A CHANCE ENCOUNTER changed my playwriting process forever.

At the Colorado Thespian Conference last December, I attended a play produced by Curious Theatre Company, written by playwright Norma Johnson. Sneaking a glance at the person sitting next to me, I saw it was Johnson herself. She smiled through the entire show, as though this work was a part of her personified. As a playwright, I had to know her secret.

After the performance, I turned to Johnson and asked about her writing process and how she handles writer’s block. She looked at me and said something that struck me in the heart: “Always stay in touch with your ‘why’ for writing.”

Sketching character portraits and hanging them in your writing space can help you move forward when stuck in a rut.

Sketching character portraits and hanging them in your writing space can help you move forward when stuck in a rut. Drawings by Dylan Malloy.

The pandemic forces us to ask ourselves: What is our why? What pulls us to the page even when the words aren’t easy, even when theatres across the world are closed? When we tap into creative momentum and stay in touch with our why, we empower ourselves to finish plays ― and keep the industry thriving.

Now more than ever, this work is needed. Here are some ways to keep your “why” close as you draft your play.

Make an inspiration binder
One way to crystallize inspiration is to compile it into a binder that reflects your style as a writer. For some playwrights, this means printing off interviews with your favorite writers and highlighting lines that energize and inspire you. For others, it could mean binding scripts and programs into a scrapbook of the theatre you’ve seen or created.

Filling a binder with the moments that made you want to write gives you a tangible reminder of why you began writing in the first place. This energy proves invaluable while drafting.

See writing as self-care
Allison Kisicki, a senior lighting designer at Ralston Valley High School in Arvada, Colorado, recently finished her first play. Titled In My Head, the script follows teens who battle mental illness. I asked Kisicki to explain her writing process. “I don’t really have [blocked] out [writing] times. It’s more when I can and when I’m motivated,” she said. “Sometimes I do it when I’m in a tough moment and I need an outlet.” Between the stress of shows, school, and everything in between, Thespians often need an outlet for expression and reflection more than anyone else.

A quick boost to your writing momentum can be as simple as framing writing differently in your head, looking at it not just as a task to complete but also as a treat to enjoy. For a lot of writers, this means the exhilaration of writing whenever, wherever. Backstage during dry tech? Sure. In the wings during intermission? Fabulous. Giving yourself time to write whenever you can ― whether that be three minutes or three hours ― can be a form of self-care. By giving yourself an outlet and a project that’s close to your heart, you’re furthering your goals and releasing stored-up feelings.

Girl walking in woods
Taking a walk in nature can serve as an inspiration break, allowing you to come back to your writing with a clearer sense of the story.

Take inspiration breaks
Often, it is unstructured creative time when you are not writing that gives you the most inspiration. As a theatre maker, you have the advantage of working closely with design, movement, music, and memorization. Any of these techniques can be used to invigorate your writing when you get stuck in a rut.

The next time you sit down to work on your script and feel uninspired, try taking a day off to read, breathe, think. Tune in to your performer side by listening to musical theatre albums or creating a playlist of music that inspires the style of your writing. Sketch pictures of your characters and hang them in your writing space. Make a collage. Memorize a monologue from your favorite play and recite it to yourself. Get into nature and become inspired by the world around you. Inspiration will come and go over the writing process, but taking time to listen to your creative voice will show you story pathways you may not have imagined.

As important as momentum is when drafting a play, it’s equally important to pause when you need to give yourself grace or feel burned out. When you come back to the page, you’ll have a clearer sense of what you love about the story.

Organize a table read
When a play sits in isolation, even in its final stages, it becomes stagnant. The interaction between actors and the text is critical if you want your piece to reach its full potential.

When you finish your final draft, try gathering a few friends to read your work aloud. At this stage, don’t worry too much about design concepts. Hearing your words illuminates the nuances in your writing. Though the table read shows you where you have room to grow, it also has the magical effect of revealing the power your words already have.

When I completed my second play and hosted the table read, I was shocked at how the actors found nuances in the text I never could have imagined ― and how their energy and passion rounded out the story. From that experience, I learned that letting a play sit is the same as pausing work on a painting when all you’ve done is prime the canvas. As afraid as we may be of letting our work enter the real world and become colored by people’s opinions, we will never know its potential if we smother our bravest work in a desk drawer. Sometimes, the best encouragement is a reminder of what our work is capable of becoming, filling us not only with determination to finish the play but also with pride at what we’ve already accomplished.

It’s no secret that drafting a play can be a long process. Keep the finish line in sight ― a packed house of eager audience members ― and you’ll find the momentum to carry you through. By holding tight to your “why,” you complete the plays you start, freeing yourself to start even more.

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