Can Playwriting Be Taught?
Keynote address from the Southeasern Theater Conference, 2006
The age-old answer to this question was always ”No, playwriting cannot be taught.” And like other age-old answers – abstinence is the only way, father knows best, etc – it was not true at all, but did serve a certain purpose, which was to keep young people from trying stuff the grayhairs wanted to keep for themselves, or knew to be fraught with peril. The “answer” also kept the grayhairs from having to learn how to teach playwriting, or from having to answer any number of other questions that would come up in a playwriting class, such as why can a good writer write so many bad plays, or why are Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes so popular when the plays by or about them are always so long.
The real answer to the age-old question is simple enough. Some aspects of playwriting can be taught, and some cannot. But that is true of everything. You can teach someone the rules of writing a haiku, but you cannot teach them to write one that will make you cry. You can teach people how to improve the odds of having better sex through cool techniques and secret knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that in practice, they will actually have better sex, there being so many other factors involved. And so it is with playwriting.
There are things about playwriting that can be taught. Christopher Durang and I have been working up at Juilliard for the last thirteen years discovering many of them. Much of what I will say here, is knowledge we came upon together. There are also things about playwriting that cannot be taught, and there is some common wisdom about plays that cannot be counted on to be true. So here we go.
WHAT CAN BE TAUGHT
1. You can teach young playwrights what the audience expects.
There are things audience members want when they come to the theater. In general, they want to care about a character, see the trouble that character is in, and watch while that character figures out what to do about it.
Very early in the play, say on page 8, people in the audience also want to know when they can go home, what is at stake here –Which brother will get the piano? Will the girl actually kill herself? What will the Sphinx-dispatching hero do when he learns he’s just married his mother? The audience wants to know what it’s waiting for, why are you telling this story, what do you want from them? They are like a jury, they need to know what the person is accused of so they can know how to listen to the information, render a judgment, and be dismissed. They also need that information delivered to them in a way that they can process it, but that’s a longer discussion.
In the first ten minutes, people in the audience want to know where they are, where they are going, who is related to whom, and how things work here – kind of like what you want when you get on a plane, arrive at a wedding, or wake up in some strange bed without knowing how you got there.
And finally, the audience expects the playwright to pay off on the promises you made them in the first ten minutes. If you say you are here to decide who gets the piano, somebody better damn well get the thing by the end. No amount of pretty writing or character development will save you from the wrath of the audience if whatever was at stake, isn’t resolved. Is the marriage over or not? Is the father revenged or not? Do the sisters get to Moscow or not?
The chaos that interrupted the order at the beginning of the play, must be dealt with, and the order, even if it’s a new order, must return. That is what the audience has come to see, the return of order. The old version of this old rule was Get the main character up in the tree, throw rocks at him, and get him down. You could do a lot worse than just remembering this one rule.
2. You can teach playwrights how to write the various types of scenes that are useful in plays.
Writers can easily learn that an argument is the best way to cover exposition. Writers can learn that a long monologue is usually just you the writer talking to yourself, which is not a bad thing to do as an exercise, but in the actual play, it’s better when you let the characters talk to each other. Writers can learn how to make the characters sound different from each other. (Take away all the names, give the play to somebody else, and see if they know who is talking.) Writers can learn how to make the audience know the end is coming, wait for it, wait for it, and then give it to them. (see the sex reference at the beginning) And writers can learn how to write a love scene, which all good plays must have, almost without exception.
It is also important for playwrights to learn to write a good opening scene (say what’s at stake, who’s in this and where you are), a good end of the first act (state the question the audience should talk about during intermission), a good opening of the second act (remind the audience where you are without making them feel stupid), a good climactic scenery-chewing, hair-pulling fight, (so you’ll interest good actors and get your play on) and a satisfying final scene (so the audience will go out and call their friends and tell them to come see your show)
Figuring out where and when to use these scenes is not so hard. Read The Cat in the Hat and look at what happens moment to moment. It’s the golden guide to writing plays.
3. You can teach playwrights how to recognize a good subject for a play.
Most troubled plays go wrong right at the beginning, in the choice of subject. This is the unrecoverable mistake. If I gave ten people twenty ideas for plays, it would only take them two minutes of conversation or voting to decide which two plays they would be most inclined to see. I don’t know why this is, but it is. Audiences are not equally interested in all subjects, and nothing will compel them to be interested in something they don’t care about. For example, audiences hate plays about how hard it is to be a writer. They just don’t care.
