Dialogue is Difficult
I'd never written a play before.
I'd barely written dialogue at all. When I write stories, I fill them with exposition and
description — and conversation when necessary, but perhaps owing to my journalism
background, dialogue has never been my strong suit. It's a story element I tend not to give much attention to.
The Hayden Experiment changed all that.
In a span of twenty-four hours I found myself hurtling at full speed into a dialogue of my own creation, seeing my characters come to life and learning that the conversation two people can have — two strangers, in this case — can be remarkably poignant.
I joined the Hayden Experiment on a whim, having agreed to help out in the face of a dearth of writers. I had no idea what I'd be doing, other than I'd be stuck in a room with a group of high school students for 24 hours to churn out an original play to perform the following night.
But there we were: me, the writer; Cassidy, the director; and Caroline and Darian, the
actors. By the end of the 24 hours we would have a play to our names — and we would become very close, owing to collaborating on such a personal level in such an enclosed space.
As the writer of the group, I wanted to base my play on how the actors interacted with each other under the director's eye, so I was a mere observer for the first hour of when we met. I still had no idea how to even begin writing a play based on nothing — we were given virtually no instruction at all, and I went into my workspace with a frighteningly blank slate in my mind.
But soon, miraculously, under Cassidy's watchful eye, the tone of our play began to take shape, as Caroline and Darian interacted with each other in a series of improvisation games that tested their acting skills and set the tone the play would soon develop.
From there our creative minds worked collectively as a group, bursting with ideas that
turned further gears in my head as I frantically jotted down notes. One of us proposed an idea, the others modified it and we all oohed and aahed in agreement at the genius ideas we'd just come up with. That was our system all night, tossing ideas around for Caroline and Darian to act out and seeing if they stuck. My initial confusion soon subsided, and I felt rejuvenated with the ladies I was working with.
The actors ad-libbed frequently, telling personal stories to enhance the realism of the
dialogue — some of these stories I included in the official script, they were so authentic. This was the power of dialogue that I had been so ignorant of before. Every line Caroline and Darian spoke to each other came alive as the play developed. I was practically giddy at seeing the words work well not just on paper but being spoken aloud in a way that audience members could marvel at and sympathize with.
Seven hours into the experiment, we had a functional play. Well, mostly. We still had all
night (morning?) to perfect the writing and practice rehearsing it, but it was at least
written. As a group we had developed two characters who meet at a bookstore and
recollect their childhood through a discussion of To Kill A Mockingbird, through which a flurry of emotions and memories emerge. In each stage of the play’s development, we tinkered with words and actions until we found the perfect fit for our actors and the characters we wanted them to embody.
Once I had submitted the final draft of our team's script, I slunk away to find a place to
sleep for a few hours while Cassidy took the helm with the actors.
I had put the play into her hands; I didn't see it again for another eight hours during dress rehearsal. There Caroline and Darian were on stage, clad in all black as they brought their characters to life.
Seeing them perform, seeing my words being spoken onstage, evoked a peculiar feeling in me. I was still in production mode at that point, trying to help as best I could before the performance in a few hours; but I also knew the play so well at that point — the words were practically etched into the back of my eyelids as I'd slept — that I could hear Caroline and Darian's voices as the characters they had become. From their first encounter in a library to their heartfelt goodbye at the end of the play, Caroline and Darian embodied their characters and perfectly captured the emotion such a situation would comprise.
Finally it was showtime. The lights went down, the auditorium filled up and the actors took their places. I sat a few rows back from the stage, full of nerves for some inexplicable reason — I was just as much a spectator at this point as anyone else in the audience.
This — to paraphrase a Vladimir Nabokov quote, in which discovery, torture and eternity punctuate a character's thoughts in the same suspenseful way as my own, sitting there in the near-darkness — was it.
I watched Caroline and Darian take their places and utter every line they had rehearsed, silently reciting the script in my head. Our team's play was the final one of the night; my heart was racing the whole time with anticipation about how things would go. But the actors nailed it: they brought onstage with them the honest and raw emotion that filled our workshops from lights up to lights down. There was a reverent pause after Darian spoke her final line, and then the audience erupted into applause not just for our team but for all the actors, directors and writers who had their work showcased onstage that night. I clapped right along with them, a huge grin on my face.
We did it; we all did it. When we began the process, no one had any idea what to expect, but here we were now, playwrights and directors and actors with credits to our name being able to share our work and talents with the community. We told stories we didn't know we had in us. We put words to paper and stage from intangible ideas in our heads. We created something together.