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Opvoeding | Education > Slypskole | Workshops > Afrikaans > Toneel

Writing Drama

Anton Krueger - 2007-02-13

John Braine begins his wonderful book on writing a novel (called – somewhat unsurprisingly – Writing a Novel [1974]), with an anecdote about Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize. Apparently Lewis turned up very drunk to deliver a talk about writing to a group of Harvard students and started off by yelling out, "Hands up, all those that want to be writers!" When everyone's hand shot up he silenced them all with an acerbic: "Then why the hell aren't you at home writing?" before stumbling off the stage and going home (17).
I suppose there are people who might say that being a writer is something you are, or that you were born to be, but it's difficult to speak productively about these terms. As a very straightforward and undeniable definition: being a writer is something you do.
A lot of people may talk about writing. They say, "I know I've got a play in me" or constantly discuss their plans for a the next great South African feature film. Are they writers? Who knows? You need to have something down on paper before you can tell. As to the question of whether you might be a good writer or a bad writer – that's another matter entirely, and not something you should worry about for now. For now, all you need to concern yourself with is making a start, working with language, writing.
Perhaps you enjoy writing, but this is not necessarily a reliable indication of the sort of writer you're going to turn out to be, because not all writers enjoy writing. On the one hand, Terry Pratchett has said that for him “Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself”[1]. On the other hand, Douglas Adams always said he hated writing. He preferred, he said, to "have written"[2].
I suspect that everybody who writes wants to be read, so I think it's safe to assume that you're writing in order to be read by someone; or so that your play will be staged and seen. The question is: Are you writing for someone specific, for a market, or for yourself? The ideas and emotions which you feel free to explore and express will depend on this orientation.
Let's have a look at some of these options.
Becoming a creative writer may be one of the most difficult things in the world to do, because, generally, nobody needs you to do it, so to have at least one eager and interested reader can do wonders for your confidence and productivity. It definitely helps to have someone to write for. As experiences go, writing is a pretty solitary enterprise, so it's good to be able to get regular feedback and encouragement.
You may want to write for a "market", in which case you'll be trying to gear your writing towards creating something saleable. To do this, you would first need to formulate a general idea about who or what the "market" is.
I suspect, however, that this may produce only a rather vague gesture, and I think it's a very bad idea to try to write for a "market", because I think it tends to cramp your creativity. Also, it may be impossible to gather together the desire to write if what you're going to write about is not of enormous interest and importance to you, otherwise you might as well become a ghost writer or a hack writer, which is like playing in a band that plays only cover versions. (And anyway, let's face it, the only really successful market for theatre in South Africa at the moment is the musical spectacular, so if you want to compete in this market you're pretty much up against Andrew Lloyd Webber and his cronies.) 
I know this may go against what a lot of writing courses say, namely, that you need to be aware of your audience, and that you should gear your writing towards a certain slice of the consumer population and so on and so forth. It's only my point of view, but I suspect that if you think too much about your market, if you're thinking too much about what sort of plays other people want to see, your writing will come across as insincere. I think you should rather try to write something which you yourself would want to see. Let's face it, the chances of really succeeding are so slim that you may as well try to earn your success with material you really believe in. If you want to be an authentic artist you need to be honest with yourself and write what you like, not what might turn out to be saleable.
But that's just my opinion.
Creative writing is a very personal process. When you write, you're revealing a part of your own worldview, and taking a gamble not only in terms of your time, money and effort, but also in terms of your self-respect, dignity, and ego. If somebody rejects something you've written, you'll tend to take it very personally, as a rejection of your self (which it may well be). If you can begin to see your work as an objective product, as something outside of yourself, it may help you to edit and work with it.
On the other hand, I'm not sure if it's really possible to be that distant from your own creation; and if you try to please everybody you'll probably only produce a lifeless piece of work. The greatest plays have often been intensely personal.
And yet, nobody thrives on rejection. For example, Breyten Breytenbach swore he would never write another play after his last production Toneelstuk (2001) garnered mostly negative reviews. (What a pity – because it was such a wonderful play!)
I suppose writers need to be sensitive people; they need to be sensitive to the lives they see lived around them. And yet, they also need to be able to believe in themselves, and have the courage of their convictions.
So there might be a bit of a paradox there, between trying to balance empathising with the world and having the conviction demanded by the processes of creation. 
Writing is different from other art forms, in that you're working with something very ordinary. Other art forms deal with fairly abstract materials, if you think about visual arts, music, dance and so on. Now, not everybody can sculpt something out of marble, or play the bassoon, but pretty much everybody uses language. So you're using something very ordinary and everyday; you're using very normal signifiers used by everybody else to order a pizza or buy a dozen rolls of extra-smooth double-ply apricot-coloured toilet paper; and from this you're going to try to create something spiritual, or beautiful (or, at the very least, meaningful).
I'm not sure if many writers begin with a clear idea of a message which they want to convey. Where a deliberate goal is too clearly in evidence from the beginning, writing can tend towards either propaganda or advertising, neither of which qualifies, in my book, as art.
In the South African context a key concern has for a long time been the extent to which one's writing should be "political". In the past, an array of writers maintained that it was impossible to separate the political from the personal, particularly in a country with unjust laws etc. And critics still argue about the importance and necessity of being politically aware, and they make statements to the effect that we are all being influenced by the machinations of power and that we need to engage with the political status quo and so on and so forth. And yet, I feel that if you have a strong message you want to deliver – whether religious, political, or sexual – then you're probably not going to write a very good play. I don't believe you can develop a strong, creative voice while maintaining an agenda.
For a play to appeal to people it needs to have a human element, and one thing about being human is that it is generally a messy business. Pretty much everybody is entangled in a mass of neuroses and contradictions for pretty much most of the time, and no one person has the answers to everybody's problems. So if your play tries to summarise and simplify the many paradoxes of being human, it will probably end up as a lifeless affair, and is unlikely to resonate with audiences.
That's just the way that I feel about it, and, of course, there have been many distinguished voices which would disagree. Bertolt Brecht, for example, was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, and he was a committed Marxist who believed that the political message of a theatrical piece was its most important function. (Well, that's what he said, but his plays, like The Caucasian Chalk Circle, are also profoundly moving, which sort of contradicts his claim that he wanted to create an intellectual theatre.)
