On Feb. 14, 2011, the Scriptwriting Program was having the first Hothouse Play Reading event. Writers provided 15 pages of material and actors were asked to volunteer their time to do a live read. Here was the perfect opportunity to see how our stories, characters, and the words they say, held up against the expectations of an audience.
For the moderator role, the program organizers would ask of a theatre expert from the local community. This could range from coordinator, critic, or even a university professor. Basically, friends of friends of the instructors.
These moderators were supposed to give a guest talk for theatre acting students and scriptwriting students. It was eventually decided that this option was scratched due to the performance of the first moderator.
I believe having the person come in to do an hour of talking and then expect them to sit through two hours of amateur scripts was overwhelming. Plus it was a Monday night. And it was Valentine’s Day. AND his wife was with him.
So what happened?
There were reports of him sleeping. Reports of his face buried into the palms of his hands. Temple rubbing. Head shaking. Then there was the way he sort of hurried the Q&A at the end of the night.
Now, you have to remember all the factors I mentioned earlier. He also had dinner in the hour in-between the guest talk and Hothouse event. Maybe his blood sugar was up and the sleepiness kicked in. Or maybe the urge to get it on came about.
The person I’m talking about is ISRAEL HOROVITZ, American playwright and screenwriter.
If you’re reading this and you know who he is, that’s good. If you’re drawing a blank, then click the name and catch up on Wikipedia. Don’t worry. I’ll still be here.
How did we get him? Well, Israel Horovitz was visiting a production of his play in the city. The play director of the production was also directing the live readings for our event. He was still going to be in town during that time. So, the opportunity was too good.
We asked. Horovitz agreed.
Since this was also an once-in-a-lifetime event, we asked if he could do a guest talk. He agreed to this as well.
So two hours before event, we all crammed into a conference room. Theatre acting students on the left side. Scriptwriting students to the right. Teachers… bundled up in the front.
Horovitz arrived and chose to sit off-centre, near the scriptwriting side. Made sense.
The guest talk overall was wonderful. He was casual in his speech. Easy-going. Calm. He was a man who was not full of himself. In fact, he was perhaps the most casual dressed person in the room (wearing a blue long-sleeve shirt, jeans and a pair of running shoes). The structure of the talk was free-form: he reacted to questions and gave brief tours of his life when it was appropriate.
I only took notes on the writing bits. All typed on my cell phone. Why I didn’t think of using the voice recorder function still puzzles me. Maybe it was the people whispering around me. Maybe he was too soft spoken for the microphone and I didn’t feel like walking up to place the thing near the guy.
Below is the expanded and paraphrased version by yours truly. My voice is there, but the lessons are all his. It’s directed toward playwriting but you can find use for it in screenwriting.
I hope you enjoy.
- If you can write how people talk, you can make a living. It’s not about copying how a writer writes his or her dialogue but about you, as an individual, and the everyday interactions with the people around. If you have a basic understanding of how people make their word choices or how they try to convey their meaning to another human being, then that’s great. If the excessive use of vulgar language is true to what people sound like and to your heart — who gives a fuck?
- Be unique and familiar. Bring uniqueness to the story, something different — a place where the audience would be captured, but familiar enough that they could relate to it with their lives. There are some people you wouldn’t cross paths with so you cross the street before intersecting with them. But show them in a human way, in a play or a story, you can make the audience leave the theatre with such a connection that they hold these characters so dear to their hearts.
- Write from the heart. Show what is true to your voice. Try not to imitate what other people do, but try to truthfully tell a story from what you believe holds dear to your heart.
- Rewrite and rewrite the first two pages of a dramatic piece to a point where it explodes off the page. Instantly capture the audience’s interest. Grab them by the throats and never let go. This leads to the DRAMATIC PROMISE: when you go into a play and someone says, “There will be a war between the Trojans and the Greeks,” you instantly go, “WOW. I definitely paid my money’s worth if there’s going to be a war!“
- Aim for a travelogue quality. Let the audience go somewhere. This again resonates with being unique and familiar. Let the go on an adventure.
- Keep action on stage. Sometimes you get a lot of action off the stage and very little on the stage. Try to bring them on stage.
- The Power of Threes. There are times when you have only two characters on stage. This becomes more like a conversation and sometimes the split sides can be repetitive. Like, if you have acrobats on the stage — you get over the fact they’re tight-roping and it loses the magic quality. At times, the power of three characters on stage can have a shift in powers: the winning and losing of sides. It’s like a playground where you have Billy, Bobby, and Betty. Bobby will say to Billy, “I’m not going to be friends with you anymore,” and leaves with Betty. Who knows, later, Betty could be convinced to join Billy, or vice versa. The shifts in power keep it entertaining. It’s also familiar because we all had that moment where we could be friends with somebody and then suddenly they shift against our opinions or beliefs. What a struggle it is to argue and convince — just to overcome their beliefs or to simply win them back as relationships.
- Everyone has a unique thing that we relate to. We all come from unique places but the problem with new writers is that we try to move as far away from what we know. We try to go so abstract that it loses the human quality. Try to write from where you grew up. That’s a unique story that people will find real. Because, when you write how people talk, people will know if it’s real or not.
- In the end, we all share the same question, “WHY AM I ALIVE?” Why are you living in this world? Are you supposed to be that writer? That lawyer? What are you going to change in this world? And what purpose does this have to you as a human? This is the basic question we all have, and to avoid it, you’re living a bullshit lie because we all die. You shouldn’t be surprised when you do.
- Read the Poetics by Aristotle. If you transpose this to our times, you would be working off a great dramatic text on the theory of story.