I am working on a full length historical musical and I need to present a draft very soon, but I'm stuck. The history is wonderfully dramatic with warfare, murder, suffering, and survival and I've loved the research. But most of the action occurs in the political arena and it went on for years so it would be boring onstage though much of it should be included.
I want to tell a human story set in the historic events and use the historic facts forward the plot. The songs will set the scene, develop the mood and evoke emotion. The theme will be that the people survive as a result of their love for each other and it will be symbolized in a love story set amid the pathos of the historic events. I've done that with similar historical pieces, but this time I'm hitting a wall. I don't even have the lovers onstage yet.
I have sort of a start (5 pages). I have a through line, I have a point of view, and I have a general idea of a storyline, but I'm struggling with how to get the the historic facts to forward the plot without a lot of exposition.
I may be on information overload. That seems to happen in these things. At this point I usually start throwing facts out and just use what fits the human story, but I'm having problems throwing anything out. Everything seems so important and I have to show it, not tell it.
Either way, I'm stuck. I keep writing and re-writing the first five pages. Does anyone else have these problems?
I've done a few historical pieces (short stories, one screenplay, one novel) and it's been a while, so bear with me...
The novel and the screenplay were the worst, of course. I had similiar probs as I remember, and what helped me was to read through the research and basically make a list... condense the info down to one or two words, whatever. Then I made a similiar list of the themes, plot, etc in the story/play that I had started. After reading the lists over and over, hidden themes began popping up, patterns began to emerge and I figured out the over-all plot and where to insert the research. I ended up with a rough synopsis that kept expanding as I kept reading over the list. I think my list was about four pages... maybe more. Can't remember.
I remember coming across a bit of research and thinking, Oh! I have to insert this in my plot! By crossing out the bits of research that didn't fit in with the list from the story I had started... I was able to eliminate the fluff and figure out my story.
My story structure was probably similiar to yours... Mine was about the Panama Canal and the characters were based on my grandparents who met, married during construction. So... I hope that knowing that I finished mine will help you a little bit lol.
Last edited on Thu Aug 17th, 2006 02:51 am by moneal
Somebody's got to get angry, indignant or injured? Maybe you could delve into your people's friends, relatives, old folks... and see what pops out when you scratch and sniff! Just a thought as I, too, hate to be stuck. Mary/magleaso
I have written a number of historical plays, including several musicals. In order to get past the stage you are at--I find myself there during the early stages of every play, I go back to my acting basics. These have always helped me in writing. I remind myself that I am writing a play, not a theme. I start with my characters--who are they, what do they want and what is getting in the way? I have them do improvs with each other while I write down what they say. How and where did they meet the first time? What were they doing there? Who else is there? What is happening around them? What time of day is it? What's the weather like? And so on...all the questions I would ask as an actor in the play I am writing. I don't usually plot my plays, even the historical ones. They often surprise me, as do the characters. What I imagined would be an exciting and dramatic historical setting for my play sometimes gives way to something else as I continue to research. For example, in the play I am currently writing, I started with a train crash from a hundred years ago. I found a list of victims and started to improvise based on the ethnicity of the names. What might someone with that assumed heritage be doing on the train on the fateful day? What were they doing the day before, a month before, the previous year? Slowly, the train crash is receding into a minor subplot in a family story of generational conflict.
At a certain point I take the scenes I have, try to put them in some kind of order, usually chronological, and and see what I have. I make a list of the "missing" scenes that I need to write to establish coherence. I see what characters need development, that can be more fully realized. I start to play with mixing characters that have not yet "met" each other. Then I step back and look at the picture of my play, what the visuals are, what the sounds of the times are. For example, researching my play set in the Five Points slum in New York City in 1858, I found the translation of a series of letters written by a French actor on tour in NY at the time. He wrote about being awakened by organ grinders outside the hotel window. I wrote the character of the organ grinder into the play, which greatly helped me come up with some song ideas.
Anyway, this is my process, it is not necessarily one size fits all.
Moneal, I like your idea of jotting down events. I've used that before and I have a timeline now so I went back to that. But I'm still having problems putting myself dramatically in the political scenes and imagining what people said and did. Also I don't know how to get my main character into the government setting. The main character, is an old woman telling the story in flashbacks of her childhood as the historical events unfold. She grows into a young adult and falls in love as the main tragedy develops and endangers the romance. She is telling the story to a niece or student since if it was a grandchild we would suspect the lover survived and I'm not sure he will. ??
