Resources for Writers
How to Write a Play: Imagining Liam by David Scott
I would like to preface with a word about Company D Theatre. This theatre company was built by actors looking to learn how to create new theatre and new interpretations of established plays. I have been blessed to be Artistic Director of a platform filled with many wonderful new actors all wanting to simply do one thing: produce great theatre. They have often commissioned me to write new plays. Imagining Liam is the eleventh play I have written and produced for the company. It’s important to say that, without this company and her actors, many of my plays would have never seen the light of day or an audience of any kind. They still haven’t been published. That’s a story for another day.
So how does one write a play? I’ll tell you how I go about writing a play, and that doesn’t mean this system works for everyone.
If I may use an artistic analogy, what I’m looking for, or waiting for, is a frame. The frame is the world in which the play exists. What are inside the frame are the concepts and themes I want to reveal artistically. The art is what’s inside the frame. The frame itself needs to bear those themes and concepts. The frame is the staging.
If I can now jump analogies and talk about structure, many writers use an Aristotelian or Ancient Greek model to structure their work. As I am a teacher of acting, I prefer to think of these structural ideas through Stanislavskian terms. Stanislavski, the great Russian acting teacher and theoretician, primarily wanted to create believable performances in his new Moscow Art Theatre plays, many of which were written by the great dramatist, Anton Chekhov. In order to do this, he broke “real life” down into components in order to explain dramatic structure to his actors.
First of all he taught that the character in the play has a set of Given Circumstances. This to me is the frame. It is where you are and who you are in the drama. In plays, the frame is simply the Given Circumstances. So in Imagining Liam, the frame, or Given Circumstances, is that Robert, an accountant in his thirties has been convicted and imprisoned for driving drunk and killing a small boy. In Oedipus, a king has a plague on his city. In Hamlet, a prince’s father has died in strange circumstances. Every play has a simple and yet hopefully intriguing frame or set of Given Circumstances. It doesn’t have to be complex. However the revelations within it can be enormously complex as it is with Hamlet and Oedipus. Am I smart enough to reveal concepts and themes as complex as Hamlet and Oedipus? I doubt it, but I enjoy trying.
Therefore, in Imagining Liam, set entirely in a prison cell, Robert goes on a kind of journey or odyssey into his own conscience, his entrenched beliefs and ideas. Hopefully again it’s a journey that’s enthralling and moving to an audience.
So, past the frame is a journey that the protagonist must embark upon. Often that journey is not unlike a mission. The character must discover something about him or herself in order to be freed from the conditions that bind him. Oedipus is the same as this. So is Hamlet.
Now, how does this differ from screenwriting? In screenwriting in recent times, it’s almost impossible to get any kind of attention or funding unless your script adheres to a very obvious three-act formula. It has a beginning that established an ideal world. That ideal world is broken by an inciting incident. Rising drama ensues in which the protagonist, and his or her friends, begin a quest to restore the ideal world. There’s a climax and soon after that the characters end up at their lowest point. It seems they will never be able to overcome their circumstances and then somehow they manage to find the strength they need, overcome their own flaws and in the falling action head towards the final moment. They are either successful or not, and preferably to funding bodies and to Hollywood designed systems, they will be successful and end up romantically satisfied at the end too.
Of course that’s not always the case, and rare geniuses of film like Tarkovsky and Fellini have diverted from these obvious structures. But for the most part, film sticks to these structural, mainstream ideas. The great adventurers of movie writing are yet to come.
But the theatre is much older. Sartre, Artaud, Ionesco, Beckett and many others have challenged basic, audience-pleasing dramatic structure to create some of the most imperative writing in literary history. Waiting for Godot, for example, gives us a set of Given Circumstances of a wasteland with a tree and a rock. The character’s mission is to wait for someone who may not exist and never comes. On the surface the frame seems impossibly boring, but within it, Beckett reveals more conceptually than most plays could ever dream of. In theatre, realistic frames are often counter-productive. The audience knows they are in a theatre. They know they are not watching a movie in which the aim is partly to make us believe that what is happening in front of us is real. That’s not the point. And that’s probably why the theatre has struggled in recent times to gain audiences. The audience has grown accustomed to the realism of TV and Film, but that phase is transitory and the theatre is gaining traction once again as audiences begin to yearn for deeper places in their viewing experience.
As such, Imagining Liam may have the realistic conversations that take place between two cellmates, yet also features the dialogue that a man has with his own conscience; with himself; with the mother of the child he has killed, as he travels to the depths of himself to discover the truth. I haven’t gone to Mountjoy to research a real Dublin prison. It’s not my aim to stage the play according to that truth. If I do, the audience are distracted by that attention to detail and don’t look into the concepts and ideas I’m far more interested in portraying and discussing.
There’s an interesting modern tradition in theatre, particularly in America in which the playwright offers a question to the audience and the audience is left to grapple with it. The playwright answers nothing. Beckett does this. So does Mamet with Oleanna, John Patrick Shanley with Doubt, and David Harrower with Blackbird. I don’t want to dictate too much to my audience either. I want them to leave the theatre talking about it.
I want it to live beyond the curtain.
(c) David Scott
Imagining Liam plays Monday to Saturday nights at 7:30pm in The Teachers Club Theatre, 36 Parnell Square West Dublin 1, from May 29-June 10, 2017. Tickets 15 Euro and 12 Euro Concession. Reserve tickets on 086 844 8468 or email
David Scott is an Australian born actor who moved to Ireland in 2004. His interests within the world of theatre and film arts are many and varied. He studied at the University of Queensland and NIDA in Sydney. He has acted extensively in theatre, film and television in both Australia and Ireland and is represented by Nolan Muldoon Agency in Dublin. David has taught acting for some of the finest institutes of dramatic arts education in Ireland including The Gaiety School of Acting and The Irish Film Academy, Stageworks and The Drama League of Ireland. He also designs innovative courses of his own for both short-term and long-term training of fine actors including The Applied Art of Acting 3 month fulltime course, The Actors Wednesday Workshop and the Actor’s Friday Studio as well as various specialist courses and private tutelage.