By the time this goes live, I will have been to the Chameleons’ latest production Spring Trio of Plays at the Ritchie Hall. Review to follow. I like the “selection box” of plays in productions like this given each play has a different flavour to it. It makes for a good evening out.
Images below both from Chandler’s Ford Today archives.
The great pleasure in watching productions like this is to see stories literally come to life before your eyes. When the writing and the performances are good, you are drawn into the world of the play and I usually find it takes me a few seconds to come back to earth again when the curtains go up at the end. That is always a good sign.
The joy of plays I should imagine from the writer’s viewpoint is in knowing it is your words being performed, whether it is on the stage, for TV, film, or good old radio.
The challenge of achieving this is immense. Things like the BBC Writer’s Room have open window submissions from time to time (one for drama, one for comedy) but your script has to be superb to stand any chance of getting through to being evaluated. The practice of submitting work here though is a good one. It should make you “up your game”. There are other areas outside of the BBC for plays by new writers though. The Wireless Theatre is one such.
The technical challenge of writing plays is being able to convey action through dialogue, thoughts (which are expressed), but absolutely no description. The best you will get there is through stage directions, which we the audience won’t see but which the actors act out. We will see the set which will be all the clues we get as to the world of the story. In the case of radio play, you can kind of “hear” a set. If you hear a kettle boiling for instance you know you’re in a kitchen. (As with flash fiction, a lot has to be implied here).
Set design when done well is amazing. I went with a friend a while ago to see the stage production of the classic Ealing comedy, The Ladykillers. The set for this included a house with subsidence at the back of it so the house looked lopsided. The railway station which ran at the back of the house in the original film was represented by a model railway line and some excellent sound effects! But it worked. It conveyed the right images, especially for those of us who remembered and loved the film (and still do).
All credit here to the Chameleons as well for their Blackadder production last year. They built that set. Did it give enough imagery to convey a WW1 setting? Oh yes. (Simple things like appropriate posters, tin hats etc build on that).
Image Credit: Thanks go to Stuart Wineberg and the Chameleons for the Blackadder pictures. Simple touches bring this set to life and get an audience into the world of the play immediately.
So to get across a story when you cannot use the whole range of techniques available to a writer of books is challenging to say the least. For one thing you have to avoid the danger of “conversational ping pong” where all the characters do is talk but the story doesn’t move on. This is even more crucial to avoid in a play. Nor can you have one character talking at length. You’d switch off. (This is where Alan Bennett’s Monologues are brilliant because those are the exception to prove the rule though he uses silence very well too. My favourite one is A Cream Cracker Under the Settee starring the much missed Thora Hird).
Dialogue in whatever form or genre you write has to convey information the reader needs to know. In a play this is also true but it has to be done in such a way that the audience doesn’t feel it is being lectured! The dialogue has to keep you gripped so you want to hear more. It’s not an easy balance to get right.
With flash fiction, word count is the limitation. For plays, you have to contend with (a) timing and (b) the medium in which your play will be produced. Radio plays have very different needs to plays designed for TV or the stage. There is an increased dependence on appropriate sound effects and music for one thing (and the latter can have issues over copyright).
Formatting is important for all forms of writing. Publishers want novels formatted in a certain way to ease their reading of them and when dealing with hundreds of manuscripts, that is vital. Playwriting formatting is very different to article writing/stories/books etc and takes some getting used to.
I remain a huge fan of Only Fools and Horses and the TV scripts were published in book form a little while ago. They are a good read and bring back many happy memories of classic episodes but for someone who’d like to write for TV, reading books like this is a great thing to do as it will show you what is needed in terms of play layout, stage direction and so on.
With stage directions, there need to be enough for a director and actors to make sense of things but also leaving enough leeway for interpretation. Think how many different versions of Hamlet there have been over the years, though of course the story itself does not change. Thought has to be given to set and scene changes. (Generally the fewer the better. Costs mount up).
Also it pays not to have too many characters (something else playwriting shares in common with flash fiction, albeit for different reasons. For plays, it keeps the action direct but whoever watches/listens to the play has got to be able to follow who is doing what (and often to whom, too!). Fewer characters also help keep costs down and avoid confusing the audience. In flash, well you simply don’t have the word count for more than one or two though a good technique here is to refer to other characters if that is relevant to the story. Whatever you write, it has to be relevant to the story!
And then there are the props. These strengthen imagery in a play but if they are big and unwieldy, forget it. (I loved the use of the mobility scooter as luxury transport for Jefferson Steel played by Nick Coleman in A Bunch of Amateurs – this got a big laugh (tick in the box for that one) but on a practical note, there was no way any kind of luxury transport was going to fit in the Ritchie Hall, unless it was made by Corgi or Dinky! And that would probably have been about the limit of the budget of the am dram group in this play in any event!).
So when I go to see a play, am I looking for wonderful prose? Well yes, but that prose is specifically brought to life by great acting. You can write the most wonderful prose ever but if it is not performed well, what will the audience remember? Not those words for a start!
So no pressure on the poor playwright or the actors then! (This is where panto must be a great relief given it is the only form of theatre to my knowledge where if things go wrong, it’s a bonus).
Last but not least, the great joy of plays is they continue the oral tradition of storytelling (at least from the audience’s viewpoint. We have to focus on the words being performed just as much as our early ancestors would have paid avid attention to the stories and myths cherished then).
And I’m all for stories reaching different people in different ways. Not everybody wants to read books (I know, what a thought!) but if they prefer stories being shown to them, then that’s great.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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