About the Author
John Newman is a theater professor living in Sandy City, Utah.
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Phases of Playwriting
One of the first issues writers, teachers, and directors must discuss with a playwriting project is where they each believe the script is in its journey. A guest playwright may see his script as nearly finished when a director sees it as a strong beginning. A student may see her play as finished while her teacher continues to push her for further exploration and clarity. The director may be anxious for the cast to memorize the existing script while the playwright wants to make major changes. It can, therefore, be helpful to have a common reference map so playwrights, instructors, and directors can discuss where they think the script is in its development.
Nothing in theatre fits neatly into categories, but the nine phases of playwriting that are outlined here offer a rough map of the voyage that scripts most commonly undergo. The phases do not always happen in the same order or in discrete time periods. There will always be scripts that do not conform to traditional forms and projects that do not follow traditional courses. Nevertheless, it can be helpful for teachers to understand how a script most typically matures.
This first chapter offers an overview of the tasks that playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, teachers, and students usually undertake at each phase of the playwriting process. The next two chapters offer examples of how those tasks might be accomplished.
Almost all young people have seen exponentially more film and television than live theatre, so it should come as no surprise that young writers will gravitate toward cinematic rather than theatrical approaches in their playwriting. They can therefore benefit from being grounded in dramatic theory and being introduced to quality dramatic literature as they prepare to write for live theatre.
Many instructors at both the secondary school and university level will begin their courses by introducing traditional plot structure, usually grounded in the principles introduced by Aristotle and elucidated by later theorists including Gustav Freytag. These models may be helpful in understanding the basic structures of a play and provide them with a vocabulary for discussing the elements of a script.
However, students may not be able to apply dramatic structures in their own work unless they can see how they play out in strong examples of dramatic literature. Teachers can prepare their students to write and rewrite their own plays by analyzing contemporary or classical plays as a group. Students may also be assigned to read and analyze individual plays that are similar to the kinds of scripts that they intend to write. Analyzing published plays and introducing dramatic theory before or during a playwriting unit or project may help students experience the praxis of playwriting.
If the Preparation phase is about preparing the creative soil, the Generation phase is about germinating and cultivating the seeds that are planted in it. Once students have been grounded in fundamental theory and exposed to examples of effective playwriting, the next step is for them to generate a range of script ideas and then to pursue one of them until the playwright produces a complete first draft of a play.
Many books about playwriting focus on the Generation phase of script development. Generation is a critical first step on a longer journey. The books listed in the appendix provide exercises and guidance to playwriting teachers as they help their students generate "starts" that can be developed into complete scripts.
While the Generation phase might take place in the privacy of the writing space, it can be readily facilitated in a class with improvisation exercises leading into writing assignments. Students often need the creative prompting of a classroom experience to generate new ideas before they can confront the empty page and discipline themselves to write independently. Some teachers take their students to a computer writing lab while others offer a variety of writing spaces.
Most of the drama teachers featured in this book subscribe to the belief that quantity of writing elevates quality of writing. It is easy for a student playwright to fixate on an initial idea that may be limited in its dramatic potential and in its resonance for an audience. During the first part of the Generation phase, teachers push students to get acquainted with a variety of ideas before committing themselves to one. Chapter 2 offers examples of how teachers can help students generate playwriting starts.
Once a range of script ideas have been generated, student playwrights have to sift through the possibilities and select one idea, or a combination of several ideas, to draft into a complete script. If the objective is to create a ten-minute or one-act play, it may be possible for students to follow more than one idea to completion in a short amount of time. If the goal is to produce a longer script, the instructor may want to lead the students through an exercise that helps them play out the potential of several starts so they can select the most promising one in a methodical way.
While Generation is aimed at producing as many options as possible, Experimentation is aimed at creating multiple variations of a first draft and learning more about the characters, story, and world of the play. It is possible to skip the Experimentation phase and go directly to the Determination phase, but it can often be useful to consider different permutations of the first version of the script. Writers who go through the Experimentation phase benefit from "shopping around" rather than buying into the first incarnation that may or may not fulfill the potential of the story or concept.
During the Experimentation phase, scripts can undergo radical experiments in plot, character, and theme. Experimental drafts are often prompted by outside feedback that causes the writer to reconsider initial choices and consider others.
