I would like to offer one really good bit of advice to everyone everywhere running any kind of 24-hour playwriting thing, or anything even remotely resembling a 24-hour playwriting thing, like a weekend playwriting thing or a week-long playwriting thing or even (as I recently experienced) a month-and-a-half-long playwriting thing.

You know that thing you do where you give us writing prompts? You tell playwrights they have to use a certain line, or a certain character name, or a certain prop, or all three of those things, or (as I recently experienced) a list of about a dozen completely different things? On top of having a demanding deadline? And often not knowing who’ll be available to play the roles you write?

That hurts. Please stop that. Thank you.

Let me elaborate.

I see you when you give out these prompts. You often have a barely-concealed giggle on your faces, like you take no small joy in making playwrights sing for their supper. You have many nice qualities; this is not your best quality.

When you don’t have that look, you often have a slightly different look, which resembles an apologetic grin: “Sorry to have to do this, but this is what everybody does, so… I have to do it, too.” But please, let me tell you: it doesn’t have to be like this.

Ask yourself what those prompts are for. Typically, they’re to ensure that we don’t give you something we already wrote when we’re supposed to be writing something new. But seriously: isn’t the honor system enough? Can’t you just, you know… trust us? The people you’ve decided to take on as creative collaborators? Who you’re already trusting to do good work for you? Call me crazy, but it just might work.

Some argue prompts like the ones I’ve described are meant to be inspiring… but (sorry) that’s just not how they work. If they were meant to be inspiring, you’d offer them to us as gifts: to be accepted or not, incorporated into our work or not, as we see fit. In my most recent experience with this sort of project, that’s how they were presented to me. Well, some of them were, and some weren’t… but I decided to be cavalier and treat them all as if they were gifts, and in the end, though I rejected most of them, the ones I did keep became the foundation of the work I created. That worked much more effectively than anything similar I’ve ever experienced before.

So… give us actual prompts — material to inspire us — not constraints. Set us free, please, and trust us. We’ll make you beautiful things, I promise.

Thank you!

7 thoughts on “Prompt”

  1. I don’t know; I generally like them when I’m writing. Sometimes they can get a bit overboard, but that tends to be the exception more for than the rule for me, and even when it happens it seems to be more about creating a unified evening than just dicking the writers over. These kinds of festivals aren’t just a chance for the writers to generate some new stuff, after all. They (most of them, anyway) have a performance aspect, and are about creating a single theatrical event that feels complete for the artists and audience. That’s shockingly hard to do when you’ve got a collection of shorts from different writers, and so giving everyone a shared baseline to work off of is one way to keep from pushing the reset button every time the lights go down.

    Although I’m kind of a glutton for punishment anyway. I really like limitations and challenges in general when I’m writing, because they force me not just to bring something new, but to construct an entirely new idea. I can’t use one of the premises I’ve had stockpiled for however many months; those are the ones that I can write on my own time. It’s in the same vein as writing for a specific group of actors: the focus is on coming up with a play that fits a combination you’d never have come up with on your own.

    1. I think that, for me, it’s all about the spirit in which prompts are offered. When given generously and loosely, they lead (to me) to better work.

      And yes, they’re about creating a “unified” evening… but again, in my experience, what they tend to create is a bunch of hackneyed shallow comedies (skits, really) that don’t amount to much.

  2. I did one of these 24-hour festivals, and it was such a horrible experience I’ll never do it again. Aside from have a theme (which is fine, and fun), they gave us a quote from Oscar Wilde (random) that we had to include, and a prop (annoying) we had to use. When it came time to rehearse our pieces, I happened to be near the duo cast in mine (we didn’t direct our own pieces). They were absolutely horrible actors, and I soon learned that this tiny theater basically had to scrape up enough people to participate, so anybody that wanted to appear…did. Right before the performance, the director of my piece said to me, “I hope you’re not a precious writer, because now it’s just about what they can remember.” The performance – to which I’d invited my friends – was an absolute disaster. They didn’t have the piece memorized, and after slaughtering it for 10 minutes, they started improvising comedy bits to get laughs. Humiliating that people thought I wrote what they were seeing. I pulled my piece from the second show that night – it wasn’t worth it to be disrespected with lazy actors and a director who obviously didn’t care about the effort I put into the script. To top it off, one of the organizers and another of the playwrights actually made fun of me for pulling my piece on Facebook! 

    1. I’ve been in similarly horrific situations, and I’m now VERY protective of my time and participation. I need to be convinced in advance that the theater knows what it’s doing and doesn’t intend to create anything slapdash and/or embarrassing. I’m as wary, in other words, as you seem to be.

      But there ARE still good versions of this sort of thing. In DC alone, Rorschach Theatre does a lot of good work on this front with its Klecksography and Myth-Appropriations series, and Forum Theatre’s (Re)Acts events are also about as close to ideal as you might like. I wish the other 24-hour events (are you listening, Bethesda Play-in-a-Day?) would follow their lead…

  3. One of my best 10 min. plays came out of the first 24 hr playfest I ever did. I do think they did a good job of running it. We (playwrights, directors and actors) all met the night before to meet our teams–playwrights met the director and actors they would write for. We got to see the pool of potential props. And the tops were given. The topics were always connected. The year I participated it was the 7 seals of the apocalypse, each playwright got one seal and then time to sort of riff/brainstorm with the actors/director. And I was always impressed how hard the actors and directors worked to get off book and block all the plays.

    It was hard. But I did like the exercise. Granted, the following years the plays I wrote weren’t as good as the first year. And knowing how I stayed up through the night to meet the 7am deadline, that’s not something I’ll volunteer to do any time soon. The festival was an annual fundraiser, so participating in it was something akin to volunteering one’s talents toward a good cause. 

  4. From an audience perspective, I like the idea of the prompt because it gives a through line to the performance.

    As a writer, I like it because it’s a limitation that forces me to think.

    (Funny enough, I was thinking about an idea related to this in the shower this morning, albeit from a musical theatre angle.)

  5. Eli Effinger-Weintraub

    Here via Facebook; just adding my observations after several years writing for Theatre Unbound’s 24:00:00 Xtreme Theatre Smackdown:* Invention. Having prompts, and keeping them secret until the playwrights arrive, helps keep folks in the “art created in the moment” spirit of the event. With *no* guidance, it becomes tempting for playwrights to say, “I’ll write up this idea I’ve been kicking around for a couple weeks” or even “I’ll finish this piece I started yesterday.”* Direction. In an earlier incarnation of the Smackdown, there were *no* prompts or directions. The outcome was horrendous, because the playwrights freaked out. What do we write? What tone do they want? How do I choose?!? Obviously, this isn’t a problem for everyone, but some of us appreciate a couple of hooks to hang our plays from.* Audience. Audiences like to be engaged, and they like to feel smart. Smackdown programs used to include a ballot where audience members listed what they thought the common elements were. That’s been discontinued, but attendees tell me one of their favorite parts is watching for those common elements and how different writers interpret and incorporate them.

    That said, some prompts (and groups of prompts) work better than others. And I do hope that folks who choose prompts for these events are bearing in mind the possible future lives of the scripts created. One of the best plays I’ve written for the smackdown probably will never be performed again, because one of the common elements was a character who spoke only in lines from _Casablanca_. In the event, this was a pretty cool element, but without that context, I can’t see it working.

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