Five Building Blocks for a Rich Scene

by Liz Lisle

Liz LisleWe asked Liz Lisle, producer, dramaturg, and playwright, for her thoughts on sparking up a scene. Take it away, Liz!

Banging your head against the door of the refrigerator because your scene just won’t come together? Here are some quick and dirty ways to get your characters moving, your plot dancing, and your imagination playing the fiddle like it’s a hot summer night.

1. Add a character that speaks differently. Put someone in the scene that uses words in a distinctly different manner than the other characters. As soon as language becomes a focus, there are lots of interesting questions on the table about who, why, and what. As the playwright, you then get to spend time deciding if these are questions you want to answer now or later, if at all. A great way to create a dynamic in a scene is to create mystery around what is common knowledge and what is not. Who knew this different person would be so different? Who knew they were even coming? It all depends on what kind of world you are creating onstage. For an additional twist, try making this character’s language, dialect, or speech impediment translatable by only some of the other characters. (Example: “This is my girlfriend, Monique”.)

2. Add a distraction. Create a magnetic event that each character has a different opinion about. Even though the event may not fund the strict structure of the plot, it adds a central point around which the characters can orient, and gives everyone a sudden, unexpected reason to show their true colors. By adding a live moment of action to the scene, you immediately add a layer to the story of the play, something the audience and the actors are living together and learning about together. This makes the audience feel smart, which is usually a good thing. Creating a distraction also gives opportunity for some characters to sneak away from the main action of the scene and do some business in a dark nefarious corner if need be. Then you have the glory of making two scenes happen onstage at the same time, which will make you feel smart. (Example: “Did you see that? Some hobo out there just got hit by a car!”)

3. Add a threat. Create a rhythmic shift in the scene and some attractive tension by pitting two characters against one another. When one character threatens another in no uncertain terms, there is a real boxing match sort of effect onstage. It’s raw, it’s exciting, and no one seems to know who’s got the stronger right hook. Whether the threat is verbal, emotional or physical, there’s nothing like writing a current moment of conflict to pick up the energy. Who can tell what might happen when an angry animal gets cornered! Be sure to work all the angles here, and let your characters really get sweaty. (Example: “Go ahead! If you throw my plant out the window you know what you’ll get.”)

4. Add a discovery. Everyone loves knowing a secret. Finding one out might even be better. Create relationships between characters in a scene, and then move them around as things are revealed. Try setting up the reveal, so that characters that seemed firm in one stance or another can be exposed or victorious, just at the moment no one was expecting them to be. Secrets pave the path for power exchanges, for romance, for betrayal, for friendship… the possibilities are endless. It’s all about creating a small, enclosed space onstage, smaller than the world the characters have been living and moving in. Invite the audience into that space, whether it is through sound level or posture, and then give it to them: that wonderful feeling of knowing. Of being in on it. (Example: “Well you knew, right? He and Monique…?”)

5. Add physical quirks. The great thing about theater is that you have bodies to play with. Sometimes it’s hard to remember this when you’re crunched in front of a computer screen with only your eyes and your fingers moving for hours on end. But the greatest plays are the ones where playwrights have given some hint as to the physicality of his or her characters. Even if these details don’t end up in the final draft, it’s worth your time to spend a hour walking around the room and being your character. My advice is to make eccentricities and tics visible, even when your characters are “normal” people. Also, think about what piece of clothing, prop, or beloved item might define a character, and how the other characters choose to react—or whether they’ll even notice. (Example: “That’s some sweater.”)

Liz Lisle is a producer, dramaturg, and playwright. She has worked in non-profit theater arts and management since 2000, and with Shotgun Players Theatre since 2001. Liz is also a company member and the director of Shotgun’s Theatre Lab, the company’s second stage experimental season. She is also on the selection committee for the Bay Area Playwright’s Festival (BAPF), and worked as a dramaturg for the BAPF, as well as for Word for Word. Liz’s play EAT was produced by the Shotgun Theatre Lab in 2003, and in 2007 she was commissioned to create a new play in Just Theater’s Writer/Director Lab, the product of which is called Matterless Fact. Liz is the recipient of the Observership Grant awarded by Theatre Communications Group. In addition to her work with Shotgun Players, Liz is the Managing Editor of Watchword Press, an independent literary collective that publishes a biannual literary magazine and creates public gallery events that combine literature, visual and performing arts. For the last seven years she has also co-produced an annual festival of radical puppetry in San Francisco called PuppetLOVE!