Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Play’s the Thing

Sharon Wildwind

For a couple of years now I’ve made noises about writing a play.

I wangled my way into observing a script workshop, where a playwright met the actors for the first time. I liked that.

I took a dramaturgist to lunch. Two years ago I didn’t even know what a dramaturgist was. Turns out it is a relatively new profession in theater. A dramaturgist is someone who acts as a bridge between written word and the realities of putting on a play. Kind of a cross between a critique partner and a reality check. “I know you think that a five foot flood engulfing the stage would be a great symbolic indication of the passion sweeping away Hortense and Elrod, but replacing water-soaked scenery and costumes every night is going to be a bit of a chore. Would you consider using a small fountain instead?”

I joined the provincial playwrights’ network, which gave me a lot more information on all the neat theater activities going on around me. But none of these things produced one word of a script. Nada.

Since I go to plays I’d figured out that I needed a stage setting. One or more people came on stage. One actor said the first line. The second actor said the next line. We were off and running.

My biggest stumbling block was getting the actor(s) on stage.

Harold walks on stage. Or does he?

Should that be Harold shuffles on stage? How about Harold shuffles on stage carrying the weight of a failing business, a failed marriage, and a bad case of dandruff on his shoulders. How much does a playwright write? Do I give too much direction, so that the director and actors can pick out what they like, as if they were selecting chocolate for a sampler box, or too little, so that the director and actors take a single word and run with it?

I did get a book about play-writing from the library, but honestly, it didn’t make a lot of sense. Word count was still zero.

Then I found out that that provincial network I belong to holds Play-writing Circles. I was fortunate enough to snag one of the seven spots in this spring’s circle. We in the Circle meet with an established playwright for eight weeks. We take turns bringing writing of any length to the group and we listen while the other people in the group read our work out loud. Then we discuss what was read. On the eighth night, a real director and real actors put on a fifteen minute segment of something we’ve written.

It turned out that the answer to my question of how to get an actor on stage was


Having written novels for ten years, I was amazed at the amount of things a playwright gets to leave out.

For that stage setting, I need basically three things: Interior or Exterior, Name of Place, Day or Night, as in

Interior. Local restaurant—Night

I get to be a little more specific in the set description, even there it’s generalities: this is a small, clean, well-run, slightly shabby restaurant. I include anything that will be an important bit of staging, like the large clock that will figure prominently in scene two, but even then it’s up to the set designer to figure out what that that clock looks like.

Also, adverbs are out. Harold does not chuckle spasmodically or gleefully or sardonically.


Turns out that the things that are important in plays are the same things that are important in prose: strong characters, tight storytelling, high stakes, and great dialog. Oh, yes, and line of sight. You can create a lot of tension by which actors see another actor do something and which do not.

I started out taking a novel that had never sold and reworking the first three chapters as a play. It had the advantage that I knew the characters and the story and had already written dialog which could be copied and pasted.

It also had the disadvantage that even after I eliminated several bit players there were eleven characters in the first three scenes, and ten changes of scenery, eight of which were outside at different locations. Oh, yes, and horses were involved. Lots of horses. I had a feeling a dramaturgist would want to talk to me about that.

By dint of effort, I narrowed it down to horse sounds off stage and one set modification between scenes two and three. I kept the eleven characters. Heck, it’s only an exercise, and the people sitting around the table can each read two or three characters.

I also discovered that at least two ideas for novels which have been kicking around my head for a long time will work better as plays. So now, by week three of the workshop, I’ve written three scenes based on a novel and eight minutes of the first act of an original two-act play. Tomorrow night I get my first read through.

Am I pumped or what!

Do not think your story [for a one-person show] is unique. . . . your story is the same as millions of others. But that's o.k.—you just need to find the one or two things that makes your story interesting enough to justify someone leaving their apartment and exchanging currency.
~Julie Halston, actress, comedienne, and writer


Julia Buckley said...

This is exciting, Sharon! You make playwriting sound very appealing. :)

Lonnie Cruse said...

VERY exciting, Sharon. You are an excellent writer so I know you will do well with this!

Anonymous said...

I love that you were surprised at how much a playwright can 'leave out.' It's absolutely ok to put in some adjectives if they are important to you and how you want it to be interpreted. The key is to always have the right actors. I've seen productions of plays with 2 different casts and the subtle nuances between performances almost change the meaning of the play. I think Sam Rockwell puts it best... check this out: Sam Rockwell is obsessed with acting

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments, and for the Sam Rockwell link. I do think playwriting and acting both aim for that code of excellence Sam mentions. There's something about that live action in theatre work that gives it a whole different dimension from novels.