Grab the Audience and Don’t Let Go
A conversation with two Writer's Studio instructors
In this conversation between Susan Hubbard and Douglas Post, the two University of Chicago Graham School dramatic writing instructors discuss the value of honing the ten-minute-play form and what makes writing unforgettable.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of taking classes with playwright, screenwriter, composer, and lyricist Douglas Post. Those classes were marked by truly mind-expanding insights into what makes drama drama, and, also, a whole lot of laughter. So, when I learned that he was joining the Writer’s Studio community as an instructor, I was delighted. When I was asked if I’d do an interview with Doug to introduce him to our community, I thought, here, at last, was my opportunity to ask him, in detail, all those burning questions I knew he’d be able to answer. I rubbed my hands together with glee and got down to it.
Susan Hubbard: My training is in screenwriting, but in teaching at the Graham School, I discovered that fiction writers find the techniques and craft elements of screenwriting to be useful for them. In the classes I teach now, I use both a screenplay and a novel as models to help writers explore techniques. You have written many successful and award-winning plays and have also been hired to write screenplays. What do you think these two forms can teach creative writers across genres?
Douglas Post: Everything has to be at the service of the story, so writers need to ask how the decisions they’re making, or the decisions their characters are making, are moving things forward. John le Carré, who is a wonderful novelist, states that he tries to enter the story as late as possible and then move his plot forward as fast as possible. I think this same rule applies to theatre and to film. In a very short period of time, audiences, consciously or not, tend to ask themselves three questions: Where am I? Who am I with? Why should I care? Most writers come up short regarding the answer to third query, which is almost always attached to figuring out what their central character wants. Along with that, they should be trying to ascertain how badly they want it, what’s keeping them from getting it, and how are they going to overcome any and all obstacles to achieve their objective. Hamlet seeks to discover who murdered his father. Dorothy needs to get to the Wizard in order to help her friends and herself. Odysseus simply wants to go home. If you see a great play or attend a great film or read a terrific book, you may wish to tell someone about it. And that person will almost always ask, “What’s it about?” That’s plot. That’s story. And story is almost always related to the character at the center of it either getting what they want or not getting what they want. Also, once they get it, what are they going to do with it?
Everything has to be at the service of the story, so writers need to ask how the decisions they’re making, or the decisions their characters are making, are moving things forward.
SH: How are the demands of screenwriting different from those of playwriting?
DP: It is simple to say, and hard to do, but film tends to be more visual whereas the theatre is more verbal. You can see this in the formats for both genres. The standard format for a screenplay allows more space for screen directions than dialogue. The standard format for plays allows for more speech than stage directions. Of course, there are exceptions to this as there are some very fine films that are focused on the things people have to say to each other and some awfully good plays that are visual in nature. But this is the main difference. Also, film can come in very close on its subjects whereas in the theatre we are at a distance from the actors. Arthur Miller said that the spoken word for film should be written so that it can almost be whispered, but text in the theatre is meant to be clearly enunciated so that it can fill an auditorium.
SH: Writers strive to write dialogue that both sounds as if it were being spoken by real people and is also distilled and harnessed to serve character and plot. All of these demands on dialogue make it challenging to get right. Can you speak about how writing dialogue works for you and also about how writers can deploy subtext?
DP: Well, dialogue has to do a lot of things at once. It serves a narrative function, but also tells us something about the character, the mood of the piece, the feel of the world. It has to be spare. Theatre is life without the boring parts. The same is true for dialogue. It’s important to remember that the first language of the theatre was poetry. This doesn’t mean that all plays should be written in free verse, but the speech needs to be concise and rhythmic and conjure up a sense of style related to the themes of the material. Within this style, however, each character needs to be separate and distinct. So their manner of speech should reflect this. As far as subtext goes, that is the play that’s happening underneath the play. In reality, people rarely say what they are actually thinking and feeling. If they did, this world would be a very difficult place to navigate our way through. So, among the characters on stage, it’s important to know who speaks their true feelings and who doesn’t. Who is withholding? Who is putting it all out on the table?
SH: Can you talk about how characters and themes emerge for you?
DP: The theme of a play always reveals itself to me after I’ve written a draft or two or three. If I go into the script trying to get at a specific theme, I’m likely to be frustrated in my efforts. The idea will emerge from the material. And the material is the story and where my people want to travel with it. It’s important to allow your characters to surprise you. If you try to tell them where to go, as opposed to letting them tell you where they want to go, you will be writing to a preset formula and your audience will feel it. If your characters surprise you, your audience is also likely to be surprised and, hopefully, more engaged.
SH: I first got interested in 10-minute plays when I took a class with you, and I really liked that you encouraged us to jump right in by showing up on the first day with a fairly developed idea or a draft of a play we’d already started. And then for each of us in class, you proceeded to give us very helpful insights by asking just the right questions. Could you talk a little bit about your teaching and how you help writers develop their plays?
DP: I always try to meet the writer where they are and to help them tell the story they want to tell. I ask a lot of questions, but I rarely prescribe any answers. The best answers will always come from the playwright. I encourage my students to listen to everything that is said in the room regarding their work and to take notes. I then tell them to go home and separate the wheat from the chaff. Not everything they hear by way of criticism is going to be gold. But you have to listen to it and consider it carefully before you can get to those one or two nuggets that will hopefully make for a better script.
SH: I understand that you’ll be teaching Investigating Short Plays for the Theatre and Writing the Ten-Minute Play at the Graham School in spring and summer of 2020. Could you tell us your thoughts about ten-minute plays and how they, in particular, can help us develop as writers? Also, what stands out to you about the best ten-minute plays?
DP: You can’t really learn how to write a full-length play until you learn how to write a one-act. And you can’t write a one-act until you know how to write a good, short, sharp scene. Since ten-minute plays are now all the rage, it makes sense to work in this form and teach in this form. A superior 10-minute play knows exactly where to start and where to end. You learn everything you need to know about the people in the story and don’t necessarily feel the need to spend any more time with them. It is a compressed drama. It is a sketch, if you will. Not a skit, but a simple rendering as opposed to a complex masterpiece. And it is usually centered on the ten most important minutes in the lives of its characters.
You can’t really learn how to write a full-length play until you learn how to write a one-act. And you can’t write a one-act until you know how to write a good, short, sharp scene.
SH: Perhaps this question is a bit simplistic, but, in your view, is there one essential thing that a play must have? If so, what is it?
DP: All good plays are mysteries in that we as an audience should constantly be asking ourselves, “What is going to happen next?” If we stop asking this, then the play stops and we’ll find ourselves withdrawing from it. People who go to the theatre want to lean forward into the action, and so we as writers have to give them a reason to do so. We have to grab hold of their attention and not let go until we’re ready to let go. And we have to get them to an ending that is a surprise, but also somehow inevitable.
SH: Could you talk a little bit about the live aspect of theater and how it influences the creation of plays? Writers would also be interested in the rehearsal process and how it might alter a play you have already written. Have you experienced different insights about your plays because of variations in their productions and the way those productions are received by audiences?
DP: I’ve never gone into rehearsal with the same draft of a play that an audience sees on opening night. There are always changes. Sometimes you can see that something is not working for an actor, and you can help them by way of a rewrite. Sometimes a script needs editing. Sometimes it’s missing a scene or a portion of a scene. Even after the play has opened, I’ll make some small changes for the next production. And, yes, it can sometimes take two or three stagings to get a script right. But at some point, you have to stop tinkering. As is stated in the Tao Te Ching: “Do your work and then step back.”