I was recently asked the question, ‘What do you like writing for more…the stage or the page?’ My answer was simple. I didn’t even have to think about it. It was an emphatic YES!
With a gun to my head, along with the pressure of having only ten seconds to either give one up or die, I would probably use the little time I had left to say goodbye to loved ones. Admittedly, the decision is not Sophie’s Choice or anything as life or death crucial as that…but it feels that epic. It’s a choice I would never want to make.
I always say that writing for the stage is like writing a novel without having the added responsibility of working with all that clunky, incipient prose that shows up between the dialogue. That’s why I love being a playwright. I need only worry about putting words into my characters’ mouths. All the movement and action (business) can be on the director and actors to decide. All the setting can be created by the set designers. The rest of the theatre crew deal with all that prose that doesn’t have to be there on the page. At times, that feels like getting a get-out-of-jail free card. Score! I can have fun just making my characters talk!
And it’s a lot of fun. But…there’s also something missing. I absolutely love building worlds and making sure every little detail is as it should be. The reader will hear the dialogue in a novel. And that dialogue better be authentic. There’s nothing more irritating than dialogue that simply does not sound authentic. But the reader will also see the prose. How they see everything that surrounds the dialogue is up to me. I love getting that right. I would sorely miss that if all I did was write plays. Yes, a playwright works with stage direction…we do use prose outside of dialogue. We have to at least let the rest of the theatre crew know the scaffolding that surrounds the conversation. But we don’t get to visit the minutiae of the scenes we create. I love to write my novels cinematically. I write so that the story rolls out as though it were playing out on the big screen. I like to be in control of all the details. In order to do that, I need to embrace all aspects of story. I need to paint the scenes in full.
On the stage, it’s all there in front of the audience. To an extent, what they see is the playwright’s vision. But in another way, it could be diametrically opposed to the playwright’s original vision. Outside the characters on the stage, and the words they speak, most of what the audience is seeing is director, actor, and set design interpretation. This isn’t a bad thing. Playwright’s understand that they are, in a sense, giving up a lot of control when they write for the stage. That is, in fact, part of the thrill of play-writing for me. I love to see what the other people involved in my plays do with them. I love watching the actors form their characters. Ultimately, I end up loving the characters they create a lot more than the ones I sketched out. And the directors seem to know exactly where to put the business of the play. It’s an art-form to move the actors about the stage and have them perform the best possible movements at the best possible times. That’s why a good playwright will keep the stage direction to a bare minimum. They know that the next stages of the play’s development will be for others to interpret. A theatre company is a cohesive unit. A lot of work, and a lot of trust, go into making a good play.
A still from my play, Perfect Timing. From the 2013 InspiraTO Festival, performed by Liam Doherty & Jennifer Gillespie on the main stage of the Alumnae Theatre in Toronto, Ontario (June, 2013). Perfect Timing was directed by Kim Sprenger and dramaturged by MC Thompson. Photo Credit: Ismail Atiev
In the end, the difference between playwriting and novel writing comes down to collaboration. While I’m writing my novel, I want to be the director, the actors, the set designer, everything. I want to have full control. I understand that at some point an editor will come in and make crucial improvements upon my creation, but I don’t take that into consideration while I’m creating. While I’m writing my play, I have forethought. I consider that the director and actors will work with what I give them. I understand that the creation process will still evolve when I am done with the words on the page.
Ultimately, it takes a writer to create a novel and a village to create a play. So don’t ask me what I would rather do. I love the solitary world of novel writing. I love to sit down and write something and present it to the world complete. Voila! But I also love to collaborate with the wonderfully creative and talented world of the theatre. I love being a part of something that is so much bigger than me, but that ultimately starts with me. When you write a novel, you pass your fully formed baby on to the world. When you write a play, you’re passing an embryo on to doctors who will know exactly how to bring it to fruition. I’m okay with both methods. As a writer, I’m blessed to have experienced both. So take that gun away from my head. I have a novel AND a play to write.
You can catch 2 of my plays on TUESDAY AUGUST 1st from 7pm-9pm in PORT PERRY, when they are to be STAGE READ by the folks at Theatre 3×60. Click the image to visit their page and purchase tickets ($10 gets you in to see both plays read — The History of Us AND King of the Crease)