Playwriting by Emma Cooney

I had never written a full length play before starting the playwriting unit. At first it was short plays that had a theme, chosen by our Artist in Residence, Nicole Jost. Then we had to write our final play that would be looked at and possibly chosen to be put in the playwriting show. I had to write a play for which I had to consider an audience. As well as what would be realistic for an actual production. I’d never done that before.

The process of writing a play was both stimulating and agonizing. It was hard trying to start because I didn’t have an idea that I was incredibly passionate about or excited to do. So, Heather Woodward (the department head) sat me down and helped me sort through my brain and pick it for ideas. We started with memories I thought of as interesting or fun to tell. From there I found tons of ideas and things that could be cool to write a play on. So, I started with just simple dialogue between my characters and from there decided how I was going to write it out. It started to become easier and easier, and before I knew it, I had my ten page first draft.

After the plays that were chosen to be in the show were chosen, the casting time came. We had to figure out who would play who. The process didn’t take long and was over in a day or so. I was chosen to play the character Patrick in Max Chu’s play. I hadn’t had to experience or remembering lines, and then having to act them out. Remembering my poem for the creative writing performance was a much different thing than having to also remember things like cue lines. I didn’t want to bother any upperclassmen with my questions on how to remember lines and cue lines, so I simply went with my instincts. I started by repeating a line until I remembered it, then I would move on to remembering the second line. But I would repeat the line before the one I was learning, so there was an order to them. With that, I quickly remembered all my lines, but then came how I was going to know when to say my lines. So I gathered willing friends and family, and had them read the lines before mine. Before the process, I hadn’t realized that I was actually quite good at remembering lines.

The playwriting unit taught me an array of different tools, such as how to construct a well written play, how to act, how to remember lines, and how to act.

Emma Cooney, class of 2021

Sandstorm by Nadja Goldberg

We are one week into our playwriting unit. The unit is taught by Nicole Jost and, unlike the fiction and poetry units, it includes both Creative Writing I (freshmen and sophomores) and Creative Writing II (juniors and seniors). So far, we have had in-class activities and discussions, read various plays, and written scenes for our own plays based on prompts Nicole has assigned. Each class is usually focused on a particular aspect of playwriting such as monologues and status between characters. Our assigned homework and reading is based on what we explored in class. For example, before discussing the idea of “character status,” we read “Left to Right” by Steven Dietz, a short play with complexly interconnected characters who have distinct status among each other. For the homework assignment, we were told to write a scene involving two characters in which one character has a higher status, but by the end of the scene, the other character manages to achieve the higher status.

This prompt caused me to reflect on how status plays into various relationships and how I might portray that in my writing. I struggled for a while in front of an empty screen, trying to come up with a status-based relationship that would have natural dialogue between the characters, but wouldn’t be too typical and boring. Over dinner, I discussed the assignment with my mom. She offered a few ideas, but I wasn’t drawn to any of them, and our discussion escalated into an argument. Finally, my dad suggested that I write about the conversation my mom and I were having right then about the prompt. I realized that was perfect. Our disagreement had a definite element of status with my mom having the higher status. And as I rejected each of my mom’s ideas, it could have been in an attempt to gain a higher status for myself. After dinner, I returned to my computer and recaptured the banter between my mom and me:

SANDSTORM
By Nadja Goldberg

CHARACTERS
ELLA, freshman in highschool.
BETH, Ella’s mother.

 

SCENE 1

ELLA and BETH sit at a small, round dinner table with emptied plates of lasagna.

ELLA (frustrated)
I still don’t have an idea.

BETH (also frustrated)
Just write whatever comes to mind. You just need to get this done.

ELLA
Write whatever comes to mind?! Nothing’s coming to mind!

BETH
Didn’t we just come up with an idea? You can write the play about a student asking a teacher questions about the class material, and after the teacher explains, the student says something about the topic that reveals they actually know more about it than we think.

ELLA (in a sarcastic imitation)
 That would just be like: I don’t get it.” “Well here’s what it is.” “Oh, actually I get it more than you do. Boo-yah!”

BETH
Well I’m sure you can make it more interesting than that.