Magleaso, the actual events are enough to get the characters incited to anger and violence and I want to get that pathos onstage for sure. Because of the timeframe, the foundation of the story would have to be heard by the young girl from someone older. I have the little girl hiding in one scene, and I have her mother reading the paper to her in another. But I want to show the actual events because of the drama and I don't know how without using a flashback. A flashback in a flashback might be confusing for what I think will be an audience of older people and children.
Bkahn, I like your ideas and it sounds a lot like my process. I would love to have an organ grinder or something to work with for the songs, but I think I'll just have to get the characters singing their own songs in the style of Rogers and Hammerstien (I only wish I were half as good) in "Oklahoma."
Writing this down is surprisingly helpful, but like I said, I'm still stuck. But I am a little further into the play and that's good. I made a little progress after reading the suggestions. I did the reading the paper scene and put some of the history into words of the father of the old lady as a little girl. But now I'm stuck again as the historic events become more dramatic.
Thanks for all the ideas. Keep them coming. Hopefully they will help others in similar situations also.
Hmmm... this is intriguing... for the political scenes... Could you do a subplot? I know when I did my Panama story, I read the history... and there was one horrific explosion in the construction zone... and there were horrible deaths due to yellow fever.. so I recreated the explosion scene, then followed up by creating a scene where the head honchos came to visit my main character in the hospital.
I had subplots that all intersected. With politics, you have to make the dry seem interesting and I did that (hopefully lol) with conversations around dinner tables (not terribly creative I know, but this was written a long time ago)... with a doomed romance between my main character and the daughter of the ruling class... Anyway, I guess my main point is... can you get a character out of that political situation? Somebody whose story would run into your main character's? When I read that the Panamanians hated the Americans... I had my character and the beginnings of a plot... maybe you haven't come across the right bit of research? Don't know, am just wondering...
Also, the structure of yours is a little bit like the Titanic movie. I wonder if watching it would give you some ideas of what to do, what not to do. When I was writing my latest novel, I was reading Harry Potter for the first time and the structure mimicked mine and it was a godsend! I had totally different aims... yet it helped me focus, and helped me make some decisions on my own structure, plot. My novel was very different, but I had a lot of recurring sport scenes and it really helped to see how she inserted hers into the plot.
Great ideas. Actually I had planned to pattern the play after "Titanic" with a little "Le Miz" thrown in. I hope it doesn't resemble the movie too much, but the parallels are so similar. The Titanic DVD got me going.
Like "Titanic," and like the boat, the subject I am covering is a tragedy that has been written about many times. Like the other movies about the Titanic, the previous plays have centered around the tragedy and everyone knows how that ends so there is little reason to watch. We already know the Titanic is going to sink so if the dramatic question is "will the boat sink," why should we watch the movie? I think that's why the other Titanic movies were not as successful.
Cameron was able to give us a different major dramatic question, one to which we didn't already have the answer. By telling the story from the perspective of the old woman, we know she survived, but she introduces the question of what happened to her lover. The question "Will Jack survive" evolved to prove the themmatic statement, "love will survive." When the lovers met, their goal was to be together forever which was complicated by her fiance and family. As the boat began to sink, they overcame obstacles to achieve their goal which culminated with the 'no going back' crisis of her decision to stay with Jack instead of getting on a lifeboat. The story climaxed with the sinking of the boat and resolved itself in Jack's death. The theme, "Love will survive," was articulated in Celine's song "love will go on." There's also the through line of the "Heart of the Ocean" diamond which came from the sea, traveled throughout the movie, then is returned to the sea in the end.
The movie had all the elements of creative writing 101. I appreciated it, not only for the artistry of the direction and its production quality, but for the skill with which the story was structured. I use it as an example in dramatic story structure workshops.
After struggling with several treatments, I finally came to Titanic as a model. I will, of course, try to change it up enough to avoid too much resemblance and the central event is quite different, but the parallels are certainly there. I think I will use lovers from two warring factions which might up the tension. I like the dinner conversation idea. There were a couple of political murders involved in my story though and my struggle is to tell the family/love story and also get the drama of the politics and murders onstage somehow without another flashback or flashforward. Still working on that.
Writing about this and reading the input is helping me work out the details. I think I'm coming unstuck. Slowly.
I've written several history-based plays, and I have a couple of friends who have done this as well. Here's what we've learned about historical facts and the play world.
You do the research. This enables you to understand the world your characters walk in. It informs their speach, their manner, and their actions.
Then you through the history away.
This will happen on succesive rewrites. Your first draft will peopbably be chock-full of the history and exposition. This is okay for the first draft. You will weed it out later.
