The Dramatist magazine


Can Playwriting Be Taught?

by Marsha Norman

The age-old answer to this question was always "No, playwriting cannot be taught." And like other age-old answers - abstinence is the only way, father knows best, etc. - it was not true at all, but did serve a certain purpose, which was to keep young people from trying stuff the gray hairs wanted to keep for themselves, or knew to be fraught with peril. The "answer" also kept the gray hairs from having to learn how to teach playwriting, or from having to answer any number of other questions that would come up in a playwriting class, such as why can a good writer write so many bad plays, or why are Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes so popular when the plays by or about them are always so long.

The real answer to the age-old question is simple enough. Some aspects of playwriting can be taught, and some cannot. But that is true of everything. You can teach someone the rules of writing a haiku, but you cannot teach them to write one that will make you cry. You can teach people how to improve the odds of having better sex through cool techniques and secret knowledge, but that doesn't mean that in practice, they will actually have better sex, there being so many other factors involved. And so it is with playwriting.

There are things about playwriting that can be taught. Christopher Durang and I have been working up at Juilliard for the last thirteen years discovering many of them. Much of what I will say here is knowledge we came upon together. There are also things about playwriting that cannot be taught, and there is some common wisdom about plays that cannot be counted on to be true. So here we go.


1. You can teach young playwrights what the audience expects.

There are things audience members want when they come to the theater. In general, they want to care about a character, see the trouble that character is in, and watch while that character figures out what to do about it.

Very early in the play, say on page 8, people in the audience also want to know when they can go home, what is at stake here - Which brother will get the piano? Will the girl actually kill herself? What will the Sphinx-dispatching hero do when he learns he's just married his mother? The audience wants to know what it's waiting for, why are you telling this story, what do you want from them? They are like a jury, they need to know what the person is accused of so they can know how to listen to the information, render a judgment, and be dismissed. They also need that information delivered to them in a way that they can process it, but that's a longer discussion.

In the first ten minutes, people in the audience want to know where they are, where they are going, who is related to whom, and how things work here - kind of like what you want when you get on a plane, arrive at a wedding, or wake up in some strange bed without knowing how you got there.

And finally, the audience expects the playwright to pay off on the promises you made them in the first ten minutes. If you say you are here to decide who gets the piano, somebody better damn well get the thing by the end. No amount of pretty writing or character development will save you from the wrath of the audience if whatever was at stake isn't resolved. Is the marriage over or not? Is the father revenged or not? Do the sisters get to Moscow or not?

The chaos that interrupted the order at the beginning of the play must be dealt with, and the order, even if it's a new order, must return. That is what the audience has come to see, the return of order. The old version of this old rule was "Get the main character up in the tree, throw rocks at him, and get him down." You could do a lot worse than just remembering this one rule.

2. You can teach playwrights how to write the various types of scenes that are useful in plays.

Writers can easily learn that an argument is the best way to cover exposition. Writers can learn that a long monologue is usually just you the writer talking to yourself, which is not a bad thing to do as an exercise, but in the actual play, it's better when you let the characters talk to each other. Writers can learn how to make the characters sound different from each other. (Take away all the names, give the play to somebody else, and see if they know who is talking.) Writers can learn how to make the audience know the end is coming, wait for it, wait for it, and then give it to them. (See the sex reference at the beginning.) And writers can learn how to write a love scene, which all good plays must have, almost without exception.

It is also important for playwrights to learn to write a good opening scene (say what's at stake, who's in this and where you are), a good end of the first act (state the question the audience should talk about during intermission), a good opening of the second act (remind the audience where you are without making them feel stupid), a good climactic scenery-chewing, hair-pulling fight (so you'll interest good actors and get your play on), and a satisfying final scene (so the audience will go out and call their friends and tell them to come see your show).

Figuring out where and when to use these scenes is not so hard. Read The Cat in the Hat and look at what happens moment to moment. It's the golden guide to writing plays.


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