alycewilson (alycewilson) wrote,
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Playwriting Through Improvisation

I mentioned briefly a couple weeks ago that I'm taking a class on "Playwriting through Improvisation." It's my first shot at play writing, and so far, it's going well. I'm particularly indebted to girlfmkitty for sharing a photo with me that inspired a monologue exercise and will serve as the foundation for the 10-minute play I'm producing in this class.

I'd like to solicit more suggestions to help me with my next class assignment. Read or skim through this write-up, and my request is at the end.



The first two weeks we didn't do quite as much improvisation. The first week was reserved for introductions. That's where I met the instructor, Kate, an energetic, friendly woman in her late 40's with a shoulder-length brown bob. She tends to wear oversized sweaters, which tends to make her look a little childlike (could this be why people always ask her to play the child in their scenes?) A talented actress, she clearly knows her stuff but is often a bit disorganized.

My fellow classmates include:

The Improv Lawyer: A friend I met through taking several classes at ComedySportz together. She's is Caucasian, in her mid-50s, with blonde curly hair and glasses. She dresses impeccably: professional with an artsy flair. For the past several years, she's been balancing her day job in the legal profession with various acting jobs, mostly in independent movies and student films.

Henrik: A naturalized American citizen, born in Germany and with a distinct accent. He is in his 60s, is on the short size, and has a neatly trimmed gray beard to match his gray hair. He has written many plays already and is a professor of English and communication for a local community college. He is very outgoing and always making friendly overtures to people, such as giving everyone hard candies.

Pat: The oldest member of the class, in his late '60s or early '70s, he is Caucasian, slight of build and wears a hearing aid. He told us the first day that, if we want to be sure he hears us, we should get his attention so he can watch our mouths. He also has written a number of plays and is instrumental in a local community of playwrights and artists.

Connie: An African-American woman of average build in her 50's, she had been in politics until a health crisis prompted her to get away from stressful situations. Now she's going back to college and pursuing her dream: of writing a historical screenplay. She tends to be quiet but, when she does speak, has astute observations.

Chris: A Caucasian man in his mid 40's, he has been a medical editor for 20 years but would like to get back to his first love: theater. A stocky man with a graying reddish beard and glasses, he tends to wear sloppy sweat pants to class, as if wishing to shirk off the professionalism of his day-to-day job.

As I said, the first week focused on introductions to both the class and to each other, along with some movement exercises and a very short writing exercise where we each wrote five lines based on one of various bags Kate had brought to class.

The second week, we were asked to look at a photo for inspiration and fill in a detailed character sheet from it. That's when girlfmkitty shared the following photo with me:

Photobucket



Looking at this photo, I came up with a character named Frank "Hex" Vevey, a motorcycle enthusiast who runs a motorcycle shop with his best friend, Lou, whom he met on the road 30 years ago. The two still attend motorcycle rallies on a regular basis but are much more home-bound than in their wild youth. Hex has trouble connecting with people for many reasons: first, his father, who rarely showed his feelings and only bonded with his son over fixing cars together; he died when Hex was only 13. Then, the woman that he was most serious about, Sheila, a fellow motorcycle enthusiast, dumped him without telling him and married another man. In his family, he's been in a battle of wills with his sister, who has been trying to convert him to Christianity for years.

Those are the bare bones, although there was more that may or may not come up in future exercises.

The second week, we shared our monologues and had them enacted by someone in class. I gave mine to Henrik and was pleased with his embodiment of it. My classmates gave me a high compliment by saying that, while this was written by a woman, they completely believed it.

Here's the monologue:

HEX: (calmly) Hang in there, buddy. The paramedics are coming. They told me not to move you, so I put up some flares. Pretend we're watching the fireworks over the Mississippi. See the reflection in that oil slick there? Now, think of the way the fireworks reflected off that river. What did you say? It was what God probably sees when he rubs his eyelids. I don't know how you come up with things like that.

Don't close your eyes. They made me swear I'd keep you alert till they got here. I told them I've seen you worse. Remember that wipe-out in Nevada? Still don't know how you pulled out of that one with all your limbs intact. And that old doctor who tried to talk you out of riding? I told him, "You don't know Lou like I do." The morning we got back on the road, and the sun rising over the desert... like the sand was on fire. That doctor wouldn't have understood that even if we told him.

Lou? Look at me. They'll be here soon.

Did I ever tell you about my old man? Got me started fixing things. We worked together on this Ford Mustang, when I was 13. He was a man of few words: and half of them were "fuck" or "shit." But one day I handed him a wrench and he looked me in the eye and said, "Frankie" -- that's what they called me back then. "Frankie," he said. "you're a good kid. I'm glad you're my son." Closest he ever got to telling me he loved me. Died six months later. Massive coronary.

I finished the Mustang, of course, then started tinkering with this motorcycle he'd bought for our next project. And you know where that story goes. Funny, isn't it? The way that, even when you don't know where you're going, the road opens up and takes you there?

Now Lou, this is serious. Look at me.

This fall, we ought to go back up to that rally in Montana. The one where I met Sheila back in '82. Man, you were right about her. You said, "That woman's a volcano. Watch out for her." You were right. She oozed over me like a river of magma. And then one day, she had hardened. Cold. Went and married some dirtball out in Wyoming and didn't even tell me until we were supposed to meet up. Never trust a volcano.

What am I going to do while you're laid up? You know how backed up we are. Seven tune-ups next week and that custom build for that rich guy from Chicago. You always were great for timing. Look, look at me. Right here. Look at me. You're a good man. I'm glad you're my friend. (CHOKING BACK EMOTION) Hang in there, buddy. I need you.


