There is no formula for how to write a play: the only rule is that there are none. But playwriting is nevertheless as much about craft and graft as it is about art. Behind it lies a lot of method - and no little madness. Everyone has their own approach; there is no single right way.
But Where to Begin?
Every writer faces different challenges. For some, finding the story is easy, for others, difficult. "I'm not very good at inventing stories," comments Nicholas Wright, "so I like to find a story that actually happened. It will in fact usually change when it gets down to it, but I need the germ of something real to begin with, as I did with Mrs Klein and Cressida."
For Alan Plater (whose most recent play, Peggy For You, portrayed the late literary agent Peggy Ramsay, who also represented him), on the other hand, "at any point, there are maybe half a dozen stories that will keep nagging away at the back of my head; there are thousands of stories to tell, so plots are not a problem." The bigger challenge, he feels, is to surprise: "The theatre should always be about the unexpected. Peggy would always say, 'Give them lots of little surprises, and every so often a big one'. That was her definition of dramatic structure. So I always try to take the audience by surprise, and also myself."
Images & Imagination
For others, the starting point is not so much structural (ie plot) as visual. "I often start with an image in my head," says Charlotte Jones. "In the case of Humble Boy (currently at the National's Cottesloe), it was the image of a bumblebee. I'd read somewhere that they're not supposed to be able to fly - that aerodynamically speaking, they're all wrong and defy physics. So I had this man in my head, stumbling around a garden like a bumblebee, as my starting place, rather than a theme. My plays always come from character, and the setting and a collision of the characters and the story."
The young but prolific Scottish playwright David Greig concurs, "I don't usually think of the story first. Normally, two things tend to coalesce. I'll have an image, most often a single image, that I really like and feel wants to be written about - that wants to be on stage. With Victoria (premiered last year by the RSC), I had an image of a young woman waiting by a tree for a man to arrive. That doesn't sound terribly inspiring, but it was: I had a feeling that there was something she was going to say.
"Then there's an ongoing process of being 'bothered' by things: a question, or a thought, that nags at me," Greig continues. "In this case, it was to do with belief. And although the play as it now exists doesn't necessarily tackle this question head on, this was the thought that started me writing. When I do begin, I don't usually know how it's going to end. I just see what happens. The first draft is a process of meandering until I find out what the story is, and once I've found that, then I go back and start to trim it, until it starts to take over. The story will tend to come unconsciously, which is probably the best way for it to happen."
The prolific Alan Ayckbourn prefers to know where he's going before he begins: "I like to have the whole thing set in my head before I start. I have to have the whole structure - the shape of it - and a considerable knowledge of the characters before I commence, then I write very, very fast. I know the journey, I know the people who are taking it, and then it's just a matter of getting it down. The dialogue is the easy bit."
Research, Technique & Argument
For Hugh Whitemore (whose God Only Knows was recently in the West End, starring Derek Jacobi), the process isn't so fast. "I'm a very slow writer," he admits, "and to fill in the months of worry, research is a very interesting thing to do. So I go to the London Library. It stimulates me, and research can offer you fascinating insights."
Nicholas Wright, too, lets his plays gestate and emerge through reading extensively first. "I spend a lot of time reading things that are not strictly relevant, and do a lot of work that could sort of be called research, but I think is more about getting into the world of whatever it is I want to write about," he explains. "So I read a lot, trying to build up a picture of it, and really trying to find a story somewhere."
Once found - and Whitemore believes that "plays are there to be found, they seem to exist already" - it's a question of applying technique as much as art to write them. "I'm very interested in the technique of writing," says Whitemore. "It seems to me that most playwrights are really craftsman, like carpenters. We're called playwrights, like wheelwrights. And I love being skilful. If you are, nobody should notice, but it gives me enormous pleasure when I watch something to think, 'God, I did that well'."
For Joe Penhall, the type of play he wanted to write, and the themes he wanted to explore, meant choosing a subject he already knew well. The result was the Olivier Award-winning Blue/Orange. He recalls: "I wanted to write a play about racial assumptions, and a whacking good argument play that was nothing but an argument for two hours. And if you're going to do that you want to choose a subject matter you know really well, because then you've got a ready fountain of words and argument. I know every argument there is to know about mental illness, so there was loads of material to draw on."
Completing the Circuit
But it's not until you get a play in front of an audience that the circuit is completed. "Writing plays is not like writing novels - you need that other dimension, of actors performing in a theatre for it to live", says Charlotte Jones.
And, no, it's not the same with television either. Jonathan Harvey, who writes for TV and whose recent plays include Out in the Open and the musical, Closer to Heaven), underlines the difference. "When I do telly, I really miss being able to see the faces of the audience, hearing their laughter and sensing their emotions. Unless you're really sad and have all your mates around to watch it when it's broadcast, you're not going to get that - it's much more solitary."
Which doesn't mean writing for theatre is necessarily the best in every way for multi-media writers. Old hand Peter Nichols - whose early dramas A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and Privates on Parade are being revived in London soon while his latest, So Long Life, is currently touring - confesses that "I sometimes wonder why I write for the theatre. It's not the most gratifying way to write - there's so much excluded from what you can write for it, because it’s such a confined, ritualistic exercise - but I can only say that when it's good, it's exceptionally good. You never get the social cohesion that happens when an audience and actors come together in any other medium, nor the immediacy - the fact that it can only happen once."
...And onto the Next
"After I finish a play, an awful emptiness follows," says Alan Ayckbourn. "Which is obviously going to happen as you've emptied the whole vat. But then, with any luck, the germ of a thing arrives and by the time I'm naturally due to write again, hopefully that's formulated into something quite concrete."
No thanks, don't show this popup again.