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Conflict, Lighting, Sets……Action!

As a playwright you better find some conflict in your story. Little Women had soft, cozy conflict but make no mistake there was conflict. Romeo and Juliet had glaring conflict represented by a family feud that wrought murder and mayhem. To be successful, you must have antagonists and protagonists in your plot.
CONFLICT: It is a challenge to write conflict with dialogue only. There is no description (like fiction) where you can tell the reader how angry and against something your antagonist is. Granted you have the characters right there in front of you, to tell the story with their body language but the dialogue carries the day and is the difference between weak writing and strong, successful writing.
Using examples from a recent play of mine, I will demonstrate conflict in simple, but successful (to the overall plot of the play) terms. A children’s play but the rules still apply and are no less challenging because it’s a kids’ play. Perhaps even more of a challenge.
Sub-PLOT: The sooner the plot is revealed the better. If you haven’t engaged the audience in the first three minutes, you don’t have a very good plot. 

                    ~~~~~~~

Back in the day when there were truly ‘starving actors’ we started up theatre companies all the time with a couple of platforms and four ‘spots’ that one would use in a shop in the garage at home. This is a cheap ($12. a piece) adaptable, portable light. You can even attach a gel to the cone for a few pennies per gel. Use blues for night and warm colors (amber) for day. Each light has a wire running back to the control desk/booth and while you won’t have a dimmer option, you must be able to turn the light off and on.

When we started our own company, we had to be totally portable as our performance space could be an art gallery, a café, a gymnasium, or school auditorium. Anywhere they would allow us to use their space. All sites had to be vacated when the weekend was over and then loaded back in for the next performance date.

We could light just about any play with four of these clamp-on, shop lights. The purpose of any stage lighting is to light the actors and the set. If you don’t accomplish anything else, you need to make certain this happens. If your stage is in a very small space, it’s not super critical to light the actors brightly. Just be certain they stay in the light, which is where the director’s blocking comes in.

Even if you need to stick to the basics of simple illumination, lighting makes everything feel more professional and helps the audience to better focus on what is going on, on the stage. Theatrical lighting doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Lighting is about making certain that you can see the people on stage and that the moods of the play are represented and amplified.
Clamp lights aren’t the be all and end all. You’ll have to live with the shadows that they cast.
But remember, this is all you can afford now, and you’ll also need to be able to break it down and take the lighting with you.

I still remember the thrill when we could finally afford a couple of Klieg lights.

           ~~~~~~~

Most theatres have a set designer who creates the set based on the director’s vision. But it is important that the playwright sees the set. Where your story takes place. If your set requires two different scenes/sets and you have structured the play around two sets you must think about time and money. Anticipate the cost because you want the director to choose your play to produce. But if the cost of more than one set is too much, your play might never be chosen.
An envelope design works nicely for the need of two locations/sets in one play. The first set in created on the outside fold of an envelope. When the scene changes the ‘flap’ is opened, like a tri-fold (by the stage crew) and a new set/location is used. Set pieces (Furnishings) have to be changed out and this calls for some cleverness on the director’s part.
One play comes to mind that I directed: The Cemetery Club. The main set was a living room of one of the female characters. But I also needed a Jewish cemetery. The four widows went there every month to visit their dead husbands and maintain the gravesite.
So what I designed was a single backdrop (scenery). What you might see out the living room window. Then I furnished the living room with set pieces. Sofa, chairs, coffee table, lamps, etc.
Upstage on a riser I created the cemetery with three graves. I designed starfoam monuments with the Star of David on the downstage side. The women would walk up on the risers and, while gazing at the graves, deliver their monologues. It worked because the actors believed it. Thus the audience believed it.   The magic of theatre!
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Available Now! A New Journal for Playwrights

Available NOWHow To Write a 10 Minute Play ~~ Journal and Handbook

Lots of great instruction about the art of writing a ten minute play. And over 250 blank, lined pages for your creative writing as you write your first or tenth 10 minute play.  

Excerpt from back cover:  ‘As you prepare to write your first 10-minute play, pretend that you have walked into a room and interrupted a conversation, mid-sentence. Or you have turned on the television and tuned into a sit-com, ten minutes into (late) a thirty-minute episode. That’s where your head space should be when you begin writing your play.
Give yourself permission. Sit down and write.

This journal/workbook gives you not only the space to write down your ideas for a play but there are instructional sections to help you create your ten-minute play. Develop your story line. Create the characters. Try out different dialogue. 250+ blank, lined pages with famous quotes by actors, playwrights, and writers on each page to inspire the writer in you.’

