Tag Archives: play script

Play in Focus: The Red Balloon

DSCF3351Prejudice is a terrible thing. It makes you ignore any evidence to the contrary, for one thing. I’m sure my own prejudices are many, but the one that causes me most difficulties is my prejudice about Modern Theatre.

I’m sure there’s an actual definition of that term, but in my own mind I use the term to cover non-representational theatre, or plays that are a little more…challenging than “Blithe Spirit” or “Dial M for Murder”.

It sounds a bit wrong, I know. And let me say, just because I don’t enjoy these types of plays, doesn’t mean I think they are rubbish, or they shouldn’t be written or performed. Hell no, go ahead! Give ’em awards, hand out prizes. Just don’t ask me to go and see one.

My feeling is that theatre is, first and foremost, entertainment. Like all entertainment, that covers a broad spectrum, and there’s room for flat-out fun, for tugging at the heartstrings, for thought-provoking pieces and , yes, for experimentation. But my preference is to come out of the theatre thinking about the performance I’ve just seen, not wondering what the hell it was all about. I’ve never subscribed to the “It’s whatever you take away from it.” school of Art. The Artist should have an intention, if not a message, and the aim should be to communicate that intention to others.

When I began writing plays, I didn’t have a message, as such. I wrote about writing, and I wrote about interesting characters, grouping them together and seeing what happened. But the more I wrote, the more I found I was tempted to push things further, to write something bizarre and avant garde. Exactly why, I’m not sure. I could see how it would go, the nonsensical monologue by a lone character on a bare stage, clutching an unlikely prop. This seemed a promising beginning, so I wrote it down. The Girl was holding a red balloon, and declaiming a rapturous speech about it.

But I didn’t know where to go with this, and the reason I didn’t know was because this was the kind of play I would hate to watch. So I put myself into the audience, and gave a character the guts to stand up and say the very things I would be thinking at such a performance. So it was that The Man takes to the stage to decry the Girl’s ludicrous speech, and she hits back at him by saying this is her big break and she knows it’s all twaddle, but it’s HER twaddle, thank you very much.

DSCF3318

From there it was easy enough to have the three characters (The Man’s wife comes along with him) discuss what’s wrong with the Girl’s balloon speech, and demonstrate the kind of performance they were hoping for. At this point I was asking the questions of myself – what kind of play did I actually WANT to write? Was I really just looking for a simple story, and if so, why not watch TV? What did I think theatre gave people that they couldn’t get elsewhere?

It was a fun thing to experiment with, and I was pleased to discover that the Man and Woman delivered a decent play in the time they had onstage. Then the Woman gets the bit between her teeth and begins to push the process further, further than the Man and Girl want to go. I had known once the process began that I wanted to bring the play full circle, but I thought I was being too ambitious. Once I had finished the first draft I asked my wife to read it through and she made some excellent suggestions that smoothed the path for the play to return to the start point.

That was probably my biggest challenge with this play: I had never had to re-write anything I had done before. My plays were short and produced almost entirely as I wrote them. This time I had to take the suggestions and go back into the script and change things. It was harder than I thought, but very much worthwhile.

This play has proved popular in the time it has been available – many groups have chosen it for the simplicity. There are only three roles, whose ages are not defined, and there is no set. Despite the title, there’s more to the props than the one balloon – at one point the three construct a play scene set in a wartime kitchen that requires at least a table, two chairs and two cups. It’s been performed again and again, in classrooms, colleges, theatres, village halls and at competitions. I’ve been lucky enough to attend a performance, and was delighted with the presentation. I’m willing to apologise for my prejudices, but I’m glad they lead me to produce this play.

Read the full play HERE

The images used in this post were from a production of The Red Balloon by the Mexico Area Community Theatre. Here‘s their Facebook page.

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Hello to Farewells

“A Time for Farewells” performed by FEATS

Kicking off the New Year, I had to resist the urge to write about resolutions, or latest projects, or review the failures/successes of 2011. Well, if not those, what? By far the most popular viewing on this site is the gallery of pictures for “A Time for Farewells“. Not my first play, maybe not even my favourite play, it’s nonetheless very popular around the world.

“A Time for Farewells” produced by Titirangi Theatre in New Zealand

Before getting into WHY it may be so popular, let’s have a brief summary of the plot for those who haven’t read it (and if you want to read it, you can find it HERE).

Alex is a batchelor lad until he meets Sarah. She’s not looking for love, she’s looking for a mechanic to fix her car. The play features episodes from Alex and Sarah’s life, interspersed with the couple themselves discussing their relationship. It’s clear there’s some sort of ending here, that this isn’t a loving nostalgia session, but an autopsy on a finished relationship. The play covers high and lows of their life together before bringing the audience up to date and letting them in on the event that Alex and Sarah are preparing for.

The original production, at RAF Halton, with Mark Blackman and Sue Fox as Alex and Sarah.

I like to think it’s a positive play, that the underlying message is hopeful. But I don’t think that’s what brings people to perform the play. There are some very practical reasons why this is a good one to pick, particularly for One Act Play Competitions.

