Recently, an old friend forwarded some questions to me from the grown-up child of another friend of his. They recently graduated college and want to become a playwright, and they had four questions.
I answered those and started to include answers to an unasked fifth question that was soon longer than the other answers combined, at which point I realized that I should share this with everyone.
Of course, how I really wanted to respond to them was with a hearty Michael Scott, “No. No! No, dear god — No!” Why would anyone want to become a playwright now, when we don’t even know what the state of theatre will be in five years.
It’s entirely possible that only Broadway and the larger regional theaters survive. On the other hand, we could see a lot of small theater companies pop up to replace the ones we’ve lost and could end up with a huge needs for playwrights — as long as those playwrights don’t expect to make a living at it.
So my best advice would be go into real estate or become a plumber, and then let playwriting be the side gig that you enjoy doing.
But here is my advice, and this also applies anybody who wants to go into any aspect of theatre, like acting, any of the creative design, directing, producing, etc. Just substitute your discipline where applicable.
Learn theatre history
So does every other part of the world. African theatre came out of ancient rituals but — surprise! — that’s exactly where western theatre came from, too. Indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia had their own forms of theatre, with Incan tradition being particularly rich.
Keep in mind, though, that theatre and traditional culture in all of those continents was muzzled and replaced with the European version once the invading colonizers arrived. In modern times, Latin American theatre is basically western theatre, as is the case with Canada and Australia.
Sometimes, an historical style can be the perfect way to stage a modern piece or ideal style in which to write a new one. For example, I saw a production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge that was staged as a Greek tragedy, and it worked. Blood was raining onto the stage by the time it was over.
The director and producers also wisely reduced the cast size since they were not working in the heyday of Broadway in the 1950s, when plays would frequently have fifty or more actors on stage. The incidental neighbors and passersby were cut and were not missed.
Also keep in mind that some country’s traditions do not tell their stories in chronological order, while in others, movement is just as important as dialogue. These can all become brushes in your palette and the hues you use in creating your own works.
Read lots of them, from all eras and areas. Definitely read as many of Shakespeare’s works as you can. Books with is complete works are easy to find and not that expensive — there’s one sitting on my coffee table right now, and I think I have a couple more floating around.
A very important note: Don’t be afraid of the language. Pay attention to the psychology of his characters because he was a master at it. If you follow what the characters need, the language will become clear.
I once played your basic Shakespeare cop in a comedy, and even though the character only had a few lines and mostly served for physical comedy in other scenes, the Bard put enough bread crumbs in there that it gave me my entire character arc and needs — the dude was only interested in the money — and that gave me something to play.
This production also demonstrated how completely adaptable Shakespeare’s works are. The play was The Comedy of Errors and the director staged it in a very colorful 1980s sitcom world. I wound up playing my character as a traditional cop, but with a very heavy stage Irish accent, and had a huge scene-stealing moment in which I and three women in the cast suddenly started River-dancing before being chased off stage by one of the sets of brothers.
Yes, this is the one with not one but two sets of identical twins, separated at birth, and while the director cast two actors with a very strong resemblance as the older brothers, she cast as the younger siblings one black actor and one very white one but dressed them identically — and it worked because the world allowed the audience to just buy into the conceit.
Now, if Shakespeare’s language is a problem at first, watch some of the better film adaptations, because good actors and directors can put the message across — anything by Branagh or Zeffirelli, for example. Do try to avoid Olivier, though. While he’s acclaimed as an actor, I find his Shakespeare performances to be dull and bloodless. No pun intended.
Try to read plays from all the major theatrical eras — Greek tragedy and comedy, medieval Miracle and Mystery plays, Commedia dell’Arte (although those weren’t so much scripted as improvised from stock characters using loosely planned scenarios), and all the major playwrights around Shakespeare’s time, mainly the Bard, Moliere, and Calderón de la Barca or any of the Spanish playwrights working in that era.
Take a quick trip through the Restoration (both comedy and drama). You can find a list of 10 plays you should read here. Be sure to veer around that bit during the Enlightenment when not a lot original was being created but Shakespeare was being bastardized, and then pick it up with Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen, O’Neill, Williams, etc.
