18 February 2016

How to Write a Play

by Kirk Woodward

[As frequent readers of ROT will know, my friend Kirk Woodward, who contributes often to this blog, is a multi-tasking theater talent.  He’s an experienced actor and director, he composes music and writes lyrics, he’s written reviews and criticism, and he teaches acting.  When Kirk sent me “How to Write a Play,” I noted that I’d already published his advice on directing (“Reflections On Directing” – four parts on 11, 14, 17, and 20 April 2013) and my commentary on his book The Art of Writing Reviews (another four-parter on 4, 8, 11, and 14 November 2009).  But principally, Kirk’s a playwright, as you can tell from his website, Spiceplays (http://spiceplays.com/).  If you check out Spiceplays, you‘ll see that Kirk writes many different sorts of plays for both adult audiences and for children and, if my word means anything, they’re delightful, surprising, charming, and exceptional.  If Kirk knows something about reviewing and directing from his years of experience, he knows even more about writing plays, straight plays and musicals, mysteries and comedies, children’s plays, religious plays, and adaptations of classics.  He’s also wise enough (or, perhaps careful enough) to know that any advice about something as individual as writing a play may be one man’s meat but another’s poison—and he says so.  That’s no reason, of course, not to listen to it and make your own judgment.  Furthermore, Kirk points out that most how-to guides for writing plays are really advice about reading plays.  Since that’s so, what he says here is useful for those of us who aren’t playwrights but avid playgoers.  Give “How to Write a Play” a read and see if it ain’t so.]

Have you ever written a play? If not, do you want to? Do you have an idea – maybe it’s just a fleeting thought or a fragment of an idea, or maybe an incident or even a full story – that you think would make a good play?

The effort to lay out principles for writing a play has led a large number of people to write articles and books on the subject. When I began writing this article, a  Google search provided over eight hundred million hits on the subject (and its related theme, writing screenplays); by the time the article was finished, Google listed over nine hundred million hits. Amazon lists dozens of similar books.

Some of this information is specialized. There are numerous pieces of advice on the web about playwriting for students and beginning writers, for writers of plays for children, and for writers for the deaf and disabled. Some of this information available is undoubtedly useful – basically, the more specific, the better.

However, it’s easy to see that behind much of the guidance being offered is the hope that by taking the proper advice you will be able to write a play that goes somewhere – that is successful, important, or in some other way worth noticing.

So before diving in to the various categories of playwriting advice, here is a general observation: Much that’s written about playwriting is actually about play reading.

The reason for this observation is simple and logical. A formula will never create important works of art. But by looking at such works, one can see commonalities in them. (A book about reading plays that I highly recommend, as useful for playwrights as anything else, is Backwards & Forwards by David Ball, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.)

But listing commonalities will only go so far. Do you really want to write a play that someone else has written? For money, maybe – but if so, good luck! It’s certainly possible to get rich by writing a successful play; it’s also possible to get rich by winning the lottery, and the odds aren’t all that different.

And what is a playwright’s aim, anyway? Art or money? Success or creativity? Surely, both; but there’s no sense trying to write the plays of Neil Simon, because he’s already written them. Why write somebody else’s play? There may be a play in you that’s more interesting to you, and maybe even to others.

(Unless, again, your focus is entirely on a commercial market, and you treat a play as purely a marketable commodity. Like much else about theater, this has been successfully done, but it may not be as easy as it sounds, unless you have a specific talent in that direction.)

One can certainly learn a lot about plays from reading Simon’s works; the man knows his business. But at some point a writer has to write.

Nowadays, many playwriting guides recommend writing plays with very small cast and set requirements. A two character play, with one chair, the idea seems to be, would be ideal, if you can just write a great play within those limits, and why not?

The thinking behind such advice is easy to follow: plays are expensive to put on stage, so the less they cost, the more likely they are to be produced.

In the 1930’s, when George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote their great comedies, a cast of twenty on Broadway, with multiple sets, was financially feasible. (I’m thinking of Once in a Lifetime, first performed in 1930.)

