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Edward Albee and a Fish out of Water

June 29, 2009

fish out of waterAt the moment celebrated American playwright Edward Albee is in Australia as a guest of the US Studies Centre and to run script development workshops. He is best known for his work Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, though he has a career spanning fifty years and thirty plus plays.

Aged 81 Albee looks 20 years younger and is articulate, insightful and doesn’t mince his words.

I saw him interviewed last week by Kerry O’Brien on the ABC’s 7.30 Report. Among the questions about opening nights, life as an adoptive child and thoughts on Broadway, he was asked about his characters. This was when my ear really pricked up because I love nothing more than to hear writers talk about their characters.

Albee had this to say about the emergence of characters in his head:

Yes. They [the characters] do start talking to me … to each other, and I become very interested in what they’re talking about. And I make an experiment. I will see how well I know my characters.

When I sort of know the play that they’re going to be in, sort of generally what it’s about, I will put them in a situation that can’t be in the play and I will improvise dialogue for an hour or so to see how well I know them, to see how well they handle themselves in a situation that will not be in the play. And if they can do that, then I can trust them to be in my play.

It made me wonder – is there a possibility of getting to know your characters at a deeper level by making them a fish out of water?

Like us, our characters have the opportunity to sink or swim in new places and situations. Back in January [Fiction]Friday posited the challenge to writers to invite three existing characters from different stories to a talk show and to leave them in the Green Room together for a what happens next? story.

My story Date With Denton gave my characters Ruby Mendez, Shet Harmon and Senator Abigail Hamilton a chance to swim in a different pond with a new school of fish.

What I gleaned from this bizarre but worthy exercise was something of a retrospective on the characters who have gravitated to me over the past 18 months and how they have changed. It gave me an understanding that for me, there are two very different sorts of characters – constructions and manifestations.

You can tell a construction what to do whereas a manifestation will tell you what to do.

While Albee states clearly his experiments are to see if the character/s can hold their own and therefore be trusted in his play it occurred to me it has other potential benefits. Placing a character in different circumstances or with different characters outside of their story may show up elements of their personality or coping mechanisms you might not have otherwise been privy to. It may turn up interesting scenarios or twists you may not have thought of and might like to work into the original story. Given the opportunity our characters always have the capacity to surprise us – in both good and bad ways.

However, writers may also run the risk of their characters going on strike or getting in a huff when supplanted elsewhere. I’m my characters have the capacity to not just rise to the occasion, but excel in it but I’m certain there would be a few surprises in store for me if I tried it.

I’d like to think given Albee’s three Pulitzer Prizes, two Tony awards and plethora of nominations there is something in his methods of character exploration prior to writing.

Your challenge today is to take a character you are currently working with and put them in a unique situation which could not possibly occur in your current story.

Where did you put them and who with? What happened? Was the exercise useful?

Jodi Cleghorn has always loved the idea of writing a stage or screen play yet two failed attempts at Script Frenzy seem to indicate her talents are best served in prose. Her favourite play is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. You can follow Jodi’s Tweets @jodicleghorn or her expanding blog Writing in Black and White.
  1. June 29, 2009 4:49 am

    I love Edward Albee!

    And we were going over similar exercises last night at this theatre group I’m in. They can easily be transferred over to prose.

  2. jamesashelford permalink
    June 29, 2009 10:19 am

    Thank you Jodi for another great challenge. I took a character of mine from a modern-set comedy and had them about to be executed by 11th century Saxons. I’d never written him or even imagined him in a genuinely life or death situation so I got to see him past the point of utter panic and even in the realms of true resignation. It was a character I’ve been suing in Fiction Friday the last few weeks and it helped me a get a sense of him as a serious person rather than the comedy character I generally used him as.

    Do’t know if we’re meant to do this but I ended up posting it, I enjoyed writing it so much:

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