Playwriting: Can You Be Taught to Write a Play?

Do you want to write plays?
Do you want to write plays?
Do you want to write plays?

One of the common questions you often hear about writing in general and playwriting in particular, is can it be taught? Can a playwright really learn to write for the stage by taking courses in the subject? The answer is ambiguous at best.

The fact is someone who wants to be a playwright can really only learn the craft and develop the skills through trial and error. Then again, isn’t that true for any art form? To a degree some of that can certainly be taught. But what cannot be taught is the life experience needed to write interesting plays. Nor can artistic maturity be taught. That comes with time and, of course, experience.

What Should You Do?

Learn about the theatre.
Learn about the theatre.

There are a few things that everyone who wants to write plays should do. And some of these things have nothing to do with writing. Here’s a quick list of what can help you become a playwright. These seven items involve becoming experienced overall in the art form.

  1. Take an Acting Class: You’re writing for actors, and they will be interpreting your work. Understanding how they do that will help you write for them.
  2. Read New and Classic Plays: Read what’s being written and produced today, and also, what has been produced and has been influential during the first 2,500 years of theatre history. You will learn something!
  3. See Live Theatre: It is very important to see plays produced. It will inspire you in many ways.
  4. See Different Productions of the Same Play: Different productions of great plays, such as Hamlet, Waiting for Godot, and Oedipus The King, can vary a lot. Plays are open to interpretation. See what a director, actors, and designers bring to individual productions.
  5. Get Involved: Work on plays. You might volunteer and get experience on stage or behind the scenes. Whatever you do it should have nothing to do with writing. Try to find a quality organization with which to work or get involved in a college theatre program if that’s possible.

    Learn how to act.
    Learn how to act.
  6. Know What’s Bad: This may seem odd, but too many times writers know when something is good, but they have no idea when something is bad. Find a class or a group of knowledgeable folks where you can discuss new, untested scripts, weighing what is working in each and what needs improvement.
  7. Learn the Business: There’s a proper way to submit plays to theatres, producers, agents, and others in the business. Learn how to to this.

Learning to Write Plays

A public reading can be very helpful towards developing your next draft.
A public reading can be very helpful towards developing your next draft.

Of course, you should be writing. But it’s important to understand that playwriting is very different from any other type of writing. What should you learn to do as a writer and what can you do to learn such?

  1. The Basics of Playwriting: By this, we mean character, plot, dialogue, premise, structure, and much more.
  2. Play Format: Proper formatting is very important. If your play is not formatted properly, literary managers, agents, directors, actors, and others simply will not read it.
  3. Skills and Technique: There are various techniques and skills that you can learn that will allow you to create a dynamic script. Some of the basics include how to utilize props on various thematic and motivational levels, creating active, motivated monologues, and comedic writing techniques.

    A staged reading with some production elements can be very useful.
    A staged reading with some production elements can be very useful.
  4. Become Self-Critical: In order to be successful, you’re going to have to be self-critical. That means identifying what in your script is good, fits, and works well, and what needs to be changed, jettisoned, or adjusted.
  5. Learn to Rewrite: Along with self-criticism comes learning to rewrite. Can you, after a period of time, go back to your play and either through your own criticism or that made by others, rewrite a scene, character, or the entire play so that it has been improved.
  6. Know What Your Play is About: This may seem like a no-brainer, but many playwrights run into trouble because they really don’t know what the focus of their play is.
  7. Write Everyday: There is nothing like flexing your writing muscles everyday. Put a minimum of 30 minutes a day aside to write. If you can’t find the time, get up ½ hour early and do it then. If you still can’t find the time, then chances are you’re not pursing the right art form.
  8. Keep a Journal: It doesn’t matter if you use an actual tactile journal, the writing pad on your phone, an app on your tablet, or your computer. The manner in which you record your ideas does not matter. What does matter is that you’re writing down ideas. By recording them they will stay with you and develop both consciously and subconsciously.
  9. Writing is Writing: Don’t just write plays. Blog, write poetry, create copy, develop screenplays, write short stories. All of this will help you be a better playwright.

Being Patiently Impatient

A full production will bring everything to life.
A full production will bring everything to life.

You will need to learn to be patient as a playwright. You may try to fix a problem in a scene and find that you have not. You may work on numerous drafts and still not have gotten your script to a new level. You cannot rush a script through its developmental phases, and you need to develop the patience to do so.

However, you also need to be impatient at the same time. The playwright needs to push him/herself to get the next draft done and the next one after that. You also need to be your best advocate and, once you feel you have a solid script, push to get it read aloud, to listen to responses, and to continue developing it towards production.

Two Resources

Two organizations that are helpful to playwrights are The Dramatists Guild of America and Theatre Communications Group. Both offer various publications that you can utilize to learn about the business of playwriting. The Dramatists Guild is the professional organization for playwrights in the U.S. If you have written a play, you may join as an Associate Member, or if you are a student, you may also join.

Finally, take playwriting classes where you will be able to write a lot and hear your scenes and plays read aloud and actively criticized. If you’re writing plays, you want to get them done at any level possible so that you can continue to develop as a writer. The more you know about plays and the theatre the better your chances are of succeeding as a playwright.

  • This Author:

    Paul Mroczka

    Paul Mroczka has served Theatre By the Sea as associate director and playwright-in-residence. He has directed for companies including North Country Center for the Arts, Pontine Movement Theatre, The Theatre of Newburyport and the Palace Theatre. A former National Endowment for the Arts fellow in playwriting, he has also garnered a Shubert Fellowship, the Jason Miller Award and has received grants from the New Hampshire Council for the Humanities. His plays have been performed at New York’s La MaMa La Galleria, Nat Horne Theatre, and Manhattan Punchline Theatre, among others. His interactive planetarium show, Pathfinders, is running at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord, NH. Recent directorial assignments include Good People, Steel Magnolias, and The Complete World of Sports (Abridged) at The Barnstormers Playhouse in New Hampshire, and Rumors, Orpheus in the Underworld, and The Glass Menagerie at PSU. This summer Paul finished an initial draft of his new play, Smart Money ... Read Full
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