I earned my bachelor’s in Theatre Arts and I’m not sorry. As a writer, I still use what I learned in acting, criticism, and theater history. Playwrights and actors, like writers, are storytellers at heart, and books, screenplays and stage plays all share similarities. But the best thing about spending years during and after college immersed in theater is that I learned how to talk.
Yes, I could speak before I started college. But plays depend on the spoken word for every aspect of the story: character development; setting up Goal, Motivation and Conflict; description; and back story. Most actions on a stage are rooted in the dialogue between characters. (The italicized stage directions are, in most cases, notes taken by the stage manager of the play’s original production.)
Each character in a play has his or her own voice, made up of vocabulary, speech patterns, and slang; influences include but aren’t limited to education, economic status, occupation, gender and historical era. Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire speaks differently not only from Stanley Kowalski, her brother-in-law, but from Stanley’s wife Stella, who is her sister. In Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, three actors play the same character at different stages in her life. You will think, and thus speak, differently at 90 than you do at 52, or than you did at 26, as Albee’s dialogue for A, B, and C makes clear.
Whether it’s on the stage or the page, dialogue shows how a character thinks or how they respond to other characters. If a conversation or a line of dialogue — especially interior dialogue, a luxury playwrights don’t have — doesn’t convey something about the characters or advance the plot, cut it. Tight writing keeps the reader engaged in the story and turning the page.
And the spoken word has a rhythm all its own. Listen to the people around you next time you’re standing in line. We repeat each others’ words, emphasize points by slowing our speech down, and convey ideas with a brief phrase. We use slang from our workplaces or ethnic backgrounds. Even geography affects dialogue. A New Yorker is likelier to start a conversation by stating what he or she wants right away, as opposed to someone from the American South, where even business conversations begin with “How are you doing today?”
The best playwrights of every nationality and era capture the language they hear (or heard) around them. The vitality of Elizabethan English lives on in Shakespeare’s plays, as do the drawls and flutterings of the mid-20th century American South in the those of Tennessee Williams. English plays one of my most valuable resources for grasping the syntax and slang of both the nobility and commoners through the centuries.
If you’d rather rent a movie of a play, that’s great! Although film is much more visual than stage plays are, many are a good introduction to dramatic dialogue and characterization. Plays were meant to be seen and heard. I haven’t tried looking on Netflix to see if any of my favorites can be streamed, but there are a lot of DVDs of plays out there. Some library systems have good collections. Or best of all, support your local community theater! Go see a play!!
If you could pick any play,stage or movie version, to see today, what would it be? Shakespeare wrote my all favorite body of work, but my all time favorite play is Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.
- ‘A DELICATE BALANCE’ at Aurora Theatre (timbauer.wordpress.com)
- Writing Question: For someone interested in screenwriting, is there value in reading plays? (gointothestory.com)