efforts. Quality and voice will grow as you complete the difficult work of editing and rewriting.
Every story takes place within a larger world. The world of your play is fictional, even if based on real events. However close to reality or fantastical you want it to be, communicating a sense if the larger world beyond the play is important. It adds scope. It grounds the proceedings. It expands the audience’s sense of what is possible for your characters, giving them both pasts and futures.
Finally, remember that this is a play you're writing – it’s intended to be performed, live, with actual actors, and most likely on a minimal budget. Take a hard look at it with these considerations in mind. Can this be performed? What would it cost? What sort of stage would it need? Are the scene transitions possible for real human beings to pull off? What sort of set will be required, and how often will that set need to change? Is there enough time for actors to change costumes?
You wouldn’t submit a Clive Barker-type body horror novel to Harlequin, because that isn’t what Harlequin publishes. It would be folly. These guidelines were written specifically for the Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest – so they should be taken as a clear indication of what we’re looking for. But there’s more to that. The winning entry, each year, will be produced by Post Productions, so it needs to be the sort of play that Post Productions would produce. It needs to fit the Post Productions brand: intense; emotionally, intellectually, and/or socially provocative; intimately staged; perceptible as witnessing real people leading real lives. And it needs to be capable of being staged at The Shadowbox Theatre within the confines of a reasonable budget.
The best way to get a good handle on the Post Productions brand is to see as many of the plays they produce as you can, and really think about why they were chosen. What do they have in common? What does each of them offer? Why was it chosen?
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