WEEK NINE- Thinking Theatrically with Lizzie Nunnery

It can be useful to translate the word theatricality as stage-worthiness. A piece of dramatic writing is stage-worthy if it embraces the possibilities of the theatrical space and theatrical form. Theatre is a live moment. Films and novels emulate this but theatre must do it. The medium demands that your storytelling radiates across a space, captures the audience in the moment, and resonates with them long after that moment has passed.

 

The following points explore tools and techniques at our disposal to achieve this.

 

  • Visualize your work on stage

–     Think about what type of space you are writing for. It might be a 100-seater studio space or a 400-seater thrust. It might be in the round, site-specific or promenade.

–     Visualize each scene from the point-of-view of your audience. It can be helpful to imagine you are sitting in the back row. What pictures are being created? Is the information travelling?

–     If you find yourself thinking in close-ups or visualizing your characters on screen, stop yourself. You’re writing a play and the rules are different.

 

  • Remember the audience

–     Many plays literally take in to account the presence of the audience through soliloquy, asides, or self-reference. Some plays implicate the audience members in the drama by referring to them as though they were characters in the work.

 

–     Some productions choose to use the audience space, e.g. having actors enter through the crowd, or actors planted in the audience.

 

–     Audiences come to the theatre to participate intellectually and emotionally in a performance. When writing and redrafting your script, ensure you are leaving space for the audience member to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions about character, backstory, plot, theme etc. Be careful not to repeat or overstate information e.g. giving the same information visually that you have already given through dialogue.

 

– As an audience member, it is impossible to entirely forget that theatre is a public event and that the reality of the drama ends at the edges of the stage. It is therefore debatable whether naturalism can truly be achieved in theatre. Allow this to free you! Embrace the otherness and the escape of theatre. Explore heightened language, characters and settings. On stage the real doesn’t have to be entirely real. If your work has emotional truth, an audience will go wherever you take them.

See Nell Leyshon’s brilliant discussion of heightened theatre

 

 

  • Explore storytelling through physicality

–     When developing your script, think about the pictures you are painting on stage through the physicality of the actors.

 

–     The visual scope of the stage means that physicality can be used to great effect to communicate story, feeling or drama. An audience member can follow an actor’s emotional journey by following their physical journey across a stage. Body language and bigger physical actions can become highly significant.

 

  • In an ensemble play, like my family drama Intemperance, there can be many different character objectives overlapping within a scene. I found that when two characters were engaged in a duologue in earshot of the others, I could show the emotional reactions of those others through their physical behaviour. This gave the scenes more energy and richness.

 

  • Avoid extras

–     While a screenwriter chooses a perspective through which the scene is viewed, in theatre the only visual perspective is that of the audience. Therefore, every character within a scene must have an objective and a narrative arc. This means something must change for that character within the scene (however small), to give the actor something to play and the audience something to interpret.

 

–     On stage, we don’t have close-up. We can’t glance past the shop assistant and focus in on the hero buying the shopping.  Therefore, on screen a small functional role can be seamless within the drama, but on stage that character becomes an awkward presence. They are visually constant and therefore noticeably redundant.

 

  • Hold tension in your storytelling
  • Theatre scripts tend to have far fewer scenes than radio, film or TV scripts. When writing or redrafting, bear in mind that stage every scene change risks a loss of tension. There’s dramatic power in pushing the tension of a single situation as far as it will go.

 

  • However, don’t be deterred from writing many locations if this is how your story occurs to you. Just be creative in how this might be realised on stage. A location change is by no means synonymous with a detailed or naturalistic set change. Think inventively about how action might flow from one scenario to another, or how a situation might be realised with minimal set and props. There are many effective episodic plays that work over a long time-line and many locations e.g. the plays of Brecht, Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information.

 

  • Some plays make great dramatic use of a single location, using the containment of the setting to mirror that of the theatre and turn the pressure up on characters and audience alike e.g. Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg or Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party. Most of Arthur Miller’s, Tennessee Williams’ and Henrik Ibsen’s plays also operate in this way.

 

  • Trap your characters
  • A useful question to ask when constructing a scene: ‘If there is so much tension between these people, why don’t they just walk away?’

Part of our job is to push character relationships to the limits while keeping characters interacting. Our characters might ultimately break apart and go their separate ways, but first they must come eye to eye.

If any part of your script is feeling forced or vague, it might be because there isn’t a clear enough reason for these characters to engage despite their differences.

