WEEK EIGHT – Theatrical imagery and metaphor with Zodwa Nyoni
During this public health emergency, the safety and wellbeing of our staff, artists, audiences and families comes first. We have been exploring ways in which…
During this public health emergency, the safety and wellbeing of our staff, artists, audiences and families comes first.
We have been exploring ways in which we can all remain connected and optimistic. The Bruntwood Prize has always been about much more than the winners. It is about opening up playwriting to anyone and everyone, to support anyone interested in playwriting to explore the unique power of creative expression. Therefore we want to make this website a resource now for anyone and everyone to explore theatre and plays and playwriting.
So we will still be highlighting the many different resources archived on this website over the coming weeks, as well as sharing the ongoing work of the Royal Exchange Theatre.
This week, we continue the repost of our playwriting Toolkit with the brilliant Frances Poet
Getting to the end
Congratulations. You did it. Feels good doesn’t it? Feels like you’ve scaled a mountain. You want to send it to everybody so they can share in your amazing achievement. Thing is, and I’m sorry to break it to you, you think you’ve reached the top of that mountain but actually you’ve only just got high enough to see the summit properly. There’s still a way to go.
Dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s
We all know the advice- proof read your work, check spellings, make sure it’s presented as well as possible. All these things make a difference to readers and impact upon their sense of the professionalism of the writer. Good advice I’m sure but not my advice. In nearly twenty years of reading plays as a script reader and Literary Manager, poor spelling or grammar has never ever got in the way of me seeing the potential of a play. In fact, some of the most talented writers I have worked with would get D- for spelling. This isn’t a university thesis, this is a play and a beautifully presented document with no errors is brilliant but only if it works as a dynamic piece of drama. And this is where I’d urge you to focus your energies.
Rewriting isn’t about proof reading. Rewriting is writing. You see the strange thing about writing a play is that no matter thoroughly planned it was, how faithfully you approach realising your original concept, you never really know what your play is until you get to the end.
What’s the play about?
You thought you were writing about salt but it’s clear by the end that the play is actually about pepper. The image with the pepper has so much more force than the one with the salt. Now all those salty references feel a bit clumsy and out of place. While the pepper stuff all just resonates somehow – it feels profound and rich. You need to go back through the script to draw out the pepper. And cut out the salt.
I’m currently rewriting a play that’s programmed for later in the year. I’m convinced that it’s a play about marriage and taking the leap to share your life with a person, in sickness and in health. But on the page, it feels like a play about grief. And everybody who has read it insists that is what it’s about. My structure is built around it being about marriage and it deﬁnitely starts and ends where it should for my theme to resonate but (as it ﬁnally dawned on me as I conﬁdently defended it to my director) the biggest moment currently is one of pure grief. Damn it. In this case, I’m sticking to my guns and I’m going to subtly refocus the whole play to ensure my theme resonates. So that’s an option too.
You don’t have to cut the salt if you’re sure that’s what the play should be about. You need to tone down the pepper and let the salt sing. Can salt sing?! (Ok, I’m calling time on the whole salt/pepper metaphor. Sorry – it was awful.)
Who’s the play about?
Another big question is whose story is it? Sometimes you realise that the character you thought was your protagonist is really passive. Or that the stakes just aren’t as high for them as they are for another character. Who is the most active character in your story, who has the most to lose and who goes on the biggest journey?
These are all really important questions that you can only begin to answer when you get to the end. If you thought the play was about Jack but now it’s clear it’s about Jill, you’ll have to revisit the structure. We can’t meet her a third in and lose her four scenes before the end if it’s her story.
It’s only now you’ve got to the end that you have a map for the journey your protagonist travels in the play. You’re their ﬁtbit at the end of the day. You can see how many steps they’ve taken and how evenly they travelled. We don’t want our protagonist to be a novice runner, sprinting the ﬁrst bit and then staggering home or an expert jogger who sprints too fast and easily for us to notice. We want our protagonists to overcome obstacles, fatigue, yappy dogs until they ﬁnally see the ﬁnish line and sprint it, triumphantly…or to collapse and die just before they get there…(depending on your disposition as a writer and how mean you are.)
Sometimes we need to slow them down or speed them up to make sure the race is as exciting as it can be. This pacing is really only something you can start to ﬁne-tune when you’ve got to the end of your play. It’s really easy to give too much too soon in a ﬁrst draft. You know where you want to get to and you’re eager to get there. This often makes for a terriﬁcally exciting opening (if a little underdeveloped and lacking in nuance) and then a very dull middle and end while you protagonist repeats themselves – an expert jogger who sprinted home too fast so you make them jog on the spot for the rest off the day. (How are you ﬁnding the jogging metaphor? Better than salt and pepper but I can probably do better…)
My play GUT is about parenting and trust and charts the disintegration of a happy couple after an incident involving their son and a stranger. My protagonist is the mother, Maddy. She falls the hardest, goes to the darkest place and goes on the biggest journey. My ﬁrst draft signposted Maddy’s journey mercilessly. She had the biggest reaction to the inciting incident in the ﬁrst scene. She was a bag of anxiety. She arrived at a place of paranoia immediately and repeated that note throughout the play with worse and worse consequences. As a result readers didn’t like her, didn’t go on the journey with her or “othered” her and concluded that the play was about mental health. A long way from the everywoman I wanted her to be.
