Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Behind the scenes at MYPP

How do you write a ten-minute play? Or, more succinctly, how do you teach others to write a ten-minute play?

I’m not sure there’s a single correct answer to that, but since I promised to post an update about the students at Walnut Hill participating in the Massachusetts Young Playwrights' Project (MYPP), I figure it may be fun to pull back the curtain a bit to what goes on behind the scenes.

Ten-minute plays are full-length plays in microcosm: They should have a beginning, middle, and end; relatable characters; metaphor. I’m not ashamed to say that I love them. Short plays allow me to experiment, take risks, and just plain ol’ have fun. But speaking of fun, I digress:

The whole experience began with a meeting between Allan Reeder (Walnut Hill’s Director of Writing & Publishing) and me. He told me about the students, what their writing is like [many already have written plays, under the guidance of none other than our own Ronan Noone, who is on staff there – BIG shout-out to Ronan here, whose students are great], the kinds of projects they generally take on, etc. Allan told me that he likes providing specific frameworks for the projects he gives his students; and, while there are a few experienced playwrights in this group of twelve, most focus on poetry or fiction and would be writing plays for the first time.

I loved the notion of creating a formula for a short play. Many of my own plays are the products of self-created formulas. My play ‘Bastard,’ for example, began with me making a list of all kinds of random things I remembered from high school and trying to incorporate them into a single scene. Just for fun. Not everything ended up in the final version of the play, but it was a useful way to get things started.

The particular “recipe” I cooked up for Walnut Hill was as follows: They were to choose two characters that share a family connection (sisters, father-son, grandmother-grandson, etc., because this gets new writers over the hurtle of feeling like the characters have to introduce themselves to one another – there simply isn’t enough time for that in a short play); a liminal space (such as a train station, airport, etc., because these places lend themselves to action) as a setting; and were asked to incorporate a ticket (no specific type), book (again, open to interpretation), and a kitchen timer.

I think of these formulas as an Apollo 13 kind of thing. You have to come up with a solution to the problem with a set number of items (a tube sock, duct tape, cardboard, etc.). And limitations can actually be freeing – to have every option available to us can be overwhelming, right? Our lives certainly have limits. (I also have to add here that we have definitely treated the formula as a starting point. Anyone who finds the recipe too restrictive has been encouraged to disregard it – or whatever pieces of it – they don’t like.)

What certainly is limitless is the talent of this class. They have been e-mailing me their plays for feedback between class visits, and I have so enjoyed reading their work. Can’t wait to see them all next week!