Updated: Dec 29, 2019
For the last 5 years of running “28 Plays Later”, people have been asking us, “what is a play?”, so we decided to write a very short post about what a play is.
Let me start with one disclaimer: my entire practice has always been about challenging conventions and questioning definitions – TLC was set up so that writers try to explore why they do what they do and see if they can do it differently. So I would implore anyone reading this post to take it as a starting point to discover what playwriting means for them. By no means do I think that what I’m saying is a “truthful” or “correct” answer.
So what is a play?
The main difference between prose and drama is that, as a whole, drama is not written in order to be read, but to be performed. In essence, a play is an unfinished piece of writing, and as such, I like to think of it as a ‘recipe’ or a ‘blueprint’ for a performance - instructions to allow the actors and/or director and/or any theatre practitioner to understand what to do with the text. Therefore, the playwright’s job is to decide what information is important for them to include in the recipe/blueprint in order to get the desired result. This may include the words you want them to say, what the stage looks like, what they are wearing, how the characters move or talk, etc.
Saying that, there are some conventions that make it easier for people to know how to read your piece. In broad strokes (and do please tell me if I forgot something), there are 7 elements:
First page normally includes a title for the play, with a little “written by: XXX” underneath it. Short plays might append the title to the text.
2. Character Breakdown (Dramatis Personae)
The next page usually has a list of the characters in the play, alphabetically, by order of appearance or by importance, and some playwrights also describe characteristics to help the reader understand the character, such as their age, general appearance, personality, etc.
3. Scene Breakdown
Sometimes, mostly in very complex plays, or plays that span over many years, a playwright may choose to also list all the scenes, and add information as to the setting or time of each of them.
A play is comprised of any number of acts; an act may be comprised of any number of scenes. How and why acts and scenes are broken are relatively subjective, but traditionally a change of scene/time/subject-matter might require an end to a scene/act.
5. Stage Description
Every scene or act may start with a description of what is on stage, this is particularly true if there has been a change in the location or time, in order to explain what is occurring.
The most crucial visual element to make a play look like a play.
Text is written in direct speech, and follows the convention of:
NAME OF CHARACTER: Text.
Punctuation and formatting are fascinating issues as well, which encourage many new interpretations, and probably their own blog post.
7. Stage Directions
If you wish to tell an actor how to say something, you may write it (in brackets), usually as an adjective. The instructions can also be about a physical action and are usually written as verbs.
Some writers choose never to write instructions, whereas some use them religiously. You may also use the first entrance of a character to describe them (if you didn’t do it in the Character Breakdown).
So that’s the general and very basic answer to the question “what is a play?” as for the question “what is a good play?”, well, that’s a whole other story…