Freshman Playwright by Lauren Ainslie

Creative Writing has just performed its final show of the year, and wrapped up its playwriting unit simultaneously. There were many things I learned from playwriting, and I am grateful for all of them because when playwriting season starts up again next year I won’t have the same what-the-hell-am-I-doing freshman sort of feeling again!

It was an entirely new world. The quiet, thoughtful Creative Writing classroom I had learned to expect was gone every Friday (quite literally, as we had to relocate all the furniture into the hallway), and replaced with a flurry of movement and voice exercises we needed to learn to become familiar with how stage directions physically appear on stage. But the change was refreshing. Just like every other unit we’ve had this year, playwriting changed most of what I knew about writing. Before, with fiction and poetry, writing was something very private and created almost entirely by the author. And that was true of playwriting until we had to act our scenes out, then I realized that the final project was very much a collaboration between the actor, the set, and the playwright. It was all very different from what was imagined on paper.

There were other barriers I had to overcome for playwriting, such as the idea of having to manifest physically what a character was thinking instead of just saying it. Yes, these new changes were hard, but with them came many unexpected creative opportunities. The playwright could dictate the set, the costumes, the sound cues and lighting. The world created on stage is limited to the first glance, but boundless at the second. The playwriting unit is over, but that only means next year’s unit and show are going to be better.  

Lauren Ainslie, class of 2021

Overcoming Stagefright by Julieta Roll

Every year Creative Writing has a playwriting show. We select around ten plays from our playwriting unit to produce, all of which are performed by us. By no means is Creative Writing a master of theatre, but in my three years in the department I have become infinitely more comfortable with the stage.

I have never been an outgoing person. As a child I would often cower, begging not to be seen. Now as a teenager I have taught myself to be in the spotlight, to be accepting of attention. Creative Writing has taken my humility, in a good way. I have learned that I can’t spend so much time worrying about what others think of me. I should act as I wish, be completely myself. As much as that sounds cheesy the Creative Writing shows have truly aided me in reaching that confidence. For rehearsal week we have to spend hours on stage, fully becoming our characters and yelling at the top of our lungs. The process can be overwhelming yet it has pushed me to explore my abilities in performance. I have no choice but to play the role I have been given and give it all I have.

In this year’s playwriting show I played the role of a maleficent bird. As I looked through the dialogue I would have to memorize and the cues I would have to learn I felt that familiar surge of panic. The feeling of ​stagefright ​and worry. ‘I can’t do this’ I thought, thinking of myself up there on the stage, everyone staring. Yet, rehearsal week arrived and I knew there was no backing out. I would play a bird, a pretentious demanding bird, a bird that was quite the opposite of myself. Like all the years past I memorized I went through grueling rehearsal and when the moment finally came to walk on stage I felt that pumping adrenaline fuel my body. One thing I always remember about being on stage is how quiet it feels. You become consciousness of how many people can watch you at once, waiting for your words. As always, the play continued and as if on autopilot I said my lines and walked off stage. “I just did that” I thought as I often think when I finish a performance. I had enough confidence to go up there. I demanded attention.

Julieta Roll, class of 2019

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

On Writing My First Play by Hannah W Duane

Playwriting is hard. As a perfectionist, I found it near impossible. The third large unit of CW’s academic year is playwriting, when the department comes back together (we split into CW 1 and 2 for fiction and poetry) to write plays and put on our second and final show of the year (S’il Vous Play happening April 13 at 7:30, you should come). I had never written a play before. I had read very few, most in anticipation of this part of the year. On the first day of playwriting, we shard hopes, fears and the upperclassmen gave the freshman advice. Almost all of them reminded us sleep was important. This I perhaps should have taken as a sign.

For our big project of the unit, every member of Creative Writing composes a ten-minute play. I, however, wrote three. The first was contentless. The characters didn’t have names, there wasn’t a setting, there wasn’t a plot, or a title, or a purpose or anything being communicated. I turned it in for working shopping, and most of the feedback was something needs to happen. It was Waiting for Godot without an ounce of Samuel Beckett’s genius. I had my science teacher read it (she’s also a playwright) and she told me to delete all but half of a page out of the ten I had written. I decided I might have to start over.

Having ideas is hard. I always loved writing, however before SOTA, I wrote when I had an idea, when I wanted to. Having ideas was never something with a deadline attached to it, and though it is clearly imperative to have a functioning creative writing department, sometimes pressure, for me, can get in the way of allowing my brain to come up with something. I was stuck. I spent the better part of a week of classes scribbling in a notebook, trying to come up with a plot.

