When is a Script “Ready?”

Every playwright is familiar with the dreaded “developmental hell” cycle of reading after reading after reading, but then never getting a production. Each time you work hard, diligently addressing each note given, continually refining your script in the hopes that someone, somewhere, will decide that it “works.” It’s ready to be produced.

What does that even mean, it “works”?

Most of the time this process is helpful. Sometimes it’s not. Writers, often too eager to please a potential producer or theater company, may completely rewrite their play in the hope to get them onstage – only to find that in trying to please the artistic director (or dramaturg) their script becomes unrecognizable. Then they’re back to square one after the reading.

Is there an alternative? Maybe.

Trust the Feedback

New plays and musicals need a certain amount of work done on them to sharpen the message, address plot problems, clarify wants, heighten stakes, etc. You can’t always do this alone. You’re too close to the work.

If you’re lucky you belong to a writing group or theater company that you trust, that gives you feedback through the writing process. The more plays you write, the more you sense what is needed. The more plays you listen to in your writing group and at developmental readings, the more savvy and skillful you become as a writer.

Experience with the developmental process is invaluable – and not just to the other writers you give feedback to. You become more skilled as a writer the more scripts you read.

In general, when you hear someone’s new scene in a workshop or a writing group, ask yourself three things:

  1. What stands out most to me? What elements in the storytelling are most interesting and engaging to me?
  2. What confused me? When we are confused we get stuck inside our own heads trying to figure something out, which keeps us from following the bits of action the follows it. It can be deadly for an audience to be “stuck” on a single detail and miss large chunks of dialogue, so pay attention on what was confusing and why.
  3. When did I disengage from the story? Why? Disengagement shows that your audience member just doesn’t care enough about the character or his problem to actively follow the play.

Sometimes if you watch your audience carefully take note on what page people begin to fidget, check their cell phones, etc. Is the action stalled by too much wordy dialogue? That’s a common problem that’s solved by editing the dialogue in favor of action.

For example, in my writing workshop 6 Weeks to a Better Script yesterday a talented writer presented a scene that had a married couple arguing about not having their basic needs met. It felt endless, as arguments between spouses sometime feel. But this is stage action, not real action. The arguing had to come to a head quickly. “Just have him kiss her and see how she reacts,” I suggested. That reaction to his kiss, and his reaction to her reaction, would emotionally communicate what words could not and get to the heart of the scene: both needed love.

In general, the more you workshop your play in a class, a writing group, or with a trusted mentor or dramaturg, the faster your play will be “ready.”

It’s the most cost-efficient way to write your script.

Before You Write: The Basics

Before you sit down to type “Act 1 scene 1,” make sure that you know the answers to the following questions:

  1. What’s the message you want to put on stage? Unless you’re clear about what new perspective or new idea your play will give the audience at the end, don’t begin to write.
  2. Clarify the wants and the stakes. Who is the protagonist? What does he want? Why can’t he have it? How important is it for him to have it, and what must he do to get it? How will it reshape him in the process, and what legacy will he leave on the world (of the play)?
  3. Outline the action (plot).
  4. Outline the inner action, the emotional journey of the protagonist, and what they realize at the end.
  5. Write a rough draft of the ending. Sometimes characters can run their writers into a corner, so it’s best to have an idea of where you’re going. But remember, this is a “work in progress” so don’t become attached to anything yet. Nothing is “precious” if it doesn’t communicate the message you’re trying to get across.

So, When is a Script “Ready”?

Audiences want to experience something new, to learn something about the world or human nature that they didn’t know, and to be entertained and delighted in the process.

Audiences want to be immersed in a new and different world, somehow alien to their own, and learn how another human being maneuvers within that world. They want to see real people having real human experiences (even if that world is a fantasy world, the emotions are true to human experience).

Finally, as you listen to your work and listen to people give you feedback about your work, do a gut check on yourself. Are they getting what you’re putting down? Do they “get” the premise of your play, and the message that means so much to you? Are they learning something new?

Are they smiling and enjoying the journey?

Then your script “works. Then you should send it out, because it’s “ready.”

And not until then.

I’m starting to form small six week writing groups In February to help you start to write the play that you need to write now for $129.

Email me at cate@createtheater.com for more information and to sign up.