How to Become a Playwright

The definition of “playwriting” is self-explanatory. It is indeed the crafting of a written product that is most often intended for performance on a live stage or for the expressed purpose of being read for an audience. One who writes plays is usually referred to as a dramatist or as a “playwright”. Playwriting, in the form with what we are familiar, goes way back to Ancient Greece. Many of the texts of the greats of this period still exist and are performed all over the world, quite often by university drama departments.

Plays typically have two main elements, which are dialogue (the words of the play’s characters) and the stage directions. The stage directions are placed in the script to help with the staging of the play via the actions of the characters, the description of their personalities and appearance. Further directions for the staging of the play include descriptors for the set, the lighting, the props, important sound cues and, sometimes, where the actors should be placed in relationship to each other and the various physical parts of the set, though this is usually the domain of the director.

Playwriting can take many forms. For instance, some plays are nothing but stage directions, while others might be all dialogue. However, most modern-day plays are consigned to a generally accepted format. Playwrights write full-length plays of over an hour or more when performed, which usually consists of two to three major sections or “acts”. Other formats include one-act plays, “ten-minute plays”, “one-person shows” (generally written for or by a performer to showcase his or her talents or for autobiographical purposes), short scenes and monologues.

This infographic shows a little of what the playwriting industry looks like.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Raegan Payne

Playwright

Quick Look Bio

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  • Raegan Payne
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Since childhood
  • Playwright
  • @raeganpayne

I went the classic college route, and in four years got two BAs; one in English and one in Theater with a focus in playwriting. From college I went straight into professional musical theater as a performer, but I continued writing plays. When I moved to LA I studied improv with The Groundlings. I also studied Shakespeare with the British American Drama Academy at Oxford University, UK.

On a typical day I will wake up and answer emails, submit to play contests, do edits, workout, eat a salad, clean… I do the bulk of my new creative writing after 9pm when other people are going to bed and when email and texts slow to a stop. I can sometimes work until 3am. I’ve always been a night person and work better in the early hours of the morning. My brother calls it my vampire superpower -I don’t get tired. The flip side is it’s also a form of severe insomnia.

I like almost everything about my job –even when I gripe about it. I love creating characters, places, and situations from scratch. I love watching actors embody my characters and having fun. That actually might be the best part. What I dislike is the financial insecurity.

Advice

Be aggressive
I wish I had known to be a lot more aggressive like I am now. It doesn’t matter if a play is perfect or not, you just have to start submitting it to contests, residencies, etc. You should be submitting to dozens of opportunities a year. Join a playwright’s group on Linkedin. Start networking with other playwrights by joining organizations and clubs – DGA, LAFPI, etc.

Just write
Basically, my advice is to just write. Try to write more than you talk about it. A lot more! Let your work speak for itself. Also, realistically, it’s hard to support yourself as just a playwright, so be a good writer in general, and adapt to survive.

Be familiar with acting
I would also encourage playwrights to know what it’s like to be an actor, so taking acting classes is a good thing. Specifically, I think improv is extremely important, if not essential, for a modern playwright. I’ve seen so many playwrights write scenes that are painful to act. If they had studied the other side of the job, that would eliminate a lot of bad writing.

Allison Volk

The City Shakespeare Company

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  • Allison Volk
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • 6
  • The City Shakespeare Company
  • @allisonvolk

I studied theater and music at Wellesley College before spending a year at the Eugene O’Neill National Theater Institute in Connecticut. While there, I studied acting and playwriting and traveled to London and St. Petersburg, Russia as part of my studies. I moved to Los Angeles shortly thereafter, where my first play, ‘The Last Two People on the Platform,’ was performed in 2010. It won the Denise Regan-Wisenmeyer Award that year (Lee Blessing came in 2nd place). Since then, I’ve had three other performances of my work and several readings in Los Angeles. In 2013, a short film I wrote and acted in, ‘Last Ditch Therapy,’ won the California Film Award.

