Writing Lessons from Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival

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On Monday, the Kennedy Center dropped curtain on its 12th Annual Page-to-Stage festival — a weekend of script readings and open rehearsals of plays and musicals being developed by DC-area theater companies. I’ve been going for awhile now, and I watched all of two live reads and part of another this weekend.

The two I watched in full — Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song and The Music of Nina Simone — have great potential as the individuals involved in those productions continue to raise money and do the work necessary to bring them to the stage. The “partial watch” play — Civilizing Lusby — has a good premise (and therefore good potential), but didn’t hold my attention.

For a writer, live reads are useful because they put the spotlight on the written word. There’s no staging or pyrotechnics or spectacle to distract from what the writer has put to paper. That’s slightly less true in musicals, such as the two diva plays, because there’s singing (and the singing was fantastic), but most of the audience’s experience is in hearing actors speak words and in hearing a narrator read scene descriptions.

Here are some writing lessons I took from the weekend:

  1. Thou shalt avoid exposition. Don’t write anything “so the audience will understand.” A couple years ago, I saw a Page-to-Stage read of a play about Lincoln. There were lines like, “Hello Mary, my dear wife of 19 years…” In the Ella production, there were multiple lines of dialogue that had characters saying they were backstage at X venue or saying what year it was or talking about another character using first and last name. The trouble with these lines is that a) they’re boring; and b) the delivery ends up being stilted because they’re not words actual humans would speak. Work necessary exposition into the story as ammunition for conflicts.
  2. Thou shalt get to the point. In Civilizing Lusby, the first 10 pages or so were devoted to a family dispute about a rambunctious teen aged girl who smiled at too many men for her mother’s comfort. Yawn. There was a little tidbit thrown in about the father needing some banker’s son on his side for something, which I assume they got to later on because I left at that point. According to the description in the program, the play was about a Chesapeake waterman taking his revenge after a couple businessmen have his shack condemned so they could build a railroad. The high-spirited daughter flirting with every man she meets was worth a couple minutes — not the first 10.
  3. Thou shalt present characters, not characterization. Civilizing Lusby did this best. The wild girl, the disapproving mother, the adoring father trying to be stern for the sake of his wife but not quite making it — these felt like real people. The Nina Simone show did a reasonable job as well, presenting a first-person “as told by” story that gave her take on her story. The Ella Fitzgerald show — not so much. They characterized her by talking about the pictures on her dressing room wall, having her fire her cousin/assistant, and having her say “shit” now and then. But, the non-linear presentation left the feeling that Ella mainly had stuff happen to her — NOT that she was an active and aggressive force in achieving personal goals. Which leads me to…
  4. Thou shalt give your protagonist clear goals. The contrast between the Nina Simone and Ella scripts couldn’t be more evident on this one. At any point, the director could have called a stop and asked the audience what Simone wanted. The answers would have flowed — to be the first black classical pianist, to get into Curtis, to find love, to avoid the IRS, to come to peace with her father, to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement…and so on. Simone had a series of goals that shifted as she moved through her life — many of which she failed to achieve. But, the point here is that the audience always knew what they were. Not so, in Ella’s story where she never seemed to want anything except to “sing pretty for the people.” They presented major events in her life, of course, but Ella seemed almost a bystander to them, not the cause of those events. While that can happen “in real life,” it a) makes for bad drama, and b) is unlikely for someone who accomplished as much as she did in life.

Those are the lessons I got from Page-to-Stage this year — avoid exposition, get to the point, create characters NOT characterization, and give your characters clear goals.

 

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