Today even musicals try to keep their cast sizes down.  Theaters that don’t pay their actors – university and community theaters, in particular – don’t face those restrictions, but may have their own limitations – for example, they may only want to perform Broadway hits.

Current practice suggests shrinking the length of the script, as well as size of the cast and the complexity of the set. In 1930, plays routinely had three acts, with two intermissions. (Shakespeare’s plays, of course, are divided into five acts, but those are editors’ decisions, not necessarily Shakespeare’s; we don’t really know when his audiences took their breaks.)

But today, as Linda Winer points out in an article entitled “Farewell to the two act play” in Newsday, playwrights in the second half of the Twentieth Century typically wrote in the two-act form. By the time she wrote her article (21 Nov 2010), however, even that one intermission was disappearing, with more and more plays lasting only eighty or ninety minutes, with no break at all!

(Does that make those plays long one-acts, or short full length plays? An existential question!)

So, gone are the days when Eugene O’Neill could write Strange Interlude (written in 1923, first performed in 1928) in seven acts, leading Alfred Lunt, whose wife Lynn Fontanne was in the play, to remark that if O’Neill had written just two more acts, Lunt could have sued his wife for desertion. . . .

Or are those days gone? The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby, a success in England and on Broadway in 1980, took 8½ hours to perform in two parts, the first with two acts, the second with three. The next multi-set, large cast play that everyone wants to see could be written at any moment – not necessarily will be, but could be.

As Philip Pullman said of the Harry Potter series of books: before it was written, no one was saying, “I wish someone would write a seven book series about a boy wizard and his adventures in school.” After J. K. Rowling wrote the books, of course, everyone said the thing was obvious.

So, in today’s theater, one of our outstanding playwrights is Tony Kushner (b. 1956), whose Angels in America (1993), in two parts with multiple acts in each, with a minimum cast of eight (including much doubling of roles) and multiple locations, if not sets, has won numerous awards, achieved a series of successful runs, and provided HBO with a memorable broadcast version.

Tony Kushner shows no inclination to follow the current advice about the size and complexity of plays. He has written the play(s) he felt he had to write. What’s more, he has succeeded artistically and financially, and that, of course, is the hard part. A mediocre large play is no better than a mediocre small one.

But how to write at Tony Kushner’s level will not be learned from books. Angels in America is not based on any published principle of playwriting, except perhaps the “rule” that says a play must be worth something.

Imagine, now, that you are reading a treatise called How to Write a Play in ancient Greece. You would read about the necessity for a chorus, three characters, elevated language, unities of time and place. (Some feel that such a guide exists, written by Aristotle: The Poetics.)

However, if articles were written on the same subject in the comic Roman writer Plautus’s time (254-184 BC), they would have had a different slant – and Seneca (4 BC-AD 65), who wrote tragedies, would undoubtedly have objected to them.

Medieval drama playwriting advice would have had chapters on Mystery, Miracle, and Morality plays, which we don’t see a good deal of today. The Elizabethans in their handbooks on playwriting would have laughed at medieval limits. The Restoration would have had new definitions of what to laugh at. Brecht and Beckett would have rewritten everything (Brecht did his best).

This excursion into playwriting advice isn’t entirely imaginary – people in many periods have tried to define what a play should be. Then someone has demonstrated a new approach, and the “rules” have changed. Shakespeare owed a great deal to medieval theater; but he didn’t stop there. The moral should be clear: artists don’t achieve important work by looking backwards. The principle for writing a play is to have a play inside you that has to be written.

So: here’s how to write a play. Go to your word processing program, on whatever platform you choose, or, if you feel more comfortable with an alternate method, take pen or pencil and paper, or even use a typewriter if you can find one. Begin writing, and write until you have a play. Then stop.

That’s step one. If you are satisfied with having written a play, and feel no need for further satisfaction, then you’re finished and you’ve succeeded. You’ve written a play! If however like many you feel the need to have your play produced, you will want to begin show it around and try to get other people to read it.

