31 Plays in 31 Days: What I Learned, and a Table of Contents

Last week, I completed the 31 Plays in 31 Days project along with several dozens of other playwrights from around the world.

The rules of the project were simply that you had to write 31 new plays, at least one page long, with a beginning, middle and end; none should have been started before August 1, and the last one completed by August 31. Technically, you could write all 31 (if such a thing were possible) on the 30th.

Personally, I aimed for a new one each day. I wrote two in a day early on to put myself one day ahead, and thanks to this managed to always have a new one ready to post on every single day of August.

In mid-September, the organizers will officially announce who completed the project and is thus eligible to submit one (1) of their plays to be considered for a selected reading series.

A Request For You (Yes, You)

I need to now decide which of these 31 plays is worth revising and turning into a finished project, to submit to theatres for production.  Please respond here (or on Facebook or Twitter) and tell me which plays, if any, you think I should continue to work on.  You can list just one, you can list a dozen; I don’t assume anyone has read ALL of them, so I won’t take a non-listing as an indication of dislike, only that you may not have read it yet.  In other words – PLEASE don’t hold back from making recommendations because you’re worried about somehow offending me by only listing one.  Just tell me what you liked and would want to see an improved version of.

The Experience

Writing one play every day was often punishing, and often invigorating. Some days I found myself utterly at a loss for what to write about and felt like I was writing dialogue about as fluently as I can speak Czech. Other days, the instant I opened up the Word document, I knew what I was going to write about, and setting loose the words onto the page was effortless.

There was no easy one-to-one relationship between ease of writing and quality of result.  Some of the ones that flowed out ended up being messes, and some of them were intuitive and solid.  Some of the laborious ones came out forced, and some of them were solid in the end, too.

I came to feel that there was a circadian rhythm to my creativity or non-creativity. On peak days, I felt like I could write nonstop, literally: I felt like, if I wanted to, I could sit at the computer until I was literally faint from hunger without a break, writing new play after new play. The discovery of such a wellspring was pretty inspiring and made me feel like some sort of Badass Playwright/bottomless fount of stories. On some of these days, I literally wrote a play almost at the exact speed that I typed it (and I type 100 WPM), figuring out what was going to happen next the exact moment that the dialogue came out of my fingers. On other days like these, the entire shape of the play came to me at the start, and I effectively had an outline the whole way. In either case, the work felt fun, purposeful and natural to my being.

What I Learned

I learned a lot, through repetition, what my fallbacks, standards and anchors are in playwriting.

I kept writing a paragraph here about what those fallbacks, standards and anchors are, but it got really, really long.  You’ll just have to trust me on that one.

The one fallback I will discuss is that I’ve learned I tend to write plays where one character has a secret motivation that the other character finds out.  The process of them finding out that secret motivation tends to be the main action of the play. (Why is this woman at the cafe hitting on this random man? Why is this young wife cooking a stinky meal for her husband? Why is this ninja at the beach? Why is this daughter bringing cupcakes to her dying father? What is this strange woman doing in this diner?)

I personally feel this is a weakness. It’s way too easy to just be like “here’s a normal character, here’s a weird character, let’s watch the normal character try and escape from/figure out the weird character.” I believe the best plays are ones in which the audience knows what each character wants pretty much from the beginning – AND the characters know, too, for the most part. Not necessarily why the character wants it, but what they want. (This is an oversimplification, but I won’t go into it here.)

Sometimes the secret-motivation approach can work, and sometimes it can become excessively murky and a massive waste of pages, since lots of time has to be devoted to the normal character interrogating the weird one, time that could be spent on direct conflict if the normal character just knew what the other one wanted, already.

For an example: imagine if, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo clearly liked Juliet, but didn’t flirt with her directly, and she had to spend a couple scenes trying to figure out what was driving this strange boy’s behavior until finally he admitted liking her and they kissed, and from there moved on to the direct conflict of being the children of enemy houses but being in puppy love. I feel like I end up writing Juliet-trying-to-figure-out-shy-Romeo plays all too often instead of cutting to the interesting stuff.

