-- Athol Fugard
The Subjects section has been revised and expanded in the new paperback and e-book editions, Playwriting Seminars 2.0.
When venturing into the art and craft of dramatic writing, one of the first problems is that most of our experiences with dramatic storytelling nowadays have come from film and television. There's a simple reason for this: Most people – at least in America – see many more films and watch far more television than the small number of hours they spend seeing plays. The downside is that this volume of experience with film and television conditions and narrows our assumptions about playwriting.
The best antidote to stories told via media is to begin reading plays, especially contemporary plays written within the last 20 years, and whenever possible listening to them in professional readings or productions at regional theatres. The best combination of all: See a play in production and then read the script. Regional theatres don’t always advertise readings of new plays, so call these operations in your area to see if they’re doing these and then get on an email list. That’s also a good way to gradually become known by those who run these theatres. There’s nothing like having a theatre “know” you to ease the way in for a new script you’ve just finished. Play are beginning to be published as e-books – the number of these is surprisingly small for contemporary work – but it’s a good idea to read scripts in hard copy form rather than as e-books. The e-book format makes it more difficult to sense the underlying structure of a play – including act lengths and placement of the inciting incident and climax, among other elements – since you’re not dealing with traditional “pages.”
Theatre sounds different from film partly because of the treatment of consequences in plays and screenplays. (See Part Six on Screenwriting for more on these differences.) Plays tend to be about the consequences of events while screenplays tend to be about the sequence of events. Like all generalizations, this one is full of holes, but it’s a helpful way to begin understanding the real differences between these dramatic forms of storytelling.More specifically, plays tend to be about the emotional consequences of physical events, though that physicality may have more to do with mental activity than external events (Part Two on Structure addresses the impact of this tendency on the plot structure of plays). Playwrights have a much broader vision of dramatic content and technique than what seems possible in the world of American film and television because regional theatres have a greater tolerance for unusual content and new ways of telling stories.
If plays are about consequences – and they are – that leads to the more difficult question, Consequences of what? The answer to that question has bedeviled the American theatre for many decades. As J. T. Rogers says speaking of Blood and Gifts (his 2011 play about the involvement of intelligence agencies in Afghanistan during the 1980s), “We’re supposed to write three-character plays, with all white people, sitting in a room, talking about Mom.” Joan Holden, co-founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, made the same point four decades earlier, noting that with all the terrible things happening in the world – economic, ecological, political – the dominant subject on U.S. stages was the American family. In all those years little has changed on the subject list for American plays – a fact that is often noted with some bemusement by our theatre colleagues in the UK. Unlike J. T. Rogers, why the majority of U.S. playwrights focus on family problems in America is perhaps unanswerable, though it is curious that UK dramatists embrace a much broader focus.
One answer may be that most of the new plays produced by American regional theatres are ultimately family or personal relationship dramas, even if the triggers for these conflicts are external ones. It may well be that regional theatres mostly select these relationship plays for the new scripts they produce because that’s what most American playwrights write – and most playwrights may be writing these because that’s mostly what they see being done at these theatres. Then, there’s no question that audiences enjoy this subject (admittedly they don’t have a chance to see much else) and this reinforces the writing and selection wheel. What we have in the American theatre may be a vicious triangle maintaining personal family centered plays as the dominant subject of U.S. playwrights. You can make a reasonably long list (meaning 15 or 20 names) of contemporary playwrights who have broken out of this box – among them Lisa Loomer, Tony Kushner, David Henry Hwang, Velina Hasu Houston, Rajiv Joseph – but they’re overwhelmed, at least in numbers, by those who embrace the subject of family and personal relationship problems in America. The world is full of subjects – social, economic, political, scientific – that could lend themselves to dramatic treatment. A lesson European playwrights have known is that one of the best ways to bring these kinds of subjects to life is to explore them through a core of personal relationships. That emotional center – the relationship piece – gives audiences an entry point to what can be difficult subjects, but the ultimate focus is on the larger issues beyond those relationships.
In considering venturing beyond the family problem subject, you’ll certainly have far less competition from other playwrights in terms of subjects. That can be a significant advantage. Admittedly, it’s easier to write a play that’s solely about an emotional interpersonal issue and there’s little controversy about it being much harder to create a play that deals with large issues and to also give it that necessary emotional center. While writing this sort of “large” play may be harder, it’s certainly worth all the creative effort it will require.
This is the classic advice given by how-to books on writing. While there is some truth here, it’s certainly possible – and often much more interesting – to imagine what you know. Usually when playwrights “write what they know,” the thing they know a lot about is only an undercurrent in the play. Michael Hollinger at one point in his life played the viola in a string quartet. That knowledge allowed him to present the inner workings of a quartet and its musicianship with sufficient realism in Opus to make us believe we were in the presence of a real string quartet. But Opus is not about how to run a string quartet or how to play the viola. It’s about Hollinger’s much more interesting inventions of interpersonal relationships between this group of musicians. That’s why the play has been widely produced despite its technical hurdles (the performers need to convincingly fake playing their instruments) and is under development in 2011 for a film version.
If you don’t think you know anything worth turning into a play, odds are you’re wrong. If you’re still convinced of that, doing research into a potential subject is a good way to start. What you research becomes what you know. A playwright wanting to write about a doctor struggling with a cancer patient, could spend a lot of time on medical Web sites and then see if someone they know is a friend of an oncologist, an internal medicine physician, or an oncology nurse who’s willing to spend an hour or so talking about what they do. There’s nothing like face-to-face conversations to sketch out at least part of the basis for a character. Most contemporary plays are not founded on research (the exception being plays based on historical figures or events). This is notably different from the world of fiction where novelists – whether they’re the literary or mass-market sort – often do research to support the stories they tell. The bottom line: If you have ideas for characters and plots, research doesn’t necessarily need to be on your agenda. While research seems like it must always be good to do, be open to the possibility that the idea you’ve been exploring may become a bore. If you’re bored by a story idea, audiences in the theatre are guaranteed to be bored no matter how much research lies behind the play.
Plays may reflect the truth of life unfiltered by the restrictions of commercial film and television, but they have a very selective lens through which that truth passes. Plays in production last anywhere from 90 minutes (the typical minimum) to three hours, but the stories they tell – with rare exceptions – cover a much longer time period, often measured in days or years. So reducing or distilling the “truth” of life into a play will leave a huge pile of discards on the floor around your computer.