|This topic sheet was originally
devised for the Exciting
Writing for Theatre course. There is a table
of links to other teaching resources towards the bottom
of this page.
Broadly speaking, the skills and conventions of
the theatre were established hundreds if not thousands of years
ago and have been shaped by experience over countless generations.
For example, Aristotle's
ideas concerning plot remain as true as ever, while the "show,
don't tell" principle is a strongly empirical finding
that playwrights ignore at their peril.
This is not to say that theatrical skills and conventions
are entirely set in stone, however. The last century has seen
remarkable developments in play-writing and production techniques,
and it is well worth exploring how such developments came about
and considering how they may inspire our work as playwrights.
Accordingly, the following paragraphs outline a number of non-theatrical
techniques and technologies that may inspire creative use of theatrical
The principal catalyst for change has undoubtedly
been the emergence of the medium of film. Film generally conforms
to many of the conventions of theatre, for example in terms of
plot and characterisation, but its freedom from the constraints
of theatrical space and time open up new horizons that have been
exploited by film-makers from the outset. Specifically:
- Plot and characters can move with complete freedom through
space and along altered time-lines.
- Close-up photography enables film-makers not only to show
the subtlest nuances of expression or emotion but also to impose
upon the audience a very narrow view of the action.
- Scenes are typically shorter, not least because film carries
none of the practical penalties of complex scene changes.
- Animated cartoons and puppetry redefine the boundaries between
vocal and visual characterisation and extend the range of possible
action beyond the erstwhile limits of realism.
- Special effects can be rendered completely realistically,
especially on account of the astonishing development of image
manipulation technologies in the last twenty years or so.
No less importantly, film makers' pioneering work in sound recording
has been a formative factor in the development of present day
theatrical technologies (discussed below).
Whilst radio drama is obviously rooted in the theatrical
tradition to a large extent, it also has strong literary connections
because of its non-visual nature. For example, plot and characterisation
in radio drama are essentially theatrical but, since the listener
cannot see the action, radio dramatists must also call
upon the descriptive powers of novelists to some extent.
The world of contemporary theatre may not have as
much to learn from radio writing as it does from film, but a few
points are particularly worth noting:
- The heightened use of language employed by radio writers to
overcome the complete absence of visual cues is a source of
inspiration for theatre writers wishing to extend their creative
- Specific radio-writing disciplines such as beginning with
a crisis in order to capture a non-committed audience may not
be essential in the theatre (where the audience, having paid
for their seats, are more committed), but are helpful in informing
the process of writing for theatre.
- The use of narrators, who have never really been necessary
in the show-don't-tell world of the theatre, nevertheless opens
up new creative possibilities.
- The crucial importance and creative potential of sound in
radio writing have been important catalysts in the twentieth
century revolution in sound recording and engineering techniques.
See Paddy Gormley's Exciting Writing
for Radio course notes for further details.
Improvisation (Radio, Film & Television)
The huge increase in radio and television programming over more
than half a century has led to a general trend away from carefully
scripted exchanges and towards naturally flowing discourse. Whilst
the script remains fundamentally important to drama in any medium,
the words actually spoken by actors, particularly in film and
television productions, need not necessarily conform with the
Theatrical technology has also undergone significant development
in the last fifty years or so, with the result that aural and
visual realism are now much more readily available in stage productions.
Particularly important in this context is the universal availability
of sound recording and projection systems. Convincing aural landscapes
and sound effects that were once difficult if not impossible to
achieve are now within financial reach of the humblest theatres.
Theatre directors tend to avoid intricate soundtracks on the basis
that the theatre is about dramatic action rather than aural realism.
However, there is no doubt that the theatrical experience may
be greatly enhanced through judicious use of voice recording and
projection technologies. Projection systems that alter the tone,
dynamics and directionality of voices may enable the audience
to gain new insights into the action being played out on stage,
for example if a character's madness is played out through a multi-directional
Writers may also find inspiration in other theatrical technologies
such as computerised lighting and special effects systems, stage
lifts, drum revolves, etc. Having found the inspiration however,
it is probably safest to write plays that do not depend too heavily
on technologies that are prohibitively expensive or arcane.