Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor. He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.
“Hello, I’m writing in to ask if you can help settle a debate I’m having with my friend. (We’re both playwrights.) Is it more important for people trying to become playwrights to read plays to understand how they work on the page, or to watch plays to see how theatre works with an audience? And yes, I know they’re both important, but if you had to pick one, which do you think is most critical? I’ve left out my opinion in the interest of objectivity, but so you know, there’s a free drink for the winner riding on your answer. Cheers!”
I’m flattered you’re looking to me to settle this debate. Knowing there’s a drink riding on my answer I’ve had to give it even more serious thought than I normally would.
I once went to a karaoke bar in Japan and sang The Way You Make Me Feel by Michael Jackson. During the second verse, instead of:
“I like the feeling you’re giving me, just hold me baby and I’m in ecstasy.”
The words on screen prompted me to sing:
“I like the fee when you’re killing me, I told my baby that I live next to sea.”
Aside from the fact the lyrics were probably transcribed by a Japanese person with questionable English, it struck me that it’s often difficult to understand a word Michael Jackson is singing. He used that short, sharp delivery and his instrumentals are so dense it can sometimes be hard to focus on what he’s saying.
I own all of his albums on CD somewhere and seem to remember that each one had the lyrics printed in the little cover booklet.
If I really wanted to understand the words and the process behind writing the lyrics I might reasonably refer to those booklets rather than listening to the CD.
After all, songs are remade and remixed all the time and only the lyrics remain the same. Doesn’t that mean they’re the most important part?
But if I only had the booklets and not the CDs, would I ever know how incredible the songs are?
Not unless I’m a highly talented musician with the creativity to imagine what the song could sound like, just from looking at the words.
What if my imagination drew up something closer to that horrendous Alien Ant Farm cover than to Jacko’s masterpiece Smooth Criminal? I would justifiably think the song was a horrible piece of crap.
Without the drums, synths, horns, and overall groove, Michael Jackson’s lyrics are just words on a page. I wouldn’t have any idea what the end product sounded like. I don’t think I could even pin down the genre with much accuracy.
I guess the question then is, if I was a songwriter and was looking towards MJ for inspiration, would I need to know what the final songs sounded like or would the words be enough?
In theatre there are so many elements that go into a production aside from the script that it’s sometimes difficult to separate the words from the final production. In order to understand how a piece of theatre works we really need to immerse ourselves in the live aspect of it.
As a writer it’s vital you understand what costume designers, lighting engineers, directors, actors, producers and set designers can add to your piece. Think of how much a playwright leaves unspoken compared to a novelist. All of the blanks in theatre are filled in by other creative minds.
We gain an impression of each character in the play, and we tend to assume it comes from the writer. But how much of that impression is added by the actor’s intonation, voice and appearance? How much of it is added by costume and lighting and the environment in which the character is standing?
It’s impossible to say.
Just as with Michael Jackson and Alien Ant Farm, we can watch two separate productions of the same piece and come away with completely different feelings, even though the words are almost exactly the same.
As playwrights, a full production is what we’re aiming for most of the time, and as we write it’s helpful to know what that end goal looks like.
But I don’t think as members of the audience we can separate the script from the other elements of the performance. And therefore it becomes difficult at times to analyse exactly what a writer is doing.
This is why it can be enormously helpful to read the script. You can understand exactly what the writer is doing; how sentences are put together, how dialogue is paced, how speech patterns are created. You can take your time and break down the structure of the play in a way you don’t have room to do in a live theatre situation.
You can really study that shit.
And when you’re reading a play, hopefully you’re not just reading it. You’re visualising it in your head as well; you’re seeing images of the characters and the locations.
Not everyone can do this to the same extent though; some people have very visual minds while others are more analytical or literal.
So here’s where this answer might begin to seem like a bit of a cop-out, because I’m going to put a big, fat if in here.
If you have a fantastic imagination and can picture all the disparate elements that make up a play in your mind as you’re reading, you can probably get along fine just reading scripts. I’m not saying watching productions isn’t also helpful to visual people like you, but you could probably survive as a writer with just scripts for inspiration.
If you don’t have a very vivid imagination you might well draw more inspiration from watching live productions. That’s not to say you’re any less creative, some people think more conceptually, through ideas and statements rather than images.
In an ideal world you’ll read a play and then go and watch the live production or vice versa. This will give you an idea of what the writer has done and show you one of the infinite possible productions that could come from that script. For obvious reasons this can’t always happen; you can’t always find a script or a production of the play you want at that moment in time.
Sorry if I haven’t really settled your debate. In my mind, you’re both absolutely right.
Because if you feel reading plays is more important than seeing shows, that’s what you need to do.
Conversely, if you feel seeing shows is more important than reading plays, that’s what you need to do.
There are really no right or wrong answers when it comes to creativity. If you can only do one thing, do the thing that feels vital to you. Never let anyone else tell you there’s a right way or a better way.
The right way is the way that inspires you personally and has you doing your best work.
Having said that, in reality there will be situations in which you can do both. Go to the theatre when you can. Read plays when you can. Watch movies, read books, watch TV, read comics, listen to music, watch sports, stare out the window.
Take in anything and everything that inspires you. It can all undoubtedly be useful. But I’d also argue that none of it is essential.
The only essential part is the writing.
My suggestion is for each of you to buy the other a drink. Preferably in a karaoke bar. Wash away this entire debate with wine and song.
Then go home and write.
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