Right now I’m on location in Colorado shooting a feature film adaptation of Macbeth (working title ‘Heat of Deeds’). It’s directed by my City Shakes co-producer, Brooke Bishop. I keep bills paid with my blogging company, The Blog Babe. ‘I take your stuff and turn it into blog posts so you don’t have to deal with it!’ Essentially, it’s blog ghost writing for small businesses and coaching practices. Writing in another person’s voice is one of my specialties.

Normally, I have phone calls for The Blog Babe in the morning and spend the afternoon writing blog posts and/or scripts. In the evening I’m usually at rehearsal for a play or a production meeting with Brooke. What I love about what I do is that it’s never the same. I get antsy when too much of the same thing happens for too long. I love that I’m always working on a new story, meeting new actors and clients, and figuring out how to make a name for myself in my field. The challenge is really invigorating.

Advice

There is no “right” way
“I wish I had known that everyone is pretty much just making things up as they go. I used to think that there were people who KNEW what they were doing and I had to follow their example. I spent so much time trying to fit into what I thought was the ‘right’ way to do things; now I know that there isn’t a ‘right’ way. There is so much room for creativity in the world, it’s unbelievable. The more creative and unconventional solutions you come up with, the better. To me, that’s what it means to be a working artist. It’s not always easy, but it’s always interesting.

Don’t seek permission
Don’t look for anyone’s permission. You will not get it, and even if you do, it doesn’t mean anything.

Stay in touch with people
Write your buns off, and keep the friends you made back in school because they are literally the future of the industry. Isn’t that crazy? I remember being at the O’Neill and having teachers tell me that the people around me would shape the industry. I didn’t believe it, really. Last year my play ‘Rite of Seymour’ was produced and directed by Doug Oliphant, who was my peer at the O’Neill. Now Doug is a working director in Los Angeles and he’s really killing it. Keep your friends!

Everyone’s path is different
Keep in mind that everyone’s path is different. I didn’t get much education on playwriting other than the year I spent at the O’Neill, and I’m doing fine. Read a lot. See plays. Watch movies and television. Let yourself get inspired, and be unstoppable. Submit plays wherever you can, and don’t think that any theater is “too small” for your work. Build your resume. Produce your own work. Just get it seen by people!

Walter G. Meyer

Writer

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I have a BA in Communications from Penn State. I took a class in writing plays there, not sure if I would ever get to use the skills I learned, but indeed I did many years later. After moving to California, I took additional theater classes, including acting at Santa Monica College; elements of which also came in handy in writing my play, ‘GAM3RS.’For most of my adult life, I have made my living as a freelance writer for newspapers, magazines, public relations, have written three published books and am working on two more. I have had numerous screenplays optioned and ‘GAM3RS’ was optioned to be a web series. We are now negotiating to sell the feature film rights.

There is no such thing as an “typical” day for me. I could spend 12 hours glued to the computer writing, or be out running around interviewing people for something I’m writing. Or I could spend it setting up a performance of my play, or traveling to another city where it is being performed. Or meeting with theater owners. Or emailing or calling producers. This morning what I was writing wasn’t clicking so I went to the gym to clear my head. It worked, and I ran home and finished the section I was writing.

I like the freedom and creativity of what I do. I like learning about new things, and each project brings new things. What I dislike is the uncertainty—not knowing if the next project will work or pay off.

Advice

Learn the business side
If I had known what a struggle it was going to be to get things produced and published, I might have gone to law school as my father suggested! Kidding! I wish I had learned more of the business side of things though.

Learn everything you can about theater
I would say anyone going into theater should learn everything they can about every aspect of theater. Doing smaller theaters, they are often not ready for us and we have to finish set-up. The person with whom I co-wrote my play, ‘GAM3RS,’ and who also stars in it, Brian Bielawski, knows everything from lights to sound, and his knowledge has been invaluable when we get to a venue and the people there can’t figure out their own system. When he speaks to acting classes, he always tells the actors to learn all they can about the tech side of things and make-up and costumes and the box office and—well, everything to do with putting on a show. It will likely come in handy someday. I just set out to be a writer, but if I weren’t willing to produce and hang lights and run the box office and usher, I’d be dead in the water… The show must go on, and if you are not willing to step into whatever job needs to be done, it may not be able to.

