Postcards from Your Play: a playwriting exercise to use in class

By Jonathan Dorf posted 06-02-2014 13:42

For those of you who are integrating playwriting into your lessons, this is an exercise I first used with my graduate students a few years ago.  It worked so well that I started using it in my online playwriting classes and even found a way to do it "live" in workshops with teens.

Maybe it should be called Postcards from Your Play, as the idea is that each image should be interesting enough to be on a postcard marketing the play.  In any case, here's the deal:  playwrights of all levels often struggle with finding and structuring the most important moments in their plays, figuring out what those moments will actually look like, and making them active.

So in this exercise, we compose pictures (no drawing skills needed).  I recommend making 5 your goal, but in a very short play (or with younger students), even 3 could work fine.

How do we come up with these pictures?  Imagine your play is being produced on stage, and a production photographer is there to capture the most exciting, compelling moments.  How do you know what moments are the best?  Think of when characters are captured in the middle of action and in the middle of causing a change in the world of the play, rather than simply in the middle of being.

For example, a small boy with a "kick me" sign on his back running away from two much bigger boys, one of whom has the remains of a spaghetti dinner on his shirt, with the rest of the meal spilled all over a cafeteria tray, could be a compelling image.  (On the other hand, the same boy, looking angrily at the two bigger boys, not so much.)

This image might have come from later in the play.  If we start filling in the blanks, we might imagine earlier pictures of the bigger boys playing keepaway with the smaller boy's backpack or putting something unsavory in his locker.  But perhaps if we go later, to the final image (the one after our original example), we find the two bigger boys surrounded by a whole circle of smaller students, each armed with makeshift weapons of mushy fruit, saucy dishes, pies, etc.

Not only do the pictures help you to structure your story, but they help to make it active and not simply talking heads.

Things to avoid:  anything involving sound (you can't hear a picture, so you can't say "Jenny and Beth are talking about Beth's mom"), anything depending on things that are in the characters' heads (we can't read their minds), facial expressions (which work in film and small theaters, but not in large houses), or characters doing A and then B in the same image (these are not moving pictures).

You can do this in the classroom with students writing up a detailed description of each stage picture (not just what the characters are doing, but what else is in the picture in terms of the setting, props, etc), or...if you want something fun and active, try forming each stage picture with live people!

Enjoy, and let me know if you have any questions!