The play’s the thing

- by Elaine Isaak

This past weekend, I had the chance to attend an event we look forward to all year:  the New Hampshire Community Theater Festival.  This is a weekend of one-act plays performed by local groups, competing to go on to the regional and, hopefully, the national competitions.  I always enjoy good theater (and sometimes not-so-good theater, but in a different way), but the event is also invaluable to me as a writer.

Some writers conceptualize their novels as films, but a film does not have to be selective the way that theater or fiction does.  If you want to set a movie in Las Vegas, you simply pan over the familiar lights, crazed hotels, and casinos bursting with patrons.  For the stage, or the page, you must be selective, choosing which details are the most important, deciding how to convey the setting with a few props and sound effects, or images and paragraphs

In fact, I wonder if the cinematic viewpoint might confuse the issue, encouraging the writer to be too attached to imitating reality, rather than honing the art of fiction, which is often as much about what gets left out, how the reader is escorted and transported into this reality, and emphasizing the heart of the narrative.

In theater, the director must make all of these choices:  a stripped-down set, or a complete living room?  A cast of dozens, or an intimate pair?  If he wants to set the mood with lighting or suggest the seasons, he cannot simply add some stock footage of a dreary, snowbound day.  The novelist, too, must constantly select what to present, when the characters will come and go, what significance will be given to transitions between scenes–not to mention the exacting use of dialog to build relationships and create tension.  We even co-opt some of the language of theater when we talk about “business”  the small actions a character uses that can be so revealing.  We think about beats:  the pauses that draw attention and establish the rhythm of the work.

Aside from merely suggesting that the writer-in-progress could benefit from considering the approach of live theater, I would urge you to look for you local festival.  It’s generally inexpensive and covers anything from drama to comedy, but more than that, it’s also adjudicated.  Three trained professionals come forward after each performance to share their critiques.  Do their observations match your own?  Did they notice something that escaped your attention?  Do they offer advice that the writer can use as well?  It’s like a live-action slush pile for community theater, where you get to hear what the editor really thinks, and sharpen your own awareness of character, scene and story.


  1. Great post, Elaine!

    I used to do a lot of community theatre, and I think that experience has given me certain strengths (such as a knack for dialogue).

    Interesting thoughts about the brevity of detail being similar between fiction and playwriting. I shall apply that train of thought today as I go back to a scene that’s set (unintentionally) in a white room, and add a few bits of detail.

  2. I live about a three hour drive from the Ashland Oregon Shakesperian Theater. This is a wonderful Festival.