Devising an original framework play

In working on Plays from the Provincetown Players, the company has spent ample time in a devising process to create the framework play that holds the three shorter one-act plays.  As described in last week’s post, five NYU students break into a fictional construction site of the Provincetown Playhouse.  Throughout the devising process, we’ve had to consider who these students are and come up with reasons why they might be there.  I wanted the situation to feel as realistic as possible, so I’ve relied on the assistance of our dramaturg, Jenni Werner, the assistant director, Sarah Misch, and our cast members to provide input and guide the process.

Jenni and I discussed the danger of given circumstances that would not be believable, so I turned to one of our cast members, Tyler Grimes, for his assistance.  Tyler is a known movie aficionado, with an IMDB-like brain, and I thought that he might be able to provide some valuable insight into our “adventure.”  I asked him to consider some of his favorite adventure story scenarios, and here’s a bit of what Tyler had to say:

"You asked me why people go on adventures. I’ve been wracking my mind, watching movies, trying to figure out various concepts. I have thought of a few, there certainly are more, but if you like one of these let me know and I can do more research."


Perhaps one or two of our characters have a recently deceased relative who somehow was involved with our theater and they are bringing his ashes to rest here. (Perhaps not that extreme but I think you see the point.)

To sabotage. Perhaps a character or two doesn’t want this theater here anymore, but when they find the “box” they are persuaded.

The classic, “running from the police so let’s hide anywhere” scenario. Basically stumbling upon the theater and having to stay to avoid the police (or something similar).

Treasure! Build up some folklore about the place and have our characters come looking for the “Provincetown Millions” or something a lot less corny.

The antithesis of the sabotage would be a group just trying to preserve the place. Perhaps they’ve traveled a long distance to get here and want to just hole up there so they can’t demolish the place.

Tyler also provided us with some stock character types that might populate whatever “adventure” we decided to use:

The hero/heroine: brave, sometimes reluctant leader of a group.

The brain: able to answer any question or solve any puzzle fast. Usually has a lot of information handy at all times. Sometimes wears glasses.

The skeptic: often questions everything. Not always the most fun in the group.

The joker: just there to lighten the mood. More recently the joker becomes a sentimental character with the audience, and they expect an “emotional” moment from them. Thanks, Judd Apatow.

The muscle: simply there to bust things open.

The love interest: there to make our hero/heroine doubt themselves.

The person there by mistake: arguably my favorite. Someone who just fell in with the crowd at the last minute.

The dead body: sometimes characters on an adventure will come across a dead body (more often than not just the skeleton), and it lets them know that they are now going farther than anyone else has.  Sometimes maybe they’ll carry the bones around with them.

These are just a few, obviously, and while they seem uninteresting on their own, the best use of these is when they are combined. The joker/skeptic is a great combination for example. When they combine, they sometimes negate their “downsides.” Ultimately, however, the most interesting group dynamic could come from the actors themselves.

Thinking of different types of characters that I always find interesting when groups are gathered, my first thought goes to how to create tension within the group. Siblings can sometimes cause this. Brother/Sister, Brother/Brother, Sister/Sister. Anytime that dynamic is present in a group, especially a group of adventurers, tension can arise. Arguments can occur, the need to protect one another (especially in a scary, new place)… all of these can be useful.
Tyler’s input on this proved to be very helpful for Jenni and I when we sat down to begin the preliminary outline for the adventure in the Provincetown construction site.  We generated several possibilities and then entered the rehearsal process on January 17 with some ways to “prime the creative writing pump.”

After an initial read through of each of the three one-acts, Tyler introduced his research.  We all went home to sleep on it and came back the next day, ready to create.

Our first step was to identify the five characters that would populate the adventure.  Identifying them actually meant creating them, literally “from scratch.”  Jenni and I had selected possible archetypes for each of the actors based on the roles that they would play in the three one-act plays, and then I set to work on a character devising process pulled from playwriting workshops that I’ve had with Pearl Cleage and C. Denby Swanson and from Sande Shurin’s book, Transformational Acting.  Each actor received a large piece of post-it paper and a marker, and I asked them to complete the following tasks and answer the following questions (thanks to stage manager Talia Krispel for capturing these prompts):

Write down ideas that are becoming clear to you within the framework of this piece – things you’ve already verbalized about your character that you know.

Think about how you want this person to be different from  – how do you want them to be different, how do you know they’re different?

Think about attributes about yourself that you want to bring into this character – what about you do you want to play within this character? Can be physical, emotional, mental, etc.

What is the character’s favorite color?

Favorite food?

Drink of choice? (alcoholic optional)

Relationship status?

What do you know about family background, history?

Why is this student at NYU – what is the character studying?

Where will the character be and what would the character like to be doing in 10 years?

What is the character’s greatest dream?  Worst nightmare?

Political affiliation?

Age of character? (17-22 age span)

Where does the character come from?  Where is home?

What is the character’s secret that no one else knows? (Generated by a different actor after reading the other answers above.)

Read the secret that NO ONE knows – then write down a secret that the character has told to one other person.

Give the character a name.

After the exercise, each actor was asked to introduce her/his character to the other members of the company, and out of these introductions, relationships emerged and the beginning of the adventure presented itself.  Each actor typed up her/his notes that night and sent them to me, and I’ve been using them throughout the devising process as a way to justify character choices and provide a foundation for the narrative throughline of the framing play.  Improvisations have been key to this process as well, and the use of audio recordings, transcriptions, and frantic notetaking during the individual improvs have all been invaluable methods for honing each character’s voice.

Stay tuned for a future blog post that will provide information about how we are using primary and secondary source materials to give voice to our three playwrights: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill, and Susan Glaspell.  In the meantime, click on the image below to see the show poster, designed by Chris Cantley of Cantley Art+Design.