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ProPlay: Playwrights Wanted

The E-script Virtual Q&A
with guest
Frank Moher
Topic: Playwriting ABCs

During the Summer of 1997, visitors to the E-script website were invited to post questions to internationally-produced playwright and E-script Executive Director Frank Moher. The topic: Playwriting ABCs. This was an opportunity to ask the sorts of questions many beginning playwrights have about both the craft and profession of writing for theatre. Here now are Frank's replies.

You can scroll through both the questions and answers, or use the links at the top to jump to ones that particularly interest you. (Just click on the number.) If you'd like to know more about our online workshops in playwriting and screenwriting, led by Frank and others, click here. And if you'd like to be notified of upcoming Q&As, with top professionals in theatre, film or TV, why not join our mailing list?

Frank Moher's plays have been produced internationally, at theatres including South Coast Repertory (Costa Mesa, Calif.), Detroit Repertory Theatre, Round House Theatre (Silver Spring, Maryland), the Canadian Stage Company (Toronto), the Wellington Repertory Theatre (Wellington, New Zealand), Workshop West Theatre (Edmonton, Alta.), the Asolo Theater (Sarasota, Fla.), Alberta Theatre Projects (Calgary), the Gyre and Gimble Theatre Company (Dublin), and The Mingei Theatre (Tokyo). He has won a Los Angeles Drama-Logue Award for Writing (for "Odd Jobs"), the Edmonton Sterling Award for Outstanding New Play (for both "The Third Ascent" and "Prairie Report"), and is published by the Playwrights Guild of Canada and ProPlay, where his plays Odd Jobs, Supreme Dream, and McLuhan: The Musical, among others, may be read online.

Frank has taught at the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta (where he was a Distinguished Visiting Artist), and is currently an instructor in dramatic writing at Malaspina University-College on Vancouver Island. He has also worked professionally as a literary manager and dramaturg, and writes regularly for various magazines and newspapers, including backofthebook.ca. His most recent play, Big Baby, has been seen in Vancouver, Calgary, and Los Angeles.

Questions on this page (1 of 2):
1: Do you do an outline first, or character sketches?
2: What's the biggest difference between playwriting and screenwriting?
3: What's the right format for a stage play?
4: A playwriting teacher once told me to keep stage directions to a minimum in my plays. Do you agree?
5: What's the difference between a scene and an act?
6: Do you use workshops to develop your plays?

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Do you do an outline first, or character sketches?

Depends. Sometimes, when a play's written on commission (meaning some theatre company has given you money to write it for them specifically), you have to do at least a brief outline so they can see what they're getting. Or you want to do one so you're certain everybody's on side; no "well we didn't think you'd write about that" later. But I try to keep these as simple as possible. I want to, to the greatest extent possible, surprise myself as I write; I've learned that if I can do that, the audience is liable to be surprised as well, and I've always liked John Lahr's notion that all an audience really wants is to be surprised (at least that's what I remember him writing in his book "Astonish Me"). I know, too, that the story is liable to change anyway as I work on it, as I get to know the characters and what they want (in the play and in "life") better. At least I hope it will; I take that as a good sign. As Dr. Frankenstein said, encouraged: "It's Allliiiiiiiiive!!!!" What I do do often is scribble down a new scene order as I work on a later draft, because by then it's useful to keep the whole play in my head as I work on each individual scene. But these usually amount to nothing more than something like "T & K, add V," which tells me the scene will begin with Tom and Kevin, and at some point Veronica will enter; this is usually enough to remind me what the scene's about, what its action is. 

I don't do character sketches. I prefer to discover the characters through their voices (the way they speak) and what they do. I might, though, begin by writing a monologue for them. Where people are more comfortable sketching the characters first (which is sometimes, let's be honest, just another way to avoid writing the play), I encourage them to try what I call a character "collage." This is a haphazard list of details -- important and insignificant, meaningful and random, internal and external, the more specific the better -- that add up to a composite portrait of the character. Sometimes I'll give them questions to answer about the character: what do they do for fun? What's in their purse or pocket? Etc. In this way, people sometimes catch themselves off-guard and come up with material they wouldn't if they were working more deliberately and self-consciously on a prose sketch; it also discourages the tendency to over-psychologize and lard a character with back-story. 

What's wrong with back-story (ie. a character's personal history)? Well, a lot, if it leads to a script where characters sit around too much talking about what happened to them twenty-five years ago. Drama has more to do with what's happening as we watch them now.
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Q: What's the biggest difference between playwriting and screenwriting?

How about if I tell you what makes for a good play, in my opinion, and how I think that differs from screenwriting (my experience as a screenwriter being more limited). 

Plays begin with character and language; the story is generated by the wants and needs of the characters (particularly the central character), and they very often pursue those wants with words. That's not to say they stand around talking all the time; plays aren't chat. Like other forms of dramatic writing, they're about characters doing things. But words can be action; sometimes they're the most powerful tool available to the characters to get what they want. For example, if you want to seduce somebody, a velvet tongue doesn't hurt. (Doesn't hurt later, either, but that's another story.) 

But (as Bill Pace says in his Q&A, elsewhere on the E-script site), words are the least important element in most movies; the story is told, to the greatest extent possible, through images, and through action in the conventional sense of the word -- not talk. I remember when Steven Spielberg accepted an Oscar for "The Color Purple" he said it was time for words to make a comeback in the movies -- but I didn't really see that happening in "The Lost World" or even "Schindler's List," did you? 

