Friday, 11 March 2016

How to Write a Play

I’m a writer, not a teacher or a dramaturg. I’m not even sure exactly what a dramaturg is… This means I can’t tell anyone how to write a play, I can only say how I've written some of my plays, and what I've learned in the process. It starts with character almost always. I can’t begin with a plot, because until I begin to know my character and hear them speak, I have little idea what is going to happen to them. 

The first play I ever wrote (call it play A) certainly began with a character who was already partly formed, from my novel writing. He was an offshoot from my fictional protagonist, who I was able to take in a different direction to his counterpart in the novel. I found that recreating him with a different scenario to enter was very liberating. In the novel there was such detailed intensity that it sometimes became hard to make the story progress. With a play I’ve usually found fewer restrictions.

But play A soon became bogged down in its own details. I’d been to see plenty of plays and I’d read many play scripts. I felt I understood how the layout and form on the page should look; I thought I knew it should have a literal structure of three acts, divided into many scenes. I didn’t, at that stage, understand that the page is largely irrelevant, it’s the stage which counts and the real people involved. In my ignorance I began with a detailed description of the set. This description proceeded to tie me down in the action and it grew and became more elaborate as I introduced more interactions with more props and more bits of set. This was my attempt to make the characters ‘do’ and not just ‘say’, having been instructed that they mustn’t just make speeches.

I didn’t realise that you can trust most competent directors and casts to work out much of the detail of movement and interactions for themselves. The writer’s stage directions will be largely ignored. Play A still exists. I sometimes feel the urge to return to it and tame it so that my characters, who I still empathise with, can interact with each other instead of with the furniture!

Play B was the opposite of Play A. By then I’d both seen and read some Beckett and some Pinter. Play B came out of a duologue between two nameless characters, neither of whom seemed to know what was going on. They asked pointed questions which weren’t answered and they made no speeches. There were no acts, no scenes, no set and only one essential prop. Play B worked, it was funny, dark and above all short – 10 minutes or so. It was first performed at an evening of script-in-hand shorts, was picked up, rehearsed and staged at an evening of short plays which toured to several venues, ending at the Ilkley Literature Festival.

Play C was a different kettle of fish. It built very slowly, in stages, over several years. First was a mere writing exercise; create a character, give them 3 attributes, make them have a conversation in which there is a disagreement. My character emerged roaring. He was old, he was passionate about his collection and he was furious because someone was trying to get their hands on his collection. The character developed very quickly but the plot took a while longer, because I’d been working on the wrong premise. He was angry because he was alone, he had been abandoned by the one person he loved.

The initial drafts of play C aimed at a length of around 20 minutes, which were successful but only so far. By then another character had emerged, the lost love. I needed to tell their story more fully and make the lover as full a character as the protagonist. The script expanded to become a production lasting around 40 minutes, with a brilliant director. I helped create the set and I found most of the props. This helped me, more than any writing exercise, to see how a staged play should work and how the set should not dominate the characters and the action.

Play C won a prize at a minor literary festival, the prize was to have the play staged, with that brilliant director. I was very pleased but not quite fulfilled. The characters needed more, I knew that their backstory needed filling out, but I didn’t want to resort to flashbacks. I tinkered with it a bit halfheartedly and then came the opportunity to stage it again, with myself as director.

I did the re-write fast and furiously and in the process the backstory finally came to life. I also learned that I’m not a director and I don’t know enough about the vagaries of casting. Luckily two of the three actors on stage were more than competent and professional, they managed to support the third actor and get through the evening without most of the audience realising I was acting as prompt. Play C worked as both tragic story and as a staged production, there’s little more that needs doing to it.


…to be continued…

1 comment:

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