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Dear Aadyam

When I sit down to begin writing a play, I get stuck not knowing what the first image, the first words uttered should be. Because of this, I end up staring at a blank page for days, suffering from a terrible writer’s block (even though I’ve done all the research for the play). How does one get through this? – Phalguni Vittal Rao, Drama School Mumbai alumni

Dear blocked playwright,

I’ve been there a couple of times so I completely understand how absolutely daunting a writer’s block can be, particularly after intensive research, when you think you should be writing at full throttle. The problem is pretty common to writers who are also heavy researchers. You may have discovered tonnes of interesting information that you wish to use and you’ve probably built this elaborate and detailed world of your play to set your characters in… and then… no wham! No light bulb moment! Only blank screen. Well, you’re probably suffering from an information overload. Your brain is excited by every bit of information and is unable to separate the wheat from the chaff. Solution: Give it time. Set aside the play and work on other things. Let the muddy water settle and you’ll find things are much clearer after a month or six!  When you get back to your project, don’t refer to your research. You know that world now. Your brain will remember the important, dramatic bits and push the unimportant ones to the back of your mind. I now make it a policy to let my research simmer in my mind for half a year at least. Then when I sit to work on it, I find my writing flows easily, freely and organically.

If you don’t have the luxury of time and need to work on your project asap, here are some tips and tricks.

  1. Give yourself permission to write rubbish. Yes, that’s important. Often I find among my students that the primary cause of writer’s block is that they want to write a perfect scene, a perfect play the very first time round. The best writers often write lousy first drafts, but once they vomit it all out on to paper/screen and figure out what the play is about, the rewriting gets easier. But remember, you can’t get anywhere if you don’t write anything!
  2. Change your habit. Does the blank screen daunt you? Try using pen and paper instead. Try timed exercises. Here’s one that British playwright Simon Stephens shared with me. Use a timer. Set it to 5 minutes. Take your protagonist first. What do you know about her? Do not think. Turn on the timer and write 50 things that you know about her. Do not pause. Just keep going until you hit no. 50 or the timer goes off. The aim is to constantly keep the pen to the paper. It could be trivial or important – how old is the protagonist? What does she do for a living? Where does she live? What does she like? What does she hate? What does she like to wear? What does she like to do when she’s free? What is her big dream? Who are her friends? Who does she hate? What makes her angry, sad or happy? Keep writing, and do not censor your thoughts. You’ll be surprised at what a rich life you’re giving your characters. Do the above exercise for all your main characters (MCs).
  3. The common cause of a playwright’s block, especially after intensive research, is that the play is background-heavy but conflict-lite. So it’s worth going back to the basic building blocks: Desire (What a character wants), motivation (Why she wants it) and obstacle (What is stopping her from achieving her desire) and stakes. If the stakes are high enough, your protagonist is going to try everything in her might to overcome the obstacles. She may succeed or she may fail. What does she do? What strategies does she employ?
  4. I’ve often found that scene 1 is the toughest to write. Now, I simply don’t write scene 1 until I’ve worked on the scene where things change for the protagonist, pulling her deep into a dramatic tangle/complication. What changes for the protagonist? What/who causes this change? Who are the other characters in the scene? Remember the MC’s deep desire. What does she want from the other characters in this scene for her to be able to fulfil her deep desire? What strategies does she use in order to achieve what she wants? Now write the scene. Remember you don’t have to set up the world of the play – that’s the job of the early scenes. You simply have to explore the underlying drama of the characters.
  5. Now, take that scene you’ve written. Rewrite the scene without words. Think about the world of your play and of your characters. Think of what their desires and motivations are. Think of your protagonist’s strategies in terms of images or sounds. Often one image kindles more… And soon you’ll have a written scene (or two) around which you can build your whole play!

These are just some triggers to get you started. Do remember, playwriting is as much a craft as an art. As play-wright, your skills can be trained and honed and perfected with regular practise and etudes, like any craft. But as play-wright, you must also ensure you enjoy your work for good art to emerge. You will find that your aha! moments come most readily when you combine skill with enjoyment. Writing games and exercises are excellent ways (there are zillions available online or invent new ones) to achieve the ‘wright’ing aspect of playwriting by tapping into its inherently ‘play’ful nature.

I hope this helps. Good luck!

– Anupama Chandrasekhar

About Anupama Chandrasekhar

Anupama Chandrasekhar was the National Theatre (UK)’s first International playwright in residence in 2016-17. Her works have been staged in leading venues in the UK, North America and Europe. Her plays include When the Crows Visit (Kiln Theatre), Free Outgoing and Disconnect (Royal Court Theatre, London). She has been shortlisted for Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright award and Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. She is currently under commission to the Royal Court Theatre and the National Theatre.

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