Exploring Belief Systems

belief_by_stratophair-d3cq8bpI finished the first draft of a full-length play last month, and put it away while I focused on other things – I had my annual Left Out Festival to produce.

When you wear as many theatrical hats as I do, long-term projects often have to wait while you manage the business or run the rehearsals. This festival required management on multiple levels, and I was also performing in five of the shows, so I wore my actor hat, my director hat and my writer hat, simultaneously. But all the characters in my new play had to sit in limbo while I did it.

Now that the festival has ended I can pull them back out and get immersed in the process of creating my second draft. The story poured out of me during the last year, in my Tuesday and Saturday writing workshops, and I let it. I worked in a basic word processing program because it lets me be loosey-goosey while the story is coming out. I move backwards in the script as needed to be sure of my trajectory, but for the most part I just forge ahead, knowing that later on I can pick up anything that was missed during that process. I leave the formatting and polishing for later.

As I watched the story unfold (and yes, that’s how it felt. I just put things in motion and then made what seemed to be organic choices and let the cards fall) I learned about my characters. The main one is a version of me, so it was easy to write her. The other characters were very loosely based on people I know, so I am ahead of the game on making them all believable. I am now writing monologues for all of them, in which I explore aspects of their characters that came to light in the events of the play. These monologues are exploratory – they provide me an opportunity to explore the belief systems the characters live by. And I can also provide them to the actors who eventually play the roles, as back stories.

The next major process will be putting the play into Final Draft format. During that time, I will see what’s missing, what character choices are as-yet unsupported, and what plot points need added foundation. I can use the material from the newly written monologues to augment places in the story where motivation is weak or obscure. As I write these monologues I see things that I learned about the characters coming out of my fingers and onto the page.

My favorite books on playwriting include material on the differences between event-based stories and character-based stories. The Dramatist’s Toolkit by Jeffrey Sweet and Story by Robert McKee are two examples. I prefer character-based stories because I like to write from within the human desire. I read a lot of scripts in my work as an artistic director, and I often see event-based stories that show the hand of the writer far too much. It’s a common hazard, when writing from that God-like vantage point, to let ideas run the show. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with working from ideas. But the idea needs to be based in believable motives on the part of the characters. And I love that characters in plays and in real life are often unpredictable in their behaviors, while reasonably predictable in their belief systems.

That’s what I am exploring in these monologues – belief systems. I highly recommend it as a technique.

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