Wednesday, 4 July 2012

A letter to the playwrights of England


Let’s talk about drama. Remember that? A term that comes from a Greek word meaning ‘action’ which is derived from ‘to act’.

And that’s it. The key to all great plays - if you want drama you must have action. It's the only secret you’ll ever need.

So if drama requires action, what is it? Action is anything of dramatic significance that characters perform, whether as an attempt to effect a change on the world or the people around them, or in reaction to another event. Why is this significant? Because it is interesting. People come to the theatre to be entertained. Being entertained at the very least requires that something is happening, something happening equates to actions being performed.

Something happening is a good start - many plays don't even have that – but if you want to make it really interesting, ramp up the dramatic significance of those actions. What does the making of this action mean for the character making it? What does it mean for those affected by it? What are the emotional consequences of that action? What's at stake? That’s drama.

Drama is not pretty words without substance. Drama is not humour without structure. Drama is not spectacle alone. Drama is character and story intimately entwined – that is your minimum requirement. Anything else is a bonus. Anything else is not drama. Anything else is just a sorry excuse for a play.

Drama does not happen off-stage or in the past. Drama happens in front of the audience. Right now. You are making a show. Showing is the opposite of telling. Showing is theatre’s lesson to all creative arts. Seeing something happen is more engaging than being told about it. Don’t tell your story through the mouths of the characters – that’s not drama, that’s story-telling. That's why the audience's collective heart sinks when faced with a monologue. Monologues can be dramatic but they are not drama. The best the orator can do is tell you a story, he may attempt to show you certain aspects of that story to heighten the impact, playing different characters, leaping around the stage to effect a pale simulacrum of drama – but it's not drama. All he can ever do is tell you: I thrust the knife into a man and people were upset. If the man is on stage while being stabbed the dramatic effect is heightened. If the victim's mother is there it's heightened again. Imagine if the victim's child is also there. This is because the event has dramatic significance. You really have to be there. That's drama. Within drama, telling is simply a device for accelerating the narrative so you can get to the dramatic events more quickly. That’s why Shakespeare had his chorus in Henry V.

Drama is not a backstory revealed or a secret withheld from the audience – these things should only happen if they are in service to the dramatic story events that are happening on stage. To paraphrase Mamet, any scene where characters are talking about something off-stage is a crock of shit. Scenes are not defined by what characters are saying but by what they are doing. I say I love you but the marriage is falling apart. What’s happening is not what is being said.

Characters are defined by what they do, not by what they say. You don’t make a character heroic by giving him an heroic speech, you make him heroic by having him perform heroic actions. There we are again - actions. Stuff happening. Stuff of significance.

It's all so simple, yet I spend so much time in the theatre desperate for the interval, wishing that what I was watching was half as interesting as my DVD box sets. Why must I watch so many ranting characters and soap-box declamations, witty but substance-less dialogue; characters who don't change, stories where nothing happens, boring monologue? Is Michael Billington right when he says that 'few dramatists possess a passionate commitment to the theatre'? Are you all off writing for television?

Perhaps you are out there but the gatekeepers don't recognise you. Perhaps they are too busy looking for an adaptation or a wordy and worthy museum piece. Perhaps the theatre establishment don't care about drama anymore. But you, playwrights of England, you must care. You can do whatever you like with your writing, but if nothing else, you must start with drama. Because if you don't care about drama, no one else will. They'll be off watching HBO.

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