Writing for the stage and writing for the screen…what’s the difference? My friend Fernando Perez has asked me to share a few personal thoughts on what I believe are some differences (and perhaps similarities) in writing for both mediums. I will share three thoughts with you.
Before I begin, two things I’ll ask
you to hang onto while you read…
1)I’m not an expert. What I will share with you are my personal observations and experiences as a playwright and screenwriter. So, my thoughts primarily come from practical application and experience; however, your experience…the way you see the world and your craft…all of that will dictate what is and is not important to you as a writer.
2)Although I have written plays and screenplays, I have found more success as a playwright than a screenwriter. So, my opinions may be slightly more skewed by my ongoing work in the theatre (I wish more of my screenplays were getting produced…Fernando and other filmmakers: hint, hint…).
And here we go…
1. The Word
Dramatic writing (screenwriting and playwriting) relies heavily on language. It’s the particular language of the mediums, however, that are distinct and affect the use of the written word differently. For instance, in theatre, one could argue that playwrights rely heavily on language—let’s call it verbal language—to communicate plot, character, and ideas. Film, on the other hand, relies on visual language—a completely different language. Sure, there are certainly playwrights who write with more visual considerations than others, but (in my opinion) the manipulation of images in film to show plot, character, and ideas goes beyond the scope of the theatre. Playwrights can use images (and sounds) to tell their story, but it is the screenwriter who has an inexhaustible amount of resources when it comes to images—specific images—to best communicate the story. Further, a screenwriter does not need to use the spoken work—doesn’t even need to use dialogue. A play with no language? It can be done, but it’s not often seen.
What I’m getting at is this: a playwright predominantly uses verbal language to communicate their story while a screenwriter uses visual language. There are, of course, exceptions. Further, there are collaborators—namely, directors and cinematographers—who bring a tremendous amount of visual considerations to both mediums.
As a screenwriter, I try to think more visually in my writing about how the story can be communicated. What small things can a character do or what shots can I show that help to best tell the story? Further, what can I do to show what’s going on in the inside of the character? If they are in a moment of distress, what might they be doing with their hands? If the are going through an exciting moment in their life with exuberant joy, how might I show that character cooking? Visual language allows a writer to show a great deal to the audience—by saying little, you can say so much. As a playwright, I attempt to show as much as I can, but verbal language is often needed to communicate the story; moreover, plays often manipulate the advantage of long scenes with lots of subtext and sustained tension…something not often seen or achieved in film.
2. The Collaboration
This section includes huge generalizations about my views on working with directors on projects for stage and screen.
Traditionally, in the theatre, the playwright is revered as this sort of god-like figure—the screenwriter, however, is seen as disposable. As a playwright, I am (for the most part) seen as the go-to resource for the play. I’m asked questions about my writing, included in the rehearsal/production process, and I’m an ongoing resource for the work. As a screenwriter…once the script is written, it is no longer mine. Obviously, I own the script (unless I’ve sold it), but I’m not necessarily included in the production process and I’m not seen as a resource for my work. The theatre is the playwright’s medium—film is a director’s medium. There are, again, exceptions, but for the most part, there is a bit of a difference to how the writer is viewed and used in both mediums.
I believe that a healthy collaboration will benefit the work. If the right team is assembled, if conversations are taking place and everyone is on the same page…I believe that a collaboration that includes multiple ideas will benefit the overall project. I rely on directors to make my work their own—I write the play or the screenplay, directors author the production on stage or screen. As a writer, I am usually comfortable with allowing others to interpret my work (I have to be). There have been times, on occasion, that the partnership wasn’t right—these are difficult times. I generally make the attempt to get back on the same page with the director, but there is only so much I can do. Sometimes it works itself out…sometimes it doesn’t—I learn from these experiences and really try to be careful with who I work with. When others are producing my work, I don’t usually have a say with who I work with…that’s the nature of the game…unless I produce my own material.
Ultimately, I have found collaboration to be beneficial to my life as an artist. Further, the right collaborations can make a work come to life beyond my wildest imaginations.
Every project is a gamble.
3. The Location
One of my favorite differences between between playwriting and screenwriting is the use of location. In theatre, it is difficult to have multiple, realistic locations as frequently as in film. As a screenwriter, it’s wonderful to think about the possibilities of having scenes in any number of realistic locations.
A few year’s ago, I was developing a TV pilot with a mentor. I had a scene set in a morgue discussing the cause of death with an investigator. Sound familiar? Of course! This kind of scene is pervasive throughout crime dramas. My mentor asked where else the scene could be set. “What if you had the same dialogue, but changed location? What might that do?” I changed the location to a diner and the scene came to life in an absurd and intriguing way. I held onto this lesson and have used it frequently since then.
As a playwright, I’m more concerned with the action of the play taking place on a particular set configuration and less focused on the idea of multiple, surprising locations. Again, I’m sure there are exceptions and this could be achieved in some way for the stage, but it’s simply natural for film.
This ends my three thoughts on dramatic writing. I hope you found something helpful, even if it’s something you disagreed with…make it your own.
Keep experimenting…keep exploring…keep moving forward.
John Perovich is the Artistic Director of Now & Then Creative Company in Phoenix, AZ. Now & Then focuses on producing the “now”—new plays and film development—while exploring the “then”—classic theatre productions for the stage. John is a director, performer, writer, and educator—instructing theatre and film at Metropolitan Arts Institute in Phoenix. He also instructs playwriting for Chandler-Gilbert Community College. John is also the Director of New Play Development at Brelby Theatre Company in Glendale, AZ.