Taking the Leap to Playwriting

Posted by Jonathan Dorf on

Our Reader Asks: I'm currently doing research for a creative nonfiction book but the more I delve into the subject and characters, the more I feel it should be written as a stage play rather than a book. It has a fascinating story, a strong female central figure taken right out of a piece of U.S. history, takes place at a time when music was a big part of the culture (which would, then, hint at possibly a musical), and has strong emotional contrasts. My gut feeling is that it would make a great play, which is very frightening to me because I've never written a play in my life! Is this too daunting a task for a novice? Are newcomers pretty much locked out of the drama market? How would someone with no track record write and market the "book" for a musical? Anyway, how does a person know what format is best for an idea (i.e., book vs. stage play)?

Jonathan Dorf Replies: The prospect of writing a play can be terrifying for someone who has never written one. You ask a series of excellent questions as you consider whether this is the time to give it a try. Let's take them one at a time and see what we can do.

First, you must decide whether the stage is the right medium for your subject. Is there the potential for a strong story, with compelling characters? Is there a conflict or at least some obstacle that forces the characters to work hard to get what they want? Can the story be shown primarily through the interactions of the characters onstage? One key difference between prose and playwriting is that the former depends heavily on narration, while in the theatre, the way to "tell" the story is by showing it. But what about stage vs. screen? For the stage, fewer characters, the ability to use a minimal number of settings and, consequently, fewer (and lengthier) scenes, work best. Stories that require copious effects are, unless you are particularly imaginative in your style of storytelling, easier to tell on screen. But the fact that so many plays are later adapted into movies goes to show that the two media are closely related.

Once you decide that your subject is suited to the stage, the question becomes: how to begin? Obviously, the first thing to do is figure out how to write a play. If you can take a course with a reputable playwriting professor, great. But in the likely event that you don't have access to a class like that, do the next best thing: read some playwriting books. Don't overdo it, but pick out one or two (I'm partial to Jeff Sweet, and you can buy his Solving Your Script on the Writers Store website) and get acquainted with the medium. And don't forget to visit Playwriting101.com, where you'll find a plethora of basic playwriting information.

Of course, it's one thing to read about playwriting, but there's no substitute for reading or seeing plays, as that is the only way to expose yourself to different styles and different ways to use the medium.

Rather than writing your baby right away, consider writing a few shorter plays (perhaps ten-minute plays) first as a way to hone your skills and build up to a longer play. Beginning writers often have great ideas about which they are truly passionate, but these ideas can end up as mediocre plays because the writers needed more seasoning before they wrote them. When you sit down to write the play you've been dreaming of for years, you want to be ready to realize it fully.

Skip ahead in time. Your new play is ready to be sent out. That means it's properly formatted and proofed, likely been rewritten several times, probably had one or more closed readings with actor friends and those you trust to give you feedback. Now what? A great resource is The Dramatists Sourcebook, which lists numerous theatres and their submission policies. Visit Playwriting101.com for descriptions of the policies you're likely to encounter.

Do your homework. Look for theatres with staged reading and other development programs. Enter contests. Investigate local companies, including community theatres. In other words, start small--your chances of climbing the Broadway mountain right away are pretty slim.

It may be, of course, that before you can do any of this, should you go the musical route, you're going to need collaborators. You may have written the book (the story and dialogue), but you still need a lyricist and a composer. The Dramatists Guild of America, of which every serious playwright should be a member, has places to post such requests (for example, in their magazine). Or join a local writers group (for example, I am a member of the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights) and look for collaborators there. Playwrights organizations are also great places to meet more experienced writers, who, because they've been making the rounds for a much longer time than you have, may well be able to give you a suggestion (or two or three)about where to send your script.

The marketing side of playwriting is all about perseverance. Research one more theatre company, or write that extra query letter. The chance of any given group saying yes may be small, but if the work is good and you don't give up, you've got a shot. And once you see live actors perform your work in front of an audience, you'll be hooked.

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