With a student-written one-act play, the Experimentation phase might change the number or nature of characters. Inspired by a discussion or exercise, a writer may start the action at an earlier or later point in the story or might intensify the action by making all events occur in a single location. Experimentation allows young writers to consider some of the infinite possibilities that a story or idea might engender.
It is important to remind students during the Experimentation phase that many, if not most, experiments will lead to dead ends while a few might open up exciting new pathways for the playwright to pursue. In a larger sense, script experimentation cultivates students' imagination, creativity, and intellectual flexibility.
As engaging as the Experimentation phase may be, a playwright must eventually decide what his play is about. During the fourth phase of play development, Determination, the playwright looks at his various versions of the script and defines the core of his play. At this point in the process, a theme, a character, a story, a dynamic, or an experience is determined to be the gravitational center around which the play will revolve.
Determination may be the most crucial development phase for a play in progress and the phase best served by a development residency for a script by a guest playwright. Determining the focus of a script requires insight, analysis, and instinct and engages students and teachers in a critical aspect of the creative process.
In the Experimentation phase, the playwright experiments with divergent possibilities for the script. In the Determination phase, a single version is selected, or several versions merged into one, and the course is set for what the writer determines to be its final, or at least intermediate, destination.
It may seem that it would be more efficient for a writer to determine what his play is about before he writes his first draft. However, most plays evolve and most playwrights discover the hearts of their plays as they are developed. Just as it would be more efficient if a playwright could write the tenth draft without writing the other nine, the creative process of most successful plays is characterized by serendipity and progressive discovery.
Teenagers typically try on a variety of roles before they settle on their adult personality. Likewise, most plays pass through the phases of Exploration and Determination as they are prepared for readings and productions.
Once the writer has identified the gravitational center of his script, characters, plot elements, and scenes that don't revolve around that center may be released into the universe of possibilities. In the Determination phase, the playwright determines the target, while in the Clarification phase, he adjusts his aim to hit that target more precisely.
Once the writer has determined the central theme, character, or story, follow-up questions from the director, dramaturg, teachers, and students should interrogate whether another character or plot element is aligned or not aligned with what has been determined to be the core of the play. One might ask if a secondary character's journey contrasts, supports, clarifies, or intensifies the protagonist's journey. If the secondary character does not fill any of those functions, that character might either belong to a different play or may need to be given a different or additional function.
The process of clarifying the play at the macro level might be repeated in examining each scene or beat. On the micro level, the playwright asks how a scene should advance the play and consider removing lines and bits of action that don't contribute to that objective.
There is a danger of being overly strict in the clarification process, at either the macro or micro level. An element that might be excluded from the story may be retained by the playwright because she senses that it is critical to the story or to its telling. At a later point in the development process, it may be discovered that this element either aligns with the story in an unexpected way or serves as a useful contrast or foil to the designated core. Also, if an actor has been cast in a particular role, the playwright is motivated to retain the actor's character, at least through the current reading or production, even if his role in the story is not yet clear.
Playwright James Still says that while play development seeks to clarify the writer's play for the audience, playwrights should be careful not to over-clarify their scripts and rob their plays of necessary intrigue. He notes that some scripts he has observed in development have lost their voices and have become less engaging through over-clarification.
The playwrights had answered every single question everybody had. As an audience member, I had no questions, I had no reason to watch it. Can you imagine if DaVinci changed the Mona Lisa so that there was never any mystery about why she was smiling?
(Newman 2006: 219)
Just as a drama benefits from comic relief, a well-focused play or scene may benefit from slight deviations in the pursuit of a primary objective. Tangents and minor diversions may give the characters and the audience members a chance to catch their breaths before sailing forward.
Determination and Clarification may help the writer to refine the text of the play so that it reads as dynamically as possible on paper. However, playwriting is the art of the stage, not the page. For a stage script to fulfill its purpose, the written text must be exhibited to others, which may happen in an impromptu or rehearsed reading.
