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All the World’s a Stage: Playwriting for the Screenwriter

December 28, 2018

When it comes to dramatic writing, the allure of the stage is clear. Picture this: every year, approximately 50 thousand scripts are registered with the WGA, and that’s not even taking into the account the number of screenwriters who never register their work at all — another 50K at least, according to Film Courage’s guesstimate of 100K scripts circulating each year. However, when a powerhouse studio like Warner Bros. only puts out eight films that appear unconnected to established intellectual property last year, and say the other major five studios put out similar numbers, this leaves upwards of 100,000 scripts vying for about 40 slots.

By contrast, there are 1,477 theatres in America*, and that’s just the non-profit ones —and the ones most likely to consider scripts from new playwrights. If half even do only one new play a year, the slots available to new scripts — and their writers — go from about the 40 available to spec scripts in the Hollywood studio system, to 738 at a non-profit theatre. And that’s not even taking into account the opportunities, slim though they may be, at theatre's version of the Big 5: Broadway. Additionally, playwrights tend to have more influence than screenwriters during production of their scripts, are often involved in the production process, and often can withdraw a production’s license if they feel it isn’t true to their material. With more opportunity and more input into their own material, it’s no wonder screenwriters are gaining interest in playwriting.

The transition to a new medium like playwriting for an experienced screenwriter is near-seamless. With mastery of the same necessary skills for writing a great film, playwrights need to have their three-act structure down, as well as pacing, thematic elements, and rising stakes. But what are the differences required to succeed in the world of playwriting? Let’s explore those techniques.

Dialogue and Character x 1,000

While screenplays may be sold to audiences on their premise (“Terrorists take the White House” or “Nerdy guys must steal their cat back from a gangster”), a play’s appeal often resides in its characters and dialogue. No matter how low the budget, if you have a great character with great lines and a good actor to perform it who can deliver those lines, you have a show. 

The flipside to this freedom from production costs and high concepts is that those characters and dialogue need to really shine. The best playwrights excel in creating characters actors WANT to perform, and which theatre companies WANT to feature on their stages.  Remember, few talk about the premise of Death of a Salesman or The Iceman Cometh. They are part of stage history and still performed today because of their compelling characters delivering great dialogue. And one of the keys to memorable dialogue? The message behind it.

With every monologue you write (monologues are not only tolerated in plays, they’re encouraged!) ask yourself — or your actor friends — “Would I use this in an audition to showcase my talent?” If the answer is no, go deeper into the character and their voice.  What version of this monologue, and the dialogue around it, will make directors and actors eager to showcase your work? 

Know Your (Theatre’s) Limits

While great characters can attract talent, you want to give the decision-makers all the reasons in the world to say ‘yes’ when it comes to your material. Understanding the practical challenges theatres face will help greatly. Theatre is a world of limitless imagination… and very limited budgets. Over the course of its life, a play may be performed on a Broadway stage, in a black box space with less than 100 seats, or in a community rec room. Not all plays need to be this space-friendly, but an idea which requires a large budget and theatre may be afforded only a sliver of the opportunities granted a more portable show. Even narration might be a deal-breaker if it relies on a sound system. 

Ask yourself what your idea truly needs. Can it be done as a one-person show?  Can many roles be performed by a small cast?  Will actors need costume quick-changes?  If there are multiple settings, how much will the set need to be redressed between scenes?  Even if a theatre has the budget for multiple sets, they may only have the storage capacity for one or two, or one with a front and back, like Noises Off.

If you learn about the constraints theatres face and the creative ways they’ve found around them, like performing a small scene for the audience before a closed curtain while a set is redressed, you’ll be in a better position to help theatres seriously consider your work.         

Creative Scope

On the other hand, the biggest problem some screenwriters face is understanding that theatre is capable of magnificent creative scope; precisely because of its practical constraints we just discussed.

Audiences understand theatres are limited in what they can realistically accomplish. Thus, they are already prepared to help storytellers with a greater suspension of disbelief before the curtain’s even raised.  A cast of six – or even one – can play dozens of roles and no one needs an actual plane on stage to be caught up in a show like Come From Away.

However, this artistic license comes with a price. Because you don’t need to have a literal plane or concentration camp on stage, a playwright must evoke these unattainable props and sets with extra creativity. If you can’t put an assembly line on stage, how can you suggest it? Harsh lighting? A ticking clock? Industrial background noises? Actors repeating movements to connote the work’s repetitive nature? Some of these choices will be made by the director, but it’s important for playwrights to demonstrate a script’s potential for memorable and creative audience engagement. 

Ultimately, just like how screenwriters need to watch and read films in their genre, so playwrights need to watch and read plays. The more theatre productions you see, the more you’ll understand what the medium can and can’t do, and what it does better than anything else! In our next blog, we’ll talk about how to get produced as a playwright, and how the pitching process for playwrights differs from the world of screenwriting. 

* http://www.tcg.org/pdfs/advocacy/FieldGlance04.pdf

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