Teaching Playwriting: “Theatricality”

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Dramatic texts are one part writing, one part performed experience.  In other words, a script must be judged not just by the quality of the writing, but by how well it works on stage. This concept is difficult for beginning playwrights to grasp. Textbooks try various ways to explain. For example, some call the script a “blueprint” for performance—a means to an end, rather than an end itself.  Additionally, some instructors discuss the magic of “theatricality”—that je ne sais quoi that separates dramatic writing from the other genres.

Because “theatricality” is inconceivable apart from action—apart from the act of doing that constitutes performance—the teaching of playwriting requires performance as part of classroom activities. The concept of performance as pre-eminent should undergird all course structures. For example, when possible, written assignments should be shared aloud in class: hearing texts with an audience is preferable to at-home silent reading because the former better approximates how scripts are meant to be experienced.

Dramatic writers must learn to see themselves as performers. They do not need to be good performers, but they need to be willing. They need to be able to play roles well enough that they can hear in their minds the characters’ voices as they commit words to paper. It is not the same skill as that of the actor, who hears primarily one voice at a time, but is more like that of the stage director who understands the interplay of multiple voices. Most playwrights, I believe, mutter to themselves. And, while a little murmuring is probably common to all creative writers, I would guess that playwrights spend an inordinate amount of time muttering speeches and singing songs to themselves. This skill—necessary as a “trying out” of characters—can be nurtured in students by having them perform.

To teach theatricality at its most basic, I suggest “The Play without Words” exercise, which I do with beginning playwrights at the start of each semester. For this exercise, students write a one-page play with a plot, in which no one speaks. Students must convey that plot through performance, using only materials readily available—the classroom, items from home, and three random classmates. This challenging exercise goes a long way toward illuminating both the limitations and benefits of the stage.  Students typically try to do too much:  for example, one young woman once tried to show a couple saying their last loving good-byes before they jumped from a collapsing World Trade Center. While interesting, the premise is inscrutable without additional trappings—words or set—as explanation.  On the other hand, students have learned how marvelously engaging it is to have a swordfight or an actor pretending to be an animal:  these actions seem hokey on the page, but are magic in performance. By having students perform early on, they internalize the “theatricality” that separates playwriting from the other genres, thereby laying the groundwork to become better dramatists.

How do you get student writers to incorporate theatricality in their dramatic works? How much does performance figure into your teaching? What are your favorite classroom exercises?

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on October 19, 2011.]] 

About the Author
David J. Eshelman teaches at Arkansas Tech University, where he is the founder and artistic director of the Arkansas Radio Theatre. His plays include Vim and Vigor, A Taste of Buffalo, Bathysphere, and The Witches’ Quorum, which had its professional debut at the Magnetic Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina. His essays about playwriting and his plays have appeared in Theatre Topics, Text and Performance Quarterly, Ecumenica, and Liminalities.