Art of Theatre
Published in WCDR’s Word Weaver, July/August 2007.
By Jessica Outram 2007
The most important lesson I have learned as a playwright is to let go. The magic of theatre is created through collaboration. You write the words, directors plot the movement, technical designers ensure the actors can be heard and seen. Actors use the dialogue to determine relationships, motivations, and subtext. Every member of the creative team plays an integral role in bringing your script to life.
It is our jobs as playwrights to inspire the creative team and to connect to our audiences. Arthur Miller said, “A playwright lives in an occupied country. And if you can’t live that way don’t stay.” Theatre is a community event.
Let me share with you the steps I followed to get my most recent play, Once Upon A Rocking Chair, from the page to the stage.
STEP #1 Attend Theatre
See as many plays as you can. Take notes about what works and what doesn’t work. Watch the audience. How do they react to monologues, jokes, swearing or dramatic tension? In theatre, 80% of the story reaches the audience through the ear, 20% through the eyes. The writing is important.
From this moment enjoy a play from the playwright’s perspective. Better yet, volunteer with a local theatre company. Directing One-Act plays for StoneCircle Theatre in Ajax inspired me. The scripts jumbled in my head for weeks. I was living and breathing theatre. Sitting in the audience on the third or fourth performance of the run, a premise appeared before me and my play was born.
STEP #2 Create your Premise
Every scene, setting, character, line, and gesture relates back to your premise. Essentially, it’s the playwright’s thesis—a succinct summary of the essence of your play. Consider the number of actors onstage and the type of venue you prefer for your play.
For Once Upon a Rocking Chair, I envisioned a small stage, minimal props, one set, and six actors to appeal to smaller theatres.
The premise: “It’s the coveted girls’ week at the cottage. Three sisters and their daughters’ battle over the validity of ‘happily ever after’ in the midst of planning an 85th birthday party for wicked Aunt Flo. Deep-rooted secrets are revealed and the annual festivities become ones that nobody will ever forget.”
STEP #3 Write the Play
Go with your process. Write a brief outline or a detailed one. Or, write the story as it comes from beginning to end. The first draft of Once Upon A Rocking Chair was completed in three weeks. I wrote at every available moment and allowed the scenes to pour out of me.
While writing, I imagine all the action occurring on the stage—try to hear and see your play as you write. Practice line delivery in front of the mirror. Experiment with speech patterns and rhythms. Become the characters you create.
STEP #4 Revise
Excavate your play for layers of meaning. Begin a lengthy revision process that condenses and selects moments. For me, the revision process takes months. Each week I focus on a different layer. Rewrite scenes in two or three different ways. Free-write monologues detailing the characters’ back stories. Play.
Ensure your Acts are divided into Scenes which are divided into Beats. Play with the Beats—orchestrate the rise and fall of action and emotion.
Examine character. Allow your character to grow through what s/he conceals, rather than through what s/he reveals. Aim for sparse, conversational dialogue. There should be a lot of white space on the page. If you find yourself writing dialogue that reveals details both characters already know, stop!
Explore conflict. The Chinese symbol for conflict translates to danger and opportunity. Your play can only be as fascinating as the forces of antagonism. Improvisation can be a powerful tool in developing conflict. What values are at stake? Love? Freedom? Life? Courage? Does the charge change throughout the play or scene?
STEP #5 Take it to the Stage
Find an audience for your play. I had the opportunity to workshop Once Upon a Rocking Chair with StoneCircle Theatre. Actors prepared a staged reading of the play and the audience provided feedback. Another option is a cold reading: invite friends over to read your play and offer suggestions.
You may find a company to produce your play or you may wish to produce it yourself. Find a venue. Hire a director and actors. Or apply to have it included in the Toronto Fringe Festival.
STEP #6: Curtain
Finally, let go. Know that the director, actors, and crew will want to put their stamp on your play. Remember that actors will forget lines, directors will ignore stage directions, and audiences may miss a detail or two when they zone out for a moment.
Likewise, the cast and crew will reveal meaning in moments you didn’t realize were there. Audiences add the laughter and the tears. You may even find that people begin quoting lines from your play at the bar. Embrace the unpredictability of theatre. Revel in the collaboration and the magic will happen, I promise.