elements that can help make a great play

donald oconnor gene kelly

This column is in response to Gwyn Gilliss’ February 19, 2013 column in Backstage.com, “9 Elements That Make a Great Monologue,” because, well, good storytelling is good storytelling, and good theater principles seem to me to go across the board (and boards) (yes, I should have resisted that one).

1. Be entertaining.

2. Write what “fits you like a glove.”  I won’t say “write what you know” because, as in #1, most of our lives are just not that interesting.

3. If you write dark dark dark, know that Ibsen and Strindberg already did it, and if you don’t know their work, read it.  If you write light light light, well, even chocolate gets sick-making after a while.

4. “Work on one that has an ‘arc’ or storyline.”  That’s a direct Ms Gilliss quote.  If I have to explain it, then why are you trying to write plays?  YES, there are excellent plays that don’t appear to have an obvious arc or storyline, and they were written by brilliant people, and if you parse those plays, you’ll find that yes, they do indeed have an arc and a storyline.

5. A play needs to be the length it needs to be.  Gary Garrison is eloquent on the topic – if you have the chance to hear him speak or to study with him, grab it.  In any case, read his books.

6. I’m not advocating “an element of surprise” because surprises not tied into the characters, relationships, or situation of a work are gratuitous at best and time-wasting at least.  But.  Give your audience a reason to be there.  If you answer every question for them, they’re nothing but captives to your ego.  Jeffrey Sweet is eloquent on this one, so listen to him, study with him, and read his books, too.

7. Don’t write “foul language or rude innuendos,” or you’ll be compared with David Mamet, and usually not too favorably.  You’re wrighting plays using words.  So be a little creative about those words, right?

9. Adapt at your own risk, and be very sparing with time spent on a book that has already been adapted – beautifully – for the screen.  I made this mistake.  I sweated bullets over it.  Whether or not I made a good play, every reading produced the comment – made about a book-in-hand reading – that the movie was better.  You can only win this one IF you have your own very clear take on that classic.  One that doesn’t mimic the movie.

and lastly, #8 – out of order because it speaks to my writerly manifesto:

8. “Leave them thinking you are amazingly courageous.”  See #7 and #3, those playwrights were amazingly courageous for their time, but now, it’s been done.  Neil Simon – done.  Find your own voice, what Marsha Norman calls your “stuff,” and let it lead you.  Don’t self-edit during the first draft, let it show you things you didn’t know about yourself.  Write the play that will change your life.


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