Playwriting with Dan Giovannoni: Teen Writing Bootcamp
In May 2023 playwright and teacher Dan Giovannoni taught the art of character development and writing theatrical plays to young writers in his Teen Writing Bootcamp classes. Below he shares some tips and reflections.
Over the four weeks of our playwriting bootcamp, 40-odd young people logged on with open minds and set to work filling blank pages with make-believe. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. That’s writing, I guess. I encouraged participants to think of themselves as experts in their own creativity. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. It might, but better than copying me is paying close attention to what you need, what suits you. I invited them to take at the very least just one thing from each of the exercises we did – one surprising idea, line of dialogue, image, whatever. If that’s all you get from a writing prompt, that’s great! If you surprise yourself, you’ll likely surprise your audience too.
In week one, we started in by thinking about what’s important to us in drama. Is it character? Image? Story? Theme? You can start a play anywhere. We made a list of what plays are and what plays mean. To us. To the world. What they do for our souls and our imaginations. I love character, so that’s where we focused our energy first, on archetypes, stock characters that can help you build a ’character map‘ of a story. You don’t want three heroes in your story, or two mentors (unless you do…). We moved onto sketching ideas for characters, giving them complex backstories, wants and desires, and pockets full of treasures. We talked about how a lot of drama is watching people strive for what they want and fail.
Then we looked at monologue writing, at the features of a monologue, and listened to some on YouTube. We talked about the ‘need to tell’ and ‘stakes’. We wrote short monologues from the perspective of the characters we’d dreamed up, pitting them against their ’number one person‘ in a dramatic moment where they’re trying to get what they want from them.
We learned about the difference between action (what a character wants and what they do to pursue this goal) and activity (physical stage business, like flying a kite or ironing a shirt). We mixed and matched, getting our characters to do one thing while saying another. We wrote scenes with beginnings > middles > ends (or, in our language, goals > obstacles > fulfilment). We talked a lot about wants and obstacles, because if your characters don’t want something then who cares? And if it’s too easy for them to get it, then, also, who cares? We talked about punishing our characters, about putting them under so much pressure that they are forced to change. We talked about how all scenes follow a kind of structure of action/reaction/action/reaction/action/reaction. Drama is watching people act and react.
We finished the series by filling up our writer’s toolkit with a bunch of exercises to keep us connected to our writing practice, encourage us to flex our muscles in subtext, and look for inspiration in the world around us. These are fun writing prompts to do anytime, anywhere, as part of a bigger project or not. We talked about coming up with our own writing prompts too – about putting parameters around what you’re doing to force yourself to think or write differently.
All these exercises and activities and provocations were really about world building – how we turn the imagined realities in our head into something that audiences can receive and understand. I can tell from reading the writing that was sent to me during the bootcamp that each person who participated is a writer at heart. They all love language, love words and worlds and stories and characters. It made me so happy, because I know from experience that telling stories is a great way to understand the world more, to understand the people around you, and to help them understand each other too. Keep writing, my friends. Audiences are hungry for your tales. Don’t keep them waiting!
More to explore
Find out more about the Teen Writing Bootcamp programs.
This program has been made possible with the generosity of Serp Hills Foundation and The JTM Foundation.