Toward the end of the 14th century, English poet Geoffrey Chaucer penned a collection of stories called The Canterbury Tales.
The tellers of these lyrical adventures of romance, chivalry, murder, misfortune and ribald mischief were strangers that had been brought together by a common goal – to fulfill a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Whosoever was deemed at journey’s end to have spun the best story for his or her companions would be rewarded with the promise of a free meal at Southwark’s Tabard Inn on the way home. This classic Medieval road trip is the basis for this month’s exercises to get you thinking about character motivations, interactions, and expectations.
These discussion questions provide a good foundation prior to choosing which exercises to try first.
1. When was the last time you went on a field trip for school? Where did you go? How long was the ride? What did you and your peers do to pass the time? What were your expectations about the destination? Were those expectations met or were you disappointed? Why?
2. Pilgrimages are typically associated with journeys to religious sites that have special significance relative to an individual’s chosen faith. A pilgrimage, however, can also be a metaphorical quest to re-examine one’s values, reconnect with nature, focus on physical, emotional or spiritual healing, or be inspired by those who raised the bar that others might pursue similar dreams. Identify three places that meet your personal definition of a pilgrimage and whether you would want to go there by yourself or with a group of kindred spirits.
3. If you were a member of The Canterbury Tales contingent, what story would you tell to entertain your fellow travelers?
JANE AUSTEN AT GRACELAND
With her fictional characters now happily paired off and settling into blissful domesticity among the landed gentry, Jane Austen is totally bored and looking for an amusing diversion to shake things up a bit. What better solution than a transatlantic junket to Elvis’ Graceland, a Memphis mansion that attracts almost half a million visitors per year. The invitations are already in the mail to Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), Emma (Emma), Catherine (Northanger Abbey), Colonel Brandon (Sense and Sensibility), Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and Mr. Knightley (Emma).
Your assignment: During the mansion tour, each of these six characters wanders off and has an unexpected encounter with the late King of Rock and Roll. On the voyage back to England, they decide to share their respective stories in 100 words or less. For the first part of this assignment, write each of these as stand-alone monologues with distinctive vocal variations. For the second part, write a two page scene in which the character of your choice is telling his/her story but keeps getting interrupted by everyone else.
MANOLO BLAHNIKS AT MACHU PICCHU
Rising high above a tropical mountain forest stands a formidable Incan icon called Machu Picchu. At almost 8,000 feet above sea level, this archaeological ruin commands a breathtaking view and is one of the most revered and mystical attractions in South America. Traipsing the rugged terrain in four-inch designer heels, however, is probably not the smartest idea. Oh, and it also looks like it going to start raining. A lot.
Your assignment: Vexed that the fashion models who work for him are constantly fighting, gossiping and back-stabbing, the publisher of a magazine decides that a radical team-building exercise is in order. On the pretense of doing a glam photo shoot against Machu Picchu’s exotic backdrop at dusk, he takes them to the site, unloads a box of snacks and supplies, and – after removing the batteries from their cell phones - slips away before the bickering models even notice that he’s gone. Write a three-page scene in which the models first realize they’re stranded and have only one another for company.
TOAST OF THE TOWN
The quaint village of LintaMcDeegleladelle is suffering from an identity crisis; specifically, the rest of the world doesn’t even know it exists. To add insult to injury, the nearby village of Flossybossydonegalmay has brought squillions of tourists to its doorstep by producing a parsnip that uncannily resembles Mick Jagger. Something clearly has to be done to give LintaMcDeegleladelle a higher profile, but what?
Your assignment: The young protagonist of your film sits down for the usual breakfast of porridge and toast. S/he suddenly does a double-take, astounded to see something unusual reflected in the thin spread of butter. Write a one page movie synopsis (any genre) in which you identify what s/he saw, who s/he tells, and how the discovery not only changes his/her family but the effect it has on the village as well.
It has always been said that you can’t choose your family. Nor, it seems, do you have much choice in who to share a ride with, either, especially if you have to get from Point A to Point B in a hurry and you’re light on cash.
Your assignment: Joey, the protagonist of your story, has to get from Boston out to California before the start of his first semester at college. In response to an ad he puts in the newspaper, the owner of a van offers to drive him but indicates that three other people will be joining them, each with secret agendas and no shortage of emotional baggage. Write a two-page film treatment (any genre) in which you reveal each of the character’s back-stories (including that of the driver) and if/how they are transformed by the end of the trip.
WAITING FOR MORNING
Pressing a button multiple times will not make a street light change faster nor bring an elevator more quickly to your floor. Likewise, scrambling to get in line or camping overnight on a chilly sidewalk won’t make the doors of a computer store, convention center or movie theater open any earlier or cause a parade to start ahead of schedule just because there’s a crowd. And yet, inextricably, people continue to aggressively queue up, only to wait and wait and then wait some more.
Your assignment: It’s just after midnight and thousands of people are camping on the sidewalk at an unspecified locale. Unable to sleep, three characters from diverse backgrounds and regions proceed to introduce themselves and express their emotions about how they anticipate their lives could be changed forever as a result of the experience that has brought them here. Write a four page dialogue scene, the only rule being that at no time during this exchange can any of them reveal what the event actually is. As a challenge for your classmates, invite them to put forth their best guesses based on the characters’ explanations as to why they are there and the sacrifices they have made not to miss it.
As part of my ongoing commitment to supply great lesson plans for today’s classrooms, I always enjoy getting feedback on how the material is used and what kind of new content you’d like to see in future columns. I’m also happy to answer any questions related to specific problems your students may be struggling with. Just drop me a note at or through my website at http://www.authorhamlett.com.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, professional script consultant, and ghostwriter. Her credits to date include 26 books, 144 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.