Tag Archives: playwriting

Playwriting and intellectual snobbery

A couple of articles turned up in my social media streams this week that related to writing plays. The first was this one,  a letter from a playwright to the actors that perform his plays. The article had been reposted with a series of victorious comments underneath, of the order of “Yeah! That’s the way! You tell ’em!” and so on.

I read the article and felt a little discomfited. From a certain point of view (as Mrs Dim helped me see) the author isn’t saying anything outrageous. He’s saying that, in writing the play, he believes he has included all the information the actor needs to perform the piece as intended, that there’s no need for interpreting or improvising, and certainly no need to add or remove lines. The actor should enjoy the process of discovering the character through the clues in the text.

I get that.

But the comments below the piece were a little more….virulent. One in particular lambasted actors for taking liberties with his work, and announced that this was the reason he simply HAD to direct every first production of a new piece.

A year or two ago, I went to a reading of one of my plays. It was new, it was untried, and I wanted to hear it read aloud. The actors were people who had performed my stuff before, and they were NICE. It was a cold read, but it went well. At one point, the dialogue prompted some giggling , until one actor pointed out it read a lot like a Harlequin romance (Mills and Boon, for the UK readers). I smiled but felt a little sick. That wasn’t supposed to be over-the-top dialogue, it was supposed to be deep and affecting.

A Little Bit of Holiday Magic

(I didn’t write this one..)

My point is that there’s only so much that you can put into your script as the playwright. The episode above showed that my dialogue might have needed a modifier (“Read this as though it’s serious!”) but more likely it just needed re-writing. You can take the Pinter route and put in every pause and beat the actor must take, you can underline the parts that need emphasis and you can dictate the colour and size of the props. But what does that leave for the actors and directors? Are they simply a vehicle for your words? I don’t think so.

I get ideas for stories, and some of them are plays. I write a script that is my best attempt to communicate the story that I see in my head. It’s never going to be exact, because, as the professor who lives down the road never ceases saying, we’re using language developed so monkeys can tell each other where the best fruit grows. I put my ideas, my visions, on to the page, and the director and actors bring to life THEIR version of that vision. There’s going to be a huge amount of overlap, but the two will never be exactly the same.

Two different productions of "A Time for Farewells". Different, but similar...

Two different productions of “A Time for Farewells”. Different, but similar…

I’ve directed my own plays before. It was a lot of fun, and very scary, and I discovered that I couldn’t get things to be exactly as I imagined them even when I took the actor’s place and declaimed the line for them, so they could hear the intonation.

In “On Writing” Stephen King likens writing to telepathy. He asks the reader to imagine a table with a red tablecloth, on which is positioned a small cage. He points out that, despite him writing the book possibly years previously and thousands of miles from where the reader sits, they are thinking of  the same image as he is, although there will be small differences. The shade of red, the size of the cage, the design of the table…all small differences, but fundamentally the same image.

This is how I view my plays. I sit at my keyboard and imagine a scene. Years and miles later, that scene is brought to life with minor differences, remaining fundamentally the same.

Screenwriters like to complain about the recent fad for crediting the Director with the whole film, pointing out that it hasn’t always been this way, and why should it be a “An Alan Smithee Film” if all he did was tell the actors where to stand when they recited their lines? Well, I think it’s just as unfair for the playwright to expect to gather all the praise for a production, or wield all the power. The script is vital, yes. It should be as complete as possible in terms of communicating what the playwright sees, but it isn’t and shouldn’t be a binding document. It’s the place where the story begins.

(She’s the one in the middle…)

The other article that came to my attention this week was headed “Now Amanda Peet thinks she’s a playwright”. It was just as juvenile as it sounds, a person sounding off at Amanda Peet for daring to write and perform in a play when everyone knows she’s a screen actress. The comments here were much more balanced, with many people taking the same view I did – if she wrote a play and got it published or produced, then she’s a playwright, what’s the big deal? Others were obsessed with the unfairness of someone with acting and theatre connections shortcutting the “proper” route of misery and rejection to get straight to having her work onstage in a big theatre.

The truth is, if any of us struggling writers had an “in” to our favoured arena, we’d take it. Uncle in the film business? Here’s my screenplay. Dad works in publishing? Here’s my novel. Cousin runs a theatre? Here’s my latest play. Brother-in-Law was on reality TV show? Here’s my sympathy.

It’s not wrong to use connections. It may not seem fair, in that it’s not something everyone can do. But JK Rowling didn’t have any connections, just a good idea. EL James didn’t have any connections, just the right idea at the right time. Yes, this means that some people have more success than others who have more talent or ability. That’s sad, but it doesn’t always follow that someone who uses their connections to reach the audience has nothing worth saying. I’d like to see Amanda Peet’s play. I know the ones I read and review tend to be better when the author has had some experience onstage themselves, so I’m sure hers would be interesting. I’d love the chance to talk to her about it. And, you know, while we were talking about stage plays, perhaps she wouldn’t mind looking over this new script I’m working on…?

In fact, the latest script I’m working on turns out to be a sequel to the moderately successful “The Kitchen Skirmishes“. All being well, this new play (as yet untitled) will be published in the new year. Unless Amanda Peet can fit me in somewhere earlier, of course…

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The Inconstant Gardener

Removing another barrow-load of weasels from the garden....

