Tuesday, December 09, 2003

the play’s the thing

So you want to write a one-act play? Great. Maybe I can help.

First, you need to be aware of the form’s tradition, especially the Three Unities. You must know the rules before you go and break them. Let me paraphrase for you:

The Unity of Time demands that the entire play take place during “real time”, no more than a day’s worth of time. This means that you cannot do flashbacks or future scenes since everything is enslaved by the now. The play is meant to unroll in sequence, bound by chronological constraints.

The Unity of Place or Space requires all action to occur in one location (or adjacent locations). If you begin a scene in a bedroom, you cannot have the next scene on a dingy in the Atlantic. Characters are bound to their locations.

The Unity of Action stresses the necessity of having only one dramatic arc – which means that you tell only one primary story. Subplots that do not serve the narrative are cut. Focus is key.

Now try writing something within these strictures (and remember that the one-act play has a performance time of between 45 minutes to an hour).

When you’re done, it’s time to break the rules, keeping only the non-negotiable portion: the play length.

In terms of Time, you can have characters speaking from the future, acting in the past, living in the present. Space becomes something you can bend or distort, setting cascading scenes anywhere you like, from the intimacy of a tomb to Planet X. Action can be subverted by creating multiple storylines that crisscross, some dying out unresolved, some coming to full closure.

You can break the fourth wall and have your characters address the audience directly. You can work without a stage. You can do your entire piece in poetry. You can do a dance drama. You can do anything – because, really, the staging is not your problem (it’s the director’s, however you must be responsible enough to create a stage-able play).

Ultimately, there are no rules, no proper way to write. The script format is a piece of cake (if formatting drives you insane, use Final Draft or similar software). The number of characters is up to you. Everything is up to you.

But having said that, I do have some recommendations:

1. The play is about dialogue. You cannot escape this (well, you could mount something on off-off-off-Broadway called “Silence” that features an empty stage). Therefore, your dialogue must be of worth. The basic unit of the play is the beat, and the beat is composed of dialogue (or a monologue). Depending on your goal, you can go for verisimilitude or style. Your characters can speak in a realistic way or in a manner that best serves the play. Do not be clever just to be clever. We can see right through shit like that.

2. There must be motion. Your play must go somewhere. In terms of character and plot, it’s development. Remember that ultimately you’re showing some people chatting on stage. There must be action – and not necessarily physical. In the course of a scene, the scene goals must be achieved (otherwise the scene is just masturbatory).

3. Have something to say. But understand that agenda does not always imply something political. Having a point keeps everything in focus, but be wary of creating a bully pulpit situation. Understand the concepts of economy and balance as it pertains to words, time and scenes.

4. Manage the cast. The last thing you want is a farraginous lot of characters moving around the stage. Decide who you need, cut the rest.

5. Listen for the rhythm. Your play will work better if there is a rhythm to it, how beats merge into scenes, how scenes cascade into the logical end. When there is rhythm, the audience has no choice but to follow the beat.

6. Break any rule but know exactly why and what you’re doing. My winning plays break rules in various degrees. And I know why and what I’m trying to achieve. But remember - just because you can break rules does not mean you should. And great plays do not necessarily result from breaking rules.

“Great,” you say. “Easy for you to say. But how do I start?”

If you are intimidated by the thought of creating something full-blown on the first try, what you should do is to write beats or scenes first.

Exercise before you lift heavy weights.

When I set out to write a play, I write the equivalent of vignettes first. Sometimes something useful comes out, sometimes not. Often, bits of dialogue or even fully formed beats come to mind.

When I’m ready, I stare at the blank monitor until one of us gives in.

The right way to write is to write.


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