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So You Want To Write A Play? Philip St John Explains How

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Article by Philip St. John ©.
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Philip St John’s latest play Temptress opens at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray later this week and goes on to The New Theatre. The Daily Mail have made it one of their ‘must see’ recommendations – spooky and darkly comic, Temptress is a startling new take on the Irish ghost story. Here’s the blurb:

In an eerie wicklow house, two troubled men meet. Middle-aged Pete has come to rescue young Noel from his deadly obsession with a Temptress, but is Pete the rock of sense he claims to be? And does the Temptress really exist only inside Noel’s mind?

Writing.ie asked Philip to outline how he tackles writing a new play…here’s what he told us:

Structure

After writing a play I can never recall exactly how much of the story I knew before starting, but with Temptress I certainly knew the opening minute or two – an eerie atmosphere; two strange characters in a desolate old house; menacingly comic dialogue – and I’m fairly sure I had an idea of a few points I needed to hit along the way after that.

It certainly helps to have some notion of structure before you begin. Limitations can help keep you on course. A single set, or a couple of them. A limited period. A focus on one character or a relationship.

Write fast.

Plays often have no more words than a longish mid-length short story so it is possible to write a draft in a week or less. I wrote Temptress’s ten thousand words in three days of lying on a couch, napping, listening to music, reading and writing the occasional burst of dialogue. I write a first draft by hand and so quickly that afterwards some of it is illegible even to me. But it’s best not to linger over dialogue at this point. Get it down and move along. That helps generate pace. A reader can skip past the less interesting parts of a novel, and a viewer can fast forward through a DVD, but the audience has no control over the speed of a play and may drift off mentally if you don’t absorb them deeply in the action.

Drama

Drama is the key to keeping their attention. Two or more characters with mutually conflicting aims. It worked for Sophocles and Shakespeare; it works for Martin Crimp and Laura Wade. Though we in the audience may not be sure what these aims and conflicts are, we should be able to feel them. A couple squabble over something unimportant like the weather. It’s cold, he says. No, it’s cool, she says. He insists he is right. She laughs. Mmm, what is going on here, the audience wonders, and leans in looking for clues.

PhilipStJohnPhotoLanguage

Rich language in film and on TV can feel excessive, but on stage – at least in the kind of play I like, where the story is told mainly through the skill of the actors and the words – there is more room for adventurous language. In The Sylvia, On City Water Hill and Temptress, the style is often spare, but at moments when a character’s imagination is deeply engaged by an idea, emotion or situation, it grows more charged and complex. Strangely, a brutal hit-man making a stutteringly lyrical speech about romantic disappointment sounds perfectly plausible once the feeling behind the words is true to the character and the situation.

Put it in the dialogue

A playwright works in spoken words. If you have to instruct the director or actor how those words are delivered, maybe they were not right in the first place. I restrict myself to scene headings and a few bare, essential stage directions. In Temptress, for instance, I do not describe the characters physically or give any information about them apart from their names. In the opening minutes, I do not specify whether the characters are standing or sitting, or whether they have just arrived or been there a while. I rely on the director and actors picking up hints, or making an appropriate guess.

Leave room for the other creatives

Poetry and fiction are almost invariably the creation of a single imagination. A stage play – unless you perform and direct it yourself – will involve others. If, like me, you began your writing life with fiction, the surrendering of your work to others is a scary process. Let’s say you begin a piece alone, like I did with Temptress. I redrafted it alone, thened show it to my friend, the director Matthew Ralli. He was interested and got in some actors to read it. The piece seemed to work, but there were some snags. I went off and, again alone, tried to sort them out. Next thing, it seemed, I was at a production meeting. Along with Matthew, there was a producer, the cast, a stage designer, a lighting designer, a sound designer, a costume designer, and stage manager. The play was no longer mine. Everyone had a stake in it.

To get the best out of the other creatives, it’s important to leave room for them to exercise their skills and imaginations. A writer friend said to me recently that the standard of acting in Ireland has risen dramatically in the last twenty years. Actors are very well trained, and in my experience, can do a lot with very little, and like the challenge of filling gaps you may leave in a character or scene or even a line of dialogue. So don’t write in everything. In real life, people rarely say exactly what they think. If you write the dialogue of a duplicitous character accurately enough, for instance, an actor will pick up what is happening under the words and will convey it to the audience.

Practice

I knew no actors or directors when I began writing drama. I had never acted and had not been to many plays. At the time I was a primary teacher and every year at Easter my class of ten year old needed a play to perform at the school concert. I didn’t enjoy the scripts I found in bookshops and decided to write short pieces myself and direct them. It was a good way of learning the demands of the stage. So take whatever opportunities are available – amateur dramatics, Christmas shows for work colleagues.

Playwrights needed

Though a case could be made that much of the most interesting and original Irish literature in the last twenty years has been written for the stage, there is still a dearth of pure writers (as opposed to writer/performers or writer/devisors) in Irish theatre, certainly compared to our standing army of poets and short story writers. And there are many talented directors and actors out there looking for fresh work.

(c) Philip St John

You can see Temptress at:

Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray –  8pm Saturday 24th Oct  –  Ph: 01 272 4030 or BOOK ONLINE

The New Theatre, Dublin – 7.30pm Mon 26th Oct – Sat 7th Nov  –  Ph: 01 670 3361 or BOOK ONLINE


Philip St John’s first play Maxine won an International Playwright Forum’s prize of $2500 in 2010, was translated into German and Filipino, and adapted for radio in Manilla. The Sylvia (2013) was the centrepiece of Collaborations 13 Festival at Smock Alley. On City Water Hill (2014) ran at The New Theatre and is published in Spolia, which will also publish The Sylvia later this year. Twice awarded Arts Council Bursaries for Literature and Wicklow Arts Office bursaries, Philip has published short stories in New Irish Writing and various anthologies. Mermaid, Bray has just commissioned him to write a new play.

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