A Big Problem for Playwrights

One of the biggest problems the modern playwright faces is the way we imagine and envision scenes. More and more of us have grown up with cartoons, television, and now the internet and computer games. We’re used to CGI and other technological tricks that allow characters to fly or scenes to change in an instant. So when we get great ideas, a lot of them involve fantastic tricks or snappy visual stunts.

A lot of that is not possible on the live stage. When it is possible, it isn’t cheap or easy.

For example, take dramatic or speedy changes. On screen, characters can change clothing, pop up on the other side of a room, or even go to a totally different location instantly because the editors could splice together images to take away the time in between. On stage, you have to allow time for the performers and stagehands to actually do what they’re supposed to do. It takes time to change sets, run from one side of the stage to the other backstage, or change a costume or makeup.

Yes, there are tricks to help speed it up. Specialized costumes that are two costumes in one or are held on by magnets can speed up costume changes. People in duplicate costumes can pop up briefly on the other side of the stage to make it seem like the regular character appeared over there. Sets can be designed so that changes move more quickly or are less intricate.

The only problem with all of that is that it takes a level of planning and special design that isn’t widely available. Worse, it is almost always more expensive than not having to do it. Even the simpler options may require extra people or costumes, which also costs more money.

More spectacular tricks like disappearing, flying, smoke, fire, etc, add another level of complication. Many of them are possible (I’m sure you can think of big productions that have done them); however, they have similar problems with skill requirements and expense. Plus, not all theatres have trap doors or fly systems capable of these feats.

So it’s expensive or takes special designs. It’s still possible, so what’s the problem?

The problem is that the more complicated and expensive it is to perform the play, the fewer places are likely to do it, and the harder it will be for you to get it performed in the first place. If you want your play to spread across the country or even internationally, that may not be the best plan. If it’s expensive and hard to put on, your play is going to have to be extra amazing to get the backing needed for a breakthrough.

Does that mean that you can’t do any of these things? Of course not. Is it helpful to take these problems into account when you’re writing? Absolutely.

One of the best tips I can give to anyone who wants to write plays is to work as a stagehand at least once. Acting helps, too, but most of the time, the hands know a lot more about what it takes to make the props and set changes work. Even better, work as an assistant stage manager. A stage manager’s job is to know everything that needs to happen onstage from the lines and blocking to the light cues to prop placement.

Once you see how the play works from backstage, you’ll have a much better idea of what is easy and what is difficult. Most importantly, you’ll have an idea of what is needlessly difficult. You see, most of these issues can be solved by a little planning ahead and a bit of rewriting. Yes, there are times when the big dramatic set or effect is necessary or makes the play. Other times, it’s a mere flaw of the modern imagination. For today’s playwright, it’s vital to know the difference.

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