THE FUTURE OF THE THEATRE
A STATEMENT FROM OUR EXECUTIVE TEAM: ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE CLOSES ITS STAGES UNTIL AUTUMN 2020
More than ever before, we will be using this page to share provocations, tips, tutorials and advice all with the aim of helping you shape and develop your writing practice. Each resource approaches things from their writers’ own perspective – so take from each one what you like!
For more information on some of the things that our readers may consider, we hope this list is useful.
After a meeting between Simon Stephens and writers from the Royal Exchange's Playwriting Group, last autumn, we compiled the following list of questions.
They might work as starting points to think about just some of the decisions that go into the making of a play. They might, alternatively, work to help clarify or focus a play while re-drafting it. They are questions that encourage all of us to think about what exactly a play is and how plays work in theatres as well as help writing our own plays.
• Why am I writing drama as opposed to any other literary form?
• Why am I writing for theatre as opposed to any other dramatic medium?
• What do I want to do to my audience? How do I want to effect or change them?
• What are my themes? What are my subjects? What is the relationship between my themes and my subjects? What am I writing about? What do I want to say about these subjects? What questions do I want to ask or encourage the audience to ask?
• Am I telling a story? If so, what is my story?
• What is the relationship between the narrative (the whole story of the lives of my characters) and the plot (the bits of that narrative I have chosen to stage for dramatic effect)?
• What do we know before the play starts?
• When and where does the plot start? When and where does the plot end?
• What happens on and off stage and what is the relationship between the two?
• How long is the play and what is the impact of that length?
• How many scenes are there? How long are they? How are they ordered?
• What happens between scenes?
• Where is my play set? What world is it set in? What is the geography surrounding and contextualizing my play? What spaces are the scenes in?
• What period of history is the play set in? When, within that history are the scenes set? What time of day are the scenes set?
• What is the political geography outside the scenes? (Population, culture, political establishments and structures, political climate)
• What is the physical geography outside the scene (terrain, weather etc)?
• How does the political or physical geography impact on the scenes or on the behavior of my characters?
• What is the role of actors in my play?
• Do they talk, sing, move or dance (and any combination of these)?
• Are my actors pretending to be other people, ie. are they playing characters?
• How many actors are there and why?
• How many characters are there and why?
• How many characters does each actor play and why?
• How are the actors distinguished- is it by name or other means?
• If my actors are playing characters how do those characters function within the play and how do they effect or refract my themes or ideas or questions?
• If my actors are playing characters what do they want from the story of the play and what is stopping them from getting what they want?
• And so what do they DO to try and overcome those obstacles and get what they want?
• Who is talking?
• Who are they talking to?
• Why are they talking?
• What do they say and how? What tense do they use? What person do they speak in?
• How am I using language to affect my audience and explore my ideas or ask the questions I want to ask?
• In what register are they talking? (We talk differently to a 5 year old than we do to a 55 year old)
• How long are their paragraphs, sentences, and words?
• Is there a pattern in speech?
• What vocabulary is used and how?
• What type of sentence do they use? (Question, command etc)
• Do they use of idiom and colloquialism?
• What is the relationship between language and content?
• What do they reveal?
• What are they doing physically?
• Why are they doing it?
• What is the relationship between their physical behavior and the themes or questions or ideas of my play?
• How does their physical behavior juxtapose or contradict what they say?
• If they are pretending to be other characters taking part in a story how does their physical behavior help them get what they want?
• How do I use images to juxtapose with language over time in order to affect my audience and to explore my ideas or ask the questions I want to ask?
Theatrical form is controlled or "wrought" by these questions being answered. The decisions you, the playwright, make, inspired by these questions (and others!), absolutely define the plays you write and the theatrical experience you help make. Simon Stephens
• Do the characters feel fully formed?
• Have they earned their place in the play and do they go on a journey?
• Do they or their perception of the world around them fundamentally change through the play?
• Do the characters interact and seek to change one another?
• Do the characters have complex emotional and psychological dynamics, motivations and objectives?
• Is the dialogue theatrical, dramatically active and does it flow?
• Is there a strong sense of individual identity through the dialogue, idiom, place and motivation?
• Does the dialogue create present tense action and reveal character?
• Is there a sense of linguistic control, inventiveness and the use of metaphor and theatrical and linguistic imagery?
• Does the writer have control over the rhythm and pacing of the script?
• Is there a logic to the plotting and a clear sense of how the plot emerges from the story?
• Has the writer successfully created a consistent and coherent world?
• Does the narrative move with a sense of momentum?
• Is the theatrical structure of the piece reflecting the themes of the piece and aware of the audience’s journey through the narrative?