My other classmates came up with some interesting monologues. The Improv Lawyer's was for a woman who got embroiled in a conversation on the way to see her husband who'd just been admitted to the hospital. Henrik's monologue was for a precocious young boy who was enthusiastic about books and anxious to discover the truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne's anti-Semitism, since his teacher refused to talk about it. Pat's monologue was an introduction to a play about an Irish family and how they ended up in the New World. Connie's monologue was an older man trying to convince a teenager to study for school. Finally, Chris's monologue (enacted by the Improv Lawyer) was a woman at a wedding who had contracted a rare illness while on honeymoon with her second husband and was about to ask her brother for a kidney.

The second week, Kate told us to take the character from our monologue and, using a tactics exercise sheet she'd handed out, create a dialogue. I wrote one for Hex and his sister, Sandy, who was played by the Improv Lawyer, with Hex played again by Henrik.

Here it is:

CHARACTERS

FRANK "HEX" VEVEY: A long-haired, graying man in his late 40s. He wears a beat-up rock T-shirt and jeans, both covered with grease stains. A bandana is wrapped around his forehead, and his hair is pulled into a ponytail.

SANDY VEVEY PARKER: Hex's sister, in her early 40s. She is dressed conservatively.
TACTICS EXERCISE SCENE
(A motorcycle shop. HEX is crouched down, working on a motorcycle.)

SANDY
(SANDY enters, walking slowly.)

Frankie, I heard about Lou. How are you doing?
HEX

(HEX puts his wrench down and stands up.)

Not great, but Lou's doing worse. They've got him knocked out with drugs.

SANDY

I heard.

(SANDY approaches HEX and holds her arms wide, as if waiting for a hug.)

I'm here for you. I love you, big brother.

(SANDY approaches and hugs HEX. HEX's arms remain at his sides.)

And God loves you, too.
HEX

(HEX backs, away from SANDY.)

Just can't leave it alone, can you?
SANDY

Did I ever leave you alone when I wanted you to do something? Like make you fix my bicycle chain?

HEX

Well, at least you weren't evangelizing back then.
SANDY

You're a smart man. Sometimes I think you're too smart. Your head gets in the way of your heart. Let God's love in, and you'll be happy, Frankie.
HEX

My friends call me Hex. You know that, Sandy.
SANDY

I don't like that name. It sounds evil.
HEX

Here you go again. Tell me about my evil ways.
SANDY

You're not evil, Frankie. But some of the things you do are. Please come to church with me. It's not too late... for you.

HEX

What do you mean by that?
SANDY

I mean, if you keep roaming from woman to woman, connected to no one, living for the road, then it's only a matter of time before you're the one lying there, bleeding into the asphalt.
HEX

Are you implying that my best friend, a man I've known for 30 years, a man who has my back every time I need him, deserved to be side-swiped?
SANDY

No... but come on, Frankie. I'm scared for you. Every time you go to another motorcycle rally, I wonder if you're coming home. Come to church, just once, and I promise I won't ask you again.

HEX

(HEX paces briefly, thinking.)

Do you swear? On a stack of Bibles?
SANDY

I don't know if God would approve of that... But I promise you I'll leave you alone if you just come to church this Sunday.

HEX

Fine. I'll be there.
SANDY

I knew you'd come around! I'll come to your house at 8, and we can go together. See you then!

(SANDY runs off, gleefully, then shouts from offstage.)

Bring your guitar!
HEX

(HEX shakes his head slowly.)

God help me.


Kate gave the actors some instructions, and they did some improv work with the scene, getting more into the reasons that Sandy is concerned for him and Hex's own motivations and reactions. I thought it was interesting that they really hit on the idea of Hex's lack of connection and his philandering. To me, that's integral to this character, so I'll have to play it up.

Some of my classmates worked with the characters from their monologue, while others did something slightly different. The Improv Lawyer did a scene about a friend comforting another after her house had burned down. Henrik shared a scene where his 13-year-old protagonist is stealing books from a rare book dealer and is confronted by said shop owner. Pat did an entirely improv scene where he just provided the framework. In it, the patriarch of the family is surprised by his two children, 13 and 9, who have been sent by the family to meet with him and convince him to stay in the U.S. despite the fact that their mother is dying. Chris missed class.

I played a role in Connie's scene, between a young African-American woman and an Italian-American man whose family is in the mafia. They were meeting at a lover's lane in a car. We felt it was a justification exercise: she wanted him to convince her to spend the evening with him, despite his family's past. The way it was written, she was burdened with a lot of exposition. When we did improv with it, we put those lines in his mouth (played by Pat). It worked in a much more interesting way.


So now we are preparing for week four, and my assignment is two-fold. I've got to come up with an outline for my ten-minute play, and I've got to write another scene. Since Hex has really come alive for me, I'm going to stick with him. While he is very different from me, there are aspects about him that I've drawn both from myself and from people I know. Plus, he's helping me to get at some issues that are big for me: such as how we connect to other people and what prevents some people from doing so.

My question to you is: where should I (or could I) take this story? According to online sources, that would translate to about a 10-page play. So far, if I use both the monologue and the dialogue (with changes), I've got four to four and a half pages (the monologue being more dense). I liked the idea of Hex going to church with Sandy, because it puts him in an uncomfortable place where he's going to be challenged. Connie suggested that perhaps he should bring his latest "girlfriend" with him, or a bunch of them, just to razz his sister. I don't see him doing that for two reasons: he's not close to any of those women, and much as he finds his sister's evangelizing to be annoying, he wouldn't want to outright antagonize her.

But I see him being a reluctant participant in the church service, if I even choose to put that scene on stage. Ultimately, I want him to be pushed to a point of growth, of being able to open up emotionally, even if it's a small gesture. I'm not sure exactly how that path will lead, and I'm open to suggestions. Any ideas?

Moral:
A picture is worth a ten-minute play.


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Tags: improv lawyer, theater, writing
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