What happens when I read a play

Writers need to read. Playwrights need to read plays. What writers & ‘wrighters do is enter into a discussion not only with their audiences but with a history of existing and surviving work. Some writers claim that they steer away from the works of others, but that just means that they are entering unknowingly with their work into discussions with the advertising and propaganda of the day. (For advertising and propaganda employ story technique on a hyper scale.) Ignoring the work of others potentially dooms you to repeat the worst of it.

As a professional playwright sometimes you can be engaged by a theatre company to deliver script reports that the literary department cannot conceivably cover via its own, usually minuscule, staff. The pay to deliver a report is fairly modest, but I can assure you (if you’ve ever submitted your script to a theatre company and you’ve wondered what happens) that every script reader I’ve met wants to find a play they love.

In terms of writing up my reports, I’ve tried to follow this process for a number of years now with these questions.

– What does the playwright intend as the experience for the audience with this work?

– What dramatic elements do they emphasise to support that intention?

– What excites me about the work?

– What intrigues – but not necessarily convinces – me about the play?

– If I have criticisms of the play, the intention or the chosen emphasis on dramatic elements, how might I phrase these as questions for the playwright to address?

These questions help to focus my reading upon whether the play works on its own terms; once I can determine that, I can produce a report for the company as to whether the play could work for them.

Usually, a script report is no longer than one A4 page, often with a half-page synopsis followed by a half-page of comments, along with the reader’s recommendation. You put a reader in a very bad mood if you forget to put a cast list/breakdown at the front of the manuscript, because knowing how many actors a play requires is part of the bread and butter of running a theatre.

Sometimes companies will ask a playwright to submit a synopsis along with your manuscript; if a synopsis isn’t asked for, don’t include one – the play ought to be clear enough to be summarised by a competent stranger. However, that’s not to say you shouldn’t write a synopsis of your play in a half-page for yourself. Because if you can’t summarise your script that way yourself, you shouldn’t expect somebody else to make more sense of it than you: don’t send it in. Work on what you really want to say in your half-page summary, and then work on another draft with making that story clear.

In other news, check out this brilliant post by John O’Donovan following his workshop on structure with Simon Stephens.