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EN 501: MFA Short Residency: Acting for Writers

a guide for students enrolled in the MFA short residency (Summer 2023)


Photo credit: Insider

This page includes potential questions for discussion for each day of the residency.

Roundtable Discussion Questions & Homework

  • What does it mean to act for writing; what is unique to a script for stage vs. other genre outputs; what is actors DO anyway? What is good acting vs bad acting?
  • Any previous acting experience? Or, better yet, what is it you think you already know about acting and writing and etc.? Expectations from this course?
  • Benefits? Tricks and tools, skills vs talent vs instinct; what can be learned?
  • What writers do you like that exhibit "best" writing in your genre? Why is this?
  • What makes this dynamic, or characteristic of your style?
  • What can be inferred from only what’s on the page? We are only concerned with what is present in the excerpt. No backstory needed.
  • What is act-able, what is active, what is missing, passive, etc.?
  • What feels “stage worthy” from this submitted works? What does that term mean?

HOMEWORK: Day 1 and Day 2

  • HW: Practical Handbook (pgs. 19-34)
  • HW: Use the protagonist from your excerpts and sketch out his/her needs, wants, objectives, obstacles, etc. based entirely on the excerpt, if possible. (In other words, if your excerpt is from a larger story, or a full-length play, try overlooking that if possible and basing this assignment strictly from the excerpt, as a whole piece). 
    • NOTE: Think like an actor: Look for those needs, wants, objectives, obstacles, etc. that are actable, physical, visual, interactive, etc. One way to get into the physical is to circle all the verbs in your excerpt and study them: Are they passive or active, being or doing, do they color or suggest the behavior indicated
    • Try to narrow down to one primary want, need, goal, etc. for your Protag and Antag
  • WRITE!
    • Don’t forget about the formatting. (See LibGuide)
  • Do you think Shakespeare's success in playwriting is due to his being an actor?

  • How to detach, deconstruct and reconstruct, remove intention from language: How we use our ears to see – No vs Know/Inflection = Meaning

  • Seeing/Looking and Hearing/Listening; Watch or Witness?

  • Regarding last night’s homework:

    • How do you feel about adaptation of one work into another genre?

    • Were there Similarities, overlaps in deconstructing language between the genres (i.e. What if the character from your excerpt was involved a tragic accident and scarred and that is relevant, but not mentioned in your excerpt. How do you relay this information? Or do you need to?

    • How many different ways did you discover you had to “re”-think the telling, the exposition, of your story?)

    • How did you resolve the need to enforce “I Am” or similar “activating” character statements in those passages that were less revealing, heavily expositioned, or lacking in visual framing?
  • How does the “reader” differ from the “viewer”?
  • And yet, they’re the same person, often. People who read books go to plays.
  • What changes (explicit and implicit) between the vehicle of storytelling: control of the visual (self-imagining vs set design); distance/intimacy with the text; live experience, etc.
    • How are you "seeing" the words play out? 
    • Next, let’s “act” out some of these scenes, independent of their place in the larger work, if you know the plays.
    • What is the intention of the playwright based on the choices made in the dialogue?
    • Can you identify any structural scaffolding?
    • The purpose of repeating lines and even half-lines? The use of overlapping, interrupting, etc. Who is this person?

HOMEWORK: Day 2 and Day 3

  • The first one to three pages of your ten-minute play. Have them ready to bring in tomorrow morning…but after dinner, be prepared to “present” how your play will or likely will begin…at least to get the ball rolling.
  • Prepare up to five questions that you have for your “stolen Antag.” You will only get to ask three of them. So strike hot. But you can ask the original author anything you want or feel that you need to, to assist you in the direction you have to take in the story you have to tell. REMEMBER: You must answer the questions AS your protag would.

CRUX TIME: We will meet briefly to answer any pressing questions, but this evening is the time to get to writing.

  • Full drafts will be due on Canvas BEFORE THE MORNING SESSION tomorrow!
  • We will workshop the drafts then.
  • NO SCRIPTS should run past ten minutes.

HOMEWORK: Day 3 and Day 4

    • Take the improv we’ve done and complete a first draft—as much as you can!—of your short play. Or, utilize a creation of your own. BUT, REMEMBER, this is a not a full and true adaptation here; the staged world will be a different place than the original story.
    • Try dividing the ten-minute play according to the structure discussed earlier; refer to the handout. In the first five pages, make sure you clearly establish People, Place, and Problem. In the last five, reveal Progress and Purpose. Draw clear parameters and make sure the “threats” are noticeable. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect! We will address it in class.
  • Who’s draft is “finished”? Why or why not? What seems to be the problem? (And why is it the problem? Have we met the requirements for a ten-minute play: conflict, resolution, etc.)
  • Return to script analysis
      • Which G.O.T.E. did you highlight or focus on? Was it obvious?
      • Apply Mamet’s principles to your scenes; do they fit, do they indicate areas that need specific attention to strengthen G.O.T.E.s?
      • Identifying strategies to locate stake, goal, need, want in each scene
    • Playwright feedback: What works, what was new, anything of value to take back into original piece excerpt is from? What have we learned about adaptation?
    • How does it feel having your protagonist in someone else’s world and hands, etc.? And then how does it feel to know that your protagonist becomes the antagonist in their stories?

HOMEWORK: Day 4 and Day 5

    • Complete and final drafts due IN THE MORNING!
    • Fresh copies for your Readers Theatre Performances.
    • Remember: Final Reflection Essays will be due before end of summer term.

Prior to performing your work, reflect on the transformation your work has undergone.  How much has changed in your approach to character now compared to the excerpt and the original story?