To say that you should have no goal in your writing may sound a bit severe. Sure, you can say that dramas have been created for a variety of purposes – to amuse, to educate, to shock and whatever – but still, I think that these descriptions come afterwards, not during, the process of writing. Creative writing is not just a process of describing something that's already in your head; it's also a process of exploration and discovery – and you can't really explore a territory if you already know everything about it, can you?
Where does the seed of a story come from? Trying to answer this mysterious question is like trying to define who you are and why you are drawn to certain people. The responses are so particular and peculiar; so individual and unique, that there can be no single answer[3]. Some of the most famous contemporary British playwrights were speaking to Paul Johnson about where they get their inspiration from, and this was his summation:
Tom Stoppard told me that he gets the idea for a single dramatic incident, then expands it backwards and forwards into a story. J.B. Priestley said he liked to 'shuffle people around in time to see what would happen to them' ... I asked John Osborne if he thought of a plot first. 'Good heavens, no. I start with a character and get him into messes.' (1996:185)
Stoppard and Osborne give a technical answer: a single dramatic incident, or a character who gets put into a difficult situation. JB Priestley gives the vaguest answer, which only casually describes that a play requires people to move along a time continuum. When I spoke to Brett Bailey about his sources of inspiration, he gave a more inspiring answer: 
I keep my eyes and ears open. I think deeply about things. I reflect on what I see and hear and feel in the world around me. I am drawn to things that sparkle and slide in the inter-zone between worlds that collide, particularly here in Africa. In the images I make to represent this inter-zone, I synthesize all manner of things that I come across, I cast light on things that are often over-looked or under-valued – the value is the representation of this world.[4]
The important thing is to take your impulse and make something of it. Start somewhere and run with it. You might read something in the newspaper and become intrigued by a situation. Peter Krummeck's inspiration for his play iVirgin Boy (2005) was a newspaper article about a Grade 12 boy who spent a night in prison after borrowing his mom's car to go to the matric dance, despite the fact that he was underage. In prison he was raped, and contracted Aids. This moving play won the jury prize at the PANSA (Performing Arts Network South Africa) 2005 Festival of Contemporary Plays. In this instance, the idea for the plot came first, and the characters followed.
Athol Fugard often begins writing his plays with an image in mind. For example, his inspiration for one of his most famous plays, The Road to Mecca (1985), came from a photograph of Helen Martin's and a young friend of hers. He had been wanting to write a play about the extraordinary life of the artist who created the famous "Owl House" in New Bethesda, but he couldn't seem to get started. As he explains, he had his character and his setting, but the story had not yet taken off for him:
I'm a fisherman and I know the difference between a fish that's just playing with your bait and one that says 'WRITE! I'M IT!' and takes your rod down and you sit back and put the hook in deep. (10)
But then when he saw the photograph of Helen Martins with a younger friend of hers,
I took one look at the photograph – it's a brilliant, beautiful photograph – and there was the play. There was the coincidence. I was hooked. That was the moment when I swallowed the bait. (11)
Road to Mecca isn't an entirely original story, since it's based on a real person; and yet it's an extraordinary piece of theatre because it's touching, and because it's imaginatively told.
So, telling an original story may not be as important as the style in which you manage to tell it. This may sound strange, but consider the fact that all of Shakespeare's plays except one (The Tempest [1611]) were based on second-hand stories. Some were based on historical texts; others on myths, folk tales, or on the work of other writers. Shakespeare's writing was brilliant because of the way in which he told his stories; because of his subtle awareness of human nature; because of his knowledge of the many strange ways in which people respond to certain situations – not because his plot-lines were quirky. Well, not necessarily.
My advice, then, would be to settle on a story with which you have a certain affinity. It could represent a real event in your own life or it could be based on a historical event. It could equally be inspired by something you read in the newspaper this morning, or a story which you overheard somebody telling on the bus. Wherever your story comes from, your skill as a writer will be tested by the way in which you tell that story; the way in which you develop characters; the way in which you build tension; and the way in which you manage to keep the audience interested in the fate of the characters on stage.
So get hold of an idea for a story and thrash out a first draft. Once you've written something, you will have something to work with.
Whichever way you do it is up to you, but I strongly suggest that you try to get that first draft done as quickly as possible. You might be a very organised and disciplined individual and write methodically and diligently. On the other hand, you might, like me, work in a completely disorganised, random, frenetic and impulsive fashion. It would be impossible for me to try to prescribe (or even to recommend) a working method for you. You need to do that for yourself. The main thing is to do it.
When writing away at your first draft, try to get into the rhythm of writing, the flow. Don't worry about writing the greatest play ever written, don't judge yourself too harshly. Just write something – anything. Criticism blocks creativity. (As we all know, constructive criticism is difficult to take from a close friend, a partner, an acquaintance, or a complete stranger.)
You can't write freely if you are continually judging yourself. To judge yourself amounts to a kind of censorship, and you need to allow yourself the confidence to produce, to create. Sometimes a wrong process can lead to the right answer.
What I'm trying to say is that the steps along the way to your final product need not be methodical and linear. So, no matter how you get there, just get there. Finish the draft.
When the time comes to refine and define the sort of piece you've got on your hands, it'll be easier once you've got something to work with. A sculptor first needs to find the right substance – a piece of stone or wood or whatever. Your first draft will be like that stone the sculptor selects. It may be a shapeless mass of words, but it will give you something on which to focus your energies. It will also give you a sense of confidence to have finished something, to have a draft down.
Writing is an exercise, it's something you need to do regularly if you want your writing to improve. So you need to practise regularly. Improving your writing might be compared to practising a musical instrument, or becoming physically fit by exercising at a gym. It won’t help you much if you gym for eight hours once a week, or if you hit that sax once a month for a day. What would be much more beneficial in the long run would be to practise for less time, but more regularly. In other words, if you exercise for only 20 minutes every day, this would already be better than one block session once a week. Your muscles – whether physical, mental, or musical – can cope with change only on a gradual basis, and they need time to get used to changes. Similarly, the best way to improve your language is to read and write regularly. If you're interested in writing plays, you don't need me to tell you to go to the theatre as often as possible and to read a lot of plays; it's something you'll already be doing. Familiarise yourself with the world of which you hope to become a part.
The mystery of writing is that you have to work out a method of your own. If this course encourages you to put something down on paper, if it helps you to write a play over the course of the next few months, then it will have done its job. As I've already said, whether you're going to write a good play or a bad play is difficult to say, but at least you're going to write something; and it will be something of yourself, something original. Sometimes people need a push to get started, and that's what this course is going to do – it's going to help you hit the ignition.