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                “Writing isn’t a calling; it’s a doing!”  t. sugarek
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How To Write a Play Journal is Now in Hardback

This beautiful journal/handbook is now available in Hardcover. Here’s a little of what you can expect inside. Plus hundreds of blank pages for your own writings and plans for a stage play.

1.  Format is very important.    If you submit your new play to anyone they will not read it if it is not in the proper format. There is software out there that offer auto-format but I found them lacking.   The character’s name is centered. Blocking (action) is indented and placed in parentheses. Setting (indent once), Rise  (indent once) and Dialogue is far left. Double space between character’s name and first line of dialogue.  Blocking (action): is placed below the character’s name in parentheses. (indent x 3).  A ‘beat’ is a dramatic pause to enhance the pace of the speech and is placed in the dialogue where you wish the actor to pause for a beat or two. 

2. Each page represents approximately one minute of time on stage.  So if you have a play that is 200 pages long, that won’t work.  Audiences aren’t going to sit for more than one and a half hours unless you are providing a circus, a fire drill, sex, and an earthquake.  You should keep your full length script to about 100 pages which equals 1.6 hours of stage time.  For a one act divide that by 2.  For a ten minute play your script should be from 10-15 pages. These times and figures are debated by others but this has been my experience as an actor/director/writer.

3.  Leave lots of white space on the page.  One day when your play is being produced, actors will need a place to make notes in the script during rehearsal.  This is a sample of an actor’s (mine) working script. The    
actor usually ‘highlights’ their lines and writes the director’s blocking in the margins. (in pencil, as blocking frequently changes)

4.  The blocking is indented, in parentheses, and directly below the character’s name.  This is where the playwright gives the characters instructions on when and where to move.  But, keep it short and sweet.  Remember there will be a director who has their own ideas of where he/she wants their actors to be.  Be aware of costume changes in your writing.  An actor can’t exit stage left and enter stage right, seconds later, if you haven’t written in the time it will take for them to accomplish a costume change.

5.  Your script has to work on a stage.  If your story takes place in more than one locale, you have to be aware of the logistics of set changes. So keep it simple to start.  If you are ambitious in your setting buy a book on set design to research if your set is feasible.  There are some wonderful ‘envelope’ sets that unfold when you need to change the scene.  But you have to consider the budget; would a theatre have the money to build it? Always a worry.

6.  Dialogue: Now here’s the sometimes hard part:  everything you want the audience to know about the story and the characters, is
conveyed in the dialogue.  Unlike a short story or a novel, where you can write as much description as you’d like, a play script has none of that.  NO description. 

Here is a Sample of formatting your script correctly.  (Click link for details.) 

Journal includes instruction on: 

How To Begin
How to Write a Play
Formatting your Play on the Page
How to write Dialogue
How to Create Rich, Exciting Characters
Designing a Set
Stage Lighting
Stage Terminology
and more…..
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Parkland Shootings

In  remembrance  of  the  innocent  victims  killed  in  a  senseless  shooting. Inspired by that horrible day, I wrote a ten minute play for the classroom in the hopes that teens would learn more about the circumstances that led up to that day.  Perhaps more teens would open up about their thoughts and fears through performance of this play. The child (and yes he is a child regardless of his heinous actions) was in court yesterday pleading guilty to 17 murders of students, coaches and teachers. 

Synopsis:

Mass shootings are a part of our current culture. Not until now did I have something to say (write) about so many mass murders.
This ten minute play for teens in the classroom is to honor and memorialize the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. It focuses on a small class of students hidden away in safety by their English teacher and what happens while they wait for the shooting to stop. But the question begs will they ever be safe again?

The victims:
My Mr. Hale (play) is fashioned after Scott Beigel, 35, a geography teacher and the school’s cross-country coach. He was killed after he unlocked a door to allow students in to hide from the shooter.

Alyssa Alhadeff
Aaron Feis
Martin Duque Anguiano
Nicholas Dworet
Jamie Guttenberg
Chris Hixon
Luke Hoyer
Cara Loughran
Gina Montalto
Joaquin Oliver
Alaina Petty
Meadow Pollack
Helena Ramsay
Carmen Schentrup
Peter Wang

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Rewrites Are Fun and Creative!

Don’t Be shy about about editing some of your older work. For example, Next! A Hollywood tale.  This stage play is from 2009. Full length drama, for adults. What inspired me to look at it again was a little flurry of book sales for this play.

