Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > LitBits > Blog > Authors David Eshelman

LitBits

9 Posts authored by: David Eshelman Expert
David Eshelman

Local Theatre

Posted by David Eshelman Expert Nov 22, 2016

Although many do not recognize it, local theatre is the cornerstone of the dramatic arts. (By local theatre, I mean what people watch in their own towns.) While metropolitan centers like New York City exert influence, what really counts is the theatre that people see. A theatrical production is often unavailable either in print, film, or other media: it is experienced only by those who gather to see it; and, since most individuals stay close to home, close to home matters. While famous plays have impact, the effect is diffuse when compared to print-centered writing or to film. The effect of non-local theatre works only along the lines of a “trickle-down” influence, rather than the direct impact of other forms: people read a story, but read about a theatrical production.

 

Given the importance of local theatre, one would think that such performance would be thriving — unfortunately, it is not. This is especially true for local playwriting. Because local theatres have no obligation to present new, local work, they typically turn to renditions of familiar plays that audiences have seen before. While productions of such plays may be comfortable for audiences and for the theatre makers involved, they create minimal opportunities for local dramatists. Though most regions of the country — even far-out, rural places — have some local theatre, they do not often have local dramatic writing. Such a situation hurts local writers and theatre as a whole by inhibiting regional diversity in a form that, of necessity, must be regional.

 

For this reason, playwriting instructors must not only be writers, but also theatre artists. Specifically, they must act as producers, arranging shows and making them occur. It is not enough to ask students to stuff their plays into envelopes, send them to faraway theatres, and hope for the best: instead, the instructor must ensure local performance opportunities. Print publication is unlikely for beginning dramatists. Because of the pre-eminence of live production, playwrights have far fewer opportunities for print publication than do poets and other writers. Production at distant theatres is similarly unlikely. Most theatres that produce new work already have relationships with playwrights-in-residence and are unlikely to assist beginning authors who live far away. These theatres tend to prefer local writers because proximity makes for an easier working relationship. Instructors can collaborate with existing local theatre companies; but, most often, the instructor will have to run his or her own “production company” — whether it’s something as simple as a series of public readings or as innovative as a podcast/videocast theatre.

 

Plays must be performed — there is no other medium for them — and, like it or not, the playwriting instructor must be on the front lines of performance.

 

How do you incorporate performance/production in the playwriting classroom?

 

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on July 26, 2012.]] 

Dramatic texts are one part writing, one part performed experience.  In other words, a script must be judged not just by the quality of the writing, but by how well it works on stage. This concept is difficult for beginning playwrights to grasp. Textbooks try various ways to explain. For example, some call the script a “blueprint” for performance—a means to an end, rather than an end itself.  Additionally, some instructors discuss the magic of “theatricality”—that je ne sais quoi that separates dramatic writing from the other genres.

 

Because “theatricality” is inconceivable apart from action—apart from the act of doing that constitutes performance—the teaching of playwriting requires performance as part of classroom activities. The concept of performance as pre-eminent should undergird all course structures. For example, when possible, written assignments should be shared aloud in class: hearing texts with an audience is preferable to at-home silent reading because the former better approximates how scripts are meant to be experienced.

 

Dramatic writers must learn to see themselves as performers. They do not need to be good performers, but they need to be willing. They need to be able to play roles well enough that they can hear in their minds the characters’ voices as they commit words to paper. It is not the same skill as that of the actor, who hears primarily one voice at a time, but is more like that of the stage director who understands the interplay of multiple voices. Most playwrights, I believe, mutter to themselves. And, while a little murmuring is probably common to all creative writers, I would guess that playwrights spend an inordinate amount of time muttering speeches and singing songs to themselves. This skill—necessary as a “trying out” of characters—can be nurtured in students by having them perform.

 

To teach theatricality at its most basic, I suggest “The Play without Words” exercise, which I do with beginning playwrights at the start of each semester. For this exercise, students write a one-page play with a plot, in which no one speaks. Students must convey that plot through performance, using only materials readily available—the classroom, items from home, and three random classmates. This challenging exercise goes a long way toward illuminating both the limitations and benefits of the stage.  Students typically try to do too much:  for example, one young woman once tried to show a couple saying their last loving good-byes before they jumped from a collapsing World Trade Center. While interesting, the premise is inscrutable without additional trappings—words or set—as explanation.  On the other hand, students have learned how marvelously engaging it is to have a swordfight or an actor pretending to be an animal:  these actions seem hokey on the page, but are magic in performance. By having students perform early on, they internalize the “theatricality” that separates playwriting from the other genres, thereby laying the groundwork to become better dramatists.

