how to write a play

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone has one good play in them and that one day they will write it. When you judge a play competition, you wait for that day to dawn. A few years ago, more than a quarter of the plays submitted to the International Playwriting Festival had, as their major plot-line, people coming back from the dead. It was the year, of course, when the top films were Ghost together with Truly, Madly, Deeply and Kenneth Branagh's Dead Again. Nothing wrong with the theme - Noel Coward did it brilliantly years ago with Blithe Spirit.

Episodes of famous television series, thinly disguised and elongated, are another preoccupation. These will have very short scenes and lots of characters forever making pots of tea, sitting at desks and hanging out the washing. A note at the top of the script will give you a guide as to how the huge number of characters can be played by eight actors. Others will assume that a play with two characters and no set, is somehow an attraction. It is not. The audience is potentially the same as the audience that will want to go and see a Shakespeare at the Barbican or Crazy for You, and, in a small theatre, the expectations should be the same. My policy has always been to aspire to the aims of "if it's quality, anything is possible". So reading a play where nothing is possible and where there are no expectations is not exactly the most thrilling prospect. That's not to say that plays with 33 set changes and 57 people in the cast are slightly daunting in a fringe theatre seating 100.

There is another fascinating trend from America - the computer play. Some clever boffins over there have clearly put all the elements of what they consider constitutes a good play into a computer. Of course, this has already happened to film. You only have to watch the modern Hollywood film, especially those starring Sly, Bruce, or Arnie to catch the computer plot at work. Each of these has a standard format, with events staged at regular intervals to keep the audience awake (usually with an explosion), building to a climax that is not the one you thought it was, because there's another, and then, just as you thought that was the end, the villain rises from the dead for the final climax.

My own career started as a continuity director in television, where I used to have to preview an evening of television before having to put it to air and then watch it all over again. The crew would regularly place bets during re-runs of Perry Mason on the inevitability of the revelation of the murderer or culprit at no earlier than 47 minutes and not later than 48 minutes into the plot.

Thank goodness for British playwriting, for the theatre has mostly resisted conforming to this. Each year, we recruit 15 readers to judge more than 350 scripts, submitted from all over the world. Unfortunately, up to two thirds of the plays submitted do not get beyond the first meeting of the judging panel, but the reassuring part of reading and judging plays over a 10-year period is that there have been enough authors who have turned expectations on their head and come up with plays that use theatre and intimacy in a refreshing and imaginative way to create something startling and original.


Ted Craig is director of the Warehouse Theatre, Croydon (0181-680 4060). He is also co-founder (with Steve Gooch) of the International Playwriting Festival, now in its 10th year, which takes place this week at the Warehouse. The highlight is a staged reading of this year's winner, 'Iona Rain', by Peter Moffat on Sun 26 Nov at 7.30pm