Ahhh, the smell of the greasepaint, the buzz of the crowd, and the bright lights of the theatre. Nothing really comes close to the experience of sitting in front of a proscenium arch (or “in the round,” if you’re in a more contemporary theatre).
The theatre has been the home of artistic creation and expression since as far back as 6th Century BC, during the time of the Ancient Greeks. In fact, according to tradition it was in 534 BC that Thespis performed his poetry in character, effectively becoming the world’s first actor.
Fun Fact: this is where the word Thespian originates from.
Why is this relevant to you and your stage play, you might ask? Because fundamentally theatre hasn’t changed – you still have actors, an audience, and a performance space.
These three elements are the essence of theatre. Of course, now there are some extra technical advances that allow us to mystify the audience with special effects, light a scene for a specific mood and use sound effects to create that which isn’t really there.
But before we get there, you must learn how to start at the creative, all-encompassing origin point: writing a stage play.
Preparing to Write a Stage Play
Writing a stage play is not going to be a walk in the park, so in order to approach it in the best way possible you need to prepare. Below are a few easy steps that will help ready your mind for the task at hand.
1. Read Scripts
Before you even put a finger to the keyboard, you should spend some time reading stage plays. The format can differ somewhat depending on the country you’re in, but all of the ingredients remain the same.
There are lots of helpful templates and examples online that show you the best way to format your play, but nothing will help you develop an appreciation and understanding of the basics faster than diving into the source material itself.
2. Go to the Theatre
Another crucial step before you even begin writing is to go and experience some productions first-hand. What was the last play you went to see? Was it fringe theatre or a Broadway show?
Depending on what sort of story you want to tell, you might find watching a few plays in your chosen genre could really inspire you and help your creative juices flow.
As a struggling writer this might sound like an expensive exercise but there are plenty of ways to do it on a budget.
Student showcases, for example, are often free to attend and can be a great way to get to know up-and-coming talent.
Some of the bigger shows even offer reduced rates on quiet nights, so do your homework and research your options, and you might be surprised at what a great deal you can find. There are options out there for every budget and interest.
Writing a Stage Play
So, you’ve started to read stage plays and you’ve been to the theatre. You understand the language and the format you need to write in. Now, it’s time to get started on your very own stage play script!
You may already have an idea for a play or you might be starting with the blank page. If you’re starting from scratch, it’s helpful to first think about where you want to set your play. What time period does it take place? What locations are involved? What time of year?
When you have orientated yourself in a time and place, you can start to think about the broader strokes.
This is fundamentally what your play is going to be about. What is the key takeaway you want your audience to come away with after watching your play? What do you want them to feel? What message do you want to convey or point are you trying to make?
Just like a movie, genre plays a crucial role in the writing of a play. Once you’ve chosen a genre you’ll be able to develop the tone, style, and subject matter of your play in more detail. All these elements and more can provide helpful creative guideposts that inform how your tory develops.
This is probably the easiest question, but who is the play about? How are your characters going to develop over the course of the play? These characters are the lens through which we’ll watch the story unfold, so choose wisely and think carefully!
Different Stage Play Structures
As your idea develops you’ll need to also start thinking about how the play is structured. Typically, there are three common play structures:
1. One-Act Play
Generally, these are around 60 minutes in length and run without an intermission. These work well for fringe shows on tighter budgets as they tend to have fewer settings and scenes.
2. Two-Act Play
One of the most common contemporary play formats is the two-act structure. This is where the show is split into two acts with an intermission between them.
The benefit of this is it allows the audiences a moment of respite between the first and second act and to (hopefully) reflect on the first half of the play to build anticipation. It also allows for a bigger set change if you’re planning on having a change of location.
3. Three-Act play
The three-act play divides the story into three distinct sections. It might have an extra intermission and the length is usually longer than that of the two-act play. Typically, the first act will focus on exposition, the second on the rising action, and third on the resolution.
Outlining Your Stage Play
Outlining your play can be a great way to test whether the idea works before committing to the full script. Write down your acts, your scenes, when characters appear, the narrative arc, and also any general stage actions you think will be important.
It doesn’t have to be pages and pages, just enough for you to have a solid plan that covers all of the main areas of your story, theme, and characters.
You Need to Write
The time has finally come. All of your research, preparation, and outlining have led you to this moment. It’s time to write your stage play!
From your outline you should have a pretty good idea of where you want to start. So, fill your mug with coffee and start writing your stage play.
The key thing with this part of the process is having fun!
Other Helpful Tips for Writing a Stage Play
For veteran writers and amateurs alike, here are some helpful writing tips that can help keep you focused, inspired, and on-track.
1. Free Write
Open a new document and just write! Write a short story about your main character in a totally different situation. Write about a different character in the same situation. Write about what you did last weekend. Just write!
Freewriting can be a great exercise to get to know more about your characters, your story, or even just yourself as a writer. Use it when the dreaded writers block rears its head and you’ll be writing your stage play again in no time!
2. Take a Break
It might feel counterproductive but taking a break from writing can really help your mind problem solve. Go for a walk or just have a relaxing bath. You’ll be amazed at how a short stint away from the computer can reignite your creative flame. Sometimes all your brain needs is a break.
3. Immerse Yourself in the Genre
Remember all of that helpful research you did when you went to the theatre and read plays? Do that again, and perhaps even watch some movies and read some books as well this time.
You want to immerse yourself in the genre you’re writing it, and that can be through as many mediums as possible. Let your subconscious absorb it all, and suddenly you’ll find ideas popping up in the most unexpected ways.
You’ve done it, you’ve written your first stage play! Which now takes us to the most important stage of writing of the writing process: rewriting.
Once you’ve written your first draft you’ll need to read through the entire script and look at every element of the stage play to adjust format, logic, cadence, story, and everything in between.
5. Look at Your Play from a Different Perspective
One way to do this effectively is to imagine you are looking at this from a different point of view.
For example, read your play as if you were an actor reading the lines for the first time. Does the dialogue sound natural, is there enough direction and action taking place within a scene? Are the relationships with other characters fully developed?
Now read it as a director, a production designer, lighting designer, and sound mixer. Think about each role and what that person is looking for in the script. Have you thought about how a scene should be lit on stage? Is there a particular sound effect you need?
6. Get a Fresh Set of Eyes to Read Your Script
Once you’ve done this as many times as you want to. It’s time to get someone else to read your play and get their thoughts on it. This can be a friend, family member, or even a willing stranger.
Ask them to make a note of anything that they might find confusing and see if they had questions about anything. Repeat this process with a few people, and you’ll begin to see if there are any trends in the feedback worth looking into.
Then, you guessed it . . . time for another rewrite!
Once you’ve repeated this process a few times you should be well on your way to having a fantastic stage play worthy of an audience.
The Bottom Line
The key thing to remember when writing your first play is that there are no right or wrong ways to do it. The tips above can help you find a path that works but ultimately writing is about going on a journey. Find the approach that works best for you and just keep pushing forward!
With enough work and determination, you’ll be among the proud few to create this unique piece of storytelling magic.