What you are trying to do is create that world that the characters walk around in. We learn about the world through their actions and dealing with the crisis that is built around your historical event.
If I your play gets me interested I'll go out and learn more about the event on my own. Your play is about presenting characters in crisis. Your choice of the historical moment gives us a look at people dealing with that particilar situation.
The play i have going up in LA right now takes place in the days leading to, and just after the devasting Hurricane of '38. The hurricane is a major build up in act one. Act two is has the characters dealing with the devastation. The hurricane serves to heighten the drama, but I don't spend more than a sentence or two of exposition on the hurricane itself. You learn about the hurricane because the characters are dealing with moment to moment.
So -- your understanding of the history helps you to better imagine the play world. Keep the historical lesson for the history books. You keep focused on what your characters are doing moment to moment. We, the audience, will be able to keep up with your story as long as we are compelled by the actions pf your characters.
I'd say -- just start writing. Hammer out the first draft. See what comes of it.
My approach to historical plays is very much as you have described. I've written several. I go through the research and write down everything on colored cards then when I can feel and speak for the characters I have created in my mind, I write a bunch of scenes.
Then I organize and revise the scenes. I throw a lot of the scenes out and I use the songs to patch up any difficult areas. I use them to to avoid long boring exposition, develop character, set the scene, express illogical thoughts, and enhance strong emotional scenes. Sometimes the songs come along as I write and other times I see where they go when I go back.
Posting on here has been so helpful. I appreciate all of the feedback. It has helped me get excited about the project again and I'm moving forward. Still slowly, not knowing exactly how things will evolve, and with a ton of interruptions, but moving none the less.
The hurricane sounds fabujous. I was wondering how, and if, you staged it. It sounds like a huge theatrical challenge, but could be the spectacle that seems necessary in much of today's entertainment. I would love to see it.
Thank you so much. And thank you to the guys who got this site together again from the previous fiasco. It's sooo helpful to have someone with whom to intelligently discuss what may be the loneliest job in the world--playwriting.
The hurricane was done with sound, light, and the characters entering wetter and wetter as the needs of the action drove them out into the storm. It is a moment in the play when there are two stories happening simultaneously, which adds to the feeling of motion and cataclysm. It is simple to stage, but it really works.
And if you're in the LA area -- you can still catch it thru Sept. 10th!
" There were a couple of political murders involved in my story though and my struggle is to tell the family/love story and also get the drama of the politics and murders onstage somehow without another flashback or flashforward. Still working on that."
Hmmm... I wonder if it would help to focus on the main storyline and do the narrator scenes later? And if you were to list the rooms in which the murders would take place... rooms, locations, etc. where your main characters would meet, etc. if that would help you with the plot? Setting always helps me with plot. People are going to meet up at various locations and hopefully the intersections of protagonist and antagonist will lead you right into your plot...
I would love to see your play, but I won't be in the L.A. area before Sept. 10. Is there a website? Maybe there are others who will be nearby.
Sounds like you found a way to stage the hurricane and retain the emotions. I saw "Singing in the Rain" once where they actually had tons of rain that actually fell from some kind of contraption courtesy of a local water purifying company. It was spectacular and right for that show, but a hurricane is not rainfall for sure. And it would probably detract from the emotions of a hurricane.
I was interested in your statements about using historic fact in drama. I wish producing officials understood that. They always seem to want to include every historic fact known to man. The play I'm working on now has been re-written several times and they keep throwing in more facts. The last fiasco included way too many subjects and it was a mess. It's so hard to get these folks to understand that a play is not a re-enactment. It is only to interest the audience in the subject and does not have to be entirely accurate or include every aspect of the history. I'm constantly working on that one.
I'm not sure I understand what you mean about the setting, but I'm going to give it more thought. Since the main character would have been a child at the time of the political events, I'm thinking she could be hiding or playing nearby when her parents discuss them. That might be more exciting than political debates onstage anyway.
She would be about nineteen at the time of the murders so I think she could witness them and I am trying to get the murders to be the crisis of the romance with the man from the other political faction somehow and still not be entirely non-factual.
Like everything else, it's just one challenge after the other. These discussions help so much. Thanks.
Either way, my plan is to fling, toss, hurl, and heave the history out of my way then write the play. I have finished the major part of the research so I'm on my way.
I'm moving along. Not at jet speed, but moving none the less. I have the opening scene and one history scene. Now if only I had a commission with an impossible deadline. An impending production is all that seems to get me going. And I think I write better when I'm in a huge hurry.
