Wondering how to write a play?

 Wondering how to write a play?

I thought this question would best be answered by an actual playwright.

Greg Owens was hired as an adjunct at Montana State University during my junior year of college. I was unsure what I was getting myself into when I entered the small class of 12 to learn how to write a play. I was pleasantly surprised and it was quite refreshing! The first thing Greg told us was, “I won’t judge or grade your creative writing. Whatever makes you feel passionate, I want you to write about. I’m allowing this class to be a no holds bar!”

Of course I thought, “Oh crap, what did this man just say? Does he realize what type of freedom he just gave some of these people?!”

He finished by saying, “I will grade you on participation and the required lengths of each play. Remember the plays are dramatic and need to be full of action.”

He went on to explain that criteria. I felt exited to start my own works (since I LOVE dialogue), but unsure if I really wanted to find out what some of the other people would write.

I look back on my academic college experience and two things always come to mind, my senior flute recital and Greg’s play writing class. Freedom to write what truly excited us tied our small group together. Some of us stayed in contact after that. Greg’s encouragement and advice made us better writers, students, and I have never laughed so hard or learned so much in a class in one semester. The sky wasn’t the limit, the stars weren’t either. We were finally allowed to be creative writers, sharing each other’s works and learning. You name it; it was created in that unique class. This was so refreshing to me for two reasons. Back then, I was working on historical fiction and all my other instructors were bored with my (Hawthorne) style of writing and subjects. I was graded on their opinions. That never happened in Greg’s class. Secondly; I could write dialogue, action and drama! I loved learning how to write a play!


The theatre at Merida, Spain; it was promoted ...

When did you become a playwright?

I took my first playwriting class on a whim during my junior year of college. I had played in garage bands since junior high and experimented with creative outlets including radio and filmmaking, but when I wrote my first play something about the medium seemed to click for me, and I loved the total experience of being involved in rehearsals and working with the play from words on the page up through its final staging.

Why does this area of writing fascinate you?

I’m biased, but I think the theatre is the most powerful form of storytelling.  I’ve read/seen hundreds of novels and films, and some I truly love, but none, for me, has the same power and resonance as being in the live presence of the story in three dimensions.

How do you get your plays on stage?

In the past 20 years I have done less than a half-dozen formal submissions, where I wrote a cover letter with a synopsis and sent a script to a theatre asking them to read it.  Experience has shown me that almost every theatre and every theatre scene is somewhat inbred and insular.  This is not necessarily good or bad, just how things tend to work. So, long before there was an Internet or people were talking about “social networking,” I sort of accidentally developed a model of distributing and marketing my plays through a kind of DIY, grassroots approach. My typical strategy is to send the first or second draft of a new play to a small group of colleagues (directors, actors, producers, etc. with whom I’ve worked in the past).  After assimilating some of that first-round feedback, I’ll send the script to a larger group of people and hope that they will decide to champion the work with a company they work with, pass it to a contact of theirs, or otherwise help the play connect with some kind of reading or production opportunity. Once a script starts floating around out there, it can build momentum and often I’ve been contacted by theaters or directors whom I didn’t know who ended up with my scripts in their hands through practically Escherian twists and turns of random circumstance. These methods TAKE TIME but they have worked for me, particularly since I’ve been willing to roam all over the country, sleep on a hundred couches and forge some personal connections with people at these little shoe-string theaters that have produced my work.

When teaching a class on writing plays, what are the top three most important things to remember?

1. STRUCTURE:  Plays are constructed aesthetic objects, the mechanics and techniques of which are consciously manipulated for intentional effects.  There may not be “rules,” but for each and every type of play for each and every type of audience and every conceivable desired effect, there are certain applications of structural principles that lead from conception to effective execution for each individual premise.

2. Plays are DRAMATIC, not expository or narrative.  It is necessary to tell a story in the context of dramatic action, which means a compelling character in a situation of crisis requiring deliberate choice and action.

3.  I actually believe this about all writing, but playwriting is SERVICE.  The best theatre is done on behalf of and for the benefit of the audience.  I think this goes beyond simple “entertainment.”  We owe the audience an aesthetic encounter worthy of the potential of theatre and of their own rich and powerful experience of life.  Screen media don’t typically aim higher than cheap stimulation of the autonomic nervous system or a kind of one-dimensional reference to the most mundane levels of narrative identification.  No one should ever walk out of a live theatre experience able to doubt or deny that they’ve just been touched at a deeper level.

Is there a specific format a play should follow?

I’m sure there are a number of books, articles, etc. on this that people can seek through a search engine of their choice.  In my experience there’s less concern for format standardization in the theatre than in the screenwriting world.  Some contests or play submission guidelines will spell out specific format desires, and one should always take those seriously.  If they say it, they mean it.  In general, if it’s readable and useable by the people who need to read and use it, that’s probably fine, unless they tell you otherwise.

