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Learn the Basics of Playwriting

Playwriting is an ancient artistic expression that began to take shape as early as 4000 B.C., but theater, as we know it today, started in Ancient Greece with playwrights like Sophocles. Theatrical performances have certainly changed since the tragedies that were presented in Greece at festivals of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. However, the role of the playwright remains the same – to develop stories that are brought to life by actors and actresses on the stage.

The main responsibility of the playwright is to develop scripts for theatrical productions. In addition to coming up with the concept for the story and crafting characters’ dialogue, playwrights also make suggestions for the theatrical set design and develop stage directions for the actors to follow throughout the performance. But, developing plays requires more than just effective writing skills. Playwrights must be able to envision and communicate important details, like the way characters look and behave so that actors can accurately bring these characters to life for the audience.

Most playwrights, like other types of writers, work alone when developing a play. After the play is complete, they can submit their work to a theater company, and if it is approved, they will see their play produced on the stage. Playwrights who are already involved with a theater company or active in the local theater community may also work with actors and directors in a process called collective creation, where everyone works together to research a story and develop the script. The playwright will then revise and shape the rough draft into a final production. Playwrights will also sometimes work with a dramaturg, who is responsible for managing the production’s literary aspects and providing helpful feedback to the playwright. Theater is a collaborative art, so it is important that playwrights can work closely with others, and be able to take advice and constructive criticism.

Like other careers within the world of theater, there is a significant amount of competition in the playwriting industry. Playwrights who want to be successful need to refine their skills and develop their talent while working hard to network and get their plays in front of the right people. Though it may take time to get your first play produced and see your work come to life on the stage, there are other opportunities that you can take advantage of to learn valuable and relevant skills that will guide you in your work as a playwright.

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Develop Your Writing Skills

Nearly any skilled writer with a passion for theater can become a playwright. However, there are a few key skills that you need to refine if you want to be successful in this competitive industry. The ability to write well and tell engaging, impactful and creative stories are the most important skills that the aspiring playwright must develop and improve. Often in theater what is not being said is just as important as the dialogue, so it is vital that a playwright is able to visualize scenes and characters and communicate this information clearly in the stage directions. Playwrights also need to have the discipline to write for long periods of time on a regular basis and take a script from the initial drafting stages all the way to the production of the play.

Playwriting can take many forms, depending on the writer’s overall vision. Typical play formats include comedy, tragedy, historical, satirical, and farce. Some plays include multiple scenes and complex stage directions, while other plays take place in one setting and consist of mostly dialogue. Playwrights typically write full-length plays that are one hour or longer with two or three acts, but shorter plays are also performed across the globe that can be as short as ten minutes and can include only one performer. Some modern productions also incorporate music, dance, and other multi-media as part of the performance.

There are a few ways that playwrights can improve their craft. One of the best ways to become a better writer is by writing on a regular basis and bringing your drafts to workshops. Workshops allow playwrights to get valuable feedback from others in the theater community who may have important insight on how to improve the work.  Workshops can also answer questions, like what are the different theater spaces playwrights write for, story structure and development, manuscript format elements and page layout, title page, cast page, musical numbers, and act/scene elements, setting, dialogue, lyrics and stage direction, and transition events.

Another way that aspiring playwrights can improve their skills is by gaining experience in theatrical productions. By learning the roles and responsibilities of each person that goes into creating a performance, playwrights are better able to understand the way their work fits into the overall production. Of course, it is also important that aspiring playwrights watch many different kinds of plays to expose themselves to various techniques and approaches to playwriting.

Though becoming a playwright does not require formal training or a university degree, seeking specialized education can help you strengthen and refine the skills you need to become a successful playwright. Not to mention, getting a degree or attending theater workshops can help you network to meet people in the field, gain valuable experience working on productions, and find the time, space, and motivation to write on a regular basis. Earning a degree in Theater Arts, Creative Writing, or English can help you develop your skills as a writer and theater professional, while also offering you the opportunity to collaborate with others. In addition to two- and four-year undergraduate programs at private and public universities, aspiring playwrights might also consider courses and workshops offered by local theater companies that also offer valuable skill-building exercises and networking opportunities.

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Build Your Portfolio

Like most creative professionals, playwrights should have a strong writing portfolio. Since there are many approaches to writing and many different types of plays, no two playwriting portfolios will be the same. The key to developing a strong portfolio is choosing the best pieces that can showcase your talent, skill, and style, as well as your progress. The playwriting portfolio is not only helpful in demonstrating your abilities to others, but it can also help you organize your finished work to make for an easier submission process when you are ready to submit your work to theater companies or for competitions.

Building a personal brand is important for any type of writer, including the playwright. Developing your brand can help give you a better understanding of how to market yourself and describe your work when networking or submitting pieces to theater companies. Your personal brand and unique writing style helps set you and your work apart from everyone else. Before developing your personal brand, you should work to understand who you are as a playwright and what you hope to achieve with your work.

Networking is also a very important part of finding new opportunities within the theater industry and growing as a professional playwright. By building contacts within the professional theater community, you can find new opportunities to collaborate and submit your work. Playwrights can attend theater conferences to meet others in the field and stay up-to-date with the latest techniques and approaches to playwriting. Many playwrights also find some of the best networking opportunities in their local theater community by working on local productions, joining writers’ groups, or attending community theater workshops and classes. By building strong connections and fostering relationships with other professionals in the field, you can create a wealth of new opportunities to learn more and get your work out there.

Playwrights who attend college can also gain valuable experience by taking advantage of internships and apprenticeships while in school or after graduation. Additionally, they can learn and develop lasting relationships with professors, who can become mentors and advisors. The relationships and experience gained early in your career can do much to boost your career and help you become successful as a playwright.

Get to Know Our Experts

Raegan Payne

  • Title:
    Playwright
  • Company:
    Heuer Publishing
  • Where:
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    Since childhood
  • Quick Look Bio

    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 – DGALAFPI, 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

  • Title:
    Creative Director
  • Company:
    The City Shakespeare Company
  • Where:
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    6 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Writer
  • Company:
    waltergmeyer.com
  • Where:
    San Diego, CA
  • Experience:
    9 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.”

    Playwright Infographic