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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Guest Blog Interview: Christina Hamlett

The Wave-inatrix was recently privileged to share a repast with my lovely and considerably talented friend, playwrite Christina Hamlett, author of, among many others, Could it be a Movie?

Christina took a few moments to answer some questions for Rouge Wavers:

Wave-inatrix: I know you have written numerous produced plays but that you write books and scripts as well. How do you compare playwriting to screenwriting in terms of structure and narrative? Is it a leap?

In my opinion, playwriting is a much more challenging medium. Although theatrical scripts share a lot in common with screenplays in terms of three-act structure and page-count, a play invites more sophisticated levels of abstraction and suspension of belief on the part of an audience than that which is required to watch a movie. In workshops I’ve done on the subject, there seems to be a mystique about playwrights insofar as how we can transcend time and space within what most people perceive are the limiting parameters of a wooden stage. Therein, of course, is where the real magic lies!

Let’s say, for instance, that you’ve written a storyline that includes a flashback to a street corner conversation in 1930’s Berlin. In a screenplay, you would accomplish this through a dissolve, a match cut, a wipe or a dream sequence. You would have to not only replicate the architecture of 1930’s Berlin for the set but also incorporate period vehicles, signage and authentic costumes for dozens of non-speaking extras whose only purpose is to supply ambiance. In a theatrical script, however, you would only need to pipe in period music or sound effects, costume the 2-3 players engaged in dialogue, and shine a spotlight on them while the rest of the stage is in total darkness.

Theater also has the advantage of identifying time shifts (“three days later”) and location transitions (“Sophie’s apartment in the Bronx”) in the context of a printed program. To that end, a full production could transpire on a completely bare stage and yet if the audience has been told that it’s a forest, a ballroom, or another planet, they will readily accept this premise and allow their imaginations to fill in the missing details.

Playwriting further encourages more intimacy and immediacy with an audience than that which can be achieved in a Surround Sound movie theater with bigger-than-life faces projected on a giant screen. Whereas film calls for a lot of physical/visual action to keep it moving, a play revolves around dialogue and relationships that unfold in “real” time as opposed to “reel” time and are witnessed vicariously through an invisible fourth wall that – in smaller venues – is only a short distance from the front row. In addition, a movie audience only sees what the camera allows it to through the device of a single lens. A theatrical set, in contrast, is generally visible to the viewers all at once. This, then, takes a skilled playwright and an accomplished director to nudge the viewers’ focus via lighting and movement toward whatever they should be paying attention to at any given time.

As I always tell my clients, I probably learned more about crafting snappy dialogue, developing compelling characters, and maintaining cohesive pacing and structure from the 16 years that I spent on stage than I ever learned from any screenwriting books or classes. The most significant lesson that theater teaches you is economy of expression. Among the biggest mistakes I read in new screenplays is the tendency to rely heavily on the glitz of expensive sets, scores of irrelevant characters, and too many special effects to carry the story. When these elements are stripped away, there’s rarely a salvageable plot underneath. The physical dynamics of a stage, however, force you to rationalize the minimum number of characters, locations and props you need in order to deliver whatever it is you want to say. Interestingly, the clients I have who mention that they majored in Theater Arts and/or did stints in community theater or summer stock tend to write more tightly focused scripts, better developed characters and more plausible dialogue than anyone else.

Wave-inatrix: You were kind enough to give me a copy of your book Could it be a Movie?, which helps writers think through and develop their ideas. What do you see as the most common mistakes beginning screenwriters make?

The first is their assumption that writing a movie is easy and, therefore, anyone can do it. What they don’t realize is that what seems like such an effortless finished product on the big screen not only reflects the collaboration and cooperation of scores of talented individuals but also that the whole thing is based on a commercially viable premise that will resonate with moviegoers and be something they’ll want to see. In my work as a script consultant, I often encounter the “Soapbox Syndrome” in which writers with political rants, pet peeves and dysfunctional family issues view screenwriting as a platform to broadcast their opinions to as many people as possible. Catharsis, I tell them, is fine for the soul but not always successful at the box office, especially if there is no discernible plot or even remotely sympathetic characters.

