TOOLKIT SERIES 3- Phoebe Eclair-Powell on Form and How to Have Fun

Hello! How are you? How is the writing the play going? It’s effing hard isn’t it…glad you’ve come here for some inspiration. I will do my best to provide a jumping off point, or just something to disagree with – or even just to read and then discard completely. Because, before we launch in…I have something to admit: I AM A CHARLATAN. We are all FRAUDS. And there are NO RULES. Because trust me – there are a million and one ways to write a play and that’s what makes them so damn interesting and mind boggling.

SO WHAT DO PEOPLE ACTUALLY MEAN BY ‘FORM’?

 

EXERCISE: Write a big spider diagram with the word ‘FORM’ in the middle – now write around it all the things FORM means to you.

I’m guessing you came up with quite a few words – I came up with:

Shape, type, genre, mould, exterior, rules, sculpture, thing, being, object….

There’s no easy answer eh…

So let’s dictionary this bad boy:

Form: a type or kind of something, or the particular way in which something exists:

 

I also like this entry:

 to begin to exist or to make something begin to exist:

 

Phwoar, that’s nice – it makes me think of creation and art and making a big sculpture out of marble. But still – it’s all quite vague and this is where I start to get lost – maybe you do too? Because that to me seems pretty BIG and existential.

 

So when I start writing, the play to me is just a collection of random scenes, or in fact a stream of consciousness monologue, sometimes both, and at one point there is maybe a musical number…is that form? Is that how it exists?

What do I mean by type of something?

And where does structure come in?

And is it different to form and how?

And what about content?

And theme?

And voice??

And then my mind explodes and I retreat from the world of theatre twitter and all the people in it because I keep thinking CHARLATAN! FAKE! FRAUD!…

 

Perhaps we can’t look at form in a vacuum – maybe we can help identify what it is by distinguishing it from other playwriting elements, like structure and content.

 

So I’m going to be naughty here and borrow from a clever playwright called James Fritz who knows the rules, and wrote in a previous Bruntwood blog (I know so cheeky of me…but I did ask his permission…sort of)

https://www.writeaplay.co.uk/week-seven-form-content-and-structure-its-not-what-you-say-its-the-way-you-say-it-by-james-fritz/:

 

Content: what is your play ‘about’. What is the story? Or if there is not a ‘story’ in the traditional sense, what is being said, or done, or communicated.

Structure: If content refers to what’s being said, then structure, can be defined as the order in which you say it.

Form: If content is what’s being said, and structure is what order you say it in, then form is about the way you say it.  Are there ‘characters’? Stage directions? it a monologue? A series of instructions? Does it break the fourth wall?  Is it divided into five acts?  And so on..

See – isn’t he clever? That’s so clear right? Right? Form is THE WAY the story is told.

 

Boom.

 

So despite being told this on numerous occasions – I have never been able to break it down like this or even remember it. It’s just not how my brain works, so for those of you that are like me and need a visual – this is how I discuss the above:

 

Someone once said to me…

The content of the play is the heart, and around it is the skeleton – the structure that holds that heart up – and then around that skeleton is a squishy flesh – the form of the play which encompasses all those things and which looks and feels a certain way – distinct, unique – but also maybe similar to some other flesh puppets…you see what I’m saying or am I giving you nightmares?

 

Okay so another metaphor is houses – The form is the whole – the sum of all the materials that make up the house which then becomes the type of house – an American condo, a massive skyscraper, a haunted castle, the structure is the order in which you put bricks on mortar etc (eg: your house has several floors) and the content is the interior design – the human life inside.

The form tells you a lot about the building, the world inside it and more – it gives you a feel for the type of content, it makes sense of the structure.

 

Yeah?? Does that work?…

 

Okay so if I’m being really reductive and honest..this is how I think about form:

 

There are certain TYPES of plays – and those TYPES use the ingredients of playwriting in different ways to create these types – which in turn becomes the form of the play. (LIKE BAKING – You get different types of cake from different combinations of ingredients).

 

EXERCISE: WRITE DOWN A LIST OF ALL THE ‘TYPES’ OF PLAYS YOU CAN THINK OF.

Eg: Big West End musical, Physical theatre adaptation of a book, Five Act Family Saga set in America, Clever political play, French Farce, cool new writing monologue play…etc…

Now some of these types get a little repetitive/generic – and we start to guess their ingredients – not to say that these plays are boring. NO. They just sit within a certain type – and they do it really well. For instance – Slasher films all use really similar ingredients:

Secluded location or confined precinct

No phone lines/way out

Group of teenagers

Terrifying monster/serial killer

Final Girl

 

Some do so terribly – snore – others do so in a brilliant way – and even though you know what’s coming you still scream and shit yer pants. But basically they use the ingredients to create the form: slasher film. In doing so – they accurately convey the content of the scary story.

