Writing for Theatre: the Importance of Minimalism


This weekend I’m heading off for Green Ink’s sponsored writing session to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Research (and if you fancy donating, please click here). Next weekend a selection of the pieces written during the session will be performed on stage. In light of that, I have invited a friend of mine to do a guest post about writing for the theatre as it’s a medium I’ve never tackled before.

The important thing to note is that Mr. Carrington is not a writer. Oh no. He’s more interesting than that – he’s the man who has to translate the writer’s vision into reality. He’s the one in charge of the practical bits. Listen, now, to the wisdom of the stage manager…

For the novel writer, the sky is the limit. An unlimited budget for cast, costume, set, lights, sound and special effects are available. In writing for stage however, all writers go through (or should go through a more rigorous) process of rationalisation. This process is similar to Stephen King’s advice to ‘cut out everything that is not the story’ but slightly more pragmatic.

In small scale theatre, writers of stage scripts should keep in mind what is reasonable. For example, do we need to see the characters eating takeaway chips in scene 4? If it is required for the drama of the story then by all means keep them but if they serve no purpose in the story all they do is balloon a budget.

Stage Managers are a practical bunch who tend to focus on the essential items in a script and an audience can be similar. If specific things are in a play, they are assumed to be there for a purpose. As Anton Chekov said;

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

I say this not just because my job is made more difficult and my producers’ wallets have suffered as a result of extraneous props and set in fringe theatre but because such things can be:

  • cut if they have no justification for being on stage
  • a detriment to the production if they serve no dramatic purpose
  • a reason not to stage the play at all

Juxtapose two huge stage productions and their librettos. Wagner’s Ring Cycle proves extremely challenging for opera makers with its flying chariots pulled by goats, rainbow bridges and mighty dragons. Wagner had difficulties staging it during the 1860s and 1870s, it is rarely performed in full and modern productions have to re-interpret these fantastical elements. Contrast that with the much maligned Lord of the Rings musical that was a technical triumph but a crude parody of Tolkein’s work. Both of these struggled with the gulf between the writing and the execution, the Ring Cycle because of Wagner’s imagination and Lord of the Rings because no matter how good the cast and technicians, they cannot save a bad script. I am not saying these works should not be staged (hang on, I AM specifically saying that about Lord of the Rings) but I am illustrating a point regarding the rationalisation process.

Wagner's Ring Cycle staged in NYC

What is it with magic rings and pyrotechnics?

Then look at the very specific details in say Schaffer or Beckett’s work regarding staging, costumes, props, stage directions. These writers understand that all aspects of a production tell the story. Schaffer’s Equus is told in the round, in a paddock of a sort, with the horse costumes described in the stage directions. Sound and lighting design can also have its own language; everyone is aware of how Wagner used motif’s in the score for the Ring Cycle as an example. Theatre allows the writer to tell a story in a very different way from other writing so I ask the writers who read this blog to consider this when they re-draft their scripts. Not only so my hair doesn’t go grey when I’m trying to track down a WWII era telephone but also because if you want to tell a story on stage you should consider the staging in order to get the best production at the end.

As a stage manager, lighting operator, writer and theatre reviewer my perspective is perhaps more analytical than others and I hope you will notice that I have focused on the initial writer and not the designers in this blog, this is not to downplay the role of designers at all.

Thank you to Everwalker for allowing me to express some of my thoughts here.

PJCarrington is a stage manager, lighting programmer, theatre technician and writer living in London. Find his blog here and a profile of his stage work here.

If you would like to hear more from this guest in the future please comment with your opinion.

One response »

  1. Pingback: Writing for Theatre: the Importance of Minimalism | cupboardelephant

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