There is only one thing more terrifying than a blank page, and that’s an empty stage. With seats before it arranged in rows, it is as if they were the daunting and dusty pews at the funeral of your career as a dramatist.
The blank page, the white expanse, is a formidable thing. However, it can be tamed. We as playwrights need to understand the processes our narratives undergo due to their element of performance. The performance text is ephemeral, amorphous. We as writers cannot truly locate it, no matter how many rules are dictated for it in the original script. And that’s because it has the potential to take on a new shape every time it is performed. You will never have a performance that is exactly how you pictured when you first wrote a piece of dialogue. Margaret Jane Kidnie, for instance, in her essay “Where is Hamlet?” asked the following: if you were to try and locate Hamlet in the same way you could locate the Mona Lisa (The Louvre, Paris), where would it be? You simply won’t find it in the folio, or quarto, or any written version because Hamlet exists during the performance and from performance to performance, and so its form changes each time and does so organically. Plays exist as water does, yielding to the shape of its container, its stage, its actors.
This problem, as a young writer, is emphasized. Your voice is a unit in a larger ‘creative team’ without, at times, clear designations of our responsibilities or limitations – these too are fluid. You can find yourself lost in the cacophony of actors, directors (assistant, shadow, etc.), producers, dramaturgs and tech people. And with your voice diluted, your text can slip further out of your grip. The audience do not walk into your theatre the same way they walk into a viewing of Hamlet. They do not hold preconceived notions of what your play is about – though they might indeed hold preconceptions about its set-up and links to university. No matter what kind of ‘container’ creatives force Hamlet into, it will, for the most part, still deal with its central characters, actions, and themes. New writing has no such privilege.
Plays do exist off the page and the page is yours. The play is not. The most important lesson I’ve learnt – and like a lot of lessons about writing, the appearance of simplicity is a testament to their complexity – is to do your best to give your audience the impression of what you want the play to be about. This is done, primarily, through powerful, authentic dialogue that you are proud to call your own. This is all you can give to a script. It has, in my case, been fruitful, especially on the first plays, to bring as much of my personal experience into my writing. And it is not a simple matter of vanity, but it can be a good way to get through the grinding process of directors, staging, actors and lighting, and still find a recognisable form somewhat representative of you.
This is why collecting dialogue is so important. Take off your headphones and listen. At the bus stop and on the bus… Train journeys with packed carriages can be great mining spots. Buy a return ticket to a neighbouring town one weekend. Walk around department stores, depots, bars. Pay attention to spoken language and don’t be afraid to emulate – remember that notions of ‘authenticity’ are constructed too, they are narrative and therefore can be presented effectively in writing. Off the cuff dialogue just doesn’t happen in the same way unless you listen to the original source, out in the wild. If you want to be a dramatist, the first move to overcoming the white page is to simply step outdoors.
Katie Stockton was born in Swansea, South Wales. She is currently studying English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Warwick, where she develops scripts to be performed in University venues, as well as first-person narratives that explore the cultural divide between Wales and England. She hopes to continue with her studies at MA level. Her latest project, a stage-adaptation of a Virginia Woolf piece, is scheduled to be performed in November this year.
Directed by Maureen Freely and David Morley, the Warwick Writing Programme at University of Warwick prides itself in having writing staff who not only teach but are also published authors involved in the writing industry and literary scenes. It has just opened an exciting PhD programme in Creative Writing alongside its internationally recognised flagship BA and MA programmes.
For more on the Warwick Writing Programme: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/writingprog/