The plays I wrote (with the exception of the full-length that came out) fell very neatly into three categories of length: 10 pages, 16 pages, and ~25 pages. I’ve always known that I tend to write loooong, and that only in editing am I able to turn plodding and wasteful 16+ pagers into tight 10 minute plays.

I’m very happy that I got to try a number of things which I feel are out of my typical comfort zone. A number of the plays started with me wanting to write a type of play or type of character that I don’t usually try.  I almost always write younger (as in 20s-30s) characters, and I almost always write characters who are either friends, lovers or strangers.  To break out of this, I tried to write older characters and I tried to write characters who are family members, antagonists/opponents, or in business relationships more often.

Would I Do This Again Next Year?

The writing schedule had an adverse effect on my life. Whatever time of day I wrote, the 1-3 hours I devoted to the new script pushed everything else back. I did almost no writing on my existing play projects this month. I even delayed mowing the lawn for almost a week because of the domino effect.  So that’s a point against doing it again.

True, it left me with a massive warehouse of raw dramatic material, but I do not know if it will ultimately have been worth it.  Are 31 raw plays, a few of which might be good after revision, “worth” a full month of focused revising on an existing major project?

I feel like, instead of 31 days all in a row, if, instead, I wrote a new short play every day for a week, and did that four times a year (so one week in spring, one week in summer…), then that would give me the benefit of generating a bunch of new material, without the detrimental effect of it killing a whole month all at once.

Table of Contents/List of the 31 Plays I Wrote

Here’s a list of all the plays with links, a brief summary, and a description of where the inspiration for each one came from. If you’re helping me out with my request above, feel free to click on a few of these that catch your fancy, and then reply if you think I should continue working on it.