Firstly, the set is simple. In the original set we had three stage blocks on the left hand side of the stage that could be rearranged to represent whatever location was needed. On the right hand side of the stage we had a bedroom set – actually, just the bed. The right hand side is where Alex and Sarah are when the play opens, that’s “now”. Everything that takes place in the past occurs on the left hand side. We had a doorway between the two, but I don’t believe that’s really necessary. So the set is simple, and doesn’t require any special effects or furniture moving during blackouts.

The cast is small. Aside from Alex and Sarah, there are only two other characters, and they really only appear in cameo. It’s essentially a two-handed play, and those two actors get to really stretch their acting muscles as they run through the life this pair have had together.

There’s comedy. I think that’s inevitable in the plays I write, since there’s very little I can take seriously, but in this case it’s important. Alex and Sarah make each other laugh, and the play is about recognising the valuable parts of their history together and holding on to them – the laughter and the tears.

Finally, it’s about people. The proof that this play is universal came with the success of Alan Leung’s production in Hong Kong. Though we had to have lengthy email conversations to sort out the peculiarities of English idiom (Alan was translating into Chinese, an unenviable task. Apparently the Chinese don’t have an equivalent for the phrase “Under the thumb” when it comes to henpecked husbands…) The Hong Kong production did so well in the competition that it was restaged later on, a tremendous complement.

One of the posters for the Hong Kong production

And after all the positive things, what about the flip side? Is there anything I would like to change? Well the one thing I hadn’t considered when I was writing the play was costume. Alex gets by well enough in a variety of shirtsleeves, but poor Sarah has to go from “stranded business woman” to “bride” to “holidaymaker by the pool” and so on. Most groups have found their own ways around my lack of vision there – in the original production Sue Fox managed to find herself a simple business-style dress that unbuttoned quickly, and went for and equally easy to don wedding dress. There have been other, equally inventive solutions, as the pictures show.

The relationship between Alex and Sarah seems to be one that people can believe in. Perhaps it’s also one they can relate to. Of course, I’m delighted that the play is so popular, and hope there are many more performances of it around the world. If you have a production planned, or if you’ve taken part in one, please let me have some photos to add to the gallery pages.

If you have any questions about “A Time for Farewells”, either about the writing or the staging of the play, feel free to drop me a line at dtrasler3@gmail.com. You can read “A Time for Farewells” and all my other published plays at www.lazybeescripts.co.uk

Setting the scene

Even with a minimal set, the description is important. As is the sofa.

It’s dark. There’s just the rustle of whispered conversation in the auditorium. Then the lights come up and the curtain swishes aside to reveal….What? That’s a pretty big question, and one that’s been very prominent this week.

Reviewing scripts for my publisher has kept me busy for the last three years, at approximately eight scripts a week. At such a volume of material, it’s inevitable that a pattern of errors or common mistakes should emerge, and this week the top offender seems to be a lack of description.

It’s something that’s easy to excuse. The playwright sits at home, imagining their play running on the stage. They concentrate on the characters, on the dialogue, but probably have a vision of the staging too. The thing is, they don’t want to be too proscriptive : if you say “There must be entrances here, here and here, and the heroine must recline on this chaise longue here…” aren’t  you restricting the Director’s creativity? Isn’t it better to just say “Curtains open on a living room” and describe the characters coming and going?

Well, no. If you’re hoping to sell your script, you should be aiming for your writing to conjure up an image in the prospective director’s mind. To do that, you need to describe each set at the top of the scene. That way the director knows what the room looks like as the characters move around it. It doesn’t matter that the director is envisioning a blue sofa instead of a paisley one. It doesn’t matter that he/she thinks a drinks cabinet is six feet tall instead of a little cupboard. What’s important is that when he/she reads ‘Charlie crosses to the sofa” it isn’t the first time the sofa has been mentioned. This is important because up until that moment the reader will have a scene in their heads. You mention, perhaps, a study. For me, that means a chair or two and a desk for working at. I’ll also imagine oak panelled walls. Sorry, can’t help myself*. Anyway, my personal view of a study doesn’t include a sofa. So, when I read that Charlie crosses to a sofa, the sofa appears BING! in the middle of my imaginary study. It’s annoying and surprising. You don’t want someone reading your script to be annoyed.

“But what about the stifled creativity?” you cry. Fair point. This is, indeed a tightrope you have to walk. Your first step here is creating a vision in the reader’s head that means they can see what YOU saw when you were writing the play. They don’t have to get every nuance, but they should understand the physical reality of the world you have built. Their challenge is to translate that vision into the performance space they have. So, in writing for the community theatre where facilities are often more limited, you may want to restrict the number of trapdoors you mention in the stage, or flying entrances, or holographic monsters. But don’t skimp on the description – tell the reader what you see, and do it at the top of the scene so they start with the correct picture in their heads.

*In case you’re wondering, my study doesn’t have oak panelled walls. They’re a kind of yucky green colour. There’s no sofa either.