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New Voices: First Meeting Focus

At my first meeting with playwrights Lauren Hancock and Worth Culver, I spoke about the difference between being a writer and being a "wright".

These young people are amazing writers. I trust their voices; their characters' vernacular and eloquence is excellent. What I can help with over the course of the development process is not so much writing as "wright-ing": the process of engineering a play.

'Playwright' is often misspelled, and with good reason. It's confusing! Once you've written a play, you're a 'playwright', yet the previous part of my sentence is without a spelling error despite referring to the same project. So what is that homophone all about? What is 'write', what is 'wright', and why isn't one wrong?

'Wright' may be a fossil of language, but when you understand its origins, there is a useful, instructive distinction in being a 'playwright' rather than a 'playwrite'. A wright is one who builds, as in a wheelwright or a shipwright--craftspersons with workshops who produce something for others to put to practical use. A play is a vehicle for performance, with particular rhythms and arcs that make good use of convention and expectation (whether adhering to them or smartly subverting them) so others can use the script to entertain, teach, create community...

A writer can work in relative solitude with page and ink (or word processor), but a fully-realized play is not just the script. The playwright relies on others--director, actors, and especially audience--and the final venue--a theatrical space--to execute what s/he has designed. Thus, the playwright needs a workshop in which to test the effects not only of the language on the individual the practical effect of the composition on director, actor(s), and audience members in a performance setting.

So what are the tools of the 'wright? Structure, rhythm, repetition, transformation.

Aristotle lays out his ideas about the classic essentials in Poetics. catastrophe (reveral) anagnorisis in (revelation/recognition) endure over time, and as the saying goes, "If it ain't broke...!"Aristotelian structure is essentially, it's the "plot pyramid" you learned about in elementary or middle school, but with more nuance and detail. There's good reason why dramatic conventions like and

This structure can ensure clarity, intrigue, and stakes as it centers on its protagonist dealing with a problem, but it may not be the way to accomplish every dramatic goal. I do believe Aristotle is the best place for anyone to start: one must learn the rules, if only to find both reason and strategy to effectively break them! But there is renewed interest now in Ovidian structure, which relies on transformation rather than confrontation with obstacles to develop character, explore themes, and yield a satisfying evening of theater.

To put it (overly) simply, Aristotle asks, "How does the protagonist solve the problem, or vice versa?" Ovid wants to know, "What if the protagonist or the problem changed?" Unlike Aristotelian structure in which action bringing about change, to Ovid, the change itself is what prompts response to and demonstration of that change. (Sarah Ruhl explains it better.)

I discussed both structures with the playwrights, who are in the process of mapping what happens onstage in their plays in order to understand the structure their stories and themes want. Because when you're building, after finding a firm foundation of inspiration, you have to start with frame. We playwrights are building. We ask you to pardon our dust and invite you to enjoy our process!

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