Does the speed at which a play is written affect the quality? Some seem to like to take forever. Others (like me) like to finish quickly, then I play around with it for each production thereafter.
I have written two historical screenplays, one of which is being considered and another has good potential. Both scripts have been under construction for about 10 years. It wasn't until the last re-write that I discovered the key to making the story jump off the page was getting out of the way.
Ask yourself: "Why is this story important to me?"
You need to write this story for a reason. This is your myth, your heroic journey. It's really not about politics, it's about your feeling about your place in history.
(I like bkahn's advice (above).) The story is about the characters who live in the story. Keep characters' motivations and deceits in the foreground, and keep history and politics in the background.
Do you have something-- a trial, a political debate, a funeral or wedding, etc. -- at the end of the story that can be at the center of the play? If so, then you can probably use flashbacks to tell the story. Just a thought.
Thank you for coming back to this. I am using a flashback to start the play. It's the only way I could think of to give it any suspense.
Your idea of showing a trial is very helpful. There were so many court cases, numerous political actions I had considered just telling the outcomes, but you reminded me of the dramatic value of showing it onstage. I'm not sure how to find a transcript or anything, but hopefully I can. That's a great idea.
The historic facts of the play include so many dramatic events, it's impossible to tell them all yet they all worked together to lead to a true American tragedy. People's homes were taken and thousands died.
But the death of thousands doesn't seem as real as the death of one. I don't want to trivialize the facts, but I want to make them personal. At this time, focusing one family and a couple of lovers on different sides of the issues.
It's a very difficult story to tell, but an important historic lesson.
You might consider newspaper accounts instead of transcripts. New accounts generally focus on what's interesting/exciting-- then find those points in the transcript/s if it/they are available. Transcripts usally arenm't available though for most early American history. But if it went all the way to the US Supreme Court then US Supreme Court Reports/federal court case reports may be helpful to give some sense of the trial.
The important cases were in the Supreme Court and I have the facts of the trial. I just have a hard time envisioning the actual event. Maybe I need to spend some time in a court room. I have an acquaintance who is a Federal Judge and maybe he can help. I also like the idea of using the newspaper and have some of the facts being revealed that way already. The newspaper and story telling are aspects of the surrounding culture.
I always have these problems with history plays. Those in charge always want accuracy which results in less drama and more characters, but I usually win out if I stay with it and they are entertained. I find it challenging to bring the most dramatic events to the stage and fit them together in a dramatic form like a jigsaw puzzle. I hate to use a narrator and have never done it though I may have to this time. Of course I always think that at this point so...
I have taken this on as a musical, but as the scenes have progressed, no songs are evolving. I'm not sure why.n There just doesn't seem to be a place to sing yet. Maybe that will come.
I have found that what most interests me onstage is people's reaction to events. I can read about the events in detail in the history books. I try to follow this when I write historical plays, which for me is almost all that I write these days.
For example: Instead of actually showing the trial of the pirates in 1720 (I had the published transcripts), I had the court officer read the verdict, condemning them to be hanged. I wrote two scenes--one was the court officer taking bribes from the loved ones to prevent the hangings, and the confrontation afterwards, when they realized they had been scammed and the hangings had taken place.
In another play about political repression, there were arguments during readings about whether I should show the scenes of torture. I thought about it, but I realized that whatever the audience imagined would be worse then what I could actually show onstage. Instead I wrote a scene where a childhood friend, married to a government bureaucrat, visits the detainee in order to convince her to name names and free herself. When she sees the state that her friend is in, it makes the first crack in her blind obedience to the political ruling party. We learn later that she took the first radical step of her life after this, at the cost of her own life. I showed this by having the audience learn about it just as the freed prisoner learned.
I don't know if any of this is clear. Hope so. Good luck.
By the way. a veteran theater composer told me that the rule of thumb for musicals is that the characters sing only when they are too emotional to speak. I'm sure there are exceptions to this,but it's a good check nonetheless.
Thank you for the excellent input. I totally agree that the human reactions are far more interesting than the actual events. Maybe that's why I prefer plays to re-enactments which I generally find quite boring.
I try to develop a human drama around a central event which is the historic occurrence. My goal is not put anything onstage that conflicts with recorded history, but to use the historic facts to forward the plot. It is not easy.
I like your composers rule of thumb about when to use music. I also like what Voltaire said, "Anythng too silly to be said should be sung." So far, no emotion is too deep to speak and nothing is too silly to be said. However, I'm sure I will come to that point.
Your history plays sound very interesting. Are they musicals or straight plays? Are they performed in or near New York?
