What Makes a Play?
An excerpt from the essay "Master Class: Dramaturgy and New Play Development" recently published in The Directors Lab, edited by Evan Tsitsias. (It is available here from Playwrights Canada Press). Written by Andrea Romaldi, Director of the Playwriting Program at the National Theatre School of Canada, this essay reveals what makes or breaks a play.
The Directors Lab, edited by Evan Tsitsias and published by Playwrights Canada Press, 2020.
In selecting a play to develop, I look for two primary qualities in a play or creation proposal. They are remarkably simple, but difficult to find. The first is an understanding, on the part of the playwright or theatre creators, of theatre as a medium, and the second is the presence of a unique voice or perspective.
Theatre is a dramatic medium and a live art form, which means it has a very specific relationship to time and physical space. It is not uncommon to read texts offered up as plays that are not theatrical. When reading a play, I consider the following questions as to its theatricality:
- Is the play written to be a live art form, experienced in a particular space over a particular span of time?
- Does the play acknowledge the scale of theatre, or is it written in the equivalent of filmic “close-ups”?
- Does the text conjure a visual world, or is it sparsely written to primarily convey character intention, as in film?
- Is the text written dramatically, or does it sit within the realm of description or contemplation as prose and poetry are apt to do? Does it embrace plot and conflict, character development and arc as well as the transformation—of its characters and world—over time?
- Is dramatic action the primary means of generating the play’s theme or meaning?
The more plays you read and see, the more immediately clear it will become to you whether or not a text is theatrical.
One important consideration, especially given the rising prevalence of alternative performance conventions in theatre, is the fact that theatre is a durational art form. That means a viewer should experience the play over time and that each moment of the play—regardless of how it is conceived and staged, and regardless of whether each audience member views the same content in the same order—must be integral to the artistic experience. If you can imagine leaving and returning during the performance without anything substantial changing in the interim, I would submit that the text is not essentially dramatic.
Andrea Romaldi, Director of the Playwriting Program, in conversation with one of her students, Cole Haley (Playwriting 1, Elliston, NF)
On a basic level, what I look for in a play or theatrical creation is a series of dramatic events, each of which creates a transformation, however small, in the world of the play. This chain of events and transformations (event → transformation → event → transformation) should achieve two things. The first is to draw a reader or viewer more and more deeply into the world of the play, increasing intellectual and emotional investment over time. The second is to allow the reader or viewer to begin to construct a precise and play-specific meaning to the progression of events; this meaning should be felt as much as or more than it is intellectually understood. A great way to test whether a play is working dramatically is to ask yourself, at any given point in the play, if you can identify and remember the series of events and transformations that immediately preceded it. In dramatically written plays, regardless of whether they are linear or non-linear, conventional or unconventional, this should be relatively easy to do when the events and transformations accrue in impact and meaning such that one could not occur without all the others leading up to it. If you are still in doubt as to a text’s theatrical potential, ask yourself if you could more easily imagine it in another medium: prose, poetry, performance art, essay, television, or cinema. If your answer is “yes,” then you are likely not reading a theatrical text.
In addition to a play’s theatricality, I am most compelled by the playwright or theatre creators’ unique exploration of the human condition. By “human condition” I mean those experiences and struggles that form the core of our shared humanity. They point to something deeper and more inescapable than individual, social, and political categories—something that is capable of generating profound meaning in our lives. This, for me, is the central purpose of any art, including theatre. I want to be surprised—by new thoughts, feelings and arguments, or old ideas in new contexts and new interpretations. If a play offers up a simplistic and immediately recognizable worldview, that is a severe limitation for me. Likewise, if a play offers up an uncomplicated view of a political or ideological dilemma, and allies with a single character or perspective throughout, that is also a severe limitation for me.
I search for plays that engage with moral questions, human questions, and, yes, universal questions. Each of us wants to be seen, loved, valued; each of us wants to belong, somehow. However imperfectly the concept of universality might have been —and still be— understood or applied, it remains a very powerful and aspirational concept for me. Art must be created with an underlying compassion for the human beings represented in it and viewing it. If it is dark and despairing —as the most compelling plays frequently are— it must be in search of a significant truth and offer some glimmer of redemption for humanity.
Andrea Romaldi, Director of the Playwriting Program at the National Theatre School of Canada.
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