Also, story predominates in film in a way it doesn't -- at least not any longer -- in theatre. A play can be about what doesn't happen ("Waiting for Godot") or can be mostly character exploration ("Talley's Folly") in a way that most films can't, or don't want to be. Movies often start with the story, in the form of a storyboard or a treatment, whereas a lot of playwrights begin with a character or two and see what happens. Personally, I'm sorry that film and TV seem to be co-opting the story-telling function, leaving plays to experiment with form and spectacle -- helicopters landing onstage, etc. My favourite plays are still the ones that -- like David Hare's -- combine depth of character with strong stories, and those are the kind I most often try to write.
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What's the right format for a stage play?

Click here for examples.

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A playwriting teacher once told me to keep stage directions to a minimum in my plays. Do you agree? What do you do if something can only be described visually?

Then you describe it visually. Like all "rules," this one, which is basically sound, is to be used with the understanding that, really, there are no rules. Certainly I'd encourage you to avoid what I call "helpful little hints"; those directions that go in parentheses just before the line of dialogue and try to tell the actor how to say it. You know the kind: 

JOE:                (Optimistically.) Hi. 


JOE:                (Angrily.) Hi. 

Much better is to find a line of dialogue that contains the emotion you want. Like: 

JOE:                This is gonna be great! 


JOE:                What the hell are you doing here? 

That way you don't need the "helpful little hint," and there'll be just about no way to play the line other than the one you intend. (I'm hedging because, frankly, if actors want to play against text, they can, regardless of what's on the page; but at least you've made your intentions clear.) Avoid, too, "traffic-directing": indications to cross Stage Left or sit Up Right, etc., etc. It's true you find those in a lot of acting editions of plays, the kind published by Samuel French or Dramatists Play Service, but more often than not they've been stuck in there after the fact, based on the Stage Manager's blocking notes from the original production; they're not something the playwright wrote. Why? Because actors, quite rightly, don't like to be treated like robots, and directors know they're pointless. Every production will have its own exigencies: size, shape of stage, design considerations. Those, and your fellow collaborative artists' good sense, will usually decide exactly where on the stage certain things happen. As playwright, it seems to me, your job is character, language, story -- not directing traffic. (Such directions also get in the way when someone's reading your script -- which you don't want.) 

At the same time, it's important to remember that playwriting, like all forms of dramatic writing, is visual storytelling: most often through what characters do, but sometimes through specific images and movement created onstage. Look at the stage directions in the plays of Sam Shepard, or that moment in "Dancing at Lughnasa" when the women dance. These aren't ornamentation -- they're an integral part of the dramatic action. So, if it's necessary to your play, or, at any rate, the best way at that moment to tell the story, put it down. No playwright should ever have to apologize for writing visually.
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What's the difference between a scene and an act?

The acts are the big chunks; the scenes are the smaller bits. In a typical two act play (and most full-length plays are written in two acts nowadays), the acts will run (to generalize) 45-60 minutes each. Each of those acts may be comprised of smaller units -- scenes. Or, to look at this in a less a**-backwards way: scenes are the units that make up the act, and acts make up the play. 

(This is a great question, by the way; when I teach playwriting, I often get people handing in, say, ten pages of script and calling it an Act. Then we have this discussion.) 

Technically, scenes are defined either by a change of locale or passage of time; anytime you have one or the other, or both, you have a new scene (whether it's labelled as such or not).  Scenes can be 10 seconds long, or ten minutes, or whatever. An entire act of a play may, in fact, be one long scene, if there's no interruption in the action or change in setting. Heck, a whole play can be written in one scene, as per many of the Greek tragedies. 

A more useful way to define "scene," though, may be as a unit of action. It advances or deepens the story in some specific way. We're further ahead by the end of it than we were at its beginning, in the sense that the plot has progressed, or we understand at least one of the characters better (or both). As I begin a scene, I don't ask myself what will be said in this scene, but what will happen in it -- what is its overall action? Once that action's completed, the scene will be over, regardless of its length. In this way, you create forward movement -- important in drama -- and eventually the scenes add up to a play.
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Do you use workshops to develop your plays?

First, we'd better define "workshop" for the sake of those who don't know what we're talking about (or to make sure we're talking about the same thing). When I say "workshop," I mean a situation where the playwright sits down with a director and a group of actors, and maybe a dramaturg (ie., someone who's working on the development of the play with the writer), and reads a draft of the play aloud. This is often, though not always, followed by a discussion of its strengths and weaknesses, and what problems the director and actors might confront if they were asked to stage the play right then. Perhaps the draft will be given a rough staging, script-in-hand. The idea, of course, is that the playwright can then go off and work on the next draft, aware of these problems, and of areas in the play that are ripe for development. A workshop can last a few hours, or it can last a few days or even weeks, in which case the playwright may do rewrites during its course. 

And, yes, I do use workshops. In fact, I find them pretty indispensable. Workshops have gotten a bit of a bad rap over the years, partly because they're sometimes done poorly and do anything but help the playwright. But to stop using them for that reason is like saying we're not going to do "Hamlet" any more because sometimes it's produced badly. Sometimes, with an early draft, all I really need is to sit down and talk about the play with someone who's sympathetic and skilled. Or I may just need to hear the play read, and that's all; that usually tells me a lot about what's to be done next. In my experience, when workshops damage a play, it's often because they've been done too early in the script's development process, before the playwright's clear on what she's attempting, and has taken it as far as she's able to using these other means. 

But when it is time for a workshop, a good one will almost certainly identify problems and areas for development that would otherwise crop up in the first week of rehearsal -- and why wait till then? They're also an effective training ground for beginning playwrights. But how to define a "good" one? Well, that's a long discussion (and you might want to check out Bob White's Q&A, elsewhere on the E-script site; it starts to get into it). but let's just say that a good workshop will let the playwright hear clearly what he's got (without trying to gloss over difficulties in the material), and that if there is discussion thereafter it'll be focussed on helping him finish what he set out to do -- rather than getting him to write the play everybody else thinks he should write.

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