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C. Denby Swanson Talks Conflict

C. Denby SwansonThe Florida State Thespian Festival is the largest high school theater conference in the galaxy. The squirming mass of more than 7000 students, chaperones, educators can be seen from space.

Every state festival is different. Florida’s is like a giant theater swim meet, with competitive events at unnervingly specific times (“Your adjudication starts at 8:47AM.”), and an army of uniformed student volunteers who wear clear plastic earpieces, like they are teenaged Secret Service agents. They also manage the quantum scheduling tangle of mainstage and one-act performances seemingly around the clock, a daily workshop schedule, college and scholarship auditions, and the high emotions of design, tech, acting, and vocal adjudications. Yet it everything seems to just happen. It is an organizational wonder.

For several years I have adjudicated playwriting for Florida with fellow writers Janet Allard and David Nugent. About six weeks out, we each get a refrigerator-sized box of 25-page scripts, which we read, respond to, and rate on a five point scale: Poor – Fair – Good – Excellent – Superior. For the first two days of Festival, we meet with each of the 40-odd playwrights for a 15-minute conversation. On the last day we lead a series of playwriting workshops.

I’ve been so grateful for the consistency of our adjudication team; we’ve become a solid team in terms of our approach to adjudication, which we like to structure as a conversation with the writer. Frequently, we’ll find ourselves giving the same kind of note over and over and over. What we wound up talking about a lot this year was conflict, or more specifically, lack of. So here are a couple of assumptions that we’ve seen playwrights make, and my thoughts in response.

“Conflict is when really bad stuff happens to the characters.”

No, it’s not.

Say that it’s Festival and your playwriting adjudication is at 8:47 AM on Thursday morning. On Wednesday night you check in to your hotel, which is hosting a convention for golfers, and they practice their putts in the hallways until 5AM, seeing if they can get a chip shot off your door. You oversleep. At 8:13AM, you take the elevator downstairs, but it gets stuck between the 2nd and 3rd floors. Then the cables break and you plummet to the ground, cushioned by someone’s costumes for the junior version of Amadeus, and the door crash open into the lobby. It’s now 8:21AM. Out the glass doors, you see the festival bus pulling away. The driver laughs maniacally and speeds off. You can see your troupe-mates faces pressed up against the windows, screaming. Oh, no! What will that mean for your one-act competition? The troupe has worked so hard on their adaptation of  Dante’s Inferno, even though it was asterisked for bad language and drug use, and you felt really good about it, especially the mime sections and the teen jazz orchestra. Then, as you’re running toward the convention center, at 8:38AM, you feel like you can just make it, and that’s when you’re attacked by zombies.

This is a bad morning at Festival. But dramatically, is it conflict? No. Bad things happening to your character is not conflict. More bad things happening to your character is not more conflict.

Sometimes the temptation is to keep adding awful events to your play. An abusive family, a car crash, and then a terminal illness, all in 25 pages.

This suggests to me, your playwriting adjudicator, that you don’t really know what your play is about. And also, you watch too many Lifetime Movies of the Week.

Do your characters do terrible things to each other? Yes. Good. This is conflict.

The play emerges when the conflict is urgent, intimate, and immediate. Conflict happens because the decisions that characters make put their relationships at risk. Is the play really about a playwright and a zombie? Great. They need to know each other, want something from each other, and make decisions that betray their weird zombie-human friendship.

The rest is context. And context can be bad. But context isn’t the play. Context is the external. Conflict is the internal. Context is the larger metaphor.

Say there’s a brutal storm outside. So show us the brutal storm raging in this family, at this moment. Say there’s a tornado. Show us the whirling destruction inside a friendship. Say there’s a tsunami. So show us the tidal forces that overwhelm a pair of lovers. In a play, the story is small, and the metaphor is huge. If you write the personal story, the story will provide the larger meaning, it will do the work for you, whether the play is set in the Renaissance, in a mental institution, or on Mars.

“Conflict means the characters hit each other.”

No, it doesn’t.