On certain playwrights, avoid the plays everyone knows and go for the obscure. For example, with Arthur Miller, skip The Crucible and take a look at the aforementioned A View from the Bridge or After the Fall. With Neil Simon, if you must… (sigh — his stuff comes from a place of such white privilege…) The Prisoner of Second Avenue does at least get a bit deeper into relatable problems.
Once you get past those (i.e. the end of the American Classical phase in the 1950s), look for playwrights who speak to you.
Next up, pick the playwrights you like, and steal their style. There’s no shame in this as a beginning playwright — as long as you’re not stealing their plots, of course. I remember modeling my first attempted (never finished) full-length on the general moods and character types of Tennessee Williams, and to this day, my works are still mostly influenced by Williams, Wilde, Joe Orton, and Tom Stoppard, along with various film directors — for stage, mostly Nicolas Roeg, because I picked up his knack for telling stories out of chronological order, instead telling them in what I call “emotional order.”
Read more than just plays
I’ve always been interested in history and so read a lot about the subject and historical figures, and with only two exceptions, every one of my full-length plays has been based on historical events or real people — although one of those exceptions was a black comedy set during the American Civil War, and the other was inspired by, although not based on, events in my father’s life.
Since history tends to repeat itself, always look at history from the perspective of how it relates to our times, and either mimics current events or provides a contrast. And look at history from other than the victor’s version. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a western written from the Natives’ point of view, at least not on stage — and the few western films that did look favorably at America’s indigenous population still had to have a white character taken into the tribe as the POV character.
Of course, you don’t have to stick with history. Reading about science can lead to important moments in time, as well as very interesting characters — Tycho Brahe certainly had an interesting life (and ridiculous moustache), for example.
Mythology can be a rich source of stories no matter where in the world it comes from. Greek and Roman theatre were pretty much steeped in their mythologies, and all of the MCU and DCEU superhero films are just modern western mythology, even if some of the characters are blatantly lifted from other western mythologies. Yes, I’m looking at you, Thor and Loki.
Even beyond this, just read about a subject that interests you. It can be computer gaming, skateboarding, scrapbooking, parkour, hiking, knitting, kayaking, camping — literally whatever. That’s because reading about these fields of interest can immerse you in those worlds and can suddenly give you ideas for settings and characters for plays.
If you know enough about a subject by reading up on it, you can then create an authentic world on stage and populate it with real, relatable people. For example, the world of knitting, which seems like the most innocent and innocuous hobby in the world, can be fraught with politics and controversy — and the most prominent knitters around today are not senior citizens, but 20-something women. Who knew?
Go to the theatre
Go see plays as much (and as safely) as you can. And while it’s always a nice treat to catch the latest touring musical or prestige play, you’ll learn more by seeing new works produced by small and mid-sized theaters (when they’re back in business again), because some of them will absolutely suck — and you’ll learn more sitting through one bad play than you will sitting through twenty Broadway hits.
Why? Because after a play that just misses the mark, it’s your turn to ask, “Why didn’t it work?” Was it the production and acting getting in the way, or was it the story itself?
If the former is the problem, that can give you great insight into how to actor- and director-proof your works without being obvious. If it’s the latter, then you get to be the dramaturg and fix the story in your head.
Not to mention that I have gotten more great ideas while watching bad plays — and ideas that had nothing to do with that play, but which might have been inspired by one element on the set or a particular character or costume — that bad theatre is perversely worth it in getting a creative education.
It’s always been my belief that anyone who wants to be involved in theatre as a writer (or actor, director, or designer) should do as many jobs as possible at least once. That includes helping to build and strike the sets, running sound or lights or both, directing a play, even if it’s a short one, and acting.
Yes — if you want to be a writer, you need to act in at least one production. It doesn’t have to be a major role. You just need to go through the process, including performing in front of an audience, in order to understand what you shouldn’t do to your actors.
For example, never write a costume change for a character who is onstage at the end of one scene and onstage at the beginning of the next unless you know that a designer can create a quick-change version. Otherwise, start the subsequent scene with some other character or business to give the actor time to change.
Or, if you’re writing for a smaller theater with a limited budget, try to keep it all confined to one set with as few operating doors as possible — did you know that working doors are one of the most expensive things you can install on a set? I didn’t find that out until I wrote a farce with eight of them.
Once again, I got rolling on a subject that just became too long for one post, so check back next Thursday for the second and final part of my advice. Thanks for reading!