This is an expanded version of an extract from the course material for a four-month course in playwriting which can be taken by correspondence from the John Povey Centre, Unisa.

Works cited
Adams, Douglas. 2002. The Salmon of Doubt. Macmillan: London.
Braine, John. 1974. Writing a Novel. Great Britain: Eyre Methuen.
Brecht, Bertolt. 1984 [1948]. The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Translated by James and Tania Stern with WH Auden; with commentary and notes by Hugh Rorrison. Harvard University Press: Harvard.
Breytenbach, Breyten. 2001. Die Toneelstuk. Human & Rousseau: Cape Town.
Fugard, Athol. 1985. The Road to Mecca. Faber & Faber: London.
Johnson, Paul. 1996. To Hell with Picasso and Other Essays. Phoenix: London. 
Krueger, Anton & Bailey, Brett. 2006. "On the wild, essential energies of the forest: an interview with Brett Bailey". South African Theatre Journal: 20.

[2]  Douglas Adams's procrastination was also legendary. He used to say that he loved deadlines, because he loved "the whooshing sound they make as they go by" (2002: xxiii).
[3]  Legend has it that whenever people asked Agatha Christie where she got her ideas from, she would reply, "Have you tried Harrods?"
[4]  "On the wild, essential energies of the forest" (South African Theatre Journal: 20. 2006)