Finally, I had a halfway viable idea. But I was also getting on a plane to France in 48 hours. I frantically got my friends to promise me to read drafts for me, and pounded out one of the most atrocious pieces of writing ever to ooze from my brain to the page. On the plane, I attempted to edit, but soon, exhaustion and distraction and the anxiety of being alone heading to a foreign country where I do not speak the language took over, and I gave up.

I was on a climbing trip, and every day came home physically exhausted from scaling boulders, and mentally exhausted from dealing with toddlers. It was an interesting state to try to write in. I snapped at people who asked my how my play was going. I also wanted to talk about it all the time to figure out what on earth I was writing. When I finally created a draft I could show my closest of friends without being absolutely mortified, I immediately did so.

They told me to rid myself of one of the two characters. Basically, write a new play. I had two days until the due date. The first night I organized, as this unit clearly laid out for me, playwriting is more technically complicated than poetry or fiction. It doesn’t work (generally) to just start writing without an idea of plot, that’s how one ends up with a contentless scene (see my draft #1). The second night I spent in the home of an elderly Parisian family friend. I was able to disappear for a few hours, edit, freak all the way out, be calmed down by the same friend that I’m choosing to wrongly blame for causing the stress, and then reappear for a European-timed dinner. They wanted to know how the play was going. I said great. Then I went back into my room, sighed, and turned it in.

It might have been an awful play, but one of the things I love most about Creative Writing is it doesn’t matter if it’s your favorite kind of writing, you still do it. That’s how one learns. Playwriting is probably never going to be my favorite thing, or the thing that comes most naturally to me, but in six weeks struggling with it has taught me about dialogue, plot and character far more efficiently than fiction, which was a more comfortable experience. And I lived, I’m excited to write a play next year and fully intend to spend an entire year thinking of an actual idea.

Hannah W Duane, 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

The Importance of Movement by Stella Pfahler

This week we started or Playwriting unit with writer-in-residence Eugenie Chan. Having never really written a legitimate play before, I was a little daunted at first, especially when Eugenie handed of 500-page readers to each of us. I was already clogged with academics and wasn’t looking forward to daily Creative Writing homework.

Eugenie’s approach to writing is different than any I’ve seen before. We start off every class with a physical warm-up, consisting of some stretches and then three “centering” breaths. On top of that, much of our class time thus far has been spent outside, whether it’s to act out plays, write them, or peer-edit.

When I write in my free time, I am never still. I have never been able to just sit down and come up with something magically. I often pace when I write, and often before starting I take a walk or do a repetitive task. I suppose it has something to do with my “creative process.” When I was younger, some of my peers and teachers called me “hyperactive” and even went as far as to unofficially diagnose me with ADHD. I was told to “reign it in” and progressively learned to keep still and quiet in class.

It is extremely relieving to have a physical outlet during class, given that both writing and staying active are important to me. I don’t feel right if I don’t stretch daily. Some of my less athletic friends lovingly call me a “freak” for these habits and scoff when I ramble about how great it is to get fresh air. However, I do know that everyone has a different approach to writing, a different process, different rituals. Playwriting has proved that the celebration and embracing of such peculiarities is vital to a larger appreciation of the art.

Stella Pfahler, class of 2019

Adventures in Playwriting by Solange Baker

On Tuesday we started our playwriting unit. As a Freshman this is my first time truly delving into playwriting. The only writing of a script that I’ve done is for my portfolio and four to five times on my own. But this year the experience of the unit is new for everyone. In the past the playwriting unit has been taught by Isaiah Dufort. So this will be the first year that anyone currently in Creative Writing will have playwriting with our brand new artist-in-residence, Eugenie Chan.

Having acted in plays before, I have more experience on that side of the play-producing business. Once, when I was attending the reading of an author making her debut novel, I was told that once you publish a book or piece of writing that you get this uncomfortable feeling of having to let go. You realize that this story that you spent so much time on, that you essentially dedicated a portion of your life to producing and revising, is no longer only yours. It’s not personal anymore and that can be hard to let go of. In playwriting this takes a more physical form as your words and ideas are being portrayed by somebody else. But you can imagine that at the same time it’s probably wonderful to be able to see your work come to life. It might be worrying as the actors and director will most likely interpret your work differently than you had intended. As cheesy as it sounds, that’s part of the beauty of writing: the reader always brings their own experience to the writing and makes it—in a way—unique to them. In fact, as you are reading this you are making it your own, interpreting it differently than another person would by subconsciously bringing your own background knowledge to the writing. Of course it depends on who you talk to, but writing can be an interactive experience. Yes, us holed-up writers who are said to spend our time staring at our screens and have a permanent indent in our hands where a pen should be and who develop carpal tunnel at the age of twenty, can create an interactive experience.

Solange Baker, class of 2019