 

How do you get student writers to incorporate theatricality in their dramatic works? How much does performance figure into your teaching? What are your favorite classroom exercises?

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on October 19, 2011.]] 

David Eshelman

Material Realities

Posted by David Eshelman Expert Jul 13, 2016

Unlike print-based genres—poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction—the dramatic genres, such as playwriting, are allied to certain material realities.  By this I mean that what is mentioned in a script is not just for a reader’s mind, but is meant to be concretized before an audience’s eyes.  I find myself frequently noting on drafts of student scripts that particular stage directions sound “expensive,” and I don’t mean this as a positive comment.  I use this word to discourage writers from including elements that would make staging difficult—for example, impossible special effects and overly frequent scene changes.  In a similar vein, I ask student authors to remember that acting is paid labor.  Frequently, beginning playwrights will include a character—often a waiter—who does very little.  In the professional theatre, the actor playing this character would have to be compensated for his or her work.  Therefore, inclusion in the script means an added expense, and if it’s not a meaningful expense, there’s no reason for it.

 

What’s more, wasteful writing can mean not just a waste of monetary resources, but a waste of performer time.  To return to the waiter example, a playwright in a university setting could likely find a fellow student willing to play a minor role without compensation—meaning that the inclusion of a peripheral character would not increase expense in this case.  However, I ask writers to also take into account the performer’s perspective.  While student actors might be willing to play small roles, the truth is that no one wants to sit through weeks of rehearsal for a part that ultimately isn’t all that meaningful. A small part is one thing, a small and wholly insignificant part is quite another.  Therefore, ethically, the playwright should cut the role or make it worthwhile; otherwise, she or he is wasting someone’s (unpaid) time.

 

Material realities have even greater significance when they illuminate larger issues of artistic representation.  Cultural prejudices, for example, exist everywhere; but it is easier to see their consequences in the dramatic arts.  As I remind students, acting is one of the only jobs where employers can legally include sex, age, and race as hiring considerations—even though these categories are subject to legal protections elsewhere.  Because scripts create work for actors, I remind my students that, with each role that they write, they are potentially creating or denying work for another human being—and often doing so along race-based, sex-based, and age-based lines.  In other words, since each role potentially puts food on someone’s table, playwrights must not ignore their responsibilities to society. If the roles they create put food only on the tables of young white males, I encourage them to at least be aware of the exclusions they’re building into their creative work.

 

Just as the stage concretizes the text, so the field of dramatic writing concretizes the problems of representation that all creative writers face (or should be facing). In playwriting, it is harder to ignore one’s ethical responsibilities because they are so apparent.  A print-based writer knows in theory that she or he should not create characters that conform to offensive stereotypes.  The playwright, however, must understand that, when she or he creates such a role, she or he must essentially look another human being in the eye and say, “You.  Be that.”

 

[[This post first appeared on LitBits on 3/30/12.]]

David Eshelman

The Cold Reading

Posted by David Eshelman Expert May 16, 2016

Other creative writing teachers may be surprised how much time the typical playwriting class spends in the act of reading aloud. In my classes, students rarely if ever take their classmates’ scripts home to read silently.  Since plays are meant to be performed, writers learn a great deal more by hearing how their words function in the mouths of actors.  While, in an ideal world, readings would be rehearsed and conducted by trained performers, in reality most readings in a beginning playwriting class will be unrehearsed—“cold” readings—with members of the class.  Though imperfect, these early performances still stand to teach a lot—at least, insofar as they remind beginning writers that words are tied to and derive their significance from performance.

 

Unfortunately, many instructors do not spend time on the skills of out-loud reading, sometimes called “oral interpretation.”  To help facilitate cold readings, instructors should discuss the reading as a form itself, as a type of performance.  By providing guidelines on author and actor preparation, the instructor can ensure a more valuable experience for all. 

 

First, playwrights should prepare their scripts for easy reading. They should familiarize themselves with current playwriting format.  They should pay careful attention to stage directions.  While in rehearsed, fully-staged theatrical productions, all stage directions are performed; in a reading, though, they must be read by a narrator figure.  I suggest that writers take care to determine which directions must be read aloud and which directions can be suggested by the actor.  For example, “Pause” and “Sadly” can be acted.  In contrast, a stage direction like, “He walks in dressed like a bird,” should be read aloud or the audience may not understand.  As another example, if one character suddenly and quietly kills another, the audience may be confused unless that stage direction is read aloud.