You will soon learn – hopefully but not necessarily to your delight – whether other people think you’ve written a play. As the Duke of Wellington said, “Publish and be damned.” Or not. Theater, as is often said, is a collaborative art. So yours will not be the only voice involved in the production of your play. But it has to be the first voice, not the second or third.

My advice in playwriting classes is: just write. Write it before you worry about it. Playwrights write (or “wright” – fashion, make) plays, so write one. Nothing else – editing, formatting, printing, circulating, marketing, weeping, applauding – can happen until the play is written. Get it written. First things first.

A hundred fifty years or so ago, this advice would not have been considered sufficient, but then a century ago it was generally assumed that successful plays were written according to certain principles that were – and usually still are – based on the idea of a realistic theater.

(For an entertaining view of the accepted principles of playwriting of that time, see the 1909 essay “How to Write a Popular Play” by George Bernard Shaw, available on the web.)

Today we have the examples of Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco, Caryl Churchill, and many others to remind us that the realistic model of a play is by no means the only option. It works brilliantly for Neil Simon and what he wants to say; it may not work at all well for you.

So don’t write based on any principles at all, at least not consciously. If you have an idea, good or bad, follow it to its logical conclusion. Don’t even assume that it may end up as a play. It may end up as a screenplay, a novel, a short story, a haiku, or a crumpled piece of paper. First, write.

It is however worth noting that, although the first thought brought to mind by the topic “How to Write a Play” probably isn’t formatting, once you’ve written your play, if you want to have it produced, you’re going to have to show it to other people, so it will help for it to be readable. It will help even more for it to have a professional looking format, the same way that a business resume does more good if it looks professional.

Also like resume formats, few recommended playscript formats are exactly alike. But if your script is readable and looks like a play – as opposed to, say, a screenplay, which has a radically different layout – you may be okay. A Google search of “playscript formats” will turn up plenty of samples. The publishing company Samuel French, Inc. also can provide its preferred format in a play amusingly titled “Guidelines” by Sam French.

As you circulate your play, one thing you may learn is that many play readers have no idea how to read it.

There are many possible reasons for this fact. Sometimes the readers are business people rather than artists. Sometimes the readers are theater beginners, interns, students, relatives, or other well-meaning folk assigned to the job of evaluating scripts, often when they would much rather be doing something else.  Agents are crucial to the process of Broadway production; few if any have a dramaturg on staff.

More than one author, therefore, recommends putting massive amounts of description within stage directions in plays, so the most unimaginative reader can get some idea of what it is they’re reading. This advice will not help you write an important play; but it may help you get it read by somebody.

You have undoubtedly heard the saying, “Plays aren’t written, they’re rewritten.” Translated, this means: “Many people will want to rewrite your play.” They will. You will particularly discover this if your play receives a “workshop” production, in which an audience watches a reading, a semi-staged reading, or a fully staged reading of your play, and afterwards tells you how you ought to have written it.

At this point a playwright must be very, very careful. Other people’s opinions are valuable if they point out places where your intentions are unclear, or where they are clear but not fully carried out. But you wrote the play, and they didn’t; if they could have, they would have. Comments like “I’d like it better if it had a happy ending” or even “It’s too long, my attention wandered” have to be taken with a grain of salt.

A theater may offer to produce your play only on the basis that you make the rewrites it demands. In that case, obviously, you have a choice to make. You will be on slightly firmer ground if you have joined the Dramatists Guild, which I highly recommend (you don’t have to be a produced playwright to join), and you can have the Guild review the contract the theater offers you.

The Dramatists Guild insists that the playwright is the owner of the play, and has the right to approve or reject any changes. After that it’s a matter of negotiation, of course. When in the middle of those discussions, try to remember what your play was about in the first place.

Needless to say, the advice to “write as you are guided by the play within you” is not sufficient for the authors of articles and books on the subject, so following is a brief survey of what has been said. Just bear in mind that “principles of playwriting” (and of everything else) are there to be violated. No one should read this or any piece on the subject and assume that following rules will make a good play.

