Magazine article American Theatre

36 Assumptions about Writing Plays: A Noted Playwright Nails Down Three Dozen Creative Principles

Magazine article American Theatre

36 Assumptions about Writing Plays: A Noted Playwright Nails Down Three Dozen Creative Principles

Article excerpt

Art is the conversation between lovers.
Art offers an opening for the heart.
True art makes the divine silence in the soul
Break into applause.

Art is, at last, the knowledge of
Where we are standing--
Where we are standing
In this wonderland
When we rip off all our clothes...

OVER THE YEARS I'VE HAD THE GOOD FORTUNE TO TEACH WRITING IN a number of schools, from second grade to graduate school. I usually just wing it. But lately I've decided to think about the assumptions I was working under and to write them down. The following is an unscientific, gut-level survey of the assumptions I have about writing plays, in no particular order of importance.

1. Good playwriting is a collaboration between your many selves. The more multiple your personalities, the further, wider, deeper you might be able to go.

2. Theatre is closer to poetry and music than it is to the novel.

3. There's no time limit to writing plays. Think of playwriting as a life-long apprenticeship. Imagine you may have your best ideas on your death-bed.

4. You write because you want to show something. For instance, you write "to show that the world is shit." "To show how fleeting love and happiness are." "To show the inner workings of your ego." "To show that democracy is in danger." "To show how interconnected we are." Each "to show" is active and must be personal, deeply held, true to you.

5. We write plays in order to organize despair and chaos. To live vicariously. To play God. To project an idealized version of the world. To destroy things we hate in the world and in ourselves. To remember and to forget. To lie to ourselves. To play. To dance with language. To beautify the landscape. To fight loneliness. To inspire others. To imitate our heroes. To bring back the past and raise the dead, To achieve transcendence over ourselves. To fight the powers that be. To sound alarms. To provoke conversation. To engage in the conversation started by great writers in the past. To further evolve the art form. To lose ourselves in our fictive worlds. To make money.

6. Each line of dialogue is like a piece of DNA: potentially containing the entire play and its thesis; potentially telling us the beginning, middle and end of the play.

7. If you're not prepared to risk your entire reputation every time you write, then it's not worth your audience's time.

8. Embrace your writer's block. It's nature's way of preserving trees and your reputation. Listen to it and try to understand its source. Often writer's block happens because somewhere in your work you've lied to yourself and your subconscious won't let you go any further until you've gone back, erased the lie, stated the truth and started over.

9. Language is a form of entertainment. Beautiful language can be like beautiful music. It can amuse, inspire, mystify, enlighten.

10. Rhythm is key. Use as many sounds and cadences as possible. Think of dialogue as a form of percussive music. You can vary the speed of language, the beats per line, volume, density. You can use silences, fragments, elongated sentences, interruptions, overlapping conversation, physical activity, monologues, nonsense, non-sequiturs, foreign languages.

11. Vary your tone as much as possible. Juxtapose high seriousness with raunchy language with lyrical beauty with violence with dark comedy with awe with eroticism.

12. Action doesn't have to be overt. It can be the steady deepening of the dramatic situation...or your characters' steady emotional movements from one emotional/psychological condition to another--ignorance to enlightenment, weakness to strength, illness to wholeness.

13. Invest something truly personal in each of your characters, even if it's something of your worst self.

14. If Realism is as artificial as any other genre, strive to create your own realism. If theatre is a handicraft in which you make one-of-a-kind pieces, then you're in complete control of your fictive universe. …

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