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Catherine Lamm

Director & Audition Coach

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Playwriting


The Play's the Thing!

Dateline: 19th October, 2004

Catherine Lamm is not only a BTG New York-based reviewer, she is also a respected director. Here - drawn from her experience of working with new writing - are some valuable words of advice to playwrights.

Throughout the year, many of the established theatre companies have new play competitions or festivals. Some solicit one-act, some full-length plays, some strictly musicals. Some have a more specific themes or target-audiences to their festivals. There are also companies that accept unsolicited scripts throughout the year. For the most part, these are open to new as well as established playwrights.

 

Everyone has a story. Not everyone can write a play. There are guidelines that address basic structure that even the most seasoned playwrights adhere to; or should. Keeping these elements in mind in the beginning can save the writer from major rewrites.

 

The first question to be answered is "What one thing do you want to say about the human condition?" This may seem a very obvious requirement. It should be, none the less, kept in mind and referred back to as the play unfolds on the page. If you find that you are addressing two different aspects, say love and greed, you will want to be very careful that the two relate to each other in a fairly obvious way. Otherwise you are writing two plays and only the very brave and veteran, if not foolish, should attempt to cover this terrain.

 

This tale should be told through the action of one character, the leading character. On what one character flaw is the author focusing? how does this initiate the action of the play? and how is this changed during the course of the play? It cannot be over-stressed that keeping the action of the play moving forward through this character will help keep you on track.

Every scene that does not include the main character should be examined to make sure that it reflects back to this character, his/her character flaw or action. And every character that is included should be a tool for the author to use to move the action forward and keep it focused on this character.

 

Characters and actions should be realistic within the context of the world that has been established in the play. Having a Medea in Our Town probably will not work or be believed by the audience!

 

Every character and every scene that does not move the plot forward should be eliminated. Most authors have a beloved character or scene that they hate to part with. This can bring about a deadly reckoning. You will either have to make this character or scene work for you and the play or remove it.

 

The other problem is "repetition and redundancy." Most first drafts are weighted down with material that would not be missed. "I didn't need this. What good does it do?"

 

There are also those pesky statements of the obvious. If the doorbell rings, the character does not need to say, "I'll get the door."

Harder to detect is having two characters that serve the same dramatic function. It is sometimes difficult to consolidate two characters into one or to completely eliminate a character. Thinking about how each character serves the plot before you start writing can help you avoid the reworking during rewrites.

 

Yes, that character or scene may have all the funny lines but they should be the tools of the author not the other way around.

The climax should be the point at which the lead character faces his flaw and deals with it or succumbs to it. Where does the climax occur? If the climax is at the beginning of the second act, what is happening afterwards?

Do not be a slave to form. Do you really want to write a musical or a comedy about the execution of a group of high school students?

 

The one place where new playwrights falter is in the inevitable rewrites. This is when it can be very useful to gather a friendly group of actors to read the play through. The author not only can take advantage of hearing the play in the hands or out of the mouths of actors but can also, if open to the process, get excellent feedback. Actors know what works for their character and the play.

 

Go back and ask the basic structure questions. Who is the central character? What one character flaw do you want to illuminate and examine? Does every character and every scene help move the plot along? And most important, what can be eliminated?

It is not a bad thing to think about the play on its feet. Think about all of the production values in relation to the cost that it will add to the production. It will be difficult to find a producer to be interested in a musical with fifty soldiers in uniform and with three complete and realistic set changes. Also think of the audience. A play that is 150 pages long will probably have a running time longer than most audiences want to sit.

 

There is a wealth of good plays to read. Figuring out why they are good can help an author face his own weaknesses. And there are plenty of books on playwriting. Reading can be as important as writing.

 

There are a lot of reasons why plays fail. Sometimes all of the elements of a play look like they should make for a winning combination. The story is riveting. The director arrived with a string of glowing successes. It was written by an accomplished and established playwright or musician.. The cast could be made up of talented and seasoned actors, singers and dancers. It might have the luxury of development and rehearsal time and money. All these jewels can still fail to make an artistic success.

A good solid structure in a well-written play with interesting character and plot will not guarantee success. But any weakness can spell failure.