The second is a total disregard for the rules of proper formatting and presentation. The rationale for deviating from industry standard, I’ve discovered, is the mistaken belief that if the story itself is really, really good, a reader will blithely look past the odd fonts, uneven margins, typos, fluorescent paper, and headshots cut out of People magazine and pasted onto selected pages to show who the author thinks would be great in each role. (I was once sent a theater script typed entirely in 18 point Braggadocio bold and stapled into a glossy Chippendales folder.) Reality check: If your first page suggests that you don’t think the rules should apply to your unique vision, keep in mind that we are under no obligation to turn to page 2.

Thirdly is the curse of implausible dialogue that either wastes valuable time with empty chit chat (i.e., “Hi.” “Hi.” “How are you?” “I am fine, and you?” “I am fine, too.” “That’s good.” “What shall we do today?” “I don’t know.”) or else seeks to bring the audience up to speed by explaining things the characters themselves already know (i.e., “Well, if it isn’t my brother-in-law Alan who is married to my younger sister Grace and works for a meat-packing plant in Wisconsin that is currently under investigation by a citizens action committee led by two men named Stan and Ed whom I am having lunch with tomorrow…”).

Another problem I often encounter is when writers decide to pen something they think is currently a popular theme (i.e., whatever just won an Academy Award) or something that was produced so long ago that they think audiences may have forgotten about it (i.e., unsuspecting young women impregnated by Satan for a cult, or extraterrestrials who are left behind by the Mother Ship and make friends with kids in suburbia). The strangest one I ever read was a rewrite of a romantic drama I rejected which originally involved two star-crossed stockbrokers in New York who ended up marrying partners they didn’t love. In Version #2, the screenwriter changed the female character to a man, turned them into cowboys and moved them to a dude ranch in Montana. Absolutely nothing else was changed. Including my opinion.

Wave-inatrix: What's up next for you?

In addition to several new plays in development and the upcoming launch of a humorous fiction series targeted to teen/tween girls, I am also under contract with the largest ghostwriting agency in the U.S. This allows me to interact with people from all walks of life whose dream is to one day see their name on a book, stage play or film. It’s both fun and challenging to be a chameleon and adapt my writing style to the uniqueness of each “voice”. Last but not least, my husband Mark and I are collaborating on Consumed with Passion, a collection of 12 romantic short stories in which the plots revolve around a delicious meal. I’m writing the romances and he’s supplying the gourmet recipes for each of the meals featured. His culinary skills are legendary among our circle of friends and business associates, many of whom feel that if he ever gets tired of being an insurance industry executive and general counsel, he should open a restaurant.

Wave-inatrix: If you had but one piece of advice for screenwriters trying to break in, what would it be?

If you want to be a writer, you need to make the time to write. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? And yet at writers’ conferences, I meet hordes of people who are putting off even getting started on their screenplay, their novel, their whatever. The excuse is that they want to wait until (1) they graduate from college, (2) they retire from their job, (3) their children move out, (4) they pay off their mortgage, etc. These are the people who are likely to never write anything because they can always find excuses not to. They seem to have an expectation, I think, that the heavens will open up one day and grant them 9 unobstructed years to only work on their dream project.

Sorry, guys, but it doesn’t work that way. You have to have the discipline to create a writing schedule and firmly stick to it...even after it becomes your full-time occupation. During the early years I was working for other people, being a published author was such a consuming passion that I routinely got up earlier, went to bed later and carried a notebook and a tape recorder everywhere I went just to make time for what I really wanted to do. Like any other skill you want to master, you need to practice it diligently and consistently. For example, I’ve been teaching myself how to play the piano and have made the commitment to practice for an uninterrupted 20 minutes a day. Although this often stretches into 20-40 minutes beyond that, this doesn’t give me the excuse to skip the next two days. The very next afternoon, I’m right back at the keyboard and practicing whatever suits my mood. (Our downstairs neighbors are getting to know the music from Pirates of the Caribbean really well…)


Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author and professional script consultant whose credits to date include 25 books, 125 plays and musicals, and 5 optioned feature films. For additional information, visit her website. Want to try your own hand at writing a play? Christina not only mentors aspiring playwrights around the world, but starting in Spring of 2008, she will also be offering a six-week online playwriting course in which students will work at their own pace, have their assignments critiqued, and learn how to develop new ideas for theatrical performances. For information on the class, contact her HERE

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