Just do it
When I’ve taught writing, I tell classes that I subscribe to the Nike school of writing: Just do it! Write. A lot. Even if it’s not good at first. (And it likely won’t be.) You will have to write a lot to flush out some of the bad words before you get to the good ones.

Take classes and see a lot of theater
Take some classes so you can analyze plays and learn structure, character development and story arcs. And see a lot of theater. Good and bad. You can learn as much by seeing what went wrong as what went right. Watch live performances of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and ask yourself, ‘Why are people still mesmerized by these plays?’ Watch new works by unknown playwrights and ask yourself what you’d have done differently.

Take some acting classes
Take some acting classes. Saying the words gives you insight as to how they should be written. As you write, it will help to act out your scenes yourself. There are lines that look great on paper, but when you say them you’ll realize no one really talks that way or that certain word combinations
just sound bad. Take out the earbuds at the gym and coffee shop, and as you’re walking down the street and listen to the way people talk. Hear the rhythms and the words. Does the way they are speaking match what they look like?

Get involved in the theater at any level
To get in the door as a playwright, get involved in theater at any level. As an actor, building sets, anything, to be around the scene. Look for a playwrights group in your city. Many have them with workshops and review sessions. Write a short play and try to get it into a festival, like the Fringe. More and more cities have Fringe and other festivals now. It was doing ‘GAM3RS’ in the New York Fringe that really put our play on the map and got it noticed.”

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Playwright?


Our interviewees all vehemently state that simply writing and doing it frequently and consistently is absolutely essential for all playwrights. Successful ones have gotten to where they are through very hard work, long hours and singular dedication. A natural ability is important, but writing can be learned and developed over time and with discipline. A degree in theater arts, creative writing or English can be very helpful for practical reasons: Networking, putting up plays in school theaters and getting experience on stage. But a formal education also helps as it compels an aspiring playwright to WRITE.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME AN ART DEALER?

  • Columbia College Chicago
    Columbia’s theater department is one of the largest undergraduate departments in the country, offering a full and varied education in the theory and the practice of Western theater and performance. Located in Chicago, where there are over 200 producing theaters, this department provides the ideal environment for one to develop playwriting and see the work put into production.
  • George Mason University
    The Theater Program at George Mason University focuses on serious practical training and experience, along with a healthy dose of liberal arts study for the preparation of becoming a professional in theater. The School of Theater prepares its graduates for entry into the professional world and/or graduate study with specialized, comprehensive and arduous training. The school offers a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Stage & Screen with about one hundred students in the program. All are required to take courses in history of the theater, acting, directing, dramaturgy, script analysis, technical theater, as well as theatrical literature and criticism. There are numerous opportunities for playwrights to see their work put up on stage.
  • Indiana State University – Terra Haute
    The mission of the undergraduate Theater program at Indiana State University is to graduate students “who will continue to grow as artists, technicians, thinkers, and engaged, productive citizens serving the public good.” Opportunities abound for playwrights to work in tandem with professionals at the Crossroads Repertory Theatre, which happens to be the only professional company in the Wabash Valley of west-central Indiana. All plays are produced by the university each summer here with a special dedication to producing new plays. Playwright students are encouraged to collaborate and experiment in the development of new work.
  • Coe College
    The Theater Program at Coe is designed to give broad and comprehensive development to theater art students in a production-oriented atmosphere. The department provides a program of study in each area of theater, including playwriting, with opportunities to put one’s work up on stage.
  • Emory University
    Theater at Emory is made up of Theater Studies, Theater Emory, and Student Theater, which speaks to the many opportunities for aspiring playwrights. Theater Emory is a resident professional company and serves as a laboratory for artistic research and for students to put up their work.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Again and again, the common theme in our research and interviews with playwrights is the following: Writing, observing people, seeing plays and movies, again consistent and constant writing, mental perseverance, performance experience as an actor, a great attitude, and a singular devotion and exemplary work ethic all can enable a playwright to become successful.

A good school can offer many benefits to the aspiring playwright, such as networking, practical experience and, of course, intensive training in the art of writing.