1) Dreambox – someone tries to keep a mysterious object hidden from an accidental explorer
Came from listening to music and getting the image of a sandbox
2) Carlita’s Silhouette – a woman seems to think a random stranger is important to her life
Came from thinking about the idea of a dream telling you to expect something
3) Trouble in Old Man Maple – a pixie society living in a tree deals with a troubling trend amongst their youth
Came from wanting to write a fairy-tale type play, and a multi-scene kaleidoscopic play
4) What a Tweest! – someone on an airplane in flight discovers themself suddenly alone
Came from having NO IDEA what to write and just starting with an airplane
5) Out of the Frying Pan – a young woman cooks a foul-smelling meal for her young husband
Came from wanting to write a strange-action-demonstrates-a-relationship’s-subtext play [I swear, taht’s a subgenre]
6) Something Something Lasers – a woman gets laser surgery?
Came from again having NO IDEA what to write, and just trying to do something sci-fi
7) Menthols, Magnums, Mountain Dew – some dissolute youth with relationship problems gather at a 7-11
Came from wanting to write a play about hanging out at 7-11s late at night, and wanting to write a tense but realistic play
8) Conceptualives – someone tries to figure out the nature of the afterlife
Came from long having had the idea of this kind of afterlife and figuring I’d use that as the basis for this play
9) Rabbits Don’t Pray – two hunters have an encounter with a runaway young neighbor girl
Came from wanting to try a modern verse play in some kind of vernacular
10) The Paper Clip King – a reclusive old man is confronted by his new landlady
Came from someone on Twitter suggesting the Fisher King as a story idea
11) Ninja Luau – a ninja tries to enjoy a beach chair
Came from someone on Twitter suggesting ninja vacation as a story idea, and then me wanting to try a straight comedy, which I so rarely do
12) Terminal Dream – four friends attempt to join the resistance in a dystopian society
Came from an actual dream I had that turned into a full-length play
13) An Experiment – a play assembled from Facebook statuses
Came from not knowing what else to do and thinking this might be the only venue I could try such a silly experiment
14) Cupcake Deathbed – a dying man is presented with cupcakes from a recipe he never got to try out
Came from wanting to take another stab at the strange-action-demonstrates-a-relationship’s-subtext play, and thinking about how an exemplar of the subgenre that I saw once was about cupcakes
15) What is a Line – in the future, a mother tries to figure out what her daughter is hiding
Came from wanting to write a play which featured a family relationship and women characters
16) That Old Clever Bullshit – some thugs try to figure out what to do with a hostage
Came from wanting to write a witty, snappy and taut play Tarantino-style
17) Five Little Plays – five anthropomorphized scripts interact on a literary manager’s desk
Came from wanting to write something in the inanimate-objects-anthropomorphized subgenre
18) Horseshoes and Dream-grenades – someone is sad that they have a large pile of money
Came from having NO IDEA what to write and just starting with a guy on a pile of money being sad about it
19) Minutes in Seconds –  someone has a moment to make a decision on a dangerous city street
Came from having NO IDEA what to write and having ten minutes to do it before I had to leave
20) Fast, Friends – some people try to help each other out during an evacuation
Came from a dream [not as vivid as Terminal Dream’s]
21) Trust Balance – a couple in bed discuss their friends’ relationships and secrets
Came from a request for a play with coherent dialogue and a realistic situation
22) Meet Smart – two people on a subway are oblivious to the conversation their smartphones are having
Came from wanting to take another stab at the inanimate-objects-anthropomorphized subgenre, and to do something populist, cute and funny
23) Undernight – a strange woman comes into a diner
Came from having NO IDEA what to write and just starting with a diner waitress and a strange woman
24) FIRST – someone on a spaceship broadcasts a boastful video to Earth
Came from realizing I hadn’t written enough science-fiction yet, and not having a lot of time to write something, and probably having read something about the Mars mission
25) Risen – a homeless man encounters a teenager hanging upside down in an alley
Came from having NO IDEA what to write and just starting with a teenager hanging upside down in an alley
26) The Sidewalk Genie, or, the Limit of Happiness – someone frees a genie on a sidewalk
Came from having often tried to write about how HORRIBLE and FREAKY any number of classic story genres are [superpowers, magic, monsters] because nowadays we accept a certain vision of the world as being based on physical laws
27) Prequel – a young noblewoman from a cultured country encounters the ruler of a less cultured one
Came from wanting to write a verse play in classic verse, and thinking a lot about the play this one ended up being a prequel to
28) Why Hitmen Never Retire – a retired hitman attempts to find love
Came from wanting to write a play with a chorus
29) OMG Zombies Are Real?!? – some friends deal with the question of a zombie apocalypse
Came from having had the idea for this play kicking around in my head for a couple months and wanting to just get it out – another instance of the idea behind the genie play [i.e. no, you idiots, a zombie apocalypse would NOT be fun]
30) Karma Proof – a woman gets berated for returning a dropped wallet
Came from having NO IDEA what to write and just starting with a woman returning a wallet
31) Scene – something is happening, but the audience doesn’t know what it is
Came from having had the idea for this play kicking around in my head for a couple months and wanting to finally write it, because the disclaimer-warning portions of it made me scared to actually put it out there where someone could see and then judge me upon

~~~

Thanks for reading.  Now, back to your regularly scheduled blogging.

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4 comments

  1. As someone who did actually read them all (do I get a gold star for that, or a cookie, or something??) I think there’s a lot of great raw material here to work with. And it was interesting to hear where the inspiration came from, so thanks for sharing that too. In no particular order, other than chronological, these are the ones that spoke to me a bit more than the rest:

    2) Carlita’s Silhouette
    4) What a Tweest!
    8) Conceptualives
    11) Ninja Luau
    15) What is a Line
    18) Horseshoes and Dream-grenades
    21) Trust Balance
    22) Meet Smart
    26) The Sidewalk Genie, or, the Limit of Happiness
    31) Scene

    This is assuming you’re planning to do more work on #12 and #27, which I also liked.

    Congrats on completing this crazy project! :)

    1. You get a cookie star. It’s a star made when a cookie nebula coalesces and then the material ignites, burning sugar into caramel up in the firmament for thousands of years.

      1. (It’s high honor in the Babelwright pantheon of thankses, because numerous laws of physics have to be circumvented to create it.)

  2. […] I Want 31 Plays in 31 Days: What I Learned, and a Table of Contents (including links to the 31 plays I posted to this blog in August 2012, which I will not be […]

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