Changing Masks: Writing for the Theatre


A couple of weeks ago I finished the current draft of a play, I Am A Lake, for the good people of Mudlark Theatre. The opportunity to write for the theatre is something I couldn’t pass up. I trained as a drama teacher (although I’ve mainly taught English) and so an attraction to the performing arts has long been in the blood. I dabble in acting here and there but will confess to having no significant talent in that field, beyond being perfectly happy to make a fool of myself on cue. And followers of this blog–yes, both of you–will know that I have recently been asked to write for Mudlark Theatre’s scintillating One Day project, which I’ve now done twice.

I am supposed to be writing a novel, of course, so switching masks to work on a play seemed a bit like cheating on a girlfriend…but I got over that.

One of the things I was interested in is what I would learn about fiction from working in a different domain. I was told at the outset that the processes, the ‘headspaces’, are not the same; and this is true up to a point.

The notion of The Audience is perhaps the most interesting issue. Some writers will tell you that they don’t give a crap about their audience, their readers. Others will tell you that if you don’t bring your readers along with you, you’re more or less wasting your time. One of the things I love about the theatre is its immediacy–everything is happening right there, in front of you. So there is a fairly clear need to involve the audience in what’s happening. This doesn’t mean that you have to explain everything, of course–you can imagine what sort of theatre that might create. But they have to find a connection with what is happening, they have to be carried along–they have to be engaged.

One of the most powerful forces–if not THE most powerful–in fiction is ambiguity. In simple terms, this means not spelling everything out. The best fiction relies on a reader doing some of the work, I think; I have heard reading described as a more creative act than writing for this reason. So it can be with viewing.

So in writing my play, I had to find a line between letting the audience do some of the work and being explicit, and this is possibly the single most difficult challenge. Even more of a challenge is trying to create the red herring; getting an audience (or readers) to think they might know what’s happening, and then surprising them. Effective writing, in any domain, is built on those surprises. Reading (and viewing) is, I suppose, a kind of conversation you have with the book or film or play.

Example: I recently saw Russell Crowe’s film The Water Diviner. Before viewing it I predicted on Facebook that because he had three sons, one of them would survive Gallipoli. And so it proved. So I wasn’t surprised–and left the film being very slightly disappointed because of it. The Turkish story is actually more interesting than Crowe’s, but we’re digressing.

The other interesting lesson for me was in writing dialogue. I love writing dialogue. In fiction, though, it’s only one tool you have among many–you can establish scenes, explain and examine relationships, describe action and so on without it. Plays have dialogue and only dialogue and everything (apart from some action, perhaps) must be channeled through it. It’s important to get it right, then, and not have vast expository speeches where characters fill the audience in on their background, their motives and so on. Finding subtle and interesting ways to use dialogue to advance action, reveal innermost desires, establish character and conflict and so on is probably the core challenge for someone wanting to write for performance.

Finally, the thing I probably enjoyed most about developing the script to its current stage (development is set to continue for another year or so, at least) is incorporating filmic elements–trying to create images within the parameters of what is possible in a theatre. These are things that aren’t as easy in fiction, where words are the only medium–again, you rely on the reader to visualise or connect with the world in your pages.

What I’m keen to see now is whether, when I return to working on my Novel in Progress, I bring elements of the theatrical to it. I’d like to think that a fairly heavy diet of cinema has given me some capacity to think visually, even within the narrative confines of fiction: so, we’ll see. Interesting times!

Thanks for reading.

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