Physical violence is sometimes an indicator of conflict; more frequently, it indicates that the playwright doesn’t know what the play is about. Physical violence can become an easy out.

A gunshot isn’t de facto conflict. A punch to the face isn’t de facto conflict. Just because “It happens in life” doesn’t mean that the event is earned in the story. It may be that your characters hit each other, or kill each other, at the very moment when you are least certain of their actual conflict. What you might be going for is that characters don’t’ hit each other; they hurt each other. Sometimes, the worst possible thing that can happen is that a person opens their mouth and the exact wrong words come out.

Here’s a conflict: Your playwriting adjudication is at 8:47AM, you come in needing me to give you a Superior; I’m an adjudicator, I need to prove I’m a good judge by not giving out any Superiors whatsoever. We are at odds.

The stakes are high: You feel like a Superior will validate you at school, and if you go back with a Good, or even an Excellent, your reputation may be ruined, your hopes for social and academic advancement dashed. I feel that giving out easy Superiors invalidates my hard-earned experience and long-developed judgment. Maybe last year I was too easy, and this year I have to work hard to save my job.

By 8:49AM you realize that I have no intention of giving you a Superior. Are you going to hit me?

(I mean, will that be your first strategy?)

And will I hit you?

No. The real tension is, what will we say to each other? And then, because a play is based on failure (I try to get what I want and my first strategy fails), what do we do next? Whatever choice we make in terms of strategy, in terms of decision, we have a positive intention. We have a desire, an objective, a need. And if we fail, our life will be ruined. Will we lie? Cheat? That doesn’t work either. So what do we do next? Conflict escalates. The play doesn’t happen to the characters, the characters happen to the play.

You say: You are not only a terrible judge, you are a bad human being. You are beyond mean. You have killed my creative spirit. And I say….

Here’s a go-to list as you write the draft of your play for next year:

  1. Conflict isn’t when bad stuff happens. Conflict is when your characters happen. Make that the bumper sticker for your Playwriting-mobile.
  2. Conflict is there even before the beginning of the play – it doesn’t “develop.” Strategies develop. But conflict pre-exists lights up. These characters need their objective before we even meet them – they are in action when they walk through the door.
  3. Objectives are active, urgent, immediate, and personal. The play happens now, not tomorrow, not last week. It happens because these characters have a powerful, present-moment need.
  4. Keep your characters in the room together. When you are tempted to let them leave, make them stay. Even a dramatic exit – when a character slams the door! Bam! – can let your characters off the hook.
  5. Keep your characters talking directly to each other. Be wary of the temptation to have them text instead of talk. Put your characters face to face.

See you next year!

–C. Denby Swanson

C. Denby Swanson is a 2007/2008 NEA/TCG Playwright in Residence with Zachary Scott Theater Center. She graduated from Smith College, the National Theatre Institute, and the University of Texas Michener Center for Writers, and has been a William Inge Playwright in Residence, a Jerome Fellow and a McKnight Advancement Grant recipient. Her work has been commissioned by the Guthrie Theater, 15 Head a Theatre Lab, Macalester College, St. Stephen’s High School, and The Drilling Company and featured in the Southern Playwrights Festival, the Women Playwrights Project, the Estro-Genius Festival, and PlayLabs 2002. In 2006, she was in residence at New York Stage & Film (through P73) to develop her play A Brief Narrative Of An Extraordinary Birth Of Rabbits, which was also included in the Writer/Director Lab at the Playwrights Center, and workshopped at Cornell College in Iowa as part of New Plays on Campus grant. Her play The Death Of A Cat received its world premiere at Salvage Vanguard Theater and was subsequently a finalist for the PEN Center Literary Award for Drama. Most recently, her full length adaptation, Atomic Farmgirl, was workshopped at the Culture Projects Impact Festival. She is a Core member of The Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, an alumna of the Lark Theaters Playwrights Week 2005, a former Artistic Director of Austin Script Works, and on the faculty at Southwestern University. Her plays Honour, Governing Alice, Everything So FarThe Atomic Adventures of Nikolai Nikolaevich are published by Playscripts, Inc..

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