There’s an old saying, “everyone has at least one good play in them.” Probably true, but how to write one?
I get asked that question frequently and often wonder why? It must be the pure lure of the stage, for one may make a killing in the theatre, but rarely a living.
I’ve been writing plays for almost thirty years – I’m sure of the time frame for I turned down a small part in Cyndi Lauper’s video, Girls Just Want To Have Fun, in my blind desire to finish my first opus, Liverpool Fantasy. Of course I’d no notion the song would prove so successful – another great career move!
Since then I’ve written thirteen more plays and musicals; a couple have even achieved minor success, but my total earnings wouldn’t keep me in a decent year’s beer money. Despite that woeful admission I have any number of new blockbusters rattling around in my head, so I well understand the compulsion to write.
First things first though, playwriting is a craft, not unlike carpentry; hence the appellation – playwright, and one must serve ones time. However, the few masters are rarely willing to take on an apprentice.
Many beginners feel that playwriting is about words: their beauty and flow, instead it’s more concerned with chiseling and carving sentences until they reflect an essential idea; indeed, if an actor can deliver that essence with just a wink or a knowing smile then the words themselves become superfluous.
Unfortunately the apprentice playwright – the master too, apparently - must wade through reams of slush and verbiage to discover what the hell he or she is trying to say in the first place.
There’s one truism that you neglect at your peril: every play must have a spine: in other words, you should be able to sum up the work’s essence in one short active sentence.
The hunt for these pithy words can drive you to distraction - or more likely, drink. Every character you create must also have a purpose and you had better be able to explain this very succinctly to your director who, hopefully, will convey it to the actors in some coherent form.
Ah, the actors! The bane of every playwright – and yet where would we be without them? After years of wrestling with words, spines and looming poverty, you must hand over your birth-panged characters to those who will portray them on stage.
It’s a rarity that the actor will speak the lines as you hear them in your head – and unless you’re Jim Sheridan you shouldn’t dare try mouthing them. Jim has that rare talent of instantly morphing into your characters – men and women – and brining them to life just as you imagined them.
Despite all the torment you’ll go through with overwrought thespians, one of them will eventually turn you into a decent playwright. I had the great fortune to both write for and direct that titan of the theatre, Patrick Bedford.
By that point I had learned enough about directing to just keep the hell out of his way. He was playing Capt. Willie O’Shea in my play, Mister Parnell. Utilizing pure skill and not a little genius he brought that blackguard to life as I’d imagined him, thus gifting me the confidence to trust my instincts ever after.
That’s the most important lesson in theatre – perhaps, life too: once you’ve set your compass, stick to it, you’ll then learn from every failure as well as from the occasional success.
What are the pluses in this game? Well, you don’t have to pass any tests to get started. Get yourself a couple of good actors and, if you can’t find a decent director, do it yourself - remember Jim Sheridan had to start somewhere too.
There’s nothing quite like the high of seeing a random idea leap out of your brain onto a page, and later manifest itself onstage.
So, go for it! What do you have to lose – well the occasional sight of Cyndi Lauper cavorting in her video and knowing that you too could be up there having fun with her.