How small or large can a play be?

Theatre stage

Theatre stage (Photo credit: net_efekt)

Ok, now I’m going to say something which I mean to be inspirational but may sound totally cynical:  It doesn’t matter.  The truth is, unless you make it happen yourself or you get pretty lucky, your play’s never going to be produced anyway.  And, especially if you’re even halfway serious about it and you try to hang around in this biz, it is full of ten thousand heartaches and will eat you to pieces from the inside if you let it, so you may as well write whatever the hell you want! When I got out of graduate school people told me that if I wanted to get scripts produced I had to write plays with one set and three to five characters.  So I wrote a few of those and guess what?  Not only did no one produce them, they often sat on someone’s desk for two or three years and remained unread.  So, in a fit of defiant protest (the likes of which my Appalachian heritage often enables) I wrote a play called The Life and Times of Tulsa Lovechild: A Road Trip, which has 14 characters and takes place in a half-dozen different states with flashbacks covering a 30-year period plus Siamese twins and a John Deere combine!  (And, yes, at one point the Siamese twins are actually in the combine.)  That play broke every “rule,” and went on to be produced across the country, win awards, get published, etc. “Conventional wisdom” may sometimes be completely right and true.  But I don’t think writers should ever accept boundaries they haven’t tested themselves.  I personally never really believe there’s a wall there until I’ve banged my head against it.

Where do plays get published? Through a traditional publisher like a book?

There are places like Samuel French, Dramatists Play Service, Broadway Play Publishing, and others.  Mostly in New York.  Consideration of a script is normally contingent upon that script having had a New York production and in almost all cases it has to be something that the publisher can reasonably expect to get some future productions and, thus, produce revenue for the publishing company. There are also some online publishers but I would caution playwrights to check them out before submitting.  I’ve had directing and theatre production students bring in scripts they got online that were, in some cases, just terribly bad.  Make sure you check out all the deal details for sure, but also investigate the other scripts this company reps.  It may not help your script to be in a catalog of clunkers.

How did you get your own works published?

Pure coincidence and random chance.  I was recommended by a professional colleague and submitted my first play and it was rejected.  I wrote somewhat of a bitching e-mail to said colleague, who forwarded my mini-rant to the publisher, who wrote me back offering to publish my play.  (None of the textbooks will tell you to do it that way.) I think one thing to keep in mind that’s maybe a little different with playwriting is that publishing is not necessarily the primary purpose of the work.  Write plays and, whenever/however possible, produce them.  Develop your craft and acumen.  Then, when the time is right you’ll probably know and you can work out your strategy from there.

How does a person write memorable characters? Do they need to have weird quirks to make the play good?

DON’T TRY TO WRITE WEIRD CHARACTERS ON PURPOSE!  (Unless you want to be on HBO or at Sundance.)  Quirky has been done and done and overdone.  Enough with the quirky.  Characters faced with situations I can relate to and care about are much more important, especially if they’re depicted in such a way that they transcend the limiting social categories of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. and give the audience a sense of identifying with the larger themes of universal humanity. I could write a billion words on this, but I think it comes down to this:

a) A character about whom you feel strongly (though not necessarily “for” or “against”) and who is expressed through action as opposed to social category; also think of the person you know who would be least likely to like or identify w/this character, then figure out how you can make them do so.

b) An “impossible” situation that forces that character to make a definitive choice

c) Showing how that choice not only changes that character and her world but, by extension, how it reaches out to and touches the audience

Where can readers find your materials? Do you have a website or blog?

Three of my plays – U.S. Blues, Home Front, The Life and Times of Tulsa Lovechild – are available through Broadway Play Publishing. I have a sporadically updated blog called High Country Drama, with production info, review quotes, some pics, etc BIO


Greg Owens has been writing, producing and directing his own and other original plays for 25 years, with several dozen productions and readings in New York, London, Chicago, Los Angeles, and around the United States.  His play The Life and Times of Tulsa Lovechild: A Road Trip was named the Best Off-Loop Play of 2001 by the Chicago Tribune, has enjoyed successful productions across the country and was published by Broadway Play Publishing in 2004.  His other published works include the full-length play Home Front, and U.S. Blues, a collection of one-acts and monologues.

Recent projects include: Sisyphus, Wyoming, developed through the Headwaters New Play Festival at Creede Repertory Theatre in Colorado, and a “prequel” to Tulsa Lovechild called Obscene Lawless Hideous Dangerous Dirty Violent and Young.  Greg lives in Bozeman, Montana with his wife Lila Michael and daughters Lorelei and Eiseley.


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