If that worked, there would be plenty of good plays, and there aren’t. There are some, but the heyday of principles of playwriting (I’m thinking of the era of the “well-made play,” the Nineteenth Century) was hardly the golden age of theater.

On the other hand, what if there is some underlying structure, or mainspring, or spirit, that’s necessary in order for a play to “work?” We should keep that question in mind. But the quest is inductive – as the dictionary says, “characterized by the inference of general laws from particular instances.” Or, as I have already phrased it, most that’s written about playwriting is actually drawing conclusions based on play reading.

There is a fairly basic consensus about what a play is. Jiwon Chung and Mariana Leal Ferreira [in an article on the web: “Give Wings to Your Imagination and Change the World: Write and Perform Your Own Play!” Chapter 3 of Acting for Indigenous Rights: Theatre to Change the World by Mariana Leal Ferreira (Human Rights Center, University of Minnesota, 2013; http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/edumat/hreduseries/TB7/Chapter%203%20P15-P28.pdf) put it this way:

The basic process is to create an engaging story from an idea that involves an encounter
and a conflict of wills. This story is told through a sequence of physical and emotional actions. . . .

Their definition is wide enough to include a wide variety of dramatic works – any play that begins with a conflict and develops that conflict through action. It is difficult to think of plays that do not fit this general formula in some way.

However, the problem is that the formula is general. (Chung and Ferreria, for example, employ it in terms of politically oriented theater.) What sort of conflict, what sort of action? A definition of this sort has the advantage of ruling out a number of things a play is not – it is not a lyric of appreciation, not a novelistic description, not a series of abstract movements. But the definition is hardly a recipe.

A survey of the literature on “how to write a play” shows that a great deal of what’s said is basically negative. In other words, much advice on how to write a play is really advice on how not to make mistakes in writing one – even when the advice is phrased positively.

For example, “Write small” – advice that I mentioned above – means “Don’t use so many characters or scenes that they scare producers.” “Know your characters” means “Don’t start writing without knowing who your characters are.” “Tell your story through action” means “Don’t just hand the audience big clumps of information, but work them into the scene.”

Some advice is flat-out negative: Don’t overload your play with plot or ideas. Don’t preach to your audience. Don’t use a narrator unless you absolutely have to. Don’t write scenes that are impossible to stage. Note, though, that all these suggestions have been broken by one worthwhile play or another (in order: The Way of the World; several plays by Brecht; Our Town; Suzan-Lori Parks’ play cycle 365 Days/365 Plays).

Here are some other gleanings from the web. Just remember that each one could be followed by the words “or not.”

Have an idea.
Start with a situation.
Start with an action.
Start with characters.
Write profiles of your characters before you write the play, so you know them.
Say something about humanity.
Have actors read your play out loud.
See lots of plays and read them.
Think of a main character.
Think of a conflict.
Figure out where the play should start.
Do lots of rewriting.
Have a setting.
Figure out the psychological story behind the play.
Act, so you know how actors work.
Design, so you know how designers work.
Direct, so you know how directors work.
If the story changes somehow, let it. Or don’t.
Write scenes that go somewhere.
“Kill your darlings” – if you’ve written a passage you particularly like, take it out.
Write dialogue that sounds like the characters do (individually).
Make your characters real people.
Make the story cause and effect.
Give your protagonist a strong cause. Make your antagonist a strong obstacle.
Write characters that actors (especially big name actors) will want to play.
Show it, don’t tell it.
Have time urgency.
Write by yourself.
Write with others.
Start with a familiar story.
Start with your own inspiration and build your story.
Absorb ideas, images, words, then let the story emerge.
Find out “what’s wrong” – what problem the main character must solve or try to solve.
Put yourself inside the characters’ minds.
Write characters that people can relate to.
Playwriting is rewriting. (Or not.)
Leave white space on your script (for comments).
Don’t describe the characters too much. (Or describe them thoroughly.)
Motivate everything a character does.
Don’t write about characters that never appear.
Tell one story.
Write your “one great play.”
Present the problem in the play right away.
Use people you know as your characters.
Make a statement about the human condition.
Don’t judge yourself as you write.
Read lots of plays.