Impromptu readings of short student-written plays may take place in the classroom, either with the whole class together or in smaller groups of students. Rehearsed readings, in which the actors carry scripts or speak at music stands, let the playwright, director, and actors experience the sound, pace, and feel of the dialogue. In-class and public readings can allow scripts to be exhibited to an audience in an incomplete form without the more extensive investment of rehearsal time and technical resources required for full production.
Unless the playwright directs the reading of the play himself, the writer must collaborate with the director in the preparation of a rehearsed reading. Simple staging in a reading may enable the dramatist to keep making changes up until the final presentation.
During the preparation of a rehearsed reading, the playwright, director, and actors should come to respect the perspectives of one another during the process and trust one another to fulfill their roles. The actors focus on the dialogue of a particular character or characters while the director maintains the wider view of the presentation as a whole. The playwright should come to trust the actors and directors to interpret the text he has crafted, and the actors and director should come to trust the dialogue changes the playwright makes in response to the actors' interpretations.
The actors' performances will almost always vary from the ones that the writer envisioned on the stage of her imagination. The guiding question the dramatist must ask is not whether the actors matched the voices and bodies the playwright originally imagined for the characters but whether the interpretations of the actors and the direction from their director are consistent with her text. Beginning playwrights, in particular, must often be reminded that what is not on the page is not in the play, no matter how clearly they have envisioned something in their imagination.
The Clarification and Exhibition phases often overlap. If the writer is involved in the rehearsal of a reading, he might make line changes on the spot or give them to the director to relay to the cast. The standard practice is for the playwright to give feedback about the actors' interpretation of the text to the director, but some teams may set different norms in that regard.
If a development team decides that the playwright will not communicate directly with the actors, the dramatist should observe and listen to how the actors interpret the words through their phrasing and inflection in the dialogue. Playwrights should attend to what the director says about the characters and consider which lines or stage directions lead to the director's perception. The actors may make direct commentary on the script during the rehearsal and after presentation of the reading, but they may offer even more input on the text to the playwright through the ways they speak their lines and perform their actions.
The staged reading is often when the play is most ripe and the playwright is most ready to receive input that will assist the writer in achieving his vision of the text and help the script to approach its full potential. The examination of the text at this point can be crucial to the success of the project.
The presentation of an impromptu or rehearsed reading will usually be accompanied by a post-reading discussion between the playwright, audience, cast, and director. Such a discussion brings the audience into the ongoing conversation between the writer, director, and actors and allows the audience to understand the role of the playwright, who is usually absent in the production of his published play. Chapter 3 offers several models for soliciting feedback from the cast and audience following a reading.
While the exhibition of a script in a staged reading can be satisfying for the playwright and development team, the objective of almost every playwright is to see her play fully realized in production. Some writers may view publication as the final destination of a script, but the primary purpose of publication is to secure additional productions.
While classic plays invite a director to re-interpret and re-contextualize the dramatic text, the initial production of an unpublished play should aim to interpret the text in alignment with the playwright's original vision. It is the writer's vision, more than the director's, which should prevail in the first production so that the strength of the text can be tested by its initial presentation. The script's versatility can be tested in future productions.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Playwriting in Schools"
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Navigating the Theatre Curriculum with Playwriting, 1,
Part I: The Practical Navigator – Charts, Tools, and Dynamics, 11,
Chapter 1: Phases of Playwriting, 15,
Chapter 2: Generating and Workshopping Scripts, 25,
Chapter 3: Presenting and Premiering Plays, 45,
Chapter 4: Employing the Tarot Card Model, 59,
Part II: Ports of Call – Learning Environments for Student Playwriting, 77,
Chapter 5: School Productions of Student-Written Plays, 81,
Chapter 6: Developing Plays through Playwriting Contests, 95,
Chapter 7: Team-Playwriting with Students, 111,
Chapter 8: Playwriting-Centered Drama Programs, 123,
Part III: Apprentice to a Playwright – Modeling Playwriting in School Residencies, 143,
Chapter 9: Preparations for a School Residency, 149,
Chapter 10: Playwright Residencies at Highland High School, 163,
Chapter 11: Playwright Residencies at Other Secondary Schools, 183,
Chapter 12: Playwright Residencies and Visits at Primary Schools, 201,
Epilogue: Embarking on Your Voyage of Discovery, 223,
Appendix: Books on teaching playwriting, 225,