 

In their book Scriptwork, David Kahn and Donna Breed lay out guidelines for actors in an unrehearsed reading.  From my classroom experience, my best advice boils down to urging actors to refrain from making bold choices.  For example, I have occasionally heard an actor read a character a certain way—for example, as very lazy or as having a British accent—only to learn as the reading progresses that that interpretation is wrong, leaving the audience confused.  It is far better to read lines tentatively, without undue emphasis on how the speeches fit together.  In other words, at a cold reading, it is the playwright’s job to build a character, not the actor’s.  The actor’s job, then, is simply to express what is present on the page.  In a fuller production, the actor adds details and fleshes out the character; in a cold reading, to avoid an uninformed and incorrect interpretation, the performer should aim simply to neither to add nor detract.

 

The skills of the reading are different from the skills of production.  But, if considered and thought out, they can yield a positive experience for all.

David Eshelman

Writing Actions

Posted by David Eshelman Expert Nov 30, 2015

“[Drama] is an imitation of an action.” --- Aristotle, Poetics Part VI

                       

            One of my first jobs in theatre was to run a summer camp.  My purpose was to teach theatre skills to children as I led them in creating a play for public performance.  Because I felt uncomfortable with the act of casting---which necessarily involves telling some children that they are talented whereas others are not---I chose to have the children develop their own plays, tailored to their individual skills and interests.  While I knew that I would have to use a lot of improv, I intended to make writers of my preteen pupils.  I bought them notebooks and pencils and, at the end of our practices, I would ask them to write down the scenes that they had developed through their performance exercises. I found out, though, that they wrote nothing.  Because writing seemed such a chore, I stopped asking for it and, in so doing, found that their work suffered in no way:  they still created dramatic scenes with strong characters and conflict.  Their speeches were never the same from run to run, but the plots stayed consistent.  From this experience, I learned what Aristotle meant when he called drama the imitation of an action.

 

            Given Aristotle’s bias for plot, when he writes about action, we can take him to be describing the enacted events of a play---which, in his view, should work together to form a coherent whole.  However, in drawing our attention first to actions instead of words, Aristotle suggests how drama differs substantially from what we might today call poetry or prose fiction.  Consider the relationship of words to actions implicit in the following quote: 

 

The plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place.  (Aristotle, Poetics Part XIV)

 

Aristotle suggests that a good plot will move its listeners even if not witnessed, even in summary.  In other words, actions are not the same thing as language: the same actions can occur with different words.  Aristotle, then, suggests that words themselves are very much secondary in playwriting.  Instead, language is merely one way to accomplish action.  While some speeches have more finesse than others, as long as the action is accomplished, we still have drama.

 

            The lesson that I draw is that, if we fully consider what it means to write actions and not words, then we radically change what writing is.  As my grade-school playwrights taught me, the act of choosing words is far less important than choosing what those words are meant to accomplish.  To use Aristotelian terms, perhaps we sometimes muddy drama’s essential manner of imitation by focusing on words in playwriting classes. Actions should also be part of the writer’s toolbox.  Choosing and ordering actions are key to dramatic writing.  From this perspective, acting itself can also be a form of writing.

This post first appeared on August 10, 2015.

 

Playwriting teachers occasionally encounter students interested in musical theatre writing.  Unfortunately, they may feel that they do not have the skills or time and may, unwittingly, discourage potential authors.  To combat this tendency, I have lately made a concerted effort to nurture students interested in writing musicals.  After all, one could argue that musical theatre is where theatre is healthiest.  Musicals represent a theatrical genre that does not need to justify its existence:  Broadway continues, thanks to the musical, and musical plays sell seats in high school and community theatres across the nation.  We should, therefore, not discourage those who want to write in this form.

 

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to musical theatre writing is that scripts require many separate skills that hardly ever reside in the same person.  They are usually written in teams—book writer (script writer), lyricist, and composer.  Whereas most playwrights would be perfectly happy writing the script—and, possibly, the lyrics—it is unusual that they would have the musical expertise to write all those darned notes.  Musical theatre writing then would best be taught as an interdisciplinary endeavor—music and creative writing—possibly with students taking different roles within the class.  While I believe that such team-taught courses exist in larger universities, I doubt that the average college would have the resources.  What to do then at a smaller school when faced with a musically-inclined student?