After a development with actors and some brilliant input from professionals with clever dramaturgical brains, I ﬁnally had clarity on how to bring my audience along with me. I had to let Maddy’s anxiety emerge and in allowing her husband, Rory, to have the bigger reaction in the opening scenes, the play realised its ambition to be a play about parenting, not mentally unstable mothers.
I’ve attached my ﬁrst draft of the ﬁrst scene and the production draft of same scene. The changes might not look very sophisticated. I’ve mostly reallocated lines from Maddy to Rory, something I would not advocate doing without a lot of scrutiny. The fact is that Maddy and Rory are characters from a similar background with similar voices. As a general rule, if you can swap dialogue from one character to another like that, you’ve not made your characters verbally distinct enough! But I think (hope) I got away with it here. The changes certainly made Maddy’s journey more surprising and thrilling and helped enrich my themes.
After the rewrite(s) – submitting to The Bruntwood Prize For Playwriting
You got to the end, discovered what the play is and you’ve gone back and refocussed accordingly – your themes, character journey and pacing. Well done. So what now? You want to send it off. You’re sick of the sight of it. Surely this torment is over? Can I just submit the damn thing now, please?! Well it depends. Is the Bruntwood deadline tomorrow? Then yes, send that play off. No being cautious and waiting for two years. Seize the moment. I sent GUT off when it was a rough ﬁrst draft called MADRA. I wouldn’t have shown it to anybody. I’d worked in the industry for years. I couldn’t send such a rough ﬁrst draft off to former colleagues. I might lose their respect totally. The play would have sat in a drawer for ages until I either dived back in to make it better or summoned enough courage to share it with somebody I trusted. But Bruntwood is anonymous. Nobody need ever know I wrote it so why the hell not? And it got shortlisted. Final 10 from just under 2000 submissions. It transformed my career and my sense of myself as a writer. As somebody who was undergoing the transmogriﬁcation from dramaturg to playwright, I feared I was an embarrassing fraud, dependent on the generosity/pity of colleagues. Being anonymously shortlisted for the Bruntwood allowed me to call myself a playwright with some modicum of conﬁdence for the ﬁrst time. So don’t chicken out. If the deadline is here, send it.
If you have the time, make the play better. My ﬁrst draft (the one which read a like a play about mental health rather than the searing play about parenting I intended) was shortlisted in 2015 with some bloody brilliant work.
Katherine Soper won with her beautiful and heartbreaking play Wish List and said in her acceptance speech that the play was on draft seventeen. Just think about that. If I’m remembering that correctly (it was a blur of a wonderful day), seventeen drafts to reﬁne and hone that play into the thing of greatness it is. That’s what you’re competing with. If you have time to make your play better and you dream of winning, you’re going to have to raise your game. First of all, let the play sit for a month or two. It gives you great perspective. I just picked up a play a year after ﬁnishing it and it was so easy to see what needed to change. Huge plot points I’d have wept at the thought of losing a year ago, suddenly feel easy to abandon now I have fresh perspective.
If you don’t have the luxury of time, you’re going to have to harden your heart and do your best to bring clear and detached eyes to your play. Ask yourself if they are any scenes that bore you? Be honest. That scene where your characters explain that bit of backstory or where you mark every beat in a character’s journey where it might be more thrilling to skip a few and make your audience work a bit harder. Are there any bits you fudged? That unlikely bit when she happened to stumble on exactly what she needed in that moment and it was all a bit convenient but you couldn’t quite work out how to make it better. I guarantee you, your reader will know you fudged it. They’ll ﬁnd it every bit as convenient and unlikely as you did as you were writing it.
Try again. Go on. You can do it better – you know it and I know it. (Just like we both know that the salt and pepper analogy was not my best work.) These are the changes that can transform your play from something average to something that really stands out for readers. Put the work in now and who knows, you might be sitting in the beautiful Royal Exchange hearing the judges calling your name… Good luck.
P.S. I’ve decided not to rewrite the salt/pepper thing. Sometimes you just have to send the damn thing off.
Frances Poet is a Glasgow based playwright with eighteen years experience working as a Literary Manager and dramaturg for some of the UK’s leading theatre companies. Stage plays include the multi-award winning ADAM (Scottish and UK tours 2017/18) which premieres in New York in February 2019 and GUT (Traverse Theatre and Tron Theatre 2018) which was shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize For Playwriting in 2015, nominated for a UK Theatre Best Play Award and won the Writers’ Guild 2019 Award for Best Play.
Frances has also completed a number of classic adaptations including THE MACBETHS (Citizens Theatre/Scottish Tour 2017/18), WHAT PUT THE BLOOD (Abbey Theatre, Dublin 2017 and previously as ANDROMAQUE Scottish Tour 2015), DANCE OF DEATH (Citizens Theatre 2016) and THE MISANTHROPE (Oran Mòr 2014).
Frances also writes for TV and radio and has had short films screened at national and international festivals.
If you’d like a bit more on the process of redrafting, see the 2017 livestream workshop with renowned agent Mel Kenyon, and stay tuned for a blog next week from Royal Exchange Theatre Dramaturg Suzanne Bell on redrafting