My plays are usually premiered in New York--a new one every Spring. I am very fortunate to have a venue here. The majority of my historical plays were not musicals, but in recent years that has changed. I love writing lyrics and the challenge of writing songs that fit the characters and the action as well as the time period can be daunting yet exciting.
The most difficult was writing a "World War II" song about women soldiers. It had to be patronizing and "gung-ho to fit the contemporary attitudes." It turned out to be the song that the audiences loved the most. I was dismayed to say the least that there were no groans at my "She is a WAC. a WAC, give her a pat on the back, boys!" Go figure.
My next production will be in April, if you are in the NY area.
I have no plans to be in New York in April at this time, but if I happen to be there, I will definitely track your production down.
Don't you just love how the simplest and silliest songs can involve an audience in the emotions of a show. I am forever amazed at how a song can bring people to tears, make them laugh out loud, or cause them to think. If I can get it going, I like to develop a very simple theme song that is repeated several times during the play. It can really help forward the plot of a history play. And if it works well, I can get the audience singing with the cast at the end. I meet people years later who can still sing every line of some silly song I thought up.
I envy what sounds like a fairly reliable annual venue. I write my history plays on commission, and I have no idea how to market that service, so I can't rely on anything. Some years I go nuts writing several musicals and a couple of straight plays then I may not have another commission for a couple of years. I moved away for a while and returned to find all my contacts gone so I'm writing this play on speck. But it's something related to my heritage so I need to do it.
My two cents worth.
Having created and staged a play woven around a real historical character..
Read everything surrounding the events or individuals - then, assuming you arent doing a large scale Bob Wilson epic, but wanting to zoom in on the personal - choose one or more characters who potentially embody the larger events playing out, and follow them and their reactions to the offstage larger events, maybe?
For me I deliberately had to throw away a lot of things that would be great in a movie, but impossible or useless to write in for a play. Sometimes you have to throw out a lot of 'back story' in order to convey an artistic Truth to the audience - and other times, it can be useful to leave the motives of real individuals unexplained (as they are in reality) - so that the unfolding events become fascinating for the audience as they attempt to unravel the motives of key players, for themselves. Its not always good to spoonfeed every last factoid to an audience - I tend to like making them get enough to sustain the interest, but not enough to make them think they're watching a dramatized documentary. One wants them to be as involved and fascinated as if its 'fiction' they're watching, after all..
If one pictures a series of historical events as a family tree - then sometimes the piece can be best served, by zooming in on just one or two unfolding junction points. In most lives and events, there are junction points where an action taken, later is shown to be the turning point in the Event itself. It doesnt have to be that dramatic a moment - it can (and usually is) just some dumb choice that someone made, not realising what it would expand and cause later.
Those areas (for me anyway, are the interesting areas in historical/political developments - and potentially have the most creative 'food' to work with..
Like if a big historical event is a tree, then deliberately choosing the best branch and leaves for your purposes, can be a way of personalising the Event for the viewer. Assuming of course, you dont have the budget to have a cast of thousands to play out the events from a birds eye view..
anyway, those are just some early morning thoughts :)
Thank you for your help. I'm still just ambling my way through this. It's a tale of my tribe's removal to the west and what in reality was an attempt at genocide. I took a tribal history course which inspired the work, but identified so many dramatic poins it only confused me.
I too start out wanting to get all the information I can about a topic, but at some point, I have to stop researching and start writing my own story of the human reactions to the historic events. I'm afraid I may have too many facts in this case. I want to include it all, and like a couple of other history musicals, I have done, once I discover my treatment, I have to stop researching and write the play. The real story, the human story, is rarely recorded so I have to make it up and set it in the historic events.
I try not change recorded history, but I develop my own story and use the historic events to forward the plot. The plot in this case, is so complicated though, it is difficult to get it down to a few dramatic plot points that can be forwarded by the history.
scenedreamer wrote: Thank you for your help. I'm still just ambling my way through this. It's a tale of my tribe's removal to the west and what in reality was an attempt at genocide. I took a tribal history course which inspired the work, but it identified so many dramatic points it only confused me.
I too start out wanting to get all the information I can about a topic, but at some point, I have to stop researching and start writing my own story. I have to imagine the human story amid the historic events. In this case, I'm afraid I may have too many facts. I want to include it all, and usually once I discover my treatment, I have to stop researching and write the play. The real story, the human story, is rarely recorded so I have to make it up and set it in the historic events.
I try not change recorded history, so I have to use the historic events to forward the plot. The historic facts in this case, are so complicated, it is difficult to get them down to a few dramatic plot points.