Today begins another season of summer theatre camp classes at Writers Theatre of New Jersey. For the second summer in a row we are starting with a class of young writers in the Playwriting Workshop. These students will enter sixth through ninth grade in the fall and most have an interest in creative writing, if not playwriting in particular. In fact, this may be the first time I’ve had a summer playwriting class where all of the students have written a script before. Regardless of students’ background, the first day always poses the challenge to figure out how comfortable everyone is sharing their work as well as how willing they are to spend the time writing.
Over the years I’ve come to structure the first class as an overview of the entire process: we brainstorm, develop characters, instigate conflict, and explore how things like setting, time, and even physicality (what if what you just wrote was spoken by an object in the room?) can impact those elements. I ask a lot of questions – a LOT of them – and make sure to emphasize that as a playwright there are two audiences: the people who gather to hear the story, but also the creative artists who will embody the story and bring it to life. This is a lot to digest, but I find it is often a new realization for the writers that helps craft more theatrical stories.
This first day is also a chance for me to try out some new activities and approaches, or to alter how I introduce them within the two week course. Last year, my groups had a great time working with a Norman Rockwell April Fool’s Day painting from 1947 and an exercise in which they rewrote a scene using a location from outside the building. The latter experience of setting made quite an impact on the students last year that I anticipate using it earlier in the process, but still not until they’ve begun to establish the parameters of the play they will develop for a public sharing on the final day.
For today, I tried an adaptation of something I’ve done for a while. I asked the students to make a list of five things they knew to be true. These could be known facts, personal experiences, or even ideas that they could support like factual evidence. They then wrote about this truth in their own voice. To keep this from feeling like a persuasive essay, I asked that they think of it like telling the story, or sharing the information with someone else. Once this was done, I asked them to reread – and likely rewrite – what the had just done from the perspective of an object in the room. Once that was done, they had to imagine the truth from an opposite perspective. Who might believe the opposite was true? Why? What led them to have that belief or understanding? They then read the two opposing speeches and we talked about how having multiple perspectives made the “good guy” and “bad guy” more realistic and believable to an audience. I will look to keep this theme going throughout the session.