A mixed bag! Some are obvious (“Have a setting”). Some are fundamental (“Make the story cause and effect”). Some may or may not have validity (“Kill your darlings”). Many need a great deal of discussion. Not a single one is absolute – every one of those suggestions may be and has been successfully violated. One or more may strike you as valuable. Mazel tov!

Let me offer three suggestions in closing.

First, the best use of advice on writing plays, like advice on any technique, is to help you re-start yourself when you are stuck. An idea, a phrase, a word, may poke your imagination and get the writing going again.

Second, Broadway is not the only place that produces plays – not by a long shot – and you may find a great deal of satisfaction in writing plays that particular theaters need. Limitations are stimulating. I wrote a play once to meet the following requirements: it had to be set in a library, it had to be a mystery, it had to have a certain number of characters, it had to be of a particular length. I wrote exactly such a play, and it won a production! And a prize!

If you do plan to pursue this approach, make sure you understand what a given theater really is looking for. Tools that help in this effort include annual resource guides published by the Dramatists Guild and the Theatre Communications Group (TCG).

Third and finally, remember the sentence that the playwright Robert Anderson (1917-2009) wrote and posted over his desk: “NOBODY ASKED YOU TO BE A PLAYWRIGHT.” If you are one, or will be one, you will be one no matter what, and hopefully at least have a good time. There are stages of success in playwriting, and they build on each other:

·         You try to write a play.
·         You write a play.
·         Someone reads it.
·         Someone likes it.
·         Someone produces it.
·         It opens.
·         It runs.
·         It runs a long time.
·         It is critically acclaimed.
·         It wins awards.
·         It is produced in numerous theaters.
·         It is published.
·         You make money on it.
·         It is immortal.
·         You are immortal.

We can achieve one, several, or even, in the farthest stretch of imagination, all of these. Whatever we achieve, we can enjoy it.

Playwrights would be well off to read the introductions Neil Simon has written to his collected plays. They are as useful as anything about playwriting I’ve read for this survey, because Simon writes from the inside – from his insides, actually. He tells himself:

“I must take my work seriously, but not the results. I can control only what I write and not what others write about my writing. To agree with the ayes and negate the nays is a foolish pastime.” To get gastric lesions because four people walked out of your play, or euphoric because someone asks for your autograph, will eventually misdirect your intentions and you will work to please rather than be pleased with your work. . . . I am most alive and most fulfilled sitting alone in a room, hoping that those words forming on the paper . . . will be the first perfect play ever written in a single draft. . . . I have either fed and nurtured those who are hungry for whatever it is I have to offer, or I am simply a carcass to be clawed open and ripped apart. The point of view is yours.

True words.

[In his first paragraph of “How to Write a Play,” Kirk asks a series of questions.  If truth be told, I could answer yes to every one of them!  (I’ve even shared some of my “fleeting thoughts” and “fragments of ideas” with my friend.  They didn’t impress him.)  But, believe it or not, I did even write a play once—well, a script, anyway.  It happened sometime back in the late ’70s or early ’80s.  I was killing time one evening watching a spy movie on TV, a 1970 adaption of a Mickey Spillane novel called The Delta Factor starring Christopher George and Yvette Mimieux.  I thought it was lousy—and unintentionally funny.  It made me think: I know something about the espionage biz—I was a counterintelligence officer in the army for almost five years and spent 2½ years in West Berlin, the spy capital of the Cold War.  I could write a spy story that would be more realistic than the dreck I was watching and, what’s more, if I wrote in the jargon we actually used in military intelligence, it would be funnier than the made-up lingo of this movie.  So I sat down and wrote a play based on an actual incident in which I was involved in Berlin in the early ’70s.  (The plot was taken from the story of the time the city of West Berlin was shut down on my account, described in “Berlin Station, Part 2,” 22 July 2009.)  Well, to skip to the last scene—the play was pretty awful and I’ve never shown it to anyone.  Of course, I didn’t have the benefit of Kirk’s sage advice at the time . . . .]

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