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Why Not Write A Play?
By
Leon Kaye

Your scripts aren't selling.  People say you write killer dialogue.  So you think to yourself, "Why not write a play?  Every little theatre from here to Galveston puts on six plays a year.  That must be about 10,000 productions!  How hard can it be to get produced?"  And everyone knows plays are like screenplays in structure.  You're definitely capable.  So why not write a play?

And no one edits your play.  There's no meddling director changing the third act or destroying your best lines.  Your play is literature!  Not popcorn fodder!  And playwrights hold a certain cachet that all Hollywood producers respect.

And the money keeps rolling in year after year as your play gains more and more productions!

These were my thoughts too, and three years ago, I started my first play.  I learned proper play format from the Samuel French formatting guide. I watched a few plays on PBS, read a few, and proceeded to write a pretty good farce. In fact, Samuel French (the king of play publishers) held onto the script for sixteen months before finally rejecting it.

Why?  Too big.  I was told that professional theatres need to make money and a nine-character play isn't going to fly in half of those venues.  I didn't realize that you can't pay nine equity actors in today's market and turn a profit.

Samuel French also targets community theatre, but my play failed there too. A lot more women try out for roles in these small theatres, so you need a lot of women's parts.  My play has two women, seven men.  So two strikes and I was out, with a very good play, just not a very marketable one.

The process of writing a play wasn't as enjoyable as I had hoped.  I was accustomed to writing for the screen, and writing for the stage made me feel as is I was wearing a straightjacket.  I could no longer "CUT TO" the next scene. I couldn't just change locations in a blink of an eye.  I couldn't use throw-away characters with only a few lines of dialogue.  I realized that playwriting IS a different medium and required a different approach-- kind of like learning to write left-handed.

One must use invention a lot in a play-- to change time and place, to imagine characters or props that are not there, and to involve the audience. This can be accomplished with a change in lighting, or with sliding/moving background, using props for different purposes.

In theatre, they tell you, "Less is more."  I should say those who are paying the bills say that.  So-- fewer characters, limited locales, invention rather than realism... do you feel that straightjacket tightening? Suddenly the thought, "Why not write a play?" doesn't fill you with as much enthusiasm, does it?

Plays also need action-- purposeful, interesting and visual action.  Although plays are more "talky" than screenplays, you still need to avoid the "talking heads" syndrome and keep the page-long soliloquies to a minimum.  Actors need to argue, throw things, have swordfights, whatever.  And given the constraints above, this is a very hard juggling act.  

A play must hold our interest and need just as many plot twists as a screenplay. 

Each character must have an agenda, and needs to be interactive every minute they are on stage.  Characters must enter and exit for a reason, and can't just mill around onstage supplying witty repartee when the spirit moves them.  In a screenplay, the lead character and the villain have a goal.  But in a play, every character must have one.  Each character also needs to have good/meaty/funny lines.  If you were in the production, would you like to play that part?

It gets worse.  Although there are thousands of theatres, many do the latest Broadway fare, or Neil Simon, Edward Albee or yet another retelling of A Christmas Carol.  There is often one slot for a new play, 600 submissions, and one artistic director that slowly makes his/her way through the pile. It often takes six months or more to get an answer from a theatre regarding  your play. And many theatres set their seasons two years in advance.

In spite of all this... why not write a play?  But at least know your market -- high school, professional, community theatre, dinner theatre, interactive murder mysteries, musicals, avant-garde, children's, educational, or political.

Get The Dramatist's Sourcebook or Writer's Market to find out which theatres are interested in your type of play.  Check out the web. Target and query a few theatres.  Then wait... and wait... and wait.  You can enter contests (most are free).  You may try a play publisher.  I did, and it hasn't been too successful.  Lawrence Harbison of Samuel French told me "Don't put the cart before the horse."  Get a few productions and then go to a publisher.  You will get a far better deal that way.   Still, nothing beats having a professionally bound play with your name on the cover.  Maybe that's the reason write a play.  Getting published is a definite shot in the arm.

Leon Kaye has written numerous screenplays and stage plays (published by Baker's Plays this fall, and Brooklyn Publishers).  He has a NYC agent and has had his plays produced all over the US.

 

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