Everybody’s blogging. There’s hardly any room left in the blogosphere. Whatever subject you can think of, someone’s already doing a blog on it. There’s probably a blog on that and how it affects several other subjects you’ve been considering too. You want to blog about Underwater strip mining? There’s probably one out there already.*

The point is, if you want to succeed with your blog, it’s not going to be as easy you thought. Everybody wants to start a blog, set down their words of wisdom and have crowds flock to them. Surely, just the right tags and my genius will be passed organically person to person around the entire international-world-wide-multiweb? Unfortunately, the true secret of blogging is that it’s just as much work as any other bloody thing you want to try.

Take the other day. Time, circumstance and exploding computers had reduced my regular blogging to once in a fortnight. Thus the stats for the day were at six. Only six visitors? The shame! Devoting an hour to reading my subscriptions (the blogs I follow, if you like) I commented (and commented relevantly – very important!) and followed the trail of other commentors. If they read the same blogs as me, they share some of the same tastes. I read THEIR blogs and commented there too.

Just an hour, and hardly an hour’s work…If I had tried to explain to someone else that reading and commenting was work, they’d have laughed in my face. But over the next few hours, as I checked (yes, I’m that obsessive) I saw my visitor stats rise. That solitary hour, engaging with other people, taking an interest in what they had to say, had brought more people back to read my words than all the tags I had posted previously. It WAS work, reading, writing, thinking, revising, trying desperately to spellcheck each comment even though you KNOW there’s going to be one error you only spot as you press “send”.

Blogging is like gardening, in that you have to put things in to get things out. Sometimes what you put in is the regular effort of composition, setting out the thoughts in your head on the computer screen in a way that will engage the interest of others. The rest of the time what you put in is your own interest. Find other blogs that touch you, and tell their authors so. You’ll be amazed how quickly a comment you leave can become a dialogue, then a conversation, and sometimes a friendship.

For more information on improving the greenness of your blogging fingers, take a look at Kristen Lamb’s blog. Read back through her previous posts, and be brave enough to comment. Then follow the trail through Kristen’s commenters. She attracts a good crowd, and there are many interesting blogs out there. But one word of warning : Set a timer, or you could lose yourself in the blogosphere all day….

Each week I blog and forget to mention that I’m actually a playwright. I write plays, pantomimes and sketches and they are published by Lazy Bee Scripts. I have also written a neat little book in PDF form about writing plays for Community Theatre and you can buy and download it here.

*Ok, there isn’t, I checked. But you get some really weird stuff if you type ‘Underwater strip mining blog” into Google. Some people have waaaay too much time on their hands.

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.

Haven’t we been here before?

Just have to take the next step....

It doesn’t seem that long ago that every post I published was about my frustration with the jobhunting misery. First it was resistance to the idea of going out to get a ‘real’ job at all, something I have resisted since going freelance all those years ago. I really, really didn’t want to, and that was all there was to it, no clever arguments, no belief that my writing income would suddenly triple, no great Business Plan to grow that income….I just didn’t want to.

Go ahead, picture me slumped in a corner with my thumb in my mouth. I know how childish I was being. Really I do. After all, Mrs Dim told me.

After the fit of pique had passed, I got stuck into looking for work and the second gloom descended. Finding work was difficult and for several reasons.

First, the economy was not good. Remember the banking collapse and global financial EEEK!? Guess when I was looking for a job?

Second, I hadn’t had a real nine-to-five job since Eldest Weasel was born. I had precisely two people I could call on for references, and they were both connected with my writing. They couldn’t comment on my ability to get into the office on time, dress myself, or talk on the phone coherently.

Third, everyone else I had worked for had either gone out of business, moved on from my last point of contact or, in one case, burned to the ground. That doesn’t inspire confidence in a future employer.

Fourth and lastly, I needed a job that still allowed me to get the Weasels to school and back, at 8.45 and 2.50 every day. So, work hours of 9.15 to 2.30, if I don’t have far to travel.

And honestly, the childish thing crept back into it. Thanks to my portfolio career to date, there is a long, long list of jobs that I never want to do again. I found the one I want to do, I’m doing it, I love it, but sadly, writing plays does not earn enough money to buy essentials like clothes, food and Wii games.

I’m sure there are jobs that fit the hours. Other Mums (and face it, that’s what we’re talking about here: employing a Mum) get jobs and still get their kids to school. But search as I might, I couldn’t find a job I was qualified for that fell within the insanely restrictive parameters.

Finally at Mrs Dim’s suggestion I went along to the hiring session held at the World’s Largest Home Improvement Retailer and lucked out. A job I could do, at hours that suited, for some money. Within driving distance and time allowance. SUCCESS!

It’s not a fulfilling job. It’s challenging enough, trying to remember the location of forty thousand products, trying to placate angry customers who just want a dozen electrical or plumbing questions asked and they can’t speak to the electrical or plumbing guy because there are ten people already talking at him. It’s hard staying on your feet in pretty much the same spot for four hours at a time. But it’s a job.

But this week we had to admit something else. Since June I’ve only had one complete weekend off. I’ve booked holiday here and there, but I have worked almost every weekend since I started work and Mrs Dim is beginning to unravel. She works long hours at her job, which is far, far more demanding than mine, and then she has to spend her whole weekend wrangling weasels alone, and then go back to work Monday morning. Plus, when do WE get to spend time together? We don’t count slumping on the same sofa at nine thirty in the evening spending time together, by the way. On Wednesday we both fell asleep in the middle of whatever we were trying to watch.

So I’m jobhunting again, off in pursuit of the magical job which will only require me to work weekdays, 9-3, preferably closer to home, something clerical, at least $12 an hour, no heavy lifting. And if possible, something that leaves me enough energy to keep on writing, reviewing and appraising scripts in the evenings.

And while we’re wishing, Middle Weasel would like her own Millenium Falcon….