So what makes a good play?
This is the question I’ve been asking myself this year as I challenged myself to read or see 1 play by a playwright I haven’t looked at before each month to broaden my range of inspiration and writing technique. When I’m starting to work on a new project I always read other people’s plays to see what’s already been said on the topic and to inspire me to go further. It’s been a bit of a squeeze fitting this in between my full time day job, writing plays and having a life, but I’ve had a great year of discovery and analysis which is helping me with my own writing.
The playwrights I looked at
I let interest and my own taste dictate the writers I’ve featured on my blog and in alphabetical order they were:
Marina Carr, Danai Gurira, Jennifer Haley, David Harrower, Dawn King, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Martin McDonagh, Alistair McDowall, Duncan Macmillan, Stef Smith, Polly Stenham, Jack Thorne
(Click on a name above for that blog entry)
The writer that’s had the biggest impact on me is Alistair McDowall: I saw his play Pomona and read it and then reread it to figure out its structure. It’s a play that talks to a modern audience and entertains as well as comments on how we live now, which is exactly what I want to do with my work. If you haven’t seen it or read it, DO!
The writer I found most affinity with is Marina Carr: I read more than one of her plays actually, her mix of tragic drama and magic realism really struck a chord with me.
The writer who made me think most about my own style is Stef Smith: Her play Swallow is really beautiful and original and has really made me rethink how you can tell your story so it feels you’re both living the story with the character and you’re also watching them experience their story.
So what are the top 3 tips I picked up?
I’d encourage you to read all the plays I read this year, as each one is unique and you’ll get different tips from each, however, for me these boiled down to:
- Use active dialogue all the time
Active dialogue can be different things, Duncan Macmillan uses it very differently than Stef Smith for example but actions revealing themselves through dialogue is the key to good drama.
This might sound simple but I’m guilty, as are other writers of putting in a good, beautiful reflective monologue that does nothing to move the action on and my biggest tip from my year is that all speech on stage needs to earn its place. If it’s not active take it out.
- It’s ok to keep your audience in the dark
My second biggest tip is that you don’t need to tell the audience everything about the situation you’re writing in order for them to get it. Just because you’re introducing something new to them or something complex it doesn’t mean you have to over explain the world or the issue your play looks at. Good examples of this are Dawn King and Alistair McDowall, who actually goes a step further and positions the audience as detective, so it’s up to them to piece the story together as you get flashbacks and flash-forwards presented as forward narrative.
This is the one that sounds so easy but actually, finding your own voice, understanding what that can do and taking it further to make a good, original play is tough. Something all these writers have in common is that they are doing something new with their work. A lot of writing competitions want something new told in a way they haven’t seen before and reading/seeing these plays this year has reminded me how confident and brave you need to be in doing something different with your work to really pull it off. Yes it may not always work but as a writer you need to keep innovating, keep forging your path until the world listens to your side of your story.
A funny thing happened when I was writing my first proper full length play Godless Monsters that was performed this year: I got scared. However brave I’d been with my shorts, e.g. The Birdcatcher, This is How I Lost My Memory, I Hope We Make It Through The Rain, when it came to a full length the task and my vision for it was so big, I didn’t go as far as perhaps I could have and although I’m pleased with how it went, somewhere I know that I was holding back as I was unsure of how far I could go. (And I’m currently working on developing this play into something longer and fuller).
Looking at these writers has really reminded me, and I hope its reminded you of just how good your plays can be if you really believe in the story you’re telling and try to write the best play you can.
It’s been a wonderful year of discovery, reflection and learning and I will definitely keep looking for plays by new writers I haven’t looked at before, to not only get inspiration, but also courage, that however lonely playwriting sometimes feels, a lot of people have gone through the same thing, and their lessons are plain to see in the plays they write.
Here’s to 2016 and all the amazing new plays out there to be discovered and to be written!