Fancy having a go at writing a play? Here's how

Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and F***ing performed at the The Lyric, Hammersmith – Alastair Muir

Twenty five years ago, I was in a church hall in Kentish Town. We were rehearsing my first play, Shopping and F***ing, and I was making final cuts and rewrites. I’d begun the play only 18 months before, working on my flatmate’s computer (I couldn’t afford my own) and now here I was getting ready for an opening at the forbiddingly high-profile Royal Court Theatre.

During last year’s lockdown, I offered to mentor several emerging playwrights via Zoom. This was, I explained to them, not entirely an act of generosity. Making plays, I realised during those initial tense months of confinement, is my way of making sense of myself and the world. I felt most comfortable with a community of other playwrights, if only online.

Now, as I prepare to become (with Hannah Price) co-artistic director of the King’s Head Theatre, I’ve been making notes I hope to pass on to the new playwrights I’ll work with, thoughts to stimulate and provoke. How to get them to write their own wholly original play, to push forward the art of playwriting but to also pass on some of my own experience? Below are some of my tips.

1. Ask the right question
The stage is a place of questioning, realignment, transformation. Choose as your starting point to write a nagging doubt, the question that won’t leave you alone. Let the play embody, amplify your question. Maybe the play will answer the question by the end, maybe – after testing the possibilities – it won’t. An acceptance of living with the irresolvable is still an ending.

2. Embrace different opinions
To get by, we develop a persona that says “don’t hurt me – I’m so funny or clever or sensitive or special” and so on. It’s limiting to use playwriting as a way of continuing to project this persona. When writing your play, learn to recognise the voices popping up in your head of those you want to impress, appease, or defy. Thank them for their interest and then let them go. A play has its own integrity and you can’t let it be distorted. It’s frightening at first but liberating to write plays from a more authentic self.

3. Get your timing right
For a theatre play, an hour of playing time is 9,000 to 10,000 words. Think in minutes – after 1,000 words, the audience are six minutes into the play. And so on. Writing a play is – to borrow a phrase from the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky – “sculpting in time”.

4. Choose your words carefully
A play is dramatic action. It’s what the people on stage do to resist change, negotiate with change, initiate change, change the other people, change the situation they’re in, realign themselves in a changed world. In a theatre play people primarily do this through active use of words. Language in a play is of a particular kind. A person speaks because they want to bring about a change in the state of others. The line can be poetic, “street”, street-poetic or whatever you choose – as long as it’s spoken to change another person on stage or – in monologue and asides – the audience.

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ravenhill has been mentoring several emerging playwrights – Dan Wooler/Shutterstock

5. Get to the point
How much story does a play need? Not much. But enough. I normally have too much and cut it away. What’s needed: the emergence, experience and repercussions of an event, which will irreversibly change the relationship of the people on stage with each other and their world. The Hollywood “elevator pitch” (in which you describe your plot in a short burst) or any kind of “pitch” isn’t possible for a good play. The story only exists in the moment by moment dynamics between the people on stage.

6. Be tactical with your set
A play is often about a space. Who will be motivated to enter that space? How at ease will they feel there? Who will claim ownership of it? How will their relationship to it change? How will they transform it? When will they be ready to leave it? A new person entering a scene is like someone stepping in to a dinghy – everyone in the dinghy has to reposition themselves to find a new balance or they’ll capsize. The action of the scene is the negotiation of that repositioning. Same for an exit.

7. Set your own pace
Many plays are written in intense bursts of a few days or weeks. But not all. Chekhov, ill with TB, wrote 100 words a day. After 200 days he had The Cherry Orchard.

8. Forget standard punctuation
Use whatever punctuation helps you to create rhythms of thought and feeling. The punctuation in that Shakespeare play you read in school? Added much later by editors. Contemporary playwrights each discover their own use of punctuation. And stage directions? Only where you absolutely must. For instance: – Take the knife. – Yes. An actor will choose to take the knife on the line, before the line, after the line. To take it greedily, warily, clinically within the logic of the given circumstances you’ve written.

9. Try writing a “dirty” draft
Let the people in the play say all the exposition, themes, everything they think and feel. Don’t show this to anyone. After you’ve “done the dirty” try a first draft where no character speaks for more than eight words before the next person interjects. This tends to push them into dramatic action. But don’t get too addicted to this quick-fire dialogue. Contemporary plays overuse it. As you move through the drafts, experiment with longer lines.

Ian McKellen appears in Ravenhill’s The Cut, performed at The Donmar Warehouse in 2006 – Alastair Muir

10. Surrender personal biases
In early drafts the person on stage most like the playwright is often passive, watches, listens. As playwrights we’re reluctant to commit this person to dramatic action and the challenge and change that will bring about. But it must be done.

11. Be bold and write lines with conviction
As I work through drafts, I cut the first word of many lines. That last bit of fear of committing to the action of the line has put in a “well” or “but” or “just”. In rehearsals actors sometimes unconsciously put back in that little thing before a line. I discourage them! I try to find a strong word to put at the end of the line, that final pulse of energy that allows the actor to “bat it over the net” and makes it a strong offer to the other actor. Going through a draft, look at each line, rearrange words to achieve this.

12. Be mindful of flow
Watching audiences, I’ve realised that the essential meaning of a play is its rhythm. More than the literal meaning of what’s said, it’s the pulse of a line, the tension and release of a scene, volume and silence, busyness and stillness. A good playwright, I believe, writes and thinks rhythmically.

13. Challenge your cast
There’s something cruel about constructing a play, putting the people on stage in situations that are everything from awkward to very painful. Don’t shy from this cruelty but use it responsibly. Never use it cynically or for effect.

14. Don’t make excuses
Start writing. Today.

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