Now with plays it’s slightly different – the ingredients are a little more complex than in a film.

 

EXERCISE: WRITE DOWN A LIST OF INGREDIENTS OF PLAYWRITING – WHATEVER COMES INTO YOUR HEAD

 

This was my list:

Named Characters/ No characters

Location

Time/Space (closed time closed space? Open time open space? Closed time Open space? Etc)

Linear/non-linear

Five Acts/One Act/Three Acts

Musical/Gig theatre/ play with songs

Break the fourth wall/Naturalistic/Surreal/Direct Address

Physical theatre/movement/Dance

Monologue/ dialogue

Scenes/ moments/ instructions/ chorus

Ritual

Video

Immersive/ Interactive / audio

Comedy / Drama / Tragedy / Epic

Online

Period/Contemporary/Futuristic

Etc…

 

But it’s the same principle – certain TYPES of theatre will use a selection of these ingredients to create a recognisable form. It’s just the ingredients aren’t quite as tropey as they are in film. They’re a little more arty farty.

 

EXERCISE 4: WRITE OFF SHOOTS FROM ALL THE TYPES OF PLAYS YOU LISTED BEFORE – WITH CERTAIN INGREDIENTS YOU ASSOCIATE WITH THOSE PLAYS.

 

Eg: PANTO – Lots of characters – multiple magical locations – set changes – props – a panto Dame – comedy – Five Acts – a villain – a song/dance number – costume changes – a love story – based on a fairy tale type story that the audience might already know….

OR another example:

Slightly off kilter Biography play – non-linear, interruptions, ensemble, multi-rolling, research, period costume, conceptual set design, open space/open time perhaps?

So now you have a bag of fun ingredients you can choose to create a certain TYPE of FORM (and obviously these ingredients can be endless and personal). You can do something that has been done before – a Victoria Sponge, but with your voice obviously. Your unique flavour. Or you can make a deconstructed crème Brule with fig jus and an almond crust. It’s totally up to you…and this is not to say that form is just about showing off and being all fancy –  in some way it’s actually dictated by your content. (Don’t worry I will explain what this means – I have only just understood it myself).

 

Here is an example of how playwrights can have fun with form – to enhance the content of their play.

Martin Crimp, Attempts on her life:

 

 

Even just by looking at the page you sort of go – woahhhhh – this is unlike any kind of play I’ve ever seen/read before. It uses the ingredients of playwriting but in a new way to create something kind of revolutionary.

But they’re not just showing off and doing it for the hell of it. No they are marrying their form to their content. They are using form to best express their content in a way to maximise the message of the play to the audience.

Eg: Trying to write a play about how we explore the idea of character – give us a first scene made up entirely of tantalising voicemails like in Martin Crimp’s Attempts on her Life. It proves that character is slippery – a construct.

 

This writer is messing with formal convention to create something new and dynamic to express the heart of the play’s message. They use the ingredients in a conscious way, making choices that push the audience’s experience of story telling.

Which brings me onto an incredible quote by Suzan-Lori Parks which Royal Exchange Literary Manager Suzanne Bell made me aware of and which perfectly encapsulates what form means, how it works in relation to the play as a whole and the story you are trying to tell:

 

“…as I write the container dictates what sort of substance will fill it and, at the same time, the substance is dictating the size and shape of the container […] It’s like this: I am an African American woman–this is the form I take, my content predicates this form, and this form is inseparable from my content. No way could I be me otherwise.  I don’t explode the form because I find traditional plays ‘boring’–I don’t really. It’s just that those structures could never accommodate the figures which take up residence inside me.” 

Suzan-Lori Parks 

So how can you do this with your play – how can you be adventurous with form – and have fun whilst doing it.

 

HOW CAN YOU BE ADVENTUROUS WITH FORM?

 

And the best way to do such a thing – FUCKING WITH FORM.

It’s the moment in the TV show Atlanta when the invisible car rolls in…It’s the moment in Fleabag (the TV show) when she breaks the fourth wall – and indeed the moment at the end of the series when she dismisses us. It’s the moment in Harold Pinter’s The Affair when you realise time is going backwards so you can see and feel the hope of love growing rather than fading – creating a bittersweet dramatic irony. So you can feel even more involved/sad/implicit. Basically, it’s when someone presents you with the 1950s American Condo and you go inside the condo and you find a trap door to a basement…and the basement is a sex dungeon… and you go – oh how clever – I now get a real extra meaning to this message you’re trying to tell me about sex and 1950s housewives because you’ve done something a bit FUN WITH FORM. Love it.

And what I’m trying to say is – it doesn’t have to be about showing off (although if you want to show off that’s very fine by me) it’s about using form as a kick ass tool to enhance your story. Writing a play about how the violence of the real world can intervene at any moment – blow the room up like in Sarah Kane’s Blasted and suddenly take us somewhere completely different.

