We know that whether it's 10 minutes or 110 minutes, writing
any play can seem like a daunting task. That's why we
asked playwrights Patty MacMullen & Mandy Conner to share their
advice for getting started with your next script. They'll help you make sure your idea is
ready to make the leap onto the page, and (even
more importantly!) that
the best person to write it.
Perhaps You Must Write It!
Shortly after the death of beloved novelist Toni Morrison, Stage Partners posted her wise advice as a tribute on social media, “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”
Those words ring true to both of us. As playwrights with scripts published by Stage Partners, we know all too well that feeling of longing for the discovery of the “right” script and the joy of presenting it to our students. As theatre directors, we read and search and ask others to throw out titles to us that just MIGHT fit our students. When that journey doesn’t produce “the one”, what’s a theatre teacher to do?
For both of us, necessity truly did become the mother of invention! After an exhausting and frustrating search, we both came to the same realization. It was time to write that play that hadn’t been written yet.
So, when do you decide to give it a GO!?
Though neither one of us has any formal training or education in the process of playwriting, both of us have found writing our own shows to be a successful option in our schools. We saw the NEED and decided to take the PLUNGE! We know that so many of our colleagues can identify with that feeling of “why can’t someone just WRITE a show that fits MY kids?!”...well...who knows those kids better than YOU?? However, you also probably may have some feelings of inadequacy knowing you are not a trained playwright...
To help you get started with confidence we have come up with a small list of things you might consider as you prepare to write a script.
Is it appropriate for your students/school/community?
So, you’ve searched everywhere for the script that is appropriate not only for your particular group of students, but one that will also be approved for production by your school and meet with the standards of your community, and you still haven’t found it. Knowing your students, your administration, and your community is imperative when making the decision to write for your theatre group. This varies from community to community, school to school, and even student groups within the same school and community from year to year. Consider not only subject matter, but also language and actions of the characters.
Can it be done within the constraints of your budget, venue, and technical capabilities?
It’s important to make an assessment of your budget, your venue, and any technical limitations you might encounter prior to beginning the writing process. If your script idea requires expensive costuming, elaborate sets, and/or technical or staging demands that can’t be met in your venue, be prepared to brainstorm ways to overcome your limitations or write your script with these things in mind and make adjustments accordingly.
Do you have an idea for a story with a conflict that will pull in your audience?
Stories can come from your own personal experiences, the experiences of people you know, historical events, your creative thoughts and imagination, and the list goes on. Once inspired by an idea for your story, identify the conflict. What is the struggle? Who are the opposing forces? What obstacles are presented along the way? What is at risk? Will this conflict create interest and pull in your audience? Remember, without conflict, there is no journey for your characters.
Can you create interesting characters?
When developing your story, create characters that your audience can identify with and/or cheer for or against. Characters may have similar wants or needs, but each character should have distinct and unique qualities. It may help to begin thinking of stock characters. They are familiar to both the writer and to audiences, and can be a good starting point to identify each character.. They aren’t necessarily, however, interesting enough to sustain an audience’s interest. Continue to develop characters that, at least to some degree, go against the stereotypical qualities that would normally be assigned to their archetype.
Do you have time to FIRST allow yourself to imagine, research, and ponder?
Seldom, do we create our best work on the first attempt. Writing a play, especially for the untrained, will take some time. Can you commit enough time to complete a working script prior to the start of the production process? Are you willing to set aside time to complete the necessary research for your story? Often a writer needs time for ideas to grow, for connections to be made, and for dreaming and imagining the events of the play and the characters that will live those events. The creative process should be given an ample amount of time to develop the best story possible.
One final thing to consider is that your story should exhibit literary merit. Is it a good story with well-drawn characters, an interesting plot, an insightful theme, and a “world” worth visiting? Of course, literary merit, to a degree, can be subjective. Your story, however, should have substance. What is the essence of your message? Does it have depth? Will the message matter to your audience? While it is unfair to be judged harshly on your first draft of your first script, know that if you’re using it as your contest play, it could compete toe to toe with the greats like Miller, Shakespeare, and Ibsen.
Writing a script is one of the most intimidating, daunting, and yet satisfying and rewarding things that the two of us have taken on during our teaching careers. If you’re one of the many theatre directors searching for the perfect play and not finding it, perhaps you must write it.
About the Authors
Patty MacMullen’s play Wild Waves Whist is available on Stage Partners. She is the theatre director at Hill Country Christian Upper School of Austin and co-authors theatre teacher resource materials with Maestro Theatre Publications, LLC.
Mandy Conner’s play Should Not Cause Harm is available on Stage Partners. She is the theatre director at Waco Connally High School and conducts teacher professional development workshops.