The interrupted ritual. Create a ritual between two or more characters and then find something that disturbs or interrupts or destroys the ritual. Rituals can be as simple as two people meeting for lunch every Wednesday to a highly stylized religious ceremony - like a wedding or funeral. This could become a play but could also just give you the framework for an important scene in a new play.
A character tells you the story. If you have a play idea already, but aren't sure what the play is about yet, take one of the characters you think you know the least about and have them (perhaps in monologue form or journal entry form) tell you the story of the play you are writing from their perspective. Try and make it opinionated, they can even comment on the action, maybe predict what could have been different, or reveal their blindspots, etc. This also works with a main character you are struggling to understand. This might not be a play but it can tell you a lot about the characters when you are done - you also might get a terrific monologue out of it.
The 10 year cycle. I have a couple versions of this exercise. It can really make for an interesting way to look at characters. Create a character (or pull one from a play idea) and then write four to six (1-4 page) scenes from their life. But between every scene needs to be at least 10 years of their life. For example: Marcus when he is 10 playing with his best friend. The next scene is Marcus when he is 20 arguing with his girlfriend who is leaving him to go to college. Next we see Marcus when he is 30 interviewing for a job. Then Marcus when he is 40 at his mother's funeral. Finally we see Marcus when he is 50 meeting his estranged daughter for the first time. You set up the situation of each scene - just spread them 10 years apart. The other way to go with this exercise is to choose TWO characters and we see how they remain connected throughout their lives in 4-6 scenes together. This could just be an exercise to get to know a character as background information, it could be a scene for the play, or it could become the play.
There you go. If you find yourself slammed against the wall of writer's block, or just not knowing where to go with a play, or which idea you should put the effort into - I would put your characters and plays through this exercise program! It may be your next play. What are your favorite exercises? I would love to publish them here.
*The image of Marcus is a computer generated image which is from a website that creates headshots of people that don't exist.