A Piece of My Mind: Writing for the Theater
Bennet Pomerantz

The structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost. ....By whatever means it is accomplished, the prime business of a play is to arouse the passions of its audience so that by the route of passion may be opened up new relationships between a man and men, and between men and Man. Drama is akin to the other inventions of man in that it ought to help us to know more, and not merely to spend our feelings.
  ~ Arthur Miller

The office of drama is to exercise, possibly to exhaust, human emotions. The purpose of comedy is to tickle those emotions into an expression of light relief; of tragedy, to wound them and bring the relief of tears. Disgust and terror are the other points of the compass.
   ~ Sir Lawrence Olivier

I have been working on a new play. Now maybe you assume, like many do, that I am just a critic or columnist. But to my credit, I have written seventeen plays (seven of them being one-act productions). Of these seventeen plays, twelve have been produced and performed for the stage, some more than once.

Though many may say, "Bennet, you are just a critic or columnist!" understand that a writer is a writer. Being diverse in writing means never getting yourself pigeonholed into being thought of as a certain type of genre writer. For example, Stephen King is thought of mainly as a horror writer. Yet he is a noted columnist for Entertainment Weekly, the author of a biography of horror, a screenwriter, a film director and a mystery author.

So this month, I offer a few basic start up rules for writing for the stage.

Bennet's Rule one: Know that writing for the theater is different from writing a movie screenplay. The idea of film is action in motion. In the world of the theater, the idea of a play script is action through words. You must convey more in dialog than action.

Bennet's Rule two: The ideas come first.  When I did a writer's workshop a few years ago, someone asked me, "Do I need to write in script or screenplay format? " I said, "Get the words down FIRST. Get the ideas down on paper. Then worry about play format and style."

Bennet's Rule three: DON'T be married to YOUR script. Remember, once it is finished and out of your hands, it is the DIRECTOR's script! It is not like a book. Your play is the blueprint for HIS vision.

Now you must understand, as a book or short story author, you are also a scenic designer, costume designer, etc. When you write a play, you need to give as much detail about your sets as to designing and describing your characters, costuming your characters, and the time of the play.

I remember a play I wrote called Doctors Heal Themselves. I described the set of the play, the psychiatrist's office of Dr. James Franklin, to the nth item on the stage. I carefully explained everything in my script with painstaking details, from where the desk would be placed upon the stage to the painting which stood behind the Doctor's desk to the actor's wardrobe. The actor who played Franklin was so grateful for the details in my script, he said it helped him create his character . The gifted director made the set totally different from my script, changing the place of where the art was hung and thereby the focus of the action, without changing a line of my action and dialog.

Bennet's Rule four: Get creative!

I wanted to tell different stories of war. So I wrote a reader's theater production. Reader's theater (this is the best site to explain and start you in writing) has limited memorizing, props, and costumes. It has no sets and music usually stands for the actor's scripts. This is akin to a radio-styled show for the stage. One of the best known reader's theaters is George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell.

Stories of War, my one act reader's theater, retells the ideas of war and its aftermath from four different viewpoints with a narrator to introduce each character. The people in the cast do verbal asides to highlight each other's performances, acting like they would in any other play. The first production of War I directed and produced myself....I was not giving a GIFTED director a chance to destroy my vision. However my little antiwar tract, after its debut, has appeared in a few one-act festivals around the country over the years. I always get surprised when a little royalty check from a new production of War comes in...and lately I have been getting a few.

Well, I better get back to the old grindstone, and finish writing this new play...maybe next year BROADWAY!

Until next month, REACH FOR THE STARS!

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About the Writer:

Bennet Pomerantz is a media review columnist in 175 newspapers with his weekly column AUDIOWORLD. His fiction and reviews have appeared in the pages of Affaire De Coeur, Gateways, Mystery Scene, Power Star, The Hot Corner, Washington Entertainment Magazine, and many others. He is also known for his review appearances on the MCN Forum. View his web site at Audioworld.