Ruth E. Walker
Recently, a writing colleague asked for my help. She was excited about an upcoming playwriting opportunity. My friend is a gifted emerging writer. And she enjoys theatre productions. She knew I’d written a few plays and had some of them produced, so she asked for advice.
The following is based on some of that advice. And, of course, I offer it with the proviso that I am not a full-time playwright. It’s one of the forms I’ve explored and learned from — and will expect to continue to learn from in the years ahead. So here’s just a few points to ponder when thinking about writing a play.
Just actors talking, right?
Think “poetry” when you are writing a play. A poem is an economy of language that expresses far more that the words on the page. Less is more. White space is as loud as a sentence. Meaning builds, word by word, until the end is reached and you return to the beginning with a new understanding.
A play operates in a similar manner.
Not one word wasted. Not one word that doesn’t build on the next and combine to offer layers, possibilities, surprises. And here’s the most important word in that last sentence. Offers. An excellent play offers directors, actors and set, costume, sound and lighting designers room. Room to be creative. To interpret. To “play” with the words. To develop their own vision of what those words can create on the stage.
Consider Come From Away, the international smash hit born out of the sacrifice and kindness of remote Gander, Newfoundland in caring for planeloads of strangers during the 9/11 crisis. The dialogue in that fast-paced musical took the actual words of residents and 7,000 passengers to build a compelling human drama. Was it every word from every interview? Nope. Just a very few that left room for a minimalist stage to support a talented troupe of actors playing multiple roles.
Brilliant. I’d see it again if I could get tickets.
Pay attention to the classics
I still remember seeing Anton Chekhov‘s The Cherry Orchard many years ago. A “simple family drama” with light comedic twists becomes an critical examination of the classes. It is profound. It is also a lot of talk, talk and more talk. And there is repetition. Has Lopakhin, the former peasant now merchant, proposed to the now impoverished family’s adopted daughter, Varya? How can the family’s beloved estate, especially the cherry orchard, be saved?
Repetition is deadly. Except when it matters. And in this play, the repetition underscores the lack of will and clear thinking that defeats the formerly wealthy family. Along the way, it builds a tension in the audience. In our heads, we’re yelling at the fools on the stage. And powerless to do anything but watch the progress of social change.
Remember the smoking gun
Chekhov’s quote is often paraphrased in writing classes.
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
He takes this approach in his plays as well. When you read them, his scripts can appear dense with heavy monologues. But look closer. Give your imagination room to see the bigger picture that Chekhov’s developing.
The Bard in the 21st Century
Many of William Shakespeare‘s plays, on the other hand, are full of fast-paced intrigue, action and character complexities. Swordfights, battlefields and royal processions are on stage. No wonder over 420 films have explored The Bard’s greatest plays. But check out some of the intimate stage productions at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. Minimalist staging makes for modern connections.
Durham Region-born Driftwood Theatre Group revels in non-traditional outdoor settings as they travel throughout southern Ontario. Remarkably, they can recreate Verona in a barnyard or Venice in an urban park. And show audiences that Shakespeare is as relevant today as he was centuries ago.
From the darkest of hearts to innocent-sweet, Shakespeare’s characters talk, talk, talk. But, like Chekhov, Shakespeare gives room throughout his dialogue for contemporary directors and actors to imagine something remarkable: a way to bring classical theatre to modern audiences.
Quick Tips for modern playwrights
- Limit your stage direction only to what is integral to the play’s meaning and plot
- Create characters that represent your themes and fit the plot
- A play is not a movie script — there are no camera angles or editing rooms, just the stage
- Start in action; scene by scene, keep upping the stakes
- Read aloud for timing
- Challenge yourself — go for the unexpected and inspire your muse
Here are some resources you might find useful as you hone your playwrighting craft:
An article in The Guardian is ostensibly about technical aspects but there are subtle, important bits there about expectations.
Playwright/screenwriter Jonathan Dorf has some basic tips designed for kids, but truly useful for any age and they’re not just about format.
And the Playwrights Centre has great tips based on scripts they’ve had submitted. Learn how to get directors and producers interested in reading your work.
DID YOU KNOW
William Shakespeare’s birth date is presumed to be April 23, three days before his baptism on April 26, 1564. Coincidentally, that’s the same date as the day he died, April 23, 1616. He wrote 14 comedies, 11 histories, 12 tragedies and hundreds of poems. His work continues to be studied in thousands of schools, colleges and universities. His plays have been translated into many languages, including French, German, Punjabi, Welsh, Polish, Catalan, Danish, Tagalog and Latin, and are produced worldwide.
Not bad for 52 years on this planet.