Dance With(out)...

First Things First

Before you read the rest of this document you need to get out a note card and in a permanent form write down (pen, permanent marker, etc.) what you do best as a playwright. A sample phrasing might be, "As a playwright, I am best at _____." This could be anything: structure, dialogue, soliloquies, action, stage directions, ending twists, deus ex machina, or simply a genre like comedy -- whatever. Set the card in a prominent location where you normally write. Okay -- read on!

Quick Sketch

Remove the crutch that is your perception of your greatest strength in order to grow, broaden, explore, and experiment without it. For use at any point in the writing process.

Dance With(out)...

In The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, we encounter a technique for creating she calls "Take Away a Skill." She reflects on a time when she was injured and had to choreograph a dance by explaining it to the dancers, rather than physically discovering the choreography in her own body. This was successful. She then remarks on other artists who have overcome adversity to great success. Beethoven, she notes, composed many of what are considered his best works after losing his hearing. Similarly, Genevieve Durham DeCesaro often asks dancers to dance with only a specific part of their body. They might be asked to perform an entire dance with only one finger, or their right arm, or their head. Sometimes this is quite literal (no other body part moves) and sometimes it is simply a heightened focus (where the entire dance is performed as usual with the dancer's focus directed squarely at one body part).

Genevieve Durham DeCesaro's version functions as the "Dance with," while Twyla Tharp's functions as the "Dance Without." In each of these cases, however, there is a focus on something weird and uncommon. Something unexpected. Something that would not normally be considered a strength. The self-perception of an area of strength is the focus of this exercise. You've written down the thing you feel most comfortable with and confident in concerning your skill as a playwright. Now I ask if you can do write a play without that comfort and skill. Can you? What other skills could you have been honing while you were focusing on what made you comfortable? It's time to find out.

The Exercise
  1. Re-read the work you wish to rewrite.
  2. Now hide the original version away.
  3. You have two options at this point:
  4. Rewrite your scene -- or, depending on what skill(s) you chose re-contextualize it -- utilizing a single skill (or several skills) that you are less at home in.
  5. If appropriate, try to focus on what you feel you might lose when not employing your best skill and attempt to make up for that loss in your rewrite with the other skill(s).
  1. Best Skill: Writing "mood" pieces. Non-Skill: Well-made play structure. Rewrite: Pre-structure my story into a well-made play. Write well-made play without attempting to use "mood."
  2. Best Skill: Long Monologues. Other Skills: Surprise endings, Stock Characters, Metaphors. Rewrite: In order to avoid long monologues I invent metaphor ridden stock characters who speak in snippy dialogue. I also pre-plot a surprise ending related to why they speak so briefly.

You've written your script. You've done it without your best skill. Congratulations! This act alone has proved one thing: you can do without. Hopefully you've also learned something more about yourself as a writer. Perhaps you've learned why your best skill is the best. Maybe you've realized that you have other very strong skills too. Perhaps you learned something by strengthening and focusing on other skills or non-skills. You've grown and broadened your perception of yourself as a writer through exploration and experimentation. Was the journey worth it? If it wasn't a particularly valuable exercise for you, you've at least got a new draft of material that you might just shape it into something you never would have in the first place once you reattach that missing skill again. Go ahead and put that arm back on... but always remember that you've got fingers, a neck, a pair of knees and a nose too.