(See Duncan McMillan’s Scenic Checklist for more on energizing interactions)

 

There are many brilliant plays in which characters are literally trapped together (e.g. After the End by Dennis Kelly, Jesus Hopped the A-Train by Stephen Adly Guirgus, Kiss of the Spiderwoman by Manuel Puig) but there are many more plays in which characters are held together by invisible bonds e.g. family relationships, social responsibilities, circumstances of their work or where they live… Your characters could be trapped in a lift but they could also be trapped in a marriage or life-long friendship.

 

  • Use space dynamically
  • How might you manipulate the relationship between the characters and the space to create dramatic tension and tell a story?
  • Explore constriction and freedom. Are your characters able to move easily, or are they inhibited by their surroundings?
  • Are your characters dominant in the space, or overpowered by it?
  • How much can we see of them? How much can they see of what’s around them?
  • How might the character’s interaction with the playing space or set create a sense of danger? For instance, in Stockholm by Frantic Assembly and Bryony Lavery, a tumultuous scene between a warring couple was played out in a bed suspected high above the stage. The sense of imminent physical danger heightened the danger of the relationship.

 

  • Think in imagery
  • Visual imagery: An array of tools is at your disposal in crafting striking

and illuminating visual images, including performers, set, scenery, lighting, projection, film, props. These can be used to communicate the literal and/or metaphorical world of the play.

 

  • Verbal imagery transports the audience beyond the literal visual, allowing imaginative visuals to come in to play. It can take an audience anywhere, allowing your story telling to travel through time and space without any loss of tension.

 

Often language on stage is more expressive than on screen (and there’s more of it). This should never be forced. Listen to real speech and tune in to everyday wordplay, rhythm, metaphor and musicality. Make sure your language belongs to your character and is rooted in their motivations, never slipping in to a prose-like or self-conscious writerly mode.

 

  • Audio imagery is a gift to playwrights. So much can be conjured quickly and powerfully through sound alone.

Live or recorded sound can be used to give detail to location, or to suggest events ‘off stage’, expanding the world of the play. This was a technique I made use of in Intemperance (see extract) to show the world beyond the basement room the characters inhabited.

Music or sound can also play a powerful role in storytelling e.g. a character might sing to change the subject or to seduce someone. They might play a song of mourning or of celebration.

In addition, audio can be used abstractly to great effect, heightening emotion or escalating tension.

 

Exercises

 

  1. Take two of your characters (perhaps two who don’t yet have a duologue) and explore a scenario in which they are trapped together. It could be literal entrapment e.g. locked in a shop after hours, or more subtle entrapment e.g. they are both waiting for a job interview, or they are on a blind date. Make sure you put in place clear motivations for the characters to stay, even as they experience conflicting desires.

 

  1. Write a scene for your play in which music or sound plays a dramatic role.

This could be literal or abstract e.g. loud music is playing while your characters are trying to have an intimate conversation, or abstract e.g. a character’s overwhelming anxiety is represented by a piercing high-pitched note.

 

  1. Write a scene for your play/ a moment within a scene (lasting minimum two minutes) which is entirely stage direction.

Consider how characters might interact dramatically with space, without language.

How might their changing physicality tell a story?

How might they interact with set/ props/ light/ other characters?

How might music and sound be used to create tension or further narrative?

 

Recommended reading: After the End by Dennis Kelly, Frozen by Bryony Lavery

 

Lizzie Nunnery is a scriptwriter and songwriter, working in theatre, radio and film. Her

first stage play Intemperance (Liverpool Everyman, 2007) was awarded 5 stars by The Guardian and shortlisted for the Meyer-Whitworth Award. Narvik (Box of Tricks Theatre, UK Tour 2017) won Best New Play in the UK Theatre Awards 2017. Other work includes The Swallowing Dark (Liverpool Playhouse/Theatre503 2011), The Sum (Everyman 2017), The People Are Singing (Manchester Royal Exchange 2017), The Snow Dragons (National Theatre 2017) and To Have to Shoot Irishmen (Almanac Arts, UK tour 2018). She is currently developing an original feature film script with Blue Horizon Productions and BFI. Her new radio drama series Death in Malta, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in May 2019. Lizzie is also a singer and musician, performing regularly with composer Vidar Norheim.

 

If you’d like to read more on thinking theatrically, try director (and 2017 Bruntwood Prize Judge) Lyndsey Turner on Writing Back 

29 Mar 2019

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  1. Lizzie Nunnery being brilliant, as ever.

    by Edward Barrett
    6:31 pm, 7 Apr 2019