Play as Process: A First-Time Playwright Shares an Independent Method
I've just written the first draft of a first play, and it made sense to me to put down some of my thoughts about the process while it is still fresh in my mind. The play itself will probably go through a few more drafts but I am happy with it as it stands—I think it would be fun to act in. And that is how the play had gone. I had an idea and thought it would be fun to write about, and also that writing a play would be feasible.
At the time I was a graduate student at a public state university in California. I was renting a house with the help of my parents and working on a masters degree in geology, which culminated in a 500+ page thesis on earth electricity and metamorphism. Somewhere in mid-2011 I realized that I wouldn't have time to finish the play I had started that year, that Hypatia would have to wait. That's what the play is about, the life of Hypatia. She's the oldest woman mathematician in history whose name we know of. Hypatia lived in fourth and fifth century Alexandria, in Roman Egypt, and practiced Greek philosophy and mathematics. Her father Theon compiled the copy of Euclid that was passed down to Europe in the late medieval period. She helped to promote the use of the astrolabe. She was the last head of the Museum (not the Library) of Alexandria and for her troubles was killed by a mob of Christian monks. It was a dark time, and I thought that writing about her life would be useful to the world we live in now, and that there might be some parallels that would make for a powerful work. But … my graduate studies got in the way, and I put the play down. I had done tens of hours of research, and fleshed out some of the characters, and also decided on which historical events ought to be included in the play. I had written the structure of the play, in three acts, plus all the major events for each of the scenes. The dialogue for four of the scenes was already done. Taking geophysics meant that I really wouldn't have any time for the play.
Four years later, with masters degree in hand, I was in PhD program that wanted me to create some independent study courses for myself, and I created a course wherein I would get to finish the play. I was thrilled. I found a mentor in Meron Langsner, who is both a PhD and a playwright. I set out deadlines for myself, and found the scenes I'd written and the notes that had been generated. When I finished the first scene after such a long hiatus, I was elated. I really wasn't sure it would come about.
I adore the method I used to write the play. It was so pleasant. I still have the twenty plus pages of notes that I took during my first stage of the process, as a souvenir. These included everything from the historical narrative surrounding the play's setting to the call numbers at the college library where I could find relevant philosophy and math books to generate the context, to lists of names that were used in some fourth century letters by one of Hypatia's disciples, to conceptual diagrams. I read and wrote and delved as deeply as I could into the subject.
The next stage was to organize the action of the play. Hypatia was a well-renowned teacher, and I wanted to give the audience a sense of her skills. I thought about what kinds of things she might teach to convey her mastery and her strengths. I generated lists of smalltalk she could make with her students and they with each other, to demonstrate the connection that was being built in Hypatia's presence. I looked at the technology she had improved upon (i.e. the astrolabe and a device to measure the density of fluids) and planned to include these. Then I arranged the historical and other dramatic markers into scenes and acts, so that the play itself would have a dramatic arc. The ending would be brutal, but the journey uplifting. I included the settings where each of the scenes would occur, and also the characters that would be present. I divided up the smalltalk subjects that I had devised into several of the scenes so that they made sense. I planned out the actions of the non-historical scenes, and made myself a key diagram for the acts and scenes. It didn't seem onerous. I was enjoying myself.
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