Imagining Theatrical Worlds

9 Months To Birth Your Play

9 Months To Birth Your Play is a new series designed for artists to explore well-being-centred approaches to their practice whilst gaining a more rigorous understanding of the psychology of drama. 8 Well-being Workshops by neuro-psychodynamic coaching psychologist Anna Webster run alongside Writing Workshops from 9 exemplary artists working in the wonderful world of new writing today.

The next workshop to be published will be Well-being Workshop 3: Basic Psychological Needs on Friday 14th June.

Imagining Theatrical Worlds by Ava Wong Davies

I was reading the writer Shon Faye’s newsletter when this passage struck me.  

Once it is written, it is written. Every book is an extract of something that was much greater and grander before the writing happened. It’s one of the biggest frustrations and disappointments of writing: something which is never matches up to something that could have been.  

I find writing prose quite suffocating. I can’t escape my own failure to capture whatever it is I’m trying to express. You have this in any kind of writing, of course, but writing for theatre at least allows for a bit more space, a bit more flexibility, in the sense that a play isn’t a finished product on the page. Playwriting acts as a series of propositions for a director, a company of actors, stage managers, designers, and technicians to make three-dimensional. The text is just a jumping off point – it’s always open to active interpretation. So in my mind, it’s harder to fail in your quest to express whatever it is you want to express, because the responsibility isn’t entirely on your shoulders. But maybe that’s just me being a bit lazy.  


What question is your play asking? I think people often ask “what is your play saying?” I have no idea! Frankly, that’s nothing to do with me! But “what is your play asking?” – that’s different. Having a series of questions that you want your play to ask keeps it a living being, something that can shift and change throughout the writing process. The questions can be as tiny or as existential as you want, but they should be questions, not statements – at least for me, anyway. Read any play. Ask yourself: what’s the writer asking about the world? About theatre? About themselves? Ask the same questions about your own play. Maybe your characters ask the questions openly. Maybe they pose the answers. Maybe they don’t have the answers. Maybe the questions stay under the surface. Sometimes you won’t even know some of the questions you’re asking until you’re watching the play being performed.  

Why does what you’re writing have to be a play and not a film, or a TV show, or a book, or a poem? Why does it have to be performed live in front of an audience? I wrote a play called Graceland which consisted of a young woman recounting her experience of a turbulent relationship, and I remember being told that it was quite novelistic in style (it’s a dense, detailed monologue) – but it did always feel resolutely like a play to me, even if the story being told was intimate and insular. It was a play about what it means to tell a story, to construct a narrative out of memory, to speak something into existence. The liveness was in the telling. Even if it seemed there was something quite stubbornly undramatic about the stories the woman told – for me, the liveness existed in the speaking of those stories out loud. I think it was a play that was trying to ask – who decides which stories are worth telling? Who decides what pain looks like?  


Here’s an exercise about building a theatrical world that I nicked wholesale from Elinor Fuchs’s essay, Visit to a Small Planet:

I recommend just reading that essay, but here’s a bastardised exercise from it. Imagine your play as a planet. What is the climate like on your play’s planet – temperate? Mild? Stormy? Humid? What’s the landscape of your play’s planet? Lush and verdant? Muddy and boggy? Desert and rocks? How does the climate of this world translate to the feeling of your play? Does your play feel wide open, expansive? Or tight and claustrophobic? Is it jagged at the edges? Or smooth and plasticky? It’s an exercise which I think can help make your theatrical world something three-dimensional, something that exists off the page.  

Going back to a play being a series of proposals: think beyond the dialogue, think about images on the stage. My favourite stage directions are in Rory Mullarkey’s Cannibals and Sarah Kane’s Cleansed: respectively, “A soldier comes on. The soldier shoots Marek in the head” and “A sunflower bursts through the floor and grows above their heads.” They’re metaphors and propositions. They create a sense of the world those characters inhabit – the morality and the logic of it. In Cannibals, it’s a world of often senseless, abrupt brutality. In Cleansed, it’s one of strange, intermittent beauty despite the cruelty. As Stephen Jeffreys says – consider the image system of your play – is there an image that can recur and change throughout? And if a director ever questions you on how to stage your unstageable image, shrug your shoulders and say, “it’s just a provocation.”  

Finally – I want to encourage you to hold your nerve. Writing a play can feel totally isolating, and often there’s nobody to hold you to account but yourself. Grit your teeth and write through the discomfort – through the nagging feeling that everything you’re writing is overly expositional and hopeless. Try not to look up while you’re finishing a first draft – use your tunnel vision to get to the end. Don’t think about what your friends might think, your enemies, your agent, your dream theatre. Just focus on yourself, and on getting it out. Once that first draft has been birthed, swollen and ugly as it might be, that’s when the real work of redrafting begins. Good luck! 

About Ava Wong Davies…

Ava Wong Davies is a writer from London. Her theatre credits include Graceland (Royal Court, 2023) and i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) (Bunker Theatre, 2019). She is also a consulting producer on season 3 of HBO/BBC’s Industry.

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Published on:
7 Jun 2024


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