ELLA
Exactly!

BETH
Ella, the focus is not on writing a masterpiece. It’s just on completing the assignment so you can get to bed.

ELLA
But I can’t write something I’m not invested in.

BETH
Sometimes you have to. That’s just how it is with school work.

ELLA
I have to write three to five pages! And there’s no possible way if I go with that topic.

BETH
Just write two and a half and get it over with.

ELLA
Two and a half pages is not acceptable for an assignment that requires at least three! And I’m not going to dive into writing a play with a plot I’m not engaged in, because it will be boring and tedious and that’s no way to write!

BETH
Fine, fine… How about the one with the car salesman who is trying to sell a fancy car to a man, and the man, in order to get a good deal, tries to hide how much he loves the car.

ELLA
Eh. I know just about nothing when it comes to cars. And I don’t think I have time to do enough research to convince my teacher otherwise.

BETH
Look. I know both options don’t seem so fantastic, but you just have to pick the one that speaks to you more and get on with it.

ELLA
Pick one of those?! That’s like choosing between eating a rotten tomato or a rotten avocado. Both will be equally mushy and disgusting, but “just go with one that might be a little less so.”

BETH
Ella, I’m just trying to help, okay? You have an assignment that you have to submit tonight at midnight and you just need to get it done. The more you worry about it, the less time you have to work on it, and the more frantic you’ll be later on.

ELLA groans.

ELLA
I’m sick of homework.

BETH
I know, but you still have to do it.

ELLA
I know that. I just wish it would come less frequently and in more manageable quantities. It’s crazy: I’m expected to spend more than seven hours at school and on top of that, do bucket loads of homework. And I have a segment of a play due in three hours and the only two ideas I have are duds!

BETH
I hear you Ella. And I know it’s hard. But I think what you need right now is a positive outlook.

ELLA
Well I think what I need right now is an idea for my play.

BETH
And that’s not going to come if you continue to grumble about it. That’s just the truth.

ELLA (upset)
I’m sick of homework.

BETH
Ella, that’s beside the point. You have homework to do, and you need to do it. We can talk about your feelings later.

ELLA
Well I can’t write a play without an idea for a play. It’s simple.

BETH
Well obviously, I’m not helping. So you need to just come up with an idea. It doesn’t have to be brilliant. Just an idea to get started on a rough draft.

ELLA
My mind is blank! It’s like an endless desert full of blazing frustrations, and the only ideas are sparse, patchy clouds that drift by.

BETH
What the hell do you mean, “you don’t have any ideas?” Likening your mind to a desert— that’s incredible!

ELLA
I mean… I guess.

Lights fade.

End scene.

The Four Fundamental Conditions of Theatre by Xuan Ly

Playwriting is the last of Creative Writing’s three main units (the others being poetry and fiction). This week, for this six-week unit, Creative Writing welcomed our artist-in-residence, Nicole Jost. It is Nicole’s second year teaching CW. She is a local playwright, and is finishing her doctorate at SFSU this spring!

In the week that Nicole has been us, we have read four plays, seen one play, and learned about the four fundamental conditions of theatre. The four conditions include: collaborations, group audience, suspension of disbelief, and perpetual present. These four things, among others, are what differentiates playwriting from other forms of literature. Collaborating with other actors and writers is a crucial part of playwriting. With novels, there is no need for collaborations unless the author is co-writing their novel. Collaborations allow more than one perspective on the play. While reading a novel or collection of poems, there is only one person in the audience. While viewing a play, the group audience and surroundings may reflect how a single viewer experiences the show. Suspension of disbelief implies that the audience must believe that the world that has been created onstage is real, despite any other logical reasoning. Lastly, the idea of perpetual present time urges the audience to forget any past knowledge of what the topic of the play, or what the play is about. The idea encourages the audience to experience it in the present as if they did not have any prior knowledge.

These four fundamental conditions allow audiences to more thoroughly enjoy the piece that the playwright has created. It also helps the playwright take the audience’s experience into account. During playwriting, we are taught not just as writers, but actors as well. I am excited to see what where next few weeks of playwriting with Nicole takes us.

Xuan Ly, class of 2021