And you can do all that too – if you want to – and why not – playwriting is all about experimenting and PLAYING – exploring your voice and what it can do. So why not push yourself to see what kinds of ingredients you want to mess around with and combine to create a new form.

Here are some suggestions to try out when messing with form (find what suits your play and enhances your message):

 

Tell the story backwards

Write a scene two hundred years into the future

Write all the deaths of all your characters and have them tell us about them.

write all your scenes with a totally new protagonist each time

Add a chorus of ghosts in there

Take out all the character’s names

Keep the play in one location

Have a musical number half-way through

Write three alternative endings and show all of them

Go to a totally new set of characters in a completely new location for an entire ACT

Inject a surrealist element into your completely naturalistic play

Lift the curtain to reveal a completely new reality (E.V Crowe’s Sewing Group)

Elongate the time scale

Shorten the time scale to one day – one hour – one minute

Add a narrator

 

If it feels like it’s right for your play, or right for you as you find out more about your play – go for it.

Because this is the fun of writing a play – this is where you get to be an artist and play with form and content, just by mining it for every little bit of inspiration, of juice. Try things, fuck it up, start again, delete it all and have another go. It’s like being a kid – ger your crayons out.

But be inspired by what you’re trying to communicate to the audience. Because when your content and your form get hitched – it’s an awesome feeling. Suddenly the stars align. You have built the perfect house for your message, given flesh to the bones of your story. You  have breathed life into its soul and let it be its best self. You have done what the Fab 5 do every season of Queer Eye. Allowed the play to be the greatest expression of itself.

The greatest expression of you in that moment, for what you’re trying to say.

Good luck.

 

 

Please read below for a detailed example of how I learnt to have fun with form…but also please feel free to end it here! Go forth and write!

 

SHED: EXPLODED VIEW

 

So to explain the marriage between form and content I’m going to be a dick and use my own play because it’s the only way I can explain it to myself…

I had, up until this point in my career written a two hander monologue play, a direct address play for two people, A monologue made up of random non sequential acts with songs in between and a five hander modern version of a Greek Tragedy. Reader…I bloody loved a monologue…clearly. I also had never thought about the form those plays took…they just sort of wrote themselves into being. But if I think about it, the instincts were there…the internal message of the plays were being mirrored in their forms.

Which is important – a lot of this is INSTINCTS. Remember that – and don’t deny that gut voice.

But some of it is cerebral and this is where my next play came in – SHED: EXPLODED VIEW.

This time I had decided to write a new play based on a piece of art work, I have no idea why, I needed inspiration and was burnt out. I picked up a postcard of my favourite piece of installation art, and decided that was it. This is the piece:

 

 

It’s called Cold Dark Matter An Exploded View and it’s by brilliant artist called Cornelia Parker. It’s from a series of pieces about cartoon violence. It’s incredible.

Now – my challenge to myself was how to write a play that resembled, felt like or emulated the form of this piece of art work. I wasn’t going to plan this out, I was just going to feel my way through it –

So I wrote a load of random sections – bits and fragments of voices. At some point there was a chorus of activists plotting something big, a girl who had gone missing on a bridge, a man who had force fed his child to death. It was all about violence, hopeful, cruel, unexplained. And then I wrote two scenes that merged about two different couples on honeymoon in adjoining rooms having conversations about themselves and each other that overlapped. I had been inspired by Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a suicide where three different time lines happen all at once. ISN’T THEATRE MAGIC.

This was the scene – which stayed pretty much word for word as it started.

 

HONEYMOON -1987

 

Lights up.1987

 

Frank   Sun cream?

 

Naomi We bought some in –the –

 

Lil        Did you see them?

 

Frank   So hot in here

 

Naomi Air con

Just over by the

 

Tony    Who the couple next door?

 

Lil        Of course the couple next door

Big bloke with the tiny wife

 

Tony    Jesus he was monolithic

 

Naomi Just hit the

Over there

 

Tony    and she looked a bit

Sort of …we/t

 

Lil        Damp I would say damp

You take so long to

Root yourself

 

Frank   Yes

 

Naomi Sorry – I got at you then

 

Tony    Damp is the perfect word for her

 

Frank   A little perhaps

 

Tony    Like you could snap her in two

Like you could break her in seconds

 

Lil        She looked positively drippy

Fancy a mini fridge beer?

 

Naomi That was mean of me

Sorry

I’m just

anxious

For this to be-

 

Frank   Perfect

 

Naomi Right

 

Frank   I know you are, for everything to be –

 

Tony    Look at the prices!

No we’ll go to the bar

Go look for some bars

 

Frank Perfect – Why is that?

 

Lil        We are supposed to be celebrating –

one mini fridge beer

 

Tony    Celebrating – what for?

