Catherine Love on writing for the theatre audience
Theatre, says writer, performer and director Tim Crouch, is “a rare location for collective thinking”. Director Ellen McDougall expresses something similar: “theatre is one of…
How do you write a great play? Renowned dramatist and teacher Stephen Jeffreys lays out five things to think about, in these extracts from his new book Playwriting.
The way an audience receives a play is very different from other art forms. If you’re reading a novel, maybe you’ll read forty pages on the first day; the next day you have a domestic crisis so you won’t read anything; the day after that you may read a hundred pages; the day after that you read about five pages before falling asleep; and the next day you’ll get completely gripped and finish the book. Essentially, you choose when it all happens. Or imagine you’re in an art gallery, and you see a sculpture: you can spend half an hour examining it, you can spend ten seconds, but it’s your choice. In the theatre, however, as an audience member, if you’ve lost attention and dropped out at some point, then the show has gone on without you: there’s no rewind button; you can’t go back. A play happens live, in real time – that is the basic condition of writing for theatre – and as a playwright you have to learn to deal with that.
A novelist can get away with writing a self-indulgent description of the countryside, say, because the reader can always think, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just skip that bit.’ But you can’t do that when writing a play. If you lose the audience, even for a minute, it’s very hard to get them back, because they are holding on to a continuous piece of wire, they are following the story second by second. Our responsibility as playwrights is to make every single second interesting. This is our great problem, and also our great opportunity.
If your play has an interval, the first half should be longer than the second half. If the first half is an hour, and the second half is an hour and fifteen minutes, audiences perceive it as slow. As you go along, the audience wants more. Think of it this way: if your first half is a car journey at 40mph, the second half needs to start at 50 or 60 mph, and by the end it needs to be pushing 90. There must be more in the second half: not more words but more action.
Don’t forget to plan for your interval. There are two important components to consider. The first is the ‘first-half closer’. This is the playwright’s defence mechanism against the exodus to the Italian restaurant: the fascinating incident that is so exciting that the audience needs to come back to find out what happens next. The second thing to consider is what happens during the interval. People have a limited time to do a lot of things – go to the loo, get your drug of choice (a drink at the bar, a cigarette, or whatever will get you through the second half) and talk to your friends. It’s a big agenda, so generally the audience spends the interval rushing around. The result is that, after the interval, the audience are rather like schoolchildren after a windy break-time; at this point, almost anything will be funny. This is a trick that is well worth knowing: after the interval is what I call the ‘comedy zone’.
The comedy zone has different implications depending on the type of play you are writing. If you’re writing a funny play, you need to put some good material here. Don’t waste anything that’s too good; use something that’s quite good and then build from there. If you’re writing a serious play, schedule a sequence after the interval, say five to ten minutes long, in which you indulge this and then suddenly turn it on its head. One of the most exciting things you can do as a playwright is to have an audience laughing, and then cut the laughter and hit them with something serious. The moment of turning something funny into something tragic is magical; after that, audiences want more.
You can actively improve your ability to create compelling characters by consciously enhancing your observation of everyday life. Examples of the clash between the personality presented to the world and the inner reality are available to us all the time. If you are walking down a street or on a bus or train, or sitting in a café, it is a useful exercise to pick out a real person and to think how you would describe them as a character. First of all observe their physical features. What are they wearing? What is their hair like? What about ethnicity? How do they sit or stand? See if you can write down in fewer than ten words a description of them, which, if it were a stage direction, would engage and illuminate a reader of the play.
Next, try to develop the character a bit further. Make some guesses about this person’s life. What is their occupation? Do they have a partner? Do they have children? How do they feel about their life? Imagine where they have just come from and where they’re about to go. Give them a name. Create from all the evidence you have accumulated or imagined a dramatic dilemma for this person.
This material for characters is available to us all the time. By playing this simple game you will not only be exercising those muscles which bring characters to life, you may actually be able to transpose your observations into a character in a play. If you look at what the character appeared to be, and what they really were, and there was a contradiction there, then that is a very fertile area for developing an idea for a play.
One of the hardest things to do as a playwright is the second draft. When you’ve written your first draft, put it away and don’t look at it for two to three weeks. When you come back, sit down with a cup of coffee and give yourself two hours. Read the play slowly, in real time, as if you were watching it in the theatre, and then you will know straight away where the weaknesses are. Go through with a pencil and put little crosses where you think things are going wrong.
The worst thing you can do is to sit down and think, ‘I’ll just go through everything and make it generally better.’ Instead, as well as marking up the text, when reading through your first draft make a list of what needs to be done. With your list in hand, focus on one problem at a time. If you think there is not enough movement in the play, for example, there may not be enough physical interest. Or maybe there’s one character that needs work. If you are struggling with the relationships between the characters, a useful exercise is to draw a diagram to assess the characters’ relationships to each other: is each relationship in the play interesting? Does it develop? Does it look different at the beginning than at the end? Go through your list, working on one thing at a time and you will get there; you will get it done.
When a playwright finishes a script, you are only fifty-per-cent done. Producing a play is a collaborative process involving actors, directors and designers (among others), as well as the writer. Rather than presenting your text and saying, ‘This is finished,’ you’ll want to leave aspects of the play up for grabs.
I have always found that you discover an awful lot about a play in rehearsal. On the first day of rehearsal, actors ask lots of questions of you because it is your play; you are the author, the creator of it. As the rehearsal process goes on, however, the actors get to know more and more about the play, because they so closely follow one character. By the end of the rehearsal process you are almost redundant – your only function is to get the drinks in at the dress rehearsal. You transfer the power to the actors. Also, no two rehearsal processes are the same. Every time you see your play produced it will be different, and you will always find new and surprising elements in the play that you didn’t see before. In other words, there is always something ambivalent and provisional in theatrical writing: nothing is ever really nailed down, and the play changes from performance to performance. The moral of this story is: if you are a perfectionist, don’t be a playwright. That is not in the job description. If you are a playwright, things are always up in the air, always changing.
These extracts are from Playwriting: Structure, Character How and What to Write by Stephen Jeffreys, edited by Maeve McKeown, out now from Nick Hern Books – the official Publishing Partners of the Bruntwood Prize. See more and order your copy at www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/playwriting.