Audiences very much like stories of love and justice, both of which involve seeking and finding. But it’s worse than that. I actually think that the only thing an audience wants to see is a search. If a play can be reduced to the search for x, it has a chance, no matter what X is. I can’t believe it’s that simple, but I believe that it is. Try it. Go through the plays you love, and see if they can’t be reduced to the search for x. Hamlet, A Doll’s House, True West, Lear, The Faith Healer, Sideman, Rabbit Hole, Our Town, West Side Story, Proof, they are all searches. We love to see what happens when somebody wants something enough to go looking for it. We want to see what happens, we want to experience the consequences of desire. Why? Because we all want things, that’s why. (The scientists are now saying that we’re humans precisely because we developed the ability to want things.) And plays are about humans at their most basic.
So write about somebody wanting something. But you have to choose a search that you know about personally. You can’t write somebody else looking for something they want. That old rule about writing about what you know? It’s not a bad rule, it’s just not active enough. Write about what you want, and what would happen to you if you went looking for it. Or if all else fails, pick some time when you really afraid and write about that.
WHAT CANNOT BE TAUGHT
1. Voice cannot be taught
Real playwrights just naturally listen to how people talk. And this is good, because it is very hard to teach someone how to create the impression of real speech onstage. Stage talk isn’t actually real, but it sounds real. It’s something slightly larger than real talk in size and quality, which if delivered well by an actor, will shrink slightly on its way out to the audience, and then strike them as perfectly natural once they hear it. It is also difficult to teach people how to listen to their characters as they write them, so they can draw clues from those characters as if they were real people. There are also verbal rhythms that work well on the stage, and some that don’t. Real playwrights know these instinctively, and are musical in their souls, and the sentences they write just sound good from the stage. This is the famous ear for dialogue you hear about. If the audience detects something false in the way a character is talking, you will lose them. Characters must pass a certain “reality” test that the audience administers. You wouldn’t put a robotic dog in a dog show and expect to win a prize. Ditto for playwriting.
And it goes without saying that you can’t have a play where all the characters have the same voice, and thus are the same person, (the author) but have different names. This we call laziness and vanity.
The same is also true of gender differences in language, but that’s a longer conversation. But the short version is if you want to write two men in a marriage, write two men. Don’t give one of them a woman’s name and hope no one will notice. Men and women speak very different languages. And women in the audience notice this.
2. Observation cannot be taught.
If a writer cannot observe what happens around him/her, and write about it with some compassion, then he/she should go into journalism. The theater depends on subjectivity, not objectivity. And you need to be able to write all the characters with the same degree of compassion. Demonizing people is the province of politics, not theater.
3. A sense of theatricality cannot be taught.
Plays are about conflict. We come to plays to see things happen. Plays must contain mistakes, surprises, reversals, murders, betrayals, fights, overheard conversations, secrets, in short, dramatic action. Plays are not conversations. If something doesn’t happen, it’s not a play. Or it’s not a play that’s going to find much of an audience anyway. Because so many young writers spend their lives listening to readings, they begin to think that a play is the stuff people say to each other while sitting in a line of chairs. But it is not. Nor is a play a string of unrelated events, even if they are killings, murders, fights, etc. A play is a series of events arising naturally from the situation the hero is in, and what he/she does about it.
There are other things that cannot be taught, and other things that cannot be counted on to be true (the main one being that you can read a play and know what it is), but this seems like enough for now. I have only one warning, in conclusion.
Once before, I wrote an article like this, proclaiming some things to be true, and one person actually resigned from the Guild because I had made such pronouncements about such a personal art. Well. I am doing it again, playing my dogmatic role, just for the purpose of stating, more or less, where the boundaries are in the writing of plays. Once you know these fundamentals, then if you want to duck under the fence and ski the fresh powder on a slope no one has ever tried, please do. Break the rules all you want. Just know that if you get lost, it’s the dreary old rules that will get you back on course and back down to the lodge in time for drinks. See you there.
Marsha Norman won a Pulitzer for her play ‘night, Mother, a Tony for The Secret Garden on Broadway and a Tony nomination for her book for The Color Purple.
Ms. Norman is co-chair of Playwriting at Julliard and serves on the Steering Committee of the Dramatists Guild. She has numerous film and TV credits, as well as a Peabody for her work in TV. She has won numerous awards including the Inge Lifetime Achievement in Playwriting. She is also Presiden of the Lilly Awards Foundation, a non-profit honoring women in theater and working for gender parity nationwide.