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I do a lot of work with people new to playwriting. They are so ’emerging’ as to be absolute beginners. Theatre companies don’t normally encourage absolute beginners but mine does. We encourage it because we recognise that only paying attention to ‘established playwrights’ is a surefire way to exclude diversity, eschew community relevant stories, and support pale, stale and elitist theatre. So in my work I see great stacks of freshly minted scripts by hopeful new playwrights, mostly by early career playwrights. There’s are a few novice playwriting habits that regularly come up and I just need to point them out so if, you catch yourself doing them, you can self-correct before sending your draft out to the world.

I love an absolute beginner. I do. They come equipped with all the wonderful possibilities swimming in their wide eyes. They instinctually know they have a good story and my job is to give them some tools to sculpt their good story into a good performance piece. It’s deep, it’s detailed, it takes so much work to get your new work out in its best possible form.

But there are some cosmetic, not so deep and meaningful errors that seem to populate a beginner’s script. To give your script the best chance of being read favourably by an assessor or producer or lit manager or a director, pay attention to the goofy no-no-nos of theatre script writing world.

  1. Sloppy Format. Do it properly. UK format rules. USA allegedly have different format rules, but strangely enough, every time I read a published play, it is in UK format. Odd.
    Wh’for? is often the look I get from new playwrights when I lay down this seemingly fascist request. Theatre is a collaborative artform. If an actor can’t cold read the work because the rules of layout have been ignored, the reading won’t flow so well, huh? The audiences will hear stumbling and baggy pauses and the magic will be lost immediately. At least 10 theatre artists will be working on your script when it comes to production: actors, director, designers, stage manager, collaborating on it. To have a uniform understanding of format, with fairly solid rules about text layout, makes it easy. This is not the time to be a Maverick; write to the format.
  2. Literal stage directions. Sure, it used to be the purvey of playwrights to boss an actor about the stage in your stage directions (eg: FRED walks upstage left to the credenza. MARGARET exits stage right) Contemporary theatre practice, however, is all about the actor organically discovering their physical movements within the world of the play. Unless it is critical to the plot that you must have a character movement hither or thither, skip it or make it general (eg: FRED walks to the credenza) I should do a whole post about stage directions. It is an art unto itself.
  3. Lengthy or prescriptive stage directions. Nope. Be brief. Generic. Even note form. eg: Evening. The Tuttle Family’s 1970’s style kitchen. FRED peels potatoes. Loud punk music playing off. You need not give too many details of the scene because it’s the Director’s and Designer’s problem.
  4. Designating specific music to be used. Oh, please do not. Unless you own the rights to the music you’ve named, leave it alone. When I see new writers provide well known songs in stage directions, I take out my red pen. Firstly, licence to use copyrighted material is an expensive process, and your director will likely ignore your music preferences anyway. Secondly, slotting in your favourite sound track should not be the way you as a playwright short-form the mood of a scene. If music is important to the scene, be generic. Punk rock music plays or a sombre tune plays. That is all you need. After that, it’s the Sound Designer’s problem.
  5. Designating lighting effects. Just leave it alone. It’s a Lighting Designer’s job to figure this out. When you write Evening. this is what a designer needs to interpret and it’s totally up to them and the Director to create that effect. My very thick red pen comes out if I see the word ‘spotlight’ come up in a stage direction. Don’t even.
  6. Emotional Instructions for the actors. as in:

    FRED: (sadly) Pass me the knife.

    Ugh! The Actor will ignore your instruction hopefully but it is really bad form to try to describe how a line should be delivered. Let the actor work it out; it’s their job entirely. (and the Director will correct it if the Actor isn’t getting the intention right)
  7. Mixing up dialogue directions with stage directions.

    FRED: (crosses his heart) Pass me the knife.

    should be:

    FRED: (crossing his heart) Pass me the knife.

    The difference is that ‘crosses his heart’ is a stage direction, ‘crossing his heart’ is a action taken while the line is said and so it must be in the continuous verb tense, because the action is happening while the character is speaking. If you want Fred to cross himself BEFORE he speaks, place it in the stage directions just above the line.
  8. No Page Numbers. Paginate for pete’s sake. Aw, too basic, you think? Nope. Cannot tell you the hundreds and hundreds of drafts I’ve read where the Playwright did not put in page numbers. Again, it’s a collaborative art form. When a Director is referencing a specific line, the whole creative team don’t want to be hopelessly shuffling through the un-numbered pages.

You will get the hang of it. There will be times when even established writers will get one or two of the above guidelines wrong. But make sure you start taking this sort of super basic stuff on board to set yourself up as emerging, and not “sub-emerging”, as a playwright.

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