Higher Education: Unraveling A Play

Barbara Jwanouskos continues to narrate her epic journey through year two of getting an MFA in playwrighting.

So, I’ve talked a lot about my writing practice, teaching, general grad school things and collaboration, but I haven’t gotten really specific about anything I’m working on. I thought it might be interesting to talk about something that came up over the last couple weeks in bringing a couple plays into workshop and getting feedback on them.

After having read my thesis a week or so ago and then a new ten minute play I was working on this week, there seemed to be some commonalities – mainly, how I was handling exposition and what that did to the conflict. Basically, how I structured the piece. The note I got on both of these pieces was that I needed to re-order the way in which the audience learns certain pieces of information because some of what happened would have been even more impactful and added to the conflict of the story if I had mentioned it earlier on in the play.

In my mind I visualized this scarf I’d been knitting a while back. I had a particular pattern I came up with, and it was the same whether I was on the front or back side, but I never wrote it down anywhere. I’d stop it and leave the scarf abandoned for a while, then come back to it, forget where I was and try to remember what the pattern was. I’d end up making some mistake, but it wouldn’t be noticeable until several rows in, and I would have to go back and unravel the threads and start back and where I had stopped.

I plan to do lots of unraveling of the thesis play this weekend. I visualize it and I see my play coming apart at the scenes, then readjusted and reordered. Unraveling the threads of my plays proved much more painful than I expected – and I’ve only incorporated the changes into a new draft of the ten minute at this point. As I wove a new pattern for the ten minute, I found myself thinking how grueling it was and how maybe I had lost some of the magic of the play by taking this course of action.

It’s so interesting that I had this experience because my students are getting ready to submit their first finished project – their full-length screenplay – for their mid-term next week. A lot of them are feeling a bit precious about their first drafts or the portions of scenes they’ve gotten notes on so far. I keep talking with the other writers in my program how you have to look at your work clinically and dispassionately sometimes – once you’re in the editing stage. And yet, here I was the other night, almost in tears because I had to re-order my play so it made better sense. The funny thing is once I got that feedback it was one of those happy moments where you think, “Oh! I know what I know how to do now!”

(Shakes her head vehemently…) Or maybe not!

Ripping apart the play and re-sequencing it made it feel like it was becoming more banal and expected. I wondered if I was losing all its humor or charisma as a play. I got to a point where I was so tired. I had read it over so many times. I’d done the big corrections, the small ones. I’d checked it over multiple times looking for holes. There weren’t any, but I sort of felt like I’d made it too perfect – as if it had a neat little bow on it. I couldn’t tell if I wasn’t laughing at the jokes because they just weren’t funny anymore or if I was just tired. Anyway, I gave it a rest. I decided to sleep on it and look at it in the morning.

As luck would have it, I slept a lot longer than I intended, so only had time to glance at it and print out copies for its second round in workshop. I listened as people laughed and I heard very positive feedback afterwards. The jokes were working – actually there were too many. I needed to take out a couple. The new structure didn’t bother anyone. I didn’t hear that it was boring or prosaic. But then again, as people pointed out, the play does have a grown man wearing a child’s sized “Naughty Cheetah” costume…

I’m curious to see how the unraveling process goes this weekend on a much longer piece like my thesis. Because there are certainly problems in it, but unraveling and re-knitting the scene together ultimately may be more satisfying when thinking about structure. I wonder why that’s so. And I wonder why the initial drafts I brought into workshop both had exposition and structure problems.

It’s funny how our brain can put things into an order that seems like it makes logical sense, and then on the page? Not so much… It’s not until someone points it out that things start to click that anything could be different about the play at all.

I have to say though, for all the hardship that it caused (even for a measly little ten minute), I’m glad that I’m going for the big, momentous changes rather than dwelling on what I felt like I loved about the play. What I loved about it definitely shifted. And ultimately, you have to give up something during a re-write. Otherwise, what is it then?

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