Writing for the Stage: A Primer

WRITING FOR THEBeing a writer who also works in the theatre has offered me a unique perspective on both writing and creating theatre. Fundamentally, they aren’t that different: just variations on the transmission of narratives. However, the reason that so many genres exist is that certain stories belong as fiction, and others as movies, and some are made for the stage.

When a show ends, for a few days, my body sizzles with leftover energy, like a tree in the wake of a lightning strike.

— S.M. Stevens

If you have an idea that you think belongs on the stage, what do you do to realize that goal? How do you write for the stage effectively?

Get involved.

I like the ephemeral thing about theatre, every performance is like a ghost – it’s there and then it’s gone.

–Maggie Smith

The best way to learn about the theatre is to participate. Through playwrighting classes, it became very obvious to me that people who don’t do theatre don’t know how to write for the theatre. For example, they were writing scenes with fireworks at a baseball stadium, and had drastic scene changes every few pages. As we will discuss in greater detail below, these things just aren’t feasible. If you’re passionate enough to write in the genre, why not channel that into production as well?

There are plenty of community theatres, and if you’re in school there is almost certainly some sort of organization for you. Theatre really does have something for everybody, so if you don’t know how you want to be involved, find a low-pressure environment to explore. In addition to the obvious importance of actors, there are electricians, carpenters, costumers, assistant directors… I knew a woman who had never done theatre before, but her experience as a secretary made her a very effective stage manager. Someone who shows up and says “I want to help” will never be turned away.

When it comes to theatre, it can’t hurt to make connections. I think people tend to overestimate the importance of “who you know” to writing success, but in theatre it really does apply. All it takes to make theatre happen is a space and some people, and therefore you can benefit more from enthusiastic friends than from powerful ones.

Learn about genre and formats.

I think the same way about theatre, you go out there and you are creating a world for a moment that can actually have a real impact on people, present some kind of story that gives you something to think about when you walk away, feeling enriched – if it works out well.

–Jeffrey Jones

The most common forms for plays to take are full-length, one act, ten minute, and monologue. Most contests and opportunities ask for one of these things, so it’s worth looking up the requirements for each and trying them out.

Also, the format of the page matters, and not just out of adherence to convention. Each page, when formatted correctly, is about a minute of stage time, and therefore the length of a script can be accurately judged by potential performers.

Think about casting.

When you step from the wings onto the stage you go from total blackness to a blinding hot glare. After a moment you adjust, but there is that moment. like being inside lightning.

–Meg Howrey

Many theatres won’t want to hire more actors than they have to, especially for small roles. Therefore, keep extraneous characters out of your plot. Ditch the classic butler, for example. If someone has a small role but is really indispensable, maybe include notes about doubling up.

On the other hand, many high school theatres (in my experience) are looking for something with a big cast so they can include as many students as possible, so keep this in mind if it fits your creative interests.

Consider the technical aspects.

Backstage was chaos distilled into a very small space.

–William Alexander

Putting on a play is an extremely complex endeavor, and your script should acknowledge that. Not every theatre has the same resources, and grand expectations may cause smaller theatres (where you have the best chance!) to pass on your play.

Try to trim down the amount of technical feats you demand. This includes complicated scene changes, specific lighting, sound effects, and magical disappearances, among other things. I think scenery is the most common place that beginning playwrights make ridiculous demands; if your introductory scenic description takes up more than a few lines, ditch at least half of it. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have scene changes, but sometimes just “Kitchen” or “Classroom, with desks” will do, instead of a long description of a perfectly realistic set. A propsmaster, scenic designer, and/or director will look through the script and decide what is necessary. Pare everything down.

Learn to let go.

The best author is a dead author, because he’s out of your way and you own the play. Take what he has given you and use it for what you need.

― Stella Adler

This step is twofold, and involves both the writing process and the performance process. Yes, it’s your baby, but you have to let it learn and grow and make its own mistakes. Once it’s out of your hands, your script is a living organism. Let it breathe.

Firstly, go through and remove any stage direction that isn’t completely necessary. This ties into my last point, but also includes most blocking (that’s a director’s job) and, especially, notes on how to say lines. My first drafts are full of physical descriptions of characters, blocking, line notes like “(angrily),” sumptuous lighting design fantasies, and other huge faux pas. That’s fine; we all do it. Just don’t let them survive into the final draft.

Secondly, if your script makes it to the rehearsal room, don’t be controlling. It’s myopic, and if you truly want what’s best for your story you won’t do it. Believe it or not, competent actors and directors almost always have a better, broader understanding of how the finished product should come together than the playwright. Trust them. In my experience, actors will do things with a script that you never even thought of. I found it incredible and impressive, but even if you don’t, consider which of your critiques are really necessary.

If something is really going wrong, don’t tell the actors directly. Bring it to the director, whose job is to keep the entire operation moving smoothly and towards the same artistic goal. Phrase your issue as input or suggestions, rather than an order.

As a playwright, you are one cog in a machine made of many. Respect everyone else and the hard work they do, and the experience they bring.

Find opportunities.

Whether you are a writer or an actor or a stage manager, you are trying to express the complications of life through a shared enterprise. That’s what theatre was, always. And live performance shares that with an audience in a specific compact: the play is unfinished unless it has an audience, and they are as important as everyone else.

–Lee Hall

Writing a play is not like writing a poem or a short story. You don’t put it in the mail and forget about it for a few months. And success is not measured by publication, which is rare, but by “butts in seats.”

In my experience, bringing your play to friends involved in theatre is the best way to get your piece on stage. My one-act was brought to life by an enthusiastic director friend who didn’t want to pay royalties, and a full-length musical I have been involved in started out as a one-man-show that was brought to the director. There’s no need to be pessimistic here: the adage “it’s all about who you know” really means that there are many, many in-roads for you and your play.

If your work is shorter, contests may be a good option. Simply Google it, and look for opportunities that fit your piece (or, modify your piece to fit them).

Good luck, and feel free to ask any questions that I didn’t address!


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