So I pulled it out, dusted it off and read it again.  And found some interesting spots to make it better. In this latest revision I added a whole new scene, which was overlooked the first go around. I couldn’t believe that I had neglected to tie up a loose thread, which the new scene did nicely. 
I have a philosophy; That is that no story is ever finished and I’ve never been shy about looking back and seeing if something needs a good polish or a rewrite. 
This story is about ‘cattle calls’. Auditions that are open to the public; to anyone with a resume and a headshot. Grueling, harsh, and often cruel, the casting directors are ruthless and go through starving actors like a threshing machine. 

Synopsis: Four young, brash actors come to Hollywood to live out their dreams of making it big in tinsel town. They are convinced that hard work and honed skills will bring them everything that they ever dreamed of. They discover that hard work and talent have very little to do with success.

This full length play tells the story of the unflagging optimism of these four actors. They never give up in spite of the daily exploitation and frustration. This comedic drama portrays the real story behind the auditions, the type casting, the ruthlessness and hidden agendas of the movie industry. How the beautiful people, with virtually no acting talent, become stars overnight while trained, talented actors work for years in menial jobs while pursuing a career in film and theatre. The four characters are representational of all the fine, new actors that Hollywood lures into its machination of heartbreak. The author purposely uses only first names as a symbol of how dispensable these young people are.

A surprising and shocking ending will keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

3f. 3m.
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How to be Certain a Director will NOT choose your Play

Recently I was invited to read and review a new collection of three plays. There was so much WRONG with the formatting and the lack of knowledge by the playwright that I couldn’t review it without tearing it all down and asking the playwright to begin anew. But there evolved a constructive critique that might help other new writers. 

Example back cover

Back cover should not be blank with a graphic design. Don’t waste this space.
1. Use this space as an opportunity to grab the buyer/director. List titles and short synopses of your plays. Count gender and following synopsis type this: 1m. 4f. (indicating one male and four females.
2. One line tags
3. A short bio of you

Pg1. First page: Title of play/s
Pg.2: Copyright notice
Pg 3:  list of play titles and Pg # they start on.

In the first few pages you should have a Contents (list) with the tile of each play and the page number it begins. Make it as easy as you can for the director to find the play and the list of characters Because this dictates whether the director can use your play or not depending on age of character and gender. Always keep in mind that men are harder to cast.

On whatever page a new play starts it should begin with the title and the list of characters.

Be certain, you as the playwright, understand what constitutes a full length play. a One Act play, and a Ten Minute Play.  If your plays are preachy and  esoteric it will be a hard sell to a director.

The end of a play is indicated with one word, centered: CURTAIN

Black out‘ and ‘End of Scene‘ are no longer used. The director will understand when a new scene begins. The next page demonstrates to the reader that a new scene is beginning. ‘Act’ and ‘Scene’ should be centered.

CHARACTERS names and blocking should be centered on page; NO underline.

If you find yourself writing a soliloquy or a monologue in a scene, break it up by having other characters insert dialogue in your speech. It then becomes less preachy and more dynamic.

Be certain YOU know the difference between a Ten Minute Play, a Full Length play (with two acts) and a One Act Play. The first act in a full length play is longer than the second act. Full length plays are about 100 pages/minutes. And no one ever uses an Act III unless your plays is over two hours or closer to 3 hours long. Also, a no-no. Remember the rule of thumb is one minute per page. This varies based on how ‘busy’ the blocking is as that takes time too. It is permissible that a 10 minute play might go over but never more than 18 to 20 minutes.

The first few pages of the book should be simple and convey the correct information. Keep it simple.  The title of your book  should be on the 1st page of your book. The next page [on the left] should be your copyright page. On the right should be your table of contents (centered)
Title with page numbers. (justified left)

On the page number of the play, the title should be on the 1st page. (odd numbered page, right side) the next page (odd numbered) should be the list of characters. The blocking and description of how the play should be produced does not need to be too detailed. Remember this is the job of the director to interpret the playwright’s Play.

Examples:
Link, How to Format a play: https://www.writeratplay.com/2018/01/15/how-to-format-your-self-published-stage-play/

When the formatting is not industry-standard, I have seen more than one director throw the book/script into the ’round file’.
Look at other scripts on line for guidance.  
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How to Write A Stage Play: Exercise

In this exercise, featured in my Journal, “How To Write a Play’, I have started a play for you to continue writing. It can be a 10
minute play, a full one act play, or a full length play. I have left the story plot ‘threads’ dangling in order for you to choose where the plot goes.
Tip: If you choose to write a longer play you might want to consider writing something in front of these few lines to get more ‘back story’.
Remember the best plays begin, early on, with some tension. 

 

                                                                    Scene 1  ©

At Rise: A hallway in a high school.

