A masterclass in active dialogue: Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, July’s playwright #12newplaywrightsin12months

‘Theatre is often tedious, irrelevant, ridiculous and smug. At its best, though, it cuts through the noise of everything else that’s competing for our attention and gives our empathy and imagination a workout.’  From an interview with Duncan Macmillan here.

In this quote Macmillan could be talking about his own play Lungs which I saw as part of the Paines Plough Roundabout season this summer. With just two characters playing ages from roughly in their 20s to their 80s with no set and purely dialogue pushing the story and setting forward your imagination is certainly given a work out in this modern love story.

So what were the key tips I picked up? Well…


All you need is active dialogue to keep the audience engaged

My attention could have easily waned. With no set, sitting in the round so I could see everyone else who was watching the show I could’ve easily been distracted by my own thoughts and not kept up with the plot. However, in this tightly written play there was no room for long speeches or scene setting, all dialogue is active and directly to the other character which directly engaged me with the story and the plot. Even the slightly longer speeches which were needed to expand the context/feeling of the situation were in direct response to a question from the other character, and this made the small poetic sections  peppering the speeches really stand out and catch your attention.

Don’t add unnecessary extras: you can create place well with no set or anything

Although Katie Mitchell has directed this play in Germany with 2 actors performing the dialogue whilst cycling on static bikes (see the trailer of this production here), Macmillan’s initial view for the play (and as I saw it) was for no set at all and just the actors creating a sense of place as the conversation carried on. Due to the active dialogue and the jumping from decade to decade (as the play feels like an ongoing conversation throughout the characters lives once we meet them) place becomes less and less important as the anxiety of the characters becomes more and more the focus of the play. It made me realise that for a good play to work you don’t need all the paraphernalia of set if the play itself doesn’t need it. I was engaged anyway and followed everything I needed with my own imagination.

Lots to think about for the new play I’ve just started to write…especially about paring the story down to only what’s necessary.

August’s playwright: David Harrower

As you can see I’m a bit late with my blog this month, partly due to me writing the frst draft of a new full length play. I’m half way through Blackbird by David Harrower though so he will be the next playwright I look at.

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