 

From a practical point of view, I do a few things.  First, I lay out the realities:  I am not qualified to teach music theory, but can help with words.  I make sure that the student knows that musicals are extremely time-consuming and usually written in teams.  Second, I urge students to become acquainted with musical theatre literature—especially the integrated book musical, as exemplified by Rodgers and Hammerstein, one of the U.S.A.’s most significant contributions to drama.  I also make a few general statements regarding musical numbers.  I discuss basic formatting:  song lyrics are written as verse, with line breaks, and in all caps.  I describe how songs are used in the integrated book musical:  the action of the play does not stop for the song; rather, the song comes at the height of drama.  An old adage states that what cannot be said in words must be said in song; and what cannot be said in song must be said in dance.  Songs, then, are for intense moments—climaxes and decisions.  Last, I suggest that the student have a melody in mind while writing lyrics:  the melody does not have to be good, but it will allow the student a stronger sense of structure as the lines are written.

 

Usually, with just these bits of advice, students can make forays into musical theatre writing.  Later, more advanced students continue in independent studies with me or with faculty from the Music Department.  Most important, though, is acknowledging that budding musical writers should be encouraged, not discouraged.

This blog was originally posted on June 5, 2015.

 

In a blog post titled, “We Need More Crappy Plays,” theatre scholar Scott Walters makes a claim that should be obvious:  healthy theatre requires a healthy dose of new plays.  Walters lauds the Goodman Theatre in Chicago for declaring that it will produce four world premieres as part of its 2015-16 season.  As he wistfully states:  “Imagine if every regional theatre in the country devoted half of its mainstage productions to new works . . . .  What would be the result?  An American Renaissance in the theatre as our stages became [sic] once again to be relevant and vibrant.”  Unfortunately, the field of theatre—especially professional theatre, which often makes conservative choices in the name of increased ticket sales—is not always eager to support new work.

 

As teachers of playwriting, we must realize that we and our students are part of a community of artists.  Whereas writers in other forms—poetry, for example—can imagine that they operate exclusively in a world of writers, playwrights have no such luxury.  Their work depends on a vast network of artists – actors, designers, stage hands, etc. – who are not primarily literary.  Whereas the decision makers for the printed genres (for example, editors of creative writing journals) can be presumed to have a literary background, decision makers for theatre (for example, artistic directors of professional theatres) may have found their way to the profession through any number of fields unrelated to writing.  For this reason, they do not always see playwriting as important.  It is up to us, then, to insist that it is.

 

Scott Walters points out that popular music does not rely on covers of past hits, nor does the motion picture industry confine itself to remakes.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that our most vibrant contemporary art forms—popular music, stand-up comedy, video, and, to a lesser degree, movies—are predicated on originality.  Of the arts, only classical music shares theatre’s obsession with re-creating works of the past.  In contrast, visual artists must create afresh, and poetry and fiction become mere book-making without original contributions from today’s writers.  Puzzlingly, theatre is an unwitting oddball in its preference for works of the past.

 

What we have today is a karaoke theatre, where contemporary artists recreate yesterday’s hits.  While karaoke is entertaining, no one thinks of it as high art because it lacks the ability to further the field.  No one looks to karaoke singers to define what art and culture will become.    Regrettably, theatre today is largely karaoke theatre and satisfied to remain that way.  It excludes the contributions of today’s writers; paradoxically, amending this exclusion could be the solution to many of contemporary theatre’s problems.

 

Playwriting teachers must be aware of the issues facing the theatre community and must be prepared to make cases like I have made.  If teachers do not advocate for playwriting, there will be no need for the playwrights that we train.

This blog was originally posted on November 4, 2014.

 

It had long been my contention that playwriting is more practical than screenwriting because it leads more directly to a finished product.  In other words, whereas an ambitious playwright could organize his or her friends and stage a piece on a weekend, the screenwriter was dependent on the whims of Hollywood producers to obtain the resources to get their films made.  This assessment of practicality, though, seems to apply less and less to today’s world in which there are so many opportunities through the internet.  If a screenwriter uses the production and distribution means available through the web—for example, if a writer creates scripts for short Youtube films—then screenwriting can be every bit as practical as playwriting.

