September 24, 2008

On Writing a Movement-Oriented Piece

One of the central dilemmas of creating a movement-oriented piece is how to 'speak" without words.

Naturally, I turned to dance (particularly ballet) to find a means of creating a narrative without the need for spoken dialogue. Of course, actual dance scripts (that is, story without choreography) are hard to come by. The closest I've come is a scenario for "A Streetcar Named Desire" that I found online. Even looking at that, I got confused because it simply read as extended stage directions.

Here is where I'm glad I'm in New York: New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Let all of us bookworms release an infatuated sigh.

Now that the little hearts have stopped floating around my head, let's get back to the business at hand.

As a writer, I like looking at creating my pieces from the performer's angle. They are, ultimately, the ones who have to make sense of the things I put on paper. They are the ones turning text into performance. So, it behooves me to understand what they're looking for and to give them something to do. My intuition says that actors will love the freedom a movement piece gives them to co-create (rather than interpret) the characters. But it's really hard to write for in a way they can use if you don't know what to go for. If it's too vague, they have no direction. If it's too specific, they're straight-jacketed by my words.

What I needed was a blueprint, a template, a starting point.

Enter A Map of Making Dances by Stuart Hodes.

If you can get your hands on it, do so. There is a diamond mine of ideas and inspiration for developing a story without words. Just looking at how dancers - and, by extension, actors - approach something as simple as walking gives me so much hope and inspiration for what I'm working on now.

I've used the exercises in the book as a springboard for exercises of my own, especially with writing.

The exercises I've developed start with basic movements and progress to more complex events. Each of them sort of builds on the previosu ones, so it's easy to create a very complicated scene using relatively simple movements.

For each of the exercises, I'm limiting myself to 3 to 5 sentences or phrases. This is for two reasons: to take advantage of the fragmented imagery I have for the piece and to maintain a kind of elegance when describing movement. As I complete rewrites, I can add more layers to things as I see fit. But not in the Getting It On Paper stage.

I'll talk about the actual exercises in future posts (feel free to try them) and maybe give examples.


  1. Also see (though you probably already have) Samuel Beckett's Act Without Words.

  2. Thanks for your post. I found it really insightful on exactly the challenge I'm currently dealing with.

    I'm definitely going to check out A Map of Making Dances and I can't wait for more posts on your progress.

    Thanks, Gordon

  3. One of my earliest experiences with this blog was trying to do one of your exercises. Now here I am, back where this adventure started.