I often work with new writers and more specifically writers who have never written for theatrical performance. Over the years, my classes have been populated with slam poets, film-makers, novelists, rap artists, copywriters, country singer/songwriters, documenters, academic writers, historical researchers and journalists.  They all have this urge to learn how to put their ideas into a theatrical arena. And the weirdest thing is that many of them don’t really know why.

Some of my former students have seen theatre, and writing for theatre, as the gateway to writing for film. As if theatre is a stepping stone to film. Or worse, they have thought theatre and film are reasonably the same things- they both create stories with performance, right? (nope) Many of my new writers “think in film”. That is to say, they start with the assumption that theatre is a live creation of a filmic idea.

In a workshop, in which indeed there were participants who were writers but had little or no idea what theatre does or how it is different to film, I gave the following observation for their consideration.

If you’re in the props department of a film in the making and the scene requires a telephone conversation, damn straight, there will be a phone on the props list. Right? When the phone rings in the film, the character will pick up that phone and speak into it.

In theatre, however, when the phone rings, the character may pick up a banana and speak into it.  By the character’s actions, the audience is asked to accept the banana is a phone. Theatre has that trick of inviting an audience to silently accept all sorts of odd contracts- about time, about space, about visibility, invisibility, about appearances, about telephone bananas if need be.  And please do not be tempted to think this is only true of modern theatre, a contemporary quirkiness that has crept in.

If you are tempted to think of it as a modern quirk, I prithee, consider this opening gambit from Shakespeare’s Henry V, in which the chorus have something to say to the audience:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

In which the narrator actually apologies to the audience that there is no budget or space or wherewithall to reproduce the entire ‘spectacle’ of the battle at Agincourt. He goes on to ask the audience to piece out the imperfections, the shortcomings of the production, with our imagination- imagine the vast fields of France, the clashing of armour, and to divide into 1000 parts one man (so for multiply every character on stage by 1000 in your imagination).

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass:

Just guessing here, but it is a fair assumption, that productions of Shakesepare’s works at The Globe back in the day were not exactly operating on impoverished budgets. But to bring forth a whole battlefield, and jump over time, here and there, now that was something that required a bit of the Globe’s audience’s indulgence. More than that is is Shakespeare acknowledging that special nature of theatre that generally requires a leap of faith.

And it is this leap of faith that makes theatre not film.

It is both the shortcoming and the strength of theatre. It is the magic and the pain in the butt at the same time. In theatre we are both restricted and delighted to dare to cram a entire world onto a “wooden O” ( a reference to the circle that was the Globe Theatre’s circular wooden structure)

Film has its own tricks, devices and limitations that describe the craft and dictate the medium. But there are entirely different to those we behold when writing for stage, where a banana is a banana until we, the writers, say it is not. 

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