A young woman holds a large rattlesnake with confident ease but she’s actually afraid of it. She can’t tell anyone though, because they’ll take her title away. She’s the snake queen, with the sash to prove it, so she has drape this snake around her and smile for the camera.

A man leaps into the air, unable to contain his desire to dance. He’s a businessman but he hates it all – sports, business, the office – he’s wanted to dance since he was a little boy but his father’s expectations keep him from it.

A little girl sits at her desk in the classroom, thinking about the boy in her class that she likes. She can’t tell anyone, though, because they’ll make fun of her for it.

A woman has been cheating on her husband with other women and the pain of it is too much to bear. She takes drugs to numb herself – gets them from a guy down the street – and hides it from her gullible husband and three children. She knows she’ll lose her home if they ever find out.

A young woman wears her wedding gown, ready to march down the aisle to her betrothed but she’s carrying another man’s baby. She’s two months along and she plans to pass it off as her future husband’s. Even if he finds out the truth, she thinks he’ll stay with her. Any man can get a woman pregnant but it takes a real man to step up and raise the child, even if it isn’t his. She thinks her soon-to-be-husband is a real man.

A musician who’s also a cheating husband. A rodeo queen whose parents bought off the judges. A student who cheated to win the prize and get her photo taken. A singer with a terrible past of molestation and abuse who is still thankful for her life, who still has the strength to make it. These and others are the characters and stories that emerged from our writing exercises today.

Once a month we have a short class – an hour instead of an hour and half, and it’s usually cut even shorter because the class before ours runs late, then the women have to take a bathroom and sometimes are given their bag lunches (more baloney, I’m sure) to bring back into the classroom with them. Faced with forty-five minutes and a classroom full of women eating sandwiches, we decided to cut out the warm-ups and get straight to the activity.

Much thanks to Noel Greig, author of Playwriting, a book I cannot recommend enough to anyone who teaches theatre, playwriting or creative writing. It’s a step-by-step exercise book full of different ways to get people thinking and writing about characters, stories, settings and it even has a section on group devising in the back. It’s fantastic.

I took today’s exercises straight from his book and added a visual prompt. I spread out photos of people from magazines and asked everyone to pick one that she liked. We then drew an outline of a body on a blank sheet of paper. Around the outside of the body, we wrote words that physically described the person. In the head of the body, we wrote what the person in the photo is thinking. In the chest/heart area, we wrote what the person is feeling. Then I deviated from Greig and asked them to write what had happened to the person to make him/her feel that way. This got a little tricky and I need to make this more clear next time. Many of them women were taking the photos literally and so were trying to figure out who this person really might be and what was actually happening rather than letting their imaginations take over and realizing that I wanted them to make up what they didn’t know, to treat the people in these photos as imaginary characters.  This literalism is something that I run into again and again, both in this class and other groups I’ve worked with and I have to remember be very clear.

Next, I said, “Every one of these people has a secret. A big secret. What is it? What are they hiding? What would happen if someone else found out? What would happen to the other people in his/her life?” The idea of the secret sparked more than a few people and the sound of scribbling pencils filled the classroom. “Let’s get into pairs and tell our partner about this person.” In the few minutes remaining, the women discussed their characters. I urged everyone to ask questions – to help their partners fill in the blanks. I hovered around the pairs and listened in, asked a few questions myself.

“Why do you think I brought this exercise in?” I asked the group. “To learn not to judge a book by its cover!” “Everyone has secrets.” “To learn how to get to know a person wholly – inside and out.” “To learn creativity.”

“Of course, all of those are great,” I said, “and true. But I also brought this in because it’s an artistic tool. We’ve created characters today and if you want to write about them, this is a good place to start. I write plays and make theatre and I use exercises like this is my own work.” This seemed like a little more of a revelation to some of the women than I expected. Having worked so hard to acquire these skills, I forget that other people might not view this as more than wonderful enrichment activities and while they are enriching, these are also tools of a professional trade. Putting more emphasis on that in the future might help answer some of the “why are we doing this?” vibes I get at times. Time to get out my soapbox!

And then our time was up – it flew by today and one woman, who is pretty vocally wary of our class said that she enjoyed it, that this had been her favorite class with us so far.

-Katherine Craft


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