 

Besides screenwriting, the internet has enhanced the practicality of another field—radio drama.  The format, which dwindled in the U.S. with the rise of television, is now reemerging under the aegis of podcasting and audiobooks.  Teachers of dramatic writing are wise to embrace audio theatre for the following reasons:

 

  1. It stands to become more and more important in our Internet Age.
  2. It provides easy production opportunities for emerging writers—requiring no sets, costumes, or even line memorization, as required by film and the stage.
  3. Digital recordings, the product of audio theatre endeavors, are easy to disseminate to a wide audience.

 

My university, Arkansas Tech, has been leading the way in audio theatre ventures for seven years now.  Through an organization called the Arkansas Radio Theatre, we have created more than forty broadcasts which play on the local radio station, are made available to the visually impaired throughout the state, and are available on-line  (click Public, then Radio Theatre).  The Arkansas Radio Theatre is dedicated to new plays and adaptations of classic literature.  An audio theatre company like the Arkansas Radio Theatre is easy to establish because free recording software is easily available.  An interested instructor simply needs some microphones in order to record voices.  Apart from that, an audio theatre company simply requires a means for broadcast—or some server space, which is readily available at most universities.

 

However, just because a production opportunity exists, that does not mean that student writers are prepared to take advantage of it.  Because audio theatre is a unique form, writers must be trained with relevant coursework.  In order to build the Radio Theatre into the curricular structures of my university, I am teaching (in Fall 2014) an upper-division topics course focusing on Radio Theatre Writing.  Some of the assignments explore audio theatre as a genre:  for example, listening to broadcasts from the Golden Age of Radio and comparing them to the audio drama available today.  Students will eventually work toward hour-long original scripts.  Hopefully, the insights learned in teaching this class will help others who attempt to engage in audio theatre projects.  I will report on the progress of the course in later posts.

[[This blog post originally appeared on February 1, 2013.]]

 

Dramatic writers aim to capture the way that people speak:  Therefore, grammatical correctness is not necessarily important in the text of a play or script.  What is unacceptable in academic prose is often quite desirable in drama. Unfortunately, students sometimes take drama’s emphasis on performance and the spoken word as a license for sloppy writing.  Dramatic writing, though often non-grammatical, must never be haphazard.

 

Frequently, I encounter in beginning playwrights a lack of attention to punctuation.  Perhaps they believe that, because punctuation is for the eye, it is unnecessary to writing that addresses itself to the ear.  However, such a belief ignores punctuation’s significance as a means of suggesting vocal techniques of expression—specifically, the pause—which are readily understood to the listener but hard to convey to the reader.  Because punctuation captures the rhythms of spoken speech, it’s essential that playwrights employ punctuation to its fullest potential.

 

While everyone is familiar with basic punctuation marks—such as the period, comma, exclamation point, etc.—there are others that beginning playwrights tend to neglect.  Here are some of my favorites.  (Similar lists can be found in textbooks such as Buzz McLaughlin’s The Playwright’s Process.)

 

  1. The ellipsis (. . .) indicates a trailing off, whether within or at the end of a speech.  It suggests confusion or a wandering of the mind, rather than an abrupt change of thought.
  2. The dash (—) indicates an interruption, whether within or at the end of a speech.  Characters interrupt themselves as their thoughts change in quick succession or as they make hasty additions to their statements.  Dashes are used, also, when characters are interrupted by other characters.
  3. The semicolon (;) links related thoughts.
  4. The colon (:) links related thoughts more closely than the semi-colon.  The colon is used for assertions that hinge on one another, suggesting a stronger—perhaps causal—relationship.
  5. The question mark followed by the uncapitalized question—e.g., “What do you think I am? a dog?”  This form suggests a subsidiary question that continues the first, rather than a wholly new question asked in succession.  This punctuation device can greatly affect an actor’s inflection.

 

Consider working with punctuation in class.  For instance, you might have students come up with sample lines of dialogue in which they use these conventions.  Such exercises can help encourage greater precision in writing.

 

To commit speeches to paper, dramatic writers should take advantage of all devices at their disposal—including italics, all caps, and the formatting of text as verse.  After all, playwrights have the difficult task of converting a complex medium (the spoken word) to another medium (the written word) and of doing so in such a way as to suggest delivery to actors.

 

How do you teach punctuation in the scriptwriting classroom?  How do you discuss micro-concerns like the line, as opposed to larger concerns like plotting or character building?