by Charles Campbell
This April I was excited to participate in the 5th Anniversary 10x10 Play Showcase, my third year involved with this festival of locally written plays. In both 2015 and 2016 I was a playwright and had the opportunity to see my work performed. My 2017 contribution was different—I went from having my work staged to directing a piece written by someone else.
Taking someone else’s words and translating them into a 4-dimensional event was both a challenge and a thrill. I have not changed my mind about how hard it is to write a good play, but I do have a new appreciation for the skill required to take written words and bring them to life. The experience also taught me some lessons about writing plays which will inform my submission for 2018.
Know your characters: As a writer, I crafted dialogue for three characters and described the set. Talking to the directors of my plays was easy; they asked questions about motivation and I answered, sometimes with “not sure exactly”. As a director, I had to be sure: actors who understand how to approach their characters are better at bringing them to life. In a 10 minute play the script won’t have all the answers, but the writer should.
I will be putting more thought into motivation and tone before submitting my next play. Writing requires an ear for dialogue, but a play is more than a reading. Achieving emotion on stage requires that the actors can understand what drives their character.
No Close ups: The big writing money is in Hollywood and we all spend a lot of time watching movies and television, and that makes it easier to write screenplays. But it makes it harder to write a stage play. As a director, I learned that there are no close ups on a stage—no tight camera angle is available to exclude the rest of the stage. In order for the audience to focus on a single character, a prop or a specific emotion, the script has to provide clarity and vision.
As a writer, I now know that when I want to focus on one character, they must be given the tools to command the stage. I cannot simply write “everyone looks at James” in the stage direction, and expect it to happen. James must be given a task that will draw attention to him—and I better not have Ishmael and Sue continuing to dance the tango in the background.
Be Open to Wonder: A play is not static —it is a creative partnership with the director and performers who are responsible for interpreting the writer’s words.
Reinterpretation can happen with novels and short stories, but descriptive language, inner monologues and omniscient narrators provide readers with more details and limit how far they can stray from the author’s vision. And even if a reader does misinterpret my novel, how would I know? Readers don’t walk on stage in front of large crowds and perform the books they are reading.
I am going to cheat now and share the first lesson I learned as a playwright. No matter what I think I have written, someone can take my words and create an experience I would never have foreseen. I know I’m not unique—I’ve discussed this experience with other 10x10 playwrights. Sometimes we are disappointed, other times amazed, occasionally confused.
And we don’t have to sit alone and second-guess reaction to our work. The writer, director and actors get feedback every time a performance ends. Ultimately that is the best (and worst) part of the experience: the audience tells us what they thought of the work. Hopefully we get to bask in applause, but what if they didn’t like it?
As a writer, you can always blame the director.
Charles Campbell is an accountant by day and writer by evening and weekend. Although he has had succesfully submitted his tax returns for decades, he is far more proud of having his plays selected for the 2015 and 2016 10x10 showcases. Charles joined NOWW to get away from financial statements and to dedicate more time to develop his writing, but much like Michael Corleone, he's been 'pulled back in' and is serving as Treasurer.