Lily Shrayfer ’18 really needs Ayelet Shrek ’17 to leave. Shrek, shifting back and forth uncomfortably in her chair as Shrayfer stares past her, keeps gradually working up the courage to confess something important to her roommate and friend. 

For a friend, though, Shrayfer is pretty disinterested. “Ah, man!” She starts.  “You know, you’ve just had a busy day, and you don’t want to hear people’s [expletive]?! Like, crazy, someone, came up to me today and was like ‘I’ve got to talk about my feelings, and my father…’ I’m thinking, like, ‘get out of my face!’

As Shrayfer crosses back, Shrek looks down. “I feel like that was kind of passive-aggressive to me,” she mumbles. “Was it?” Shrayfer says with mock-surprise. “No, no!”

It’s at this point that Nina Louise Morrison, a Boston-based playwright and teacher, calls for the two actresses to stop the scene. The two were performing as part of an open workshop with Morrison, hosted by the Brandeis Association of Rising Dramatists, a collaborative playwriting club, on Saturday. 

The two performers were using long-form improvisation to demonstrate one of the fundamental aspects of good theater — conflict. When Morrison gave Shrayfer a clear objective (get Shrek out of the room) and Shrek a clear objective (tell Shrayfer what’s bothering you), Morrison had asked the two actresses to make a scene where neither can accomplish their goal without the other one failing to do so. While there are any number of ways that the scene could have resolved itself, the reason it was interesting for the audience was because their goals jutted against each other. “Plays are about motivation,” Morrison told the audience. “Someone wanting something and doing something to go after what they want.”

This was just one piece of advice that Morrison gave at the open workshop. Morrison teaches playwriting at the University of New Hampshire and GrubCenter, a creative writing center in Boston. She is also associated with Project: Project, a troupe that combines scripted storytelling with improvisation to collaboratively generate theater. Morrison began as an actor in college, but upon graduating, decided that she “wanted to write things that didn’t exist yet, particularly different types of parts for women, different types of stories for women, but also for everyone who I felt is marginalized by the way we tell stories, who are excluded or tokenized, villainized, misrepresented,” Morrison said. 

At the workshop, Morrison guided BARD members through three long-form improvisational scenes, and pointed out how they naturally used the different tactics and unspoken rules of communicating that lead to great written dialogue. When Shrayfer began complaining about people asking her to listen to their problems, Morrison noted that Shrayfer hinted at what she wanted without directly stating it, an example of the old writer’s adage to “show, don’t tell.” 

Later, Shrayfer contrasted a scene between two men in an elevator with a scene between two sisters on an awkward coffee date. She described the first as a “low-context scene” and the second as a “high-context scene,” and pointed out that the more that people know about each other when they start a conversation, the less they explain to the other person when speaking. For writers, this has pros and cons: on one hand, a high-context scene will often be more exciting and visceral, but it can also be more confusing for a viewer who does not know these characters as well as they know each other.  

To Morrison, writing comes in equal parts from observing the world around her and making observations about herself. She emphasized that the most powerful thing that theater can do is generate empathy, and this requires writers to be specific.

 “Empathy is in the details. The things that I always find to feel really honest and true are things that are really specific.” 

Above all, Morrison told the playwrights not to be self-conscious about their work or compare it to anyone else’s finished work in their minds. “A big part of writing,” she said, “is delaying that editing brain as much as you possibly can. Breathing and allowing yourself to just make stuff. Make stuff really messy and bold and without overthinking it as much as you possibly can.”