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Don Zolidis on the Top 10 Essentials of Teaching Playwriting

So you want to teach playwriting, but where to start? In this guest blog post, playwright and former high school teacher Don Zolidis shares his advice on teaching playwriting to teenagers.

A lot of teachers I meet are a bit cautious when teaching playwriting. Most theater teachers learned about acting and directing in college, and very few of them really dove into the specifics of playwriting. The good news, however, is that playwriting is basically just acting on the page. If you can act, you can write. The great difference of course, is that when you’re writing the play you get to act all the parts.

So here are some quick tips you can use when teaching playwriting.

1.    Theater is about creating Compelling Human Behavior. When you’re writing a play, you are creating a scenario in which compelling human behavior is shown on stage.

2.    Without conflict, there is no scene. Conflict comes from two characters on stage pursuing their objectives. We want to watch people go for things.

3.    Vague, metaphysical locations (Hell, Heaven, Limbo, inside someone’s mind) can be death on stage. Make locations specific and non-neutral. (For instance, a scene between a principal and student could take place in the principal’s office, but what if it took place at the student’s home? How does that change things?) Allow the location to influence what is going on in the scene.

4.    Vague, metaphysical conversations are also death on stage. A play should be about right here, right now. What is going to happen right in front of us? What do the characters want? Are they going to get it or not? What are the stakes if they don’t get what they want?

5.    Each additional character is like juggling an additional ball. The more characters in the scene, the more exponentially difficult it becomes. I advise beginning students to begin with two-person scenes and then gradually move up to three-character scenes. Writing a seven-character dinner scene is nearly impossible.

6.    Clarity is your friend. Try to create clear situations where the stakes are known, where the objectives are clear, and the characters are intelligent. If the audience can’t figure out what’s going on, that’s a real problem. Simplicity is hard.

Mistakes kids like to make that make me lose my hair: (actually, if you’ve seen a picture of me, you can tell that they made these A LOT)

I.    Having everything happen too fast. This is the big one, it always happens. The conversations go too quickly—the events happen too quickly—the scenes last one minute or less. How to fix this: When writing a first scene, allow no scene changes. Make the scenes be at least five pages long.

II.    People say exactly what they mean and what they want. Although your character’s objectives ought to be clear, their tactics should not be clear. We almost never go at something directly—or, if we do, it’s likely a comic scene.

III.    Someone changes their mind and agrees with someone else. Have you ever managed to convince anyone else of anything? Without an hour-long slog through Hell to get there? Imagine this scenario: Convince a family member whose political leanings are opposite yours to vote for your candidate. Can you imagine a scenario in which you would change their mind? Nope? There’s a reason the Greeks kept the catharsis at the end of the play—because actually changing your mind and recognizing something is a HUGE event. There should be no easy answering.

IV.    Characters are stupid or evil. Don’t allow your students to have negative opinions about their characters. They must make positive choices for all characters. You can have a character be a horrible jerk, but no one goes around thinking “I’m going to push that kid because I’m a horrible jerk”—they think “I’m going to push that kid and it’s going to make me cool or popular.” Or “That kid deserves it.” Or “It’s fun.”

Don Zolidis holds a B.A. in English from Carleton College and an M.F.A. in playwriting from the Actor’s Studio Program at the New School University, where he studied under Romulus Linney. His plays have been seen at numerous theatres around the country, including The Purple Rose Theatre, The Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Bloomington Playwright’s Project, The Phoenix Theatre, the Victory Theatre, Stage West, The Williamstown Theatre, and many others. Don received the Princess Grace Award for playwriting in 2004 after having twice been a finalist. His plays have received two Edgerton New Play awards and multiple NEA grants among other honors. In 2013 his play White Buffalo was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His plays for young people are among the most-produced in the country and have received more than 7,500 productions, appearing in every state and 51 countries.

Published plays include 10 Ways to Survive the Zombie ApocalypseMutually Assured Destruction: 10 Plays About Brothers and SistersThe Brothers Grimm SpectaculathonEmpowered: How One Girl Scout Nearly Destroyed the World’s Economy, 937, and Game of Tiaras, among many more.



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