Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Play’s the Thing

Sharon Wildwind

Which if it’s not catching this writer’s conscious, has very much caught her interest.

A couple of years ago, with the help of the Alberta Playwrights’ Network I set out to discover the differences between writing a play and a novel. I just finished my third workshop with APN and here’s what I’ve learned.

Contrary to what is portrayed in movies, often for laughs, playwrights, actors, and directors like one another. They’re more likely to explain to a playwright why something isn’t working than they are to go off in a flamboyant huff. All of them want a good play to succeed.

Yes, there are demarcations. The playwright’s bailiwick is words. I can add all the stage directions and settings I want to a script, but why bother? If it’s crucial to my story that there is a blue bowl on the table, then I have to make that blue bowl so integral, so essential to the characters’ conflicts that the director is left with no choice but to put a blue bowl on the table. Even at that, the props person or the set designer might decide to use a blue glass bowl, or a blue-and-white Chinese porcelain bowl, or a blue ceramic bowl. I still get my blue bowl.

On the other side of the coin, I can get away with simple directions such as Ashley enters. Not Ashley enters, stage left. or Ashley enters, hesitantly, clutching the folds of a worn-out winter coat around her shoulders. The actors—common usage seems to be to use actor for both genders—the director, and the costumer will take care of all of that for me. All I have to do is be sure that Ashley has a compelling reason for entering or leaving the stage at a certain point. That is such a relief from having to micromanage everything in a novel.

It is an incredibly energetic experience to be in a room of theater people. There is always an energy buzz , all the more amazing considering what else most people have going on besides attending classes. Yes, most of us have day jobs, but we’re not working in one play, rehearsing a second play, auditioning for a third, and coming to class all in the same week. I don’t know when some of them slept.

How are novels and plays the same?
A strong story, with high stakes, is absolutely essential. If you don’t have that, what you’re writing won’t go anywhere.

Plot is different from story. Story is the raw ingredients; plot is how those elements are arranged. Chicken, potatoes, vegetables, and spices are the story. Whether they become baked chicken, pie, stew, soup, or croquettes is the plot.

A writer’s role is to create both engagement and ambiguity.

How are novels and plays different?
A playwright works with what can be spoken and what can be seen. Period. Yes, a monologue could show what a character is thinking, but it’s probably better not to go that route. Let the action speak for what’s going on inside the character.

The audience is the most important character in any play. Unlike a novel, where several years may elapse between a novel being finished and the first reader reading it, audiences connects with the play as soon as they walk into the theater. They begin to do the math, which means they begin to try to figure out what the play is all about. What is that set all about? Why is that column in the middle of the stage painted purple? Why is jazz playing? Who is that woman who just walked on stage? The playwright has to leave enough room for the audience to participate.

And guess what, the best way to be a playwright is to write plays. All the way to the end. Over and over. Just like novels. It’s not nearly as scary an idea as I thought it would be, so with the help of all the wonderful people I've met in these workshops, I’m off to write a few plays and see what develops.

I wonder how long it will take me to get to my first opening night?

Quote for the week

I believe in things that move people, if the audience isn't deeply caught up and moved to either laughter or tears then I don't think it is theater.
~Estelle Parsons, American theatre, film and television actress and occasional theatrical director.


Julia Buckley said...

You can be the new Josephine Tey! She was both a mystery writer and noted playwright.

And I love the Hamlet reference. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

I would be terrified if an entire piece of work had to rest on the dialogue. I admire writers who can do it. I don't think I could.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I can do it, either, but it sure is fun being in the company of people who can do it.