Thursday, January 25, 2018

Writing For The Stage

It’s 2018 and time for a new start. At least, that’s the received wisdom, but I have to say I don’t usually agree with that. After all, the date is arbitrary – everyone complaining that 2016 was a terrible year for deaths – yes, it was, but it wasn’t the year’s fault! Anyway, I’m going along with the whole business for a while for several reasons. First – as the world of publishing – and, indeed, the world – has changed over the last few years, being a traditionally published novelist is no longer rather a feather in one’s cap, and my sales have dropped as have those of many of my contemporaries. So marketing and visibility becomes essential, and the blog is  important. But you have to make sure people are reading it, and with so many bloggers out there, how can you stand out? Well, blog more frequently, for a start, and regularly. So I’m starting my new regime today with something I wrote in 2001 – long before social media and blogging. Slightly rewritten, of course, and I can’t think why I wrote it, now, unless it was part of the course I was teaching at the time, for either the Kent Adult Education service, or the WEA.  And, as both my mystery series have a theatrical back ground, and in a recent poll on my Facebook page readers were asking about Libby’s writing for the stage, so I thought I’d treat you to my thoughts on this. You never know – there might be a budding playwright out there!

So, how do set out to write for the stage? The same as any story.  Think up beginning middle and end in the same wave pattern that you would for a novel or short story.  Work out a synopsis, what’s going to happen in each scene.  Work out your characters - give them a  motivation, remember to think about what they’ve just been doing before they come on stage.  Remember that although you and the actors will know what’s happening, the audience will be seeing it for the first time and have to have everything made clear, but not in the “As you know, our father, the multi-millionaire who made his fortune in non stick zips for American troops, has just left our step-mother, the tart with a heart of gold...” etc.  Introduce the characters individually, so that the audience knows who they are, don’t overcrowd the stage (or the audience’s brain, collective, you notice).  Don’t forget any of the characters.  Don’t bring someone on with a big scene and then leave them out of the rest of the play.  Just as in a novel you don’t name the waiter unless he has an important part to play later on, or the audience (or the reader) will be wondering where they’ve gone and whether they should have noticed something.  They won’t trust you and the construction of the play will be undermined.  And when you’ve finished, go through and make sure you haven’t left anyone on stage when they should have been off, or given them a line when they aren’t on.  Remember viewpoint, just as in a novel, one character can’t know what the other is thinking, even if you do!  Your voice, the voice of God, cannot come through, except in any message you’re trying to put across. 

