WRITERS’ WEDNESDAY: Writing for the Theater: A Horse of a Different Color

Theater Masks

Something appealing, something appalling…

When I joined a theater group a few years ago, I already had experience writing novels and stories. The transition was not as easy as I’d expected. Although a novel can be adapted to a script and vice versa, the two are different art forms. At the time I decided it would be easier to create a new work. I remembered stories my girlfriend Arlys had told me of her weird on-line dating experiences, and voila, a musical comedy was born! I’ll save the rest of that story for an upcoming Self-promotion Sunday post.

The first rule of script writing is that your audience – producers, directors, and actors – expect it to be in a specific format. Using a word-processor template can make this easy. There’s a reason for using the archaic Courier font: it helps keep the timing consistent. As a rule of thumb, a page of dialog should last a minute on stage, but in practice that can vary greatly.

Secondly, converting standard prose to script can be challenging. Your pretty description and narrative must be replaced with scene and stage direction, which should be as concise and utilitarian as possible. How thorough you make these directions is a matter of personal style. Some famous playwrights, such as Pinter, use almost none. In any case, you will surrender much of your creative control to directors, actors, and set designers.

This conversion will be easier if you follow the cardinal rule of good writing: show don’t tell. In the theater, the writer shows through dialog and action. A good set can be helpful, but a play can be just as effective on a bare stage. If necessary, a character can play the role of a narrator, but this device should be used sparingly.

Comedy is a difficult genre in any form because humor is a personal thing. Unless you’re a natural, I suggest writing comedy with a co-author. The social dynamics of collaboration will help you come up with better, funnier jokes.

Music adds another layer of complexity. It’s good to have a song occur early in the scene, for maximum impact. Of course, the flow of the dialog will determine the ideal place for a song to occur.

Theater writing has its positive aspects, of course. Even if it’s not your primary mode of expression it’s a good exercise. It incorporates a social element that the solitary habit of writing normally lacks. Larger cities often have showcases for local talent, and they’re always looking for new works. These provide good opportunities for publicity and increased name recognition.

In this short post, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic. My primary message is not to underestimate the challenge of writing for the theater, but also to point out its potential rewards. As the saying goes, there’s no business like show business!

For some dramatic storytelling, check out my books on Amazon.com.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

t’s amazing what people will write plays about these days. That’s a good thing, because it’s pretty difficult to come up with an original idea. When you’ve got one, you run with it. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is one of those “crazy” ideas. It’s a musical about the life of America’s seventh president, and it’s definitely not your run-of-the-mill historical play.

My girlfriend and I saw the play on June 15th at Phoenix Theatre. It was hilarious, irreverent, profane, and only occasionally historically accurate. In other words, we really enjoyed it. It has a rock ‘n’ roll score, which a friend described as “My Chemical Romance does Broadway.” In lieu of an official review, I’ll just say we thought the acting and singing were superb, especially Caleb Reese, of the local rock band “The Instant Classics,” as Old Hickory (which, the play informed us, was actually a nickname for Jackson’s penis.) The music, which included the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” was pretty catchy. The song, “Populism, Yeah Yeah” is still stuck in my head.

As I said before, if you want something that’s true to historical fact, this isn’t the play for you. Jackson struts around like a rock star, wearing a jacket with “AJ” and a lighting bolt in sequins on the back. He calls his friends “bro,” contacts constituents on a red telephone, and refers to his rivals in the Whig Party as “Republicans,” though the GOP wasn’t founded until 1854. In the play Jackson’s parents both perish on the same night. In real life, their deaths were 14 years apart.

In the most important respects, however, the play captured the spirit of the man- brash, egotistical and amoral. The word “bloody” in the title refers to the wars he fought, and to his appalling treatment of Native Americans. Most of us know that Jackson fought “the bloody British in the town of New Orleans”, which the play does mention. (Sadly they didn’t – or perhaps weren’t allowed to – use the iconic Jimmy Driftwood song.) Jackson was also a “hero” of the Creek and Seminole Indian Wars, and as President, he was responsible for the Indian Removal Act, which led to the infamous “Trail of Tears.”

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, written by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, is showing at the Phoenix Theatre (located at Central and McDowell) though June 23, 2013. Depending on your location in time and space, this information may not do you much good (assuming you are out there) but if you get a chance to see this play, I’d recommend it.