A Stonecoaster Sits in on the Play Development Process at Portland Stage’s Little Festival of the Unexpected

By Elisabeth Tova Bailey, 4th semester student

Stonecoast’s unique flexibility allowed me to design a multi-faceted playwriting plan for my 4th semester. My start in the playwriting field occurred a year earlier in Mike Kimball’s invaluable dialogue workshop. To build on what I learned there, I contacted Portland Stage this winter to ask if I could shadow their Little Festival of the Unexpected, May 4-9th. The three plays that win this annual national playwriting competition receive funding for a full week of development. The playwright is there for the process and each play is assigned a director and a cast.

The Little Festival follows the same playwriting development process that is used in Mike Kimball’s dialogue workshop. The playwright hears his or her script being read and interpreted by a director and professional actors. It’s amazing to hear words leap from the page when given voice by an actor. One quickly learns where the script dialogue may need revisions.

While there is some resemblance to a Stonecoast writing workshop, play development is even more complex. Throughout the week, the director and actors have many questions about the play’s characters, their relationships, and how the story unfolds. A playwriting workshop goes goes far deeper then a standard writing workshop. It is more what you’d expect from a social worker diving into a complex interpersonal situation. Characters and plot are discussed and analyzed in astonishing detail. An actor wants to understand their character thoroughly and the depth of discussions sometimes results in characters changing in age, gender, interests, and relationships, and plots may change as well. The playwright sometimes adds and deletes entire pages, with the ultimate goal of strengthening and tightening the story.

Rather than an hour of feedback, as in a typical writing workshop, the playwright gets day-long, ongoing feedback throughout the week from the director and actors, along with final feedback at the week’s end from a live audience.

At this year’s Little Festival, I was able to sit in on the development of all three plays. Each play presented unique challenges and strengths. Each director had his or her own style, the actors had their unique character interpretations, and each team of actors had a particular group dynamic. The playwrights responded to feedback in different ways, handling script changes in keeping with their own writing styles. Toward the end of the week, each play was given two public readings and the playwright, director, and sometimes the actors, then held a “talk back” with the audience to discuss how the reading was received, and how the characters and plot came across.

True to its name, the festival is full of the “Unexpected”—as this is where I first met Tom Coash three years ago, not knowing that I’d soon enroll in Stonecoast and eventually ask him to be my mentor. Tom’s play Veils had been selected for the Little Festival and went on to win Portland Stage’s Clauder Competition and was fully staged in 2014. Veils also won Tom a M. Elizabeth Osborn Award from The American Theatre Critics.

This year’s Little Festival was just as unexpected, with one play including a koala bear played by an actor, another involving science, and a third with a plot that unfolded in such a way that one’s views of the characters kept shifting, kaleidoscope like, until the very end.

My experience at the Little Festival was a rare and elucidating experience, as I was the only one sitting in without a direct role in the productions. A sincere thanks to Portland Stage for their generosity in allowing this and special appreciation to Carmen-maria Mandley, the Education and Literary Manager at Portland Stage, and the playwrights, directors, actors, and interns who made this all possible.

Stonecoast: Wizard of Earthsea

*This post was originally published on Theodora’s website.

By Theodora Goss

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the workshop I led at Stonecoast last winter, on fantasy writing. I mentioned that I had given the students a series of quotations, and we had discussed them as examples of various writing issues and techniques. This is one of the quotations I used to talk about character: the beginning of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. But there’s so much more going on here than the establishment of character! I have a list of writers that I learned from myself, as a writer. Le Guin is one of the most important of them. She’s one of the reasons I try to write clearly, fluidly. I think lyricism is based on clarity of expression. She’s also one of the reasons I try to write about ideas, as much as I try to write about characters. She’s one of my models for what a courageous writer looks like.

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Stonecoast: The Hobbit

*This post was originally published on Theodora’s website. 

By Theodora Goss

hobbitI want to write a couple more posts about my experience at the Stonecoast residency this winter. As you know if you read my last post, Stonecoast is a low-residency MFA Program in which I teach, which means that I go up to Maine for residencies in the winter and summer, and then mentor students during the spring and fall semesters. This past residency, I led an elective workshop on writing fantasy. Most of the workshop was spent critiquing the stories students had submitted. But we also talked about the particular challenges of writing fantasy. The first day we talked about setting, then characters, then plot, then style. I thought I would talk for a bit here about creating setting in fantasy fiction, because it presents problems that realistic writers don’t have to deal with.

Basically, when you’re writing fantasy, you may be setting your story in a world that doesn’t exist. It can be much easier for a realistic writer, because he or she will have points of reference for the reader. “I walked through Central Park” immediately conveys an image to most readers (who have been in Central Park, or more likely seen it in movies or on television). “I walked through the gardens of the temple of Ashera” tells the reader exactly nothing. It conveys absolutely no visual image, except perhaps a green horizontal thing beside a gray vertical thing. So as a fantasy writer, you often have to work harder.

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The Rewards of Mentoring

By Jeanne Marie Beaumont

Alumni BooksRecently, a former Stonecoast mentee contacted me with welcome news. Her book was approaching its publication date, and she wanted my address so the publisher could send me a complimentary copy. Last week, I headed to a café uptown to hear another former Stonecoast mentee give a reading from her fresh-off-the-press poetry collection. I had been lucky to work with both of these talented poets on their MFA theses, which they developed into the books now moving out into the world. I confess to beaming like a proud godparent.

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Whatever We’re Making, We’re All Sailing in the Same Boat

By Suzanne Strempek Shea

Suzanne Stempek Shea with readers at a recent event.

Suzanne Stempek Shea with readers at a recent event.

My home in the Western Massachusetts valley is rich with writers living and dead. I regularly park my car at the meter below Emily Dickinson’s bedroom window. Errands and events take me past the Eric Carle museum, and also the house that belonged to one of the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The only positive aspect of going to an oral surgeon during childhood was that his office was on the same street where Dr. Seuss grew up. Opening the door to a local bookstore, I once nearly smashed into the poet James Tate and a group of his students. Recently waiting to pay for a futon cover at a furniture store, I found Jonathan Harr in line front of me in line.

Around here it’s hard to swing a laptop without whacking into any local ink-stained wretches – or successes including enough whose mantels heft Pulitzers or Caldecotts or National Book Awards. So it would be natural to think we scribes of all sorts socialize, that we attend a writers’ club much like the Elks or the Moose or the AMVETS clubs that dot the landscape. But there isn’t one. Or maybe they’re just not telling me about it.

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Why Blogging Is Good for You

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image courtesy of HubSpot, Inc.

By Nancy Holder

There is a secret at the end of this blog post.

Over the years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve found that the most difficult skill for most students to develop is revising.  Revision means to take what you’ve got, give it a long, hard look, and then to see it a different way—to re-envision it.

This is not the same as editing your work. That means to make changes to what’s already on the page. Shifting the point of view from first to third is an editorial change. Rewriting the material so that the protagonist becomes a secondary character and the antagonist becomes the protagonist is a revision.

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