Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Writing Dialogue for Actors by Richard Washer

Enough with the "he said-she said." It's time to show--not tell--your story. Playwright and TWC workshop leader Richard Washer on the collaborative experience that is dialogue and playwriting:

Writing Dialogue for Actors
by Richard Washer

Each genre of writing presents its own set of unique challenges for writers. Playwriting is no exception. Some of the basic tools and skills can be gleaned from reading one or more of the plethora of books on playwriting, or by taking workshops where a writer can practice, test, and hone such skills. But playwriting, at the end of the day, is a collaborative craft and as such playwrights write for other interpretive artists. The more a writer understands the craft of these artists, the better the blue print we call a play script is likely to be.

This is hard to convey in a workshop. I provide anecdotes from my experience as a writer, director, and dramaturge to convey a sense of how much an actor or designer can bring to all aspects of a play. While this is helpful, I can see in the eyes of everyone around the table the hunger to experience this. And in these moments I am reminded that the best instruction I received came from watching seasoned and talented actors take my words through the paces of rehearsal, previews, and production. However, as ideal learning experience as this might be, it’s not a practical one. It should come as no surprise that theatres are not likely to spend any of their budgets on helping a new playwright learn.

So, I started to look for a way to bring this experience to my playwriting workshops. I brought in actors for the last meeting of a workshop so that the writers in the group could hear their words performed. But the lack of follow-up always troubled me. There was no time to comment, discuss, or debrief on this experience and focus on lessons learned.

A while back a local high school invited me to offer some playwriting workshops and figuring there was safety in numbers I asked an actor (Hope Lambert) to join me. Hope not only brought her experience of working on new plays in New York, Washington D.C., and National Tours to the workshop, she also articulated and demonstrated the actor’s approach to the craft in a friendly, fun and inviting series of exercises. Watching her I realized that she brought my anecdotes to life and even more importantly, made the writers active participants in the lesson.
Hope and I now offer various presentations of this workshop (one-day or one-weekend seminars, short-term workshops of four to six meetings and longer-term workshops). In all of these the focus is on developing a basic understanding of the actor’s craft and using that knowledge to write dialogue that engages an audience in a story.

If you are new to playwriting or you are frustrated with trying to bring your dialogue and characters to life, this workshop will help you: better understand what the actor looks for in a new script; break out of the habit of TELLING the story and move into showing the story by appealing to the actor’s skills in your writing; have fun in a safe environment trying out some new acting skills and applying them to your plays; and along the way, add to your writing toolbox a deeper knowledge of the collaborative journey you take the instant you put dialogue on paper.

Richard Washer will be leading “Dialogue: A Practical Approach” at The Writer’s Center starting September 27.

Richard Washer, M.F.A., playwright and director. Richard was a co-founder of Charter Theater, a company devoted to developing and producing new plays. His recent productions include Quartet at the Hamner Theater and Getting It produced at the National Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. Richard is the Inaugural Playwright in Residence at First Draft Theater and a workshop leader at The Writer’s Center since 1994.

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