(This blog was originally published by The Public Theater.)
In my dramatic writing class this semester, I found myself, on a number of occasions, trying desperately to explain to my college students the differences between writing for the stage and writing for film. Beyond the basic form issues, the amount of dialogue vs. visual story-telling, the length of scenes, etc., I wanted to communicate that the shift from screen to stage and vice versa doesn’t just change the way we tell the story, it changes the heart of the story entirely.
One of my students was working on a screenplay about two teenage counselors at a wilderness
camp for kids. The first time she brought in her pages we all thought it was a horror film. This
befuddled her. There was no indication of “horror” film at all on the page. Week after week she
brought in more pages and week after week she got the same feedback: we are expecting
someone to die.
At the end of every semester I make my students adapt ten pages of something they’ve been
working on from stage to screen or vice versa. This student brought her camp story in, this time
as a play. As a play, the universe of the story opened up and the setting, which would no longer
be actually seen by the audience, suddenly connected to the inner life of the characters. The
horror story expectation had vanished and the relationship between the two characters, and our
own memories of our camp loves, came to the forefront. Why?
Last night I was at the AWG—the group of EWG alumni that still meet together at least once a
month to share pages. The group is focused around members offering constructive feedback to
each other on whatever play we’re writing at the time, but we also speak a lot about craft: what
is this thing we do, why do we do it, what do we know about it, what are we missing? One of our
members, Don Nguyen, is writing a play that compares human conception to space exploration.
And as I write this blog…Eureka! That’s it! In the theater, human conception is like space
exploration. Because, like Don’s play, theater makes the human experience its whole universe.
Why do I write plays instead of screenplays? Well, actually, I write both. But like “actors who
sing” or “singers who move”, I see myself as a “playwright who screenplays.” And I’m still
learning both forms. Right now I’m tackling the popular new-wave full length one act.
Completely character driven. Very little plot. Let’s get to the heart of this theater thing, baby. I’m
also about to start a new musical, small cast, acoustic—never done that before, oh, wait, I did
once. It went well. Phew. Maybe I do know something. And I have a never-done screenplay that
I’m turning into a novel, so clearly, I’m not a form purist. But…
Aristotle said that art imitates life and that theater imitates human action. I don’t think that he
means that theater is about people on a stage pretending to be other people. I don’t think that’s
what actors do. Theater imitates human action, human life, and that life is fleeting. It’s pulsating
with danger, with risk. It’s gorgeous and soul-filling, and then it’s done. And it can never happen
again. It’s here for a time, a beautiful, precious time, and then it vanishes…and yet something
lingers. I think I see myself in this art form, my past, my slippery present, and my future. We
write plays because we believe that in imitating human action, in putting it on the stage and
watching it, naming it, we claim its universe. We get to be, (like the sperm and the egg, Don),
What I love about writing screenplays is that it forces me to communicate mostly through the
unspoken. And that’s a poetic language muscle that I don’t want to let atrophy. But you don’t
write a screenplay looking forward to the first time actors will get in a room, sit at a table, and
speak it into being. A screenplay must be filmed into being. (Or these days, digitally recorded.)
And then once it’s in the box, edited to perfection, and distributed (whether in a cinema or on
you tube), it’s what it will be forever—it doesn’t change. Theater invites people—actors, directors,
audiences—into the co-conceiving process. There is something eternal about the life of a play
because even if it fades out of fashion, there is always the chance that some director, hundreds
of years from now, will find it, love it, and breathe life into it anew.