Writing Plays; What Is It?

Written by Angella J. Emurwon

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.
– William Shakespeare (As You like It)

From the moment the first grandmother animated the fire lit faces around her by changing inflection to mimic the Cunning Hare, to any parent who’s ever “done the voices” while reading to a child in the quiet night, to the first reenactment of ritual — Ugandan, Greek, or Roman — the seeds for playwriting and playacting have been perpetuated.

More than any other forms of writing, plays are meant to be heard, touched, seen. While writing a script, the playwright is offering an action, an idea to which the audience immediately reacts, individually and collectively, causing the actor in their next line to respond in return and on it goes; approximating life.

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What then is to write a play?

In addition to elements found in other forms of fiction writing, such as plot, structure, character, conflict, and style, there are three elements vital for a good play: dialogue, theatrical style, and audience.

Writing A Play Is Writing Dialogue

What characters say to each other and about each other pushes the story forward. However, a quick transcript of a conversation on a bus or in a restaurant will reveal that most ordinary conversations are cyclical and boring consisting mostly of the mundane with snippets of information and disclosure. But, the language and rhythm of these conversations is often rich and telling.

Language and rhythm then are what the playwright gleans. Because dialogue is the vehicle for the play, it must sound like an ordinary conversation (language and rhythm), but be so much better (smart; forcing the plot forward).

A quick exercise would be to listen to a conversation, rewrite it retaining the language and rhythm but in such a way that someone would have to ask “then what happened?”

Infusing Texture and Participation

Theatrical style has to do with infusing texture to aspects of the play elevating it from an ordinary story to a stylicized retelling creating impact. For instance, a play whose dialogue is entirely in verse (Shakespeare did this a lot), a play incorporating dance or song, a play with actors in multiple roles, addition of video installations, and so on.

Theatrical style brings a fresh appeal allowing the audience to see characters, issues, even places from a new perspective. This moves playwriting from craft to artistic expression.

Finally, the audience brings a special ingredient to each play performance. What I like to call The Magic, is a crucial aspect of a play that a playwright has to be aware of during the writing process:

What will serve the plot better distance or community? Does a playwright want the play observed or participated?

Both views present unique opportunities and challenges depending on the subject matter of the play. For instance, imagine watching a couple have a no-holds-barred argument at a hotel reception, and now imagine two friends having a similar argument at your dinner table. What would be your response? And if you could voice it to either party, what would happen?

I’m often been asked why playwriting?

The simple answer is: people fascinate me. In a play, for an hour or two, we can participate in the lives of others, measuring a made-up reality against our own, and if we’re lucky, appreciate the irony of eavesdropping on ourselves.

Angella J. Emurwon is a Ugandan playwright.

For Issue 034 Jul ’13 of Startjournal.org, Editor Thomas Bjørnskau invited eight Ugandan artists from different art fields to write an essay about the essence of art, all responding to the same kind of question: to sing/write/paint/write plays etc — what is it really about? This is one of the essays. You can read the other essays here.