A dramatic approach to solving story problems



Hi everyone,

As long time visitors here recall, I’ve highlighted a number of Featured Guests since this endeavor began in 2009. The list is rather long so if you want to entertain yourself by reading about some very successful folks, I recommend it. Here are just a few names on the roster: Barbara Robinson, Cheryl Harness, Hans Wilhelm, Jan Greenberg, Mary Downing Hahn, J. Patrick Lewis, Marilyn Singer, Dan Burr, Rob Shepperson, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Douglas Florian, Jane Yolen, Sandy Asher, and many others.

So here I am interviewing Sandy Asher again, this time with another special guest, Joe Lauderdale. And this time we’re talking about a specific upcoming event co-led by Sandy and Joe: a Highlights Foundation Workshop slated for June 12-16, 2013.

Hi, Sandy and Joe. I have several questions regarding your workshop, which you’re calling, PLAYING TO WIN: A DRAMATIC APPROACH TO SOLVING STORY PROBLEMS.

DAVID: Sandy, let’s begin with you. What’s different about this workshop?

SANDY: Fiction writers don’t often get to play theater games because, unlike playwrights, they work alone. And yet theater games are a tried-and-true technique for delving more deeply into characters’ backgrounds and motivations, energizing scenes, adding spark to dialogue, and freeing up blocked plot lines. This is a unique opportunity to look at your writing in a totally new way that will inspire fresh ideas as well as untangle problems in works-in-progress. And once you get the knack of playing theater games in a group under the direction of a pro like Joe Lauderdale, you’ll know how to play them in your head when you go back to your solitary routine. Because, in fact, theater games are external, social examples of maneuvers experienced writers employ internally every day.

JOE: Most people assume that theater games are confined to the study and creation of theater, but in reality they are simply a catalyst for continued discovery, whether it be the spoken or written word.

DAVID: Will there be hands-on writing opportunities as well?

SANDY: Absolutely. Joe will lead the games, chosen especially to fit the kinds of writing problems the group members are facing, and I’ll add writing exercises that will help everyone explore their characters and the world of their stories even further. And there will be free time to write — outdoors or in your private cabin, or in the modern conference center itself. It’ll be June in the Poconos! A writing-workshop dream setting.

DAVID: What exactly are theater games? Can you give an example or two?

JOE: Theater games serve a multitude of learning and experimenting experiences. Typically, they are used by actors and educators for specific purposes such as warm-ups for class, rehearsal or performance, extending concentration and focus, character development, improvisation and often play development. They are also used in drama therapy to help understand feelings and actions. One of the most common concentration exercises is called “Mirror.” You are opposite a partner while one slowly creates physical movement while the other “mirrors” as exact as they can. For our workshop we are using an exercise called “Interview,” where one person asks a series of questions while the other responds as if they are a specific character. This exercise is especially helpful in fleshing out a character and understanding their actions and reactions.

DAVID: How did the two of you come together to plan this workshop?

SANDY: I’m fortunate in that I work in both worlds — fiction and drama. I’m even more fortunate to have worked with Joe, who directed the world premieres of two of my plays. Joe also attended my Highlights Founders Workshop on Writing Your First Novel a few years ago. Besides teaching creative writing at Drury University for many years and also teaching a variety of writing workshops across the country, I’ve edited five anthologies of fiction, so I have a pretty good idea of how to help other people solve the problems in their stories. And I know theater games can provide a vivid way to SEE and HEAR those problems as you work your way through to the solutions you’ve been searching for. It’s helpful to have a theater pro introduce theater games and I just happened to know one who totally fits the bill.

JOE: Sandy and I had met at an American Alliance for Theatre and Education conference a few years before we actually worked together. I was thrilled when she approached me to premiere (at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach, CA) her adaptation of Avi’s “Romeo and Juliet, Together (and Alive!) at Last.” It was a mutual admiration society from then on.

SANDY: And a fan club before that. Joe ran the AATE Awards committee and emceed the ceremonies. I was in the audience year after year and so enjoyed watching him! Did I mention this workshop will be FUN?

DAVID: Don’t you have to be an actor to play theater games?

JOE: Not at all. Theater games are about enlightening and enlivening a story. This is important whether you speak or write. Yes, the exercises are usually verbal, but they are not about acting. They are about discovery. I’ve used theater games with public speakers, businesses, teachers and students who want to think creatively and communicate effectively in various mediums. I’ve actually used some of the exercises in my own writing of plays and some fiction because they can often be done alone as well as with others. I have also found that doing theater games with non-actors is so exciting because there is no thought of being believable in their dialogue. They are simply speaking words to help them open up to new ways of seeing.

DAVID: What do you hope writers will take away from this workshop?

SANDY: Several things: First, solutions to the specific writing problems they bring with them. Second, a wealth of new writing ideas generated by looking at their work in a completely different way. Third, a love of theater games. I hope they’ll go home and continue thinking in this creative and highly effective way, and also suggest to future organizers of workshops and writing conferences that a session on theater games must be included. That will require bringing in a theater expert at first, preferably an expert in theater for young audiences, the same folks our fiction is meant to reach. But there are theater experts all over this country, and they have a lot to teach us. Bring ’em on board!

JOE: It is so easy to get trapped in our beliefs and habits that we forget there are so many beautiful and thrilling paths to one purpose. And sometimes, when we completely open ourselves to new things, we find an even better purpose waiting for us.

My thanks, Sandy and Joe, for bringing us up to date on your workshop. I can see it filling early. Good luck and best wishes to you and congratulations on those who attend your workshop June 12-16. For anyone interested in learning more, here’s a handy link.