              (JASON and ROBIN stand next to some lockers away from the flow of students
              hurrying to their classes.)

                                                                    ROBIN (Hissing.)

You better not hurt my friend.

                                                                     JASON

What are you talking about?

                                                                ROBIN

I know your rep….luv ‘em and leave ‘em.

                                                                JASON

Naw. Not me.

                                                                ROBIN

Yes, you. Just be careful.  Do not start dating Sara, coming on strong like she’s the only girl in the world. Then dumping her.

                                                                JASON

I wouldn’t.

                                                                ROBIN

You would. I’m just sayin’, if you plan on doing something like that, you’ll have to go through me to get to Sara.  

                                                                JASON  (Smirked.)

What if I’m planning on going through Sara to get to you?

                                                                ROBIN

What? You’re crazy.

                                                                JASON

That doesn’t answer my question.

                                                                ROBIN

You don’t even like me. 

(Now try continue writing this play. Make your own choices about where it goes and who does what.)
Want to read more about Playwriting?
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A Slice of Time….How to Write a Ten Minute Play

I always see the script (for a 10 minute play) as a slice of time. ‘I Can’t Breathe’ was a slice of time before the event that prompted me writing the play. ‘Parkland Requiem’ was during  the event, that is the massacre that happened at Parkland’s high school. We all know what happened immediately after the shooting and not much before the shooting other than it was a normal day of  families getting ready for the day and hopeful young people hurrying off to school. 

For me, the writer, it’s like walking into a room where people are having a conversation (without you) and you are plunged into the story from there.

None of the rules of writing change when writing a ten minute play, just because it’s short. You must still have a beginning, an arc, and an ending(of sorts). You have to introduce the characters through dialogue quickly and concisely. You must attract the empathy of the audience with record speed. Remember, you only have ten minutes.

How do I know when I have ten minutes? Here’s some tips: The typical rule is a page equals one minute.  If a page is heavy with blocking, (movement) it will usually go longer than a minute. If you have a page that is solid with dialogue and movement you can rely on the 1 page = 1 minute. And leave lots of white space; an actor will need some space to write in blocking, from the director, and notes while in rehearsal. 
 

Check out my many “Motivational Moments for Writers” in past posts. 
Want to try your hand at writing a ten minute play? This journal is a great place to start. 
Want to see more of my ten minute plays? Click here 

Do you need help Formatting a Novel? 
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New Short Play, I Can’t Breathe, for Teens

AVAILABLE NOW! 
I Can’t Breathe  ©

I have just completed writing a new, ten minute play for the classroom and teens about the protests in our streets and the murder of George Floyd. 

Synopsis: Jorge, a young black man is asked to teach a social studies class by his teacher. What it’s like to live the black experience. Only to become a victim, himself, later that same day. Driving home from school he is stopped by cops for a traffic infraction. It quickly turns deadly.

Sample:

At Rise: The interior of a car.

            (JORGE is driving HIS small SUV down a   neighborhood street, at a reasonable speed. Blue lights         erupt in HIS rearview mirror.)

 

                                                    JORGE

Oh crap. (He talks to himself.) I wasn’t speeding….was I?

            (JORGE pulls over and watches in HIS side  mirror as a white COP walks from HIS squad car towards JORGE’s car. JORGE starts  reciting everything his mom told him to do in case HE’s  pulled over.)  

                                                                                                                                                           JORGE

Be polite. ‘Yes, sir’, ‘No, sir’. Don’t argue, don’t resist. Be polite whatever happens.

 

            (The COP arrives at the driver’s side window. HE taps on the closed window.)

 

                                                                                                                                                      JORGE   (Rolling down the window.)

Good afternoon, Officer.

 

                                                                                                                                                       COP

Reason why you didn’t stop when I lit you up?

 

                                                                                                                                                  JORGE

I did….sorry, sir. No reason, sir.

 

                                                                                                                                                    COP
License, registration, proof of insurance. Who’s the vehicle belong to?

 

                                                                          JORGE
                             (Scrambling to get the documents out of the glove box.) 

My mom, sir.

                                                                                                                                                   COP

What are ya?⸺a wise ass⸺with all the ‘sirs’?

 

                                                                                                                                                 JORGE

No, s….no, officer. I’m not.

                                                                                                                                                    COP
                                                                                                                   (Grabbing the door handle. It is locked.) 

Step outta the car.

                                                          JORGE
                       (Getting scared. Forgetting everything HIS mom ever told HIM.)

Why?

                                                                                                                                                  COP

Unlock the door and step out…NOW!
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