Getting started

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Below are some considerations when starting out on a new play.

The first important (and obvious) thing is to have a good idea and a good story to hold that idea. It is also important that you have something to say. This does not mean a didactic message or preachy statement. It does mean however that you have a coherent idea or theme that binds your drama. Without it your play may lack cohesion and be difficult for an audience to grasp. The more passionate you feel about your idea, the more attractive your play will be. If you don’t care for the subject you’re exploring, no-one else will either. Often plays contain universal issues about the human condition. Great playwrights like Arthur Miller and Henrik Ibsen were able to show us the universal in the particular and the provincial. It is one of the reasons their plays have survived so long. They still speak to us because they are still relevant to our lives.

Be entertaining. Entertainment of course is highly subjective. For me, entertainment means being interesting. It doesn’t matter if the play is a comedy or tragedy, holding the audience’s attention is what good drama is all about. It is probably best to write about what interests you and in a theatrical style that appeals to you. Hopefully, your artistic approach will resonate wit audiences. There are no guarantees or magical formulas. It is a creative risk.

A play involves a relationship with an audience. This is an important point. When an audience sits down to watch your play they are entering into a relationship with you through your creation.They trust you and hope you can deliver. You are taking them on a journey and they have expectations. It’s important that you know their expectations and that you meet them. What are these expectations? Each play differs in specifics about this subject, but in general terms, expectations are created around a play’s style, characters, plot, theme and style.

One important thing to know from the beginning is who you are writing for. The intended audience will determine much about how you approach most aspects of your play. For example, there is a big difference between writing for an adult and writing for a child or adolescent. There are, of course, exceptions to this. Some plays or stories can transcend age and other societal demarcations, but generally it is a good idea to know your intended audience.

The length of the play is another important consideration. How long will your idea stretch? Some ideas are better suited to the one act structure, some can span two or more acts. Much depends on the complexity of the story, the themes of the play and the character conflicts to be resolved. There is another practical dimension to be considered. Theatres usually need plays to be of commercial length in order to fit a bill. Many full length plays these days have a running time of about two hours, more or less. Sometimes theatres put on a selection of one act plays to fill the bill. Sometimes a theatre might be looking for a one act play for a lunchtime show. In other words, markets exist for different lengths of plays – it depends on what a theatre is looking for at a particular time. Ultimately, the subject of the play will determine its length and it is important not to pad out a play simply to reach a running time. Padding can destroy the integrity of the play and can be boring for audiences who are usually aware of such things.

One way of beginning a play is (after you have your story of course) to divide the story into a beginning, middle and end. What is the high point or climax of the story? How does the story end (resolution)? How do we get to the climax and resolution? What must happen in the orientation/exposition period of your play to get us to the climax? What are the turning points in your story and when/where do they occur in the play? Next decide how many characters are needed to tell the story and who will be the main character(s). In commercial theatre, usually the fewer the better. Next, where does the story take place – in one location, many locations and over what time period? What is the style of the play? The style you choose will determine a number of the play’s essential elements such as character presentation, performance style and dialogue approach. What is your idea for the set? For example, how will your set suggestions accommodate the flow of the action and the play’s style. The more answers you have to the above questions, the more confidant you will feel about the effectiveness of your play as a performance vehicle.

Sometimes however, despite what I have stated above, it’s best just to start writing. To let whatever is inside you out on the page unimpeded. You will have to write many drafts anyway; each time improving your work and applying the craft. Often it is in the revision and editorial process that you will need to make important artistic decisions and address the considerations mentioned here.

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