Give your characters something to work on.  Don’t make them bland.  Make the dialogue self evident, so that the actors know how to say the line without a stage direction telling them:  ie “softly” “intimately” “angrily”.  Try and use “natural” dialogue leaving out the ums and ahs as in a novel.  However you can indicate people cutting the other off or “line capping”,  where one character breaks into another character’s speech. And just hope the director remembers to tell the actors not to leave too long a gap between the lines!  There is no time here to go into different styles of playwriting, so I will assume a straightforward narrative play, rather than “Pinteresque” dialogue, where the audience are being asked to make a connection between one line and the next that is other than the simply mundane.  This sort of dialogue can sound completely inconsequential or nonsensical unless very carefully handled.  Think Godot and Caretaker. (Beckett and Pinter, for those wot might not know.)
Technical:  work out how long each page of dialogue takes to perform.  Rough rule of thumb, 2 mins per page.  Not always, because if you have a lot of stage directions, they read longer than they take to perform, usually.  Think about the set.  You don’t have to design it, but have a picture of it in your head, at least and make sure that it is workable.  Don’t have a grand staircase in the middle with a huge window at the top if there’s nowhere for the actors to go when they get there.  Remember, what goes up must come down, preferably on foot.  And, if you’re writing for the small stage, make sure you have enough but not too many entrances/exits, and don’t keep changing scenes or the back stage crew will go on strike.  If you must have scene changes, make sure you have thought about them first - don’t have a full scale Victorian sitting room complete with grand piano and fireplace and a quick change to the knot garden complete with knots.  A play these days is usually two acts, so if there must be a scene change, try to keep to just one and use the interval for the scene change.  If there are small scenes between two people that should take place other than on the main set, use stage directions to take the actors right downstage left or right and light them in isolation, while keeping the rest of the stage dark.  Try to keep these sections in the same place ie dsl for a passage in the mansion, dsr for the millionaire’s office.  Don’t keep changing the venue, or the audience will be thoroughly confused (see seeing it for the first time).  Time passing on a single set can be fairly simply achieved with lighting changes ie blackout, during which “props” (property master or mistress, tasked with providing properties and “dressing” the set.) come on and replace daffodils with roses, roses with holly etc.  Steel Magnolias does this as throughout the play the seasons change.  (Different curtains, cushions, simple costume changes).
Stage directions:  dsr is downstage right, dsl, self evidently, is downstage left. Up and down down centre – back of the set or right down the front!  Tabs are curtains, and there are often more than one set.   Don’t forget to give stage directions (exit left, lights cigarette - non pc these days) and make sure that the set design in your head allows the moves to be made.  Each director will redesign your play according to the facilities and their resources, and the same with the moves according to their interpretation, but you must make sure that the play will work if done exactly as per script.  Your directions should also include lighting and sound effects, and again, make sure these are workable.  Don’t demand the entire aurora borealis if the play might be performed in the village hall.  If you are writing for a specific group or company, then you will know their limitations and strengths, but if you’re writing for publication then many different companies of differing abilities might perform it, so suggestions for simplification will not come amiss.
Don’t ask for a purple bottomed baboon as the pet of the lady of the manor.  Props will not thank you.  Make sure that props are thought about and listed at the end.  The playwright has to provide a props and furniture list, a lighting plot and an effects plot at the end of a script.  Remember to go through and make sure you have included all the props in the list, or you will have the heroine coming on to find the handkerchief the hero has dropped - only she doesn’t.  Possible end of play.  
Remember that the props might be personal ie taken on by a character and state that in your list.  If you are going to use music, check that you, the company or the venue are covered under PRS, so suggest music but make sure (all I’ve said is make sure) that there is a note in the script to point this out.  Don’t have a concert pianist playing the piano in full view of the audience.  The Piecrust W I Players might not have a concert pianist.  Don’t specify ethnic minorities or religions unless it is specifically written for a company made up from these.  (Remember The Crucible and Tituba? It is essential that Tituba is shown as a South American Indian slave, and some casting directors might have a problem there!  The Crucible is a classic.  You’re not writing a classic yet!  or you wouldn’t be here.)
When you’ve done all that, go back and go through it with a tooth comb to check that the characters come on and off where they should, you haven’t had Fred meeting Joe for the first time and saying “Hello, Joe!” when he doesn’t know his name.  (Yes, I know it sounds stupid, but it happens.)  Make sure you’ve indicated the sound of the Rolls Royce pulling up on the gravel outside before  Lady Fanacapan says “Hark, I hear a car.”   Then make sure (again) that the running time is roughly two hours.  That’s as long as an audience used to East Enders will sit still without asking you to push the pause button.  You’ll give them 15 to 20 minutes in the middle to refresh and relieve themselves, so count that in.  And yes, I know that Nick Nick (Nicholas Nickleby) runs for hours, but Dickens and the RSC are a law unto themselves - and so are their audiences.
Have fun - anything I haven’t said?

I expect a lot of this is in my book Writing a Pantomime, a few illustrations from which appear here, done by my talented late husband.  (Badly photographed by me!) The book is still available from Accent Press and is in (I think) its third edition. Well, there we are. I’ve started. Next week I’ll have to think of something else, so do let me know if there are any aspects of my life, or Libby’s, that you would like to know about and I’ll do my best.  Thank you for reading. Oh – and a Happy New Year.

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