Style, when the word is associated with drama and theatre courses, is often used in reference to a period of theatrical history, e.g expressionism, absurdism, etc. There are many “-isms” that have led us to today’s contemporary theatre and any writer for theatre should spend some time studying these influences. Modern plays, however, often exhibit features of a number of styles. Sometimes, too, a writer will experiment with a style or styles in order to create something new.
From a writer’s perspective the word style is more about the author’s way of realizing his/her play. Style is a way of describing the author’s artistic vision and intention which brings together all the staging elements into a consistent dramatic experience.
For contemporary theatre, with sophisticated audiences used to different ways of presenting plays, style is more about the author informing an audience of the approach he or she intends to take towards performance. It’s like saying to the audience here are the “rules” or conventions of my play, this is how I will be applying them. For example, to take just two possible and opposite styles:
a. the actors will be playing many roles, set changes and staging will be apparent or,
b. I want this play to appear as realistic as possible, I want the set and actors’ performance to be naturalistic in appearance and the stage mechanisms to be largely invisible.
Which one of these approaches is best for a play depends on its appropriateness to the subject matter and other practical considerations mentioned below.
The main task for the writer is to establish as early as possible in the orientation/exposition period of the play his/her intention regarding style. The audience then knows what to expect regarding the author’s staging conventions. The other necessary job for the author is to remain consistent to this approach. To suddenly change the way the play is being done will leave a very confused and disappointed audience. Ultimately, dramatic effectiveness is the real determiner in issues of style.
Apart from artistic considerations, the playwright must also consider some practical issues when choosing an appropriate play style. Real-life factors such as the intended audience and intended performance space impinge. Those lucky enough to be writing for a particular theatre will know the requirements of that stage and write accordingly. Their choice of style, their way of realizing the play will be informed by the physical advantages and disadvantages of the actual space they know. Most playwrights however write “on spec”, sending their plays to many theatres, which may have vastly different stages (e.g thrust, intimate, proscenium arch). This presents considerable challenges to the author, as the play must be adaptable enough to work in these different physical circumstances. It can also mean that your script will be simply unsuitable for some venues.
Another real-life consideration related to the “business” side of theatre, that has an impact on style, is budget. Many theatres, especially professional companies, have budget restraints and are cautious about producing large cast plays. As a result they often opt for plays with few characters or for plays where an actor can play many characters. If you write a play with a large number of characters, but where the style (e.g. naturalism) prevents techniques like “doubling up”, you may be eliminating your play from production consideration.
Audience, too, is yet another important consideration regarding style. If a writer is writing with a particular audience in mind, this will affect the style. For example, writing for children is very different from writing for adults – right down to the very words you use.
Another word associated with style is genre. Genre is an expression often used to denote classification or category. A play may be classified broadly, for example as a comedy or tragedy or even tragicomedy. Further categorization is also possible, for instance a play may be a romantic comedy or a black comedy or a farce or a satire. Each play will fall under its own particular heading(s). These headings are useful to the author because they help the writer choose and shape the elements of the play: style, characterization, dialogue, etc appropriately and effectively. A satire, for example, may contain aspects of farce, but the purpose of the drama is very different from pure farce, which is intended primarily to produce laughs. Knowing the satirical purpose of the play should prevent the writer from tipping the style too far towards the comedy of the situation at the expense of the idea the author is trying to convey. In other words, genre helps the author keep to the dramatic purpose or coding of their drama so that the audience knows the context in which the action of the play is taking place and will respond according to the spirit of the piece.
Dialogue, characterization, lighting, set – in fact all aspects of the play are determined by style and genre. I will address some of these elements on other pages.