• Is there a strong sense that this play will best exist on stage in the live shared dynamic between actor and audience?
• Is there clarity about how the play might engage an audience and what it wants to do to them?
• Is there a physical life to the play that creates a sense that it is written for the stage?
• Is there clarity and ambition of what the writer wants to communicate, question and explore that is reflected not only in the story but also the form that the story takes?
Duncan won two Bruntwood Awards (2005) for his play MONSTER (Royal Exchange). Other plays include LUNGS (Paines Plough/Sheffield Theatres and Studio Theatre Washington DC), REISE DURCH DIE NACHT (Schauspielhaus Koln, Avignon Festival) and THE MOST HUMANE WAY TO KILL A LOBSTER (Theatre 503). He has been Writer-in-Residence at the Royal Exchange, Paines Plough and Studio Theatre Washington DC. He has written extensively for BBC Radio.
Questions to ask of your scenes:
Here’s a checklist you can use when writing a scene. It can be used while planning a scene or when rewriting.
- DRAMA is about LIVE DECISION MAKING. Character is only truly revealed by the decisions they make when under pressure, and the decisions they make further the plot. Plot IS character. At the heart of the scene your characters should be confronted with a decision, the outcome of which will affect the course of the story.
- DRAMA TAKES PLACE IN THE PRESENT TENSE. Information is not dramatic. Avoid characters describing events from the past unless they’re doing so tactically to achieve something in the present. EXPOSITION is dramatically inert. Concentrate on characters pursuing immediate objectives.
- OBJECTIVES. What do your characters WANT? This should be as concrete and specific as possible so avoid abstractions or generalisations like ‘respect’, ‘love’, ‘forgiveness’ and go for things like ‘to get his wedding ring back’, ‘to see her tattoo’ or ‘to destroy the letter’.
- TACTICS. What are they DOING to get it? What TACTICS are they using? Do they charm, threaten, seduce, deceive, beg?
- SURPRISE. Are their actions SURPRISING? The most interesting characters behave in unpredictable ways; the dullest do exactly what we expect.
- RISK. Do any characters take a RISK? Is there tangible JEOPARDY?
- STAKES. What is at STAKE? What is to be gained and lost for each character? What is to be gained should be the same size as what is to be lost – it should be a difficult position for the character to be in.
- SUBTEXT. Are your characters outward actions betraying their internal desires?
- REVERSALS. Are there frequent and surprising REVERSALS? When a tactic doesn’t work what new tactic do they employ? What happens when a character does get something they want? What if they definitively fail to get something?
- OBSTACLES. What OBSTACLES are in their way? Not just external obstacles but internal/psychological, and inter-personal.
- TIME PRESSURE. What is about to happen? Every scene should be a window of opportunity in which time is running out to make a decision. If they have all the time in the world, there’s no drama.
- ENVIRONMENTAL PRESSURE. How does the setting of the scene impact on the behaviour of the characters? Is it loud? Cold? Late? Are the characters in close proximity? Make the SETTING interesting and make sure it affects their behaviour. Is the scene PUBLIC OR PRIVATE? How does this affect the behaviour of the characters?
- IMPACT. How is each character AFFECTED by the outcome of the decision?
- RITUAL. What is the RITUAL and how is it SUBVERTED and DISRUPTED? The best scenes have an immediately recognisable structure which is then disrupted - wedding/funeral/driving test/first date/visit to the vets etc. What are our expectations and how are we surprised?
- When is the EVENT of the scene? Does it happen at the beginning, middle or end?
- What CHANGES? Is the change REVERSIBLE or IRREVERSIBLE?
- What is the CAUSAL impact from the last scene and what is the impact of this scene on the next? Each scene should be like a domino knocking on to the next and creating dramatic momentum.
- Is this scene NECESSARY TO THE PLOT? Every scene must earn its place.
- Is there a VALUE CHANGE for the characters? How are they different at the end of the scene to how they began it?
- What new INFORMATION is revealed about the characters and their situation?
- What can we SEE? How does the physical action/visual picture of the scene tell the story?
- Should there be ANOTHER CHARACTER in this scene? – Terrence Rattigan advised putting a third character into scenes that weren’t working, a character who shouldn’t really be there.
- How is this scene DIFFERENT to what went before and what comes after?
- What is the TONE of this scene? Tone is one of the hardest things to get right and one of the most important.
- Is it THEATRICAL? Why is this scene on stage rather than on the page or screen? How is the audience positioned in relation to it?
The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting website contains a section filled videos, podcasts and blogs to help you develop your writing. Head over to: writeaplay.co.uk/writing-resources