Naomi I don’t know

 

Lil        Get out of it

 

Tony    For getting married? – sorry been

there done that –

 

Lil        Charming

 

Naomi It was a lovely day though

 

Frank   Pretty good

 

Naomi Really nice

It was lovely

It was a lovely, lovely wedding

 

Frank   It didn’t rain                            Lil         It didn’t rain

 

Naomi It’s meant to be good luck actually

 

Tony    Never has at my weddings

 

Frank   You prayed it wouldn’t

 

Naomi And it didn’t

Sorry we just

We did it again didn’t /we

 

Frank   Don’t do this

 

Naomi We could get some more champagne

 

Frank   You drank it all? You little drunkard…

 

Naomi We could get some more

 

Tony    Just a drink – need a good

drink

 

Lil        To the bar then! To the bar!

Jesus

 

Frank   Maybe not

 

Naomi Do you know what?                            Tony       Do you know what?

 

Frank   What?                                                  Lil        What?

 

Naomi I don’t feel…                                        Tony    I don’t feel married

I don’t feel drunk

I don’t feel it

I did the first time – but now,

I don’t know

 

Lil        Nothing at all?

 

No, nothing at all

…………………………

 

This scene had domestic violence running as a powerful undercurrent throughout – a feeling on tension and unease. And this is what I had been burning to write about for ages, violence and love, I just hadn’t found the courage or indeed the characters…or…the form. (I must thank the writers group I was on at the time who encouraged and championed this scene and helped me realise what I was trying to really say – I am extremely grateful – other writers can be the best people to chat to about your play).

Suddenly I had something to go on…I would keep mining this scene for the characters – keep writing their journeys. Three couples started to emerge. I knew I wanted the play to be large and take a lot of space – just like the explosion, so I decided to write thirty years of their lives. I also decided on thirty years – because it felt like the number three was important but also the sense of a thirty year anniversary being a real achievement, and the sense of a generation changing within thirty years. But, like the explosion in the art piece, I wanted the audience to be able to see it all at once.

This is where form can get really fun and interesting – how the hell do you do that? I had to feel my way through but using the ingredients I knew existed in playwriting which I could try and put together to make my cake…These are some of the ingredients I chose and WHY:

 

INGREDIENTS:

Overlapping scenes and certain phrases of dialogue – to create a sense of history repeating/tropes.

Non Linear – to make sure the audience could never relax, they too needed to feel on edge.

Fragmented time – to try and see the small and big at the same time, to understand how society works on the micro and macro.

Short scenes next to longer scenes – to continue a sense of discomfort for the audience – lack of rhythm whilst creating a new, unexpected rhythm. To mirror how DV victims have to experience a new version of reality.

Putting scenes next to each other for direct comparison of subject matter – to keep the audience on their toes about generational opinions.

For the play to work backwards and forwards – to give a sense of circularity

For there to be flexibility of order (director’s choice) – to create some order in the chaos

A nucleus of the explosion – the central scene/a repeated motif (this became a moment of actual violence in the play – a repeated motif about a ‘fork in her face’) – to ask what is the defining moment of anyone’s life? What is a true moment of violence?

 

Obviously all these things came from pure trial and error, writing and re-writing, drafts where the whole thing changed, workshops with actors where certain scenes felt dull, were cut, put back in etc.

 

And then even later on it became clear to me that I wanted the actors to construct and blow up/deconstruct a shed on stage during the show. This became literal in the text when the central mother figure, Naomi buys and builds a shed as a shrine to her life and her daughter – which she will destroy and rebuild over and over again. Just as lives are built and destroyed by violence again and again. State violence, personal violence, emotional violence, physical violence, linguistic violence…The shed building scenes worked as a spine for the audience to return to – a moment in the present. A moment for them to reassess everything they have just witnessed. Only recently did the form of these scenes change again when the content changed – this was now immediately after their daughter’s funeral. Time to get re-writing…A play is never ever finished…

There was a piece of music that helped me write it throughout – Steve Reich’s Pieces for Wood, Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach. I would always, always recommend finding a playlist for your play. Music has different forms – let that influence your work.

I also tried exercises such as – writing all the titles of my scenes on pieces of paper and then throwing them in the air and seeing where they landed and trying to map my play according to the randomness of where they fell. What was on the outskirts and what was towards the centre of the explosion. I talked to my mate who is a Quantum Physicist about time and space and quantum realms and Schrödinger’s cat and how to be in two places at once.

I went and interviewed Cornelia Parker about the piece and what it means to her. I looked up other artists who had blown things up or used explosions in their work. I researched domestic violence in literature – and sociology, trying and failing to read Zizek’s book On Violence.

You will find your own rules, but just keep playing in the sandpit of your play’s world, allow it to keep inspiring you. Never stop interrogating it, and always keep playing.

 

Thank you for letting me be a charlatan.

 

 

Published on:
6 Apr 2022

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