Creating Drama from Reality

Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Drama Queen.

The pink, black and white sign hangs in my classroom.

No, I don't start drama. (Insert sly, snarky, winking face here.)

I teach the art of acting and production to high schoolers. We spend nearly four months perfecting a 30 minute play for competition. I have 59 students in class; approximately 80 students comprise our high school, so...

It's tough finding a script for a cast this large, so for the second year in a row, I've written our script. Last year, I wrote "Ladder, Engine." The play told the story of the 9/11 firefighters and the aftermath their families dealt with.

This year, I'm telling the story of a boy whose body was found in a Nebraska field nearly 30 years ago. The case, dubbed Little Boy Blue, was found on a cold December morning wearing blue footie pajamas.

I'm putting the finishing touches on the script this week, and then it's time for tryouts!

Creating drama comes easily. The structure of a play is easy to follow and since I've coached drama since dinosaurs roamed the earth (I know some kids think this is true), I've developed characters and refined character traits of Alice in Wonderland, several of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, and average Janes and Joes.

If you are interested in writing drama, you may want to consider some of these tried - and so far, successful - tips:
  1. Create empathy. Establishing a connection with the audience is important. I like to begin in tableau, with almost every character on stage, to create an amazing stage picture AND to develop that sense of empathy between actor and audience.
  2. Beef up the tension. What works for me - and I try to create this dual threat on stage through staging elements - is to create two lines of tension and conflict. If you would look at a graph of the first line of conflict, it would be filled with peaks and valleys. Obviously, it keeps the audience guessing, but that wave of emotion helps tip #1 happen. Then, I like to use a secondary character as a means of conflict. Add this line of tension to the graph mentioned above, and you'll see a flat line of sorts. That's not bad, though! It means the tension and conflict is right there, always present, always a problem. Drama NEEDS drama!
  3. Use the onion effect. One of my favorite movie lines comes from Shrek when the ogre is talking to Donkey and the convo turns into "I'm like an onion, you have to peel back one layer at a time. Do the same thing with characters. Strip away the outer shell and show the audience what makes the character tick.
  4. Develop a timeline. Since the plays I've written follow current events/real-life true crime, I draw a timeline of actual events that can be incorporated into the play. Don't forget to add some pop culture elements. For example, in last year's play, I searched for hit music from 2001, viewed wedding pics from that time to see what trends were in style, and discovered Bratz dolls were popular. These tiny staging elements help solidify the overall effect of the play.
  5. Come full circle. I tend to use flashbacks when writing drama. Why? It's an easy way to tie past events to the present. It also becomes an effective tool to use to wrap up the storytelling. In last year's production, the play began with five firemen rushing toward the Twin Towers. The audience heard their panicked conversation before the men entered the Towers. The play ended in the same way: the firemen stormed the stage and went into a freeze before entering the Tower. The circular motion keeps action moving.

If you enjoy theater and can't locate a script that clicks with your cast, why not try to create more drama and write your own production.

Then you, too, can join the Drama Queen ranks.

by LuAnn Schindler.  Read more of her work at


Margo Dill said...

This is quite impressive. Have you ever tried writing a longer play/screenplay? Your storylines sound fascinating. Thanks for the tips. I've never tried to write a play.

Angela Mackintosh said...

These are excellent tips, LuAnn!

I just hopped over to your blog and read Little Boy Blue. What a beautifully written post, and a tragic story shrouded in mystery. I can see why you chose that story to write a play about. There are so many questions that beg to be answered and a lot of room for "What if?"s. Are you able to take artistic license to the story a little bit?

Thanks for the advice on writing drama! A lot of great points here.

LuAnn Schindler said...

@Margo - I'm working on a script for a documentary about my dad and his comic book collection - the third largest collection of Golden Age comics in the world. Here's a blog post about his story:

It's pretty darn interesting!!

@Angela - thanks! For the most part, I stick close to the story, but I took some artistic license for the resolution of the play. I think it will be pretty amazing!

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