Writing the Biodrama
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Writing the Biodrama

Transforming Real Lives into Drama for Screen and Stage

Tee O'Neill

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eBook - ePub

Writing the Biodrama

Transforming Real Lives into Drama for Screen and Stage

Tee O'Neill

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About This Book

Plays and films based on real people have entertained and enlightened audiences for centuries. Biodramas, in high demand, are among the most profitable genres for stage and screen today. And yet, until now, there has been a dearth of books designed to guide playwrights and screenwriters through the process of writing a successful biodrama.

Writing the Biodrama, by award-winning and internationally acclaimed bio-dramatist Dr. Tee O'Neill, fills that void. Dr. O'Neill offers a thoughtful, artfully written, practical, and academically rich book designed to equip writers to grow in the craft of biodrama writing.

All scripts are difficult to write, but writing about real people creates unique challenges. This book is designed to help writers overcome those challenges. By reading this book, writers will:

  • Uncover the human traits that make biodramas powerful and popular
  • Discover insights from renowned bio-dramatists, such as Peter Morgan and José Rivera, all interviewed by Dr. O'Neill
  • Learn how to select a real person as a subject for a play or film
  • Explore the dynamics of research: where to start, what to look for, and when to stop
  • Practice Dr. O'Neill's biodrama principles with enjoyable exercises designed to inspire creativity

The book offers readers a holistic view of the entire creative process of writing a biodrama. Designed for accomplished screen and stage writers as well as new writers, this book is invaluable for anyone who hopes to transform a true story into a beautiful drama for stage or screen.

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Chapter 6
Character Development
The allure of a biodrama depends in part on the charm of the characters, the people who are vividly created in the script and then performed by actors. Many of the most successful biodramas are insightful character studies.
A strong character study requires the bio-dramatist to develop a deep connection with his or her subject. While writing Barassi, I realized that I had unearthed a connection between his inner personality and mine. Since then, I’ve learned that writers often become interested in characters who, at some profound level, are like them.
Barassi was one of the first television sports stars in Australia. I grew up watching him. So, it was a special moment when, as a young, suburban girl, I had the chance to see him in person. It was the mid-1970s and I was about eight or nine. I had attended a finals match during which my team, Richmond, was playing against North Melbourne, the team coached by Barassi.
In those days, the coach would give halftime advice to the players on the field, not in a locker room. Spectators sitting close enough could hear almost everything. On this mild winter’s day, I witnessed Barassi storm angrily onto the field and give his North Melbourne players what is commonly described in Australia as a “spray.” I had never been so close to a screaming man (who was not drunk). Barassi’s voice, flamboyant dress, and fierce intensity made me feel an excitement I had never felt before. I saw that he cared deeply for his team and the sport. The advice he gave his players that day stayed with me.
Infusing his “spray” with passion, he demanded his players to stay in the moment, reminding them that a football game could change at any time. He told them to be ready to change with the game. Richmond was winning at halftime, but after Barassi’s talk, North Melbourne went on to win the match.
As we caught the train home after the game, my brothers noticed how happy I was—even though my team had lost. They didn’t know that I had been deeply inspired by the great motivator, Barassi.
Several decades later, I wondered if that speech had contributed to my decision to pursue a career in theater. In that intense world, every situation can be different and every show can change from one moment to the next. So, as I wrote Barassi, I realized what other bio-dramatists have discovered: a resonance between writer and subject. My early experience as a girl, when I watched Barassi on the field was, in a way, a theatrical one.
However, as a writer, I had to shed my simplistic, childish views of Barassi. As a coach, he would often use language such as, “You’re playing like a girl” to humiliate his players. The language reflected a time in which accusing players of femininity was a severe sanction. Barassi’s biographer, Peter Lalor, noted that Barassi once screamed at a young working-class man, commanding him to improve at football or “he would be nothing more than a shit plumber” (Lalor, 2010). On several occasions, Barassi shoved players violently into lockers and brick walls. Video footage shows that Barassi had a bad temper. I was drawn to Barassi for his better qualities, but I had to be careful not to present a revisionist view of his less palatable traits. I could not retroactively correct his non-progressive outlook, which he, along with the times, might have outgrown.
I also had to look at my own negative traits and come to terms with my volatile youth. I too had used bullying tactics on my mother and some of my friends to get what I wanted. I used those same traits to be successful in scriptwriting, which required a lot of determination, single-mindedness, and ambition. Some things I regret.
My experience is likely to be yours. You will probably find yourself developing an “imagined relationship” with your subject. Writing a biodrama can feel like your subject is always on your shoulder, hopefully urging you on. Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, described his fictional stage characters not as actors in a drama, but as acquaintances. In the first draft, they were like strangers on a train. In the second, they were people he had known for a few weeks at a spa. By the last draft, “they [were] my intimate friends, they will not disappoint me, I shall always see them as I do now” (Edgar, 2009).
When writing about a real person, however, the journey to intimacy with that character takes place concurrently with research, conceptualization, and writing. This process feels less like inventing your subject and more like absorbing the subject. As Motti Lerner said, “I feel him in my heart. I feel him in my body.” After months of work, you, like Ibsen, might eventually feel as though you intimately know your subject. The challenge for bio-dramatists, however, is to enable your audience to know the subject in an equally intimate way within a mere two or three hours.
This chapter focuses on how to portray and reveal aspects of your subject’s deepest motivations, actions, and thoughts. Don’t be surprised if you happen to see yourself in what you portray. If so, use that connection to your advantage. It will increase the power and authenticity of your script.
Characters and Dramatic Action
The true nature of a character is revealed by how he or she acts under pressure. There are three levels of dramatic action that your character may be exposed to: person against self, person against another character, and person against nature or society.
The first is internal conflict. The conflict might come from shyness, severe impatience, or an overly generous nature. Your subject might have an addiction. Perhaps your character is in a situation that results in cognitive dissonance. For example, Truman Capote in Capote (2005) was a successful writer who based his first nonfiction book on a killer with a similar upbringing. Capote had to fight feelings of love, empathy, and pity for a killer who had committed a horrific crime. And yet, to publish a bestseller, Capote had to write a strong ending, which required the execution of the killer.
The second is external conflict. In this case, your character might fight family members, lovers, or work colleagues. External conflict can emerge from those who try to prevent the subject from getting what she or he wanted. An example is Helen Keller’s half-brother James in The Miracle Worker (1960). He adamantly asserts that there is no point to teaching Helen how to write, creating intense conflict with her and those who support her.
The third is extra-personal conflict. In this case, your character might fight sexism, racism, government departments, forces of nature, or institutions. Mahatma Gandhi in Gandhi freed his country from British rule. Erin, in Erin Brokovich (1983), successfully sued an energy corporation. Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List (2000) saved over a thousand Jews from the Nazi regime. Peter Arnott’s central character in White Rose struggled against rampant sexism as she fought against Fascism. In Ride Like a Girl (2019), jockey Michelle Payne fought her father, industry sexism, and her health problems to become the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup.
As discussed earlier, a writer can’t fully understand or portray everything about a person. People are too mysterious and complex, and research will never be complete. So, I next offer some ways to select the most dramatic aspects of your subject. Then I provide some ideas for how to reveal your subject’s character in captivating ways.
What to Portray about a Subject
Let’s first look at some vital aspects of a subject’s character that work well in biodramas.
Compelling Motivations
In all forms of drama, characters are revealed by what they do (or did). Bio-dramatists gather facts about the subject’s actions and then shape those deeds into a series of escalating dramatic scenes. Audiences want to slip into the character’s skin and experi...

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