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Keeping It Fresh

Given that the trio of guest speakers for this month’s episode of Script-to-Screen all have a strong background in live theatre, there was never going to be any other conclusion to the question of whether a background in playwriting would be beneficial to an aspiring screenwriter. But exploring the experiences of adapting to the world of writing for the screen produced an entertaining evening.

Interestingly, the panel trio were all described in the publicity as actor/writers in the theatre world; although Tom Sainsbury has often both directed and produced, and Jackie van Beek has a long history of directing and collaborative devising in theatre. Only Sophie Henderson has kept to acting and writing, and only the moderator, Rachel House, known as both an actor and director in both theatre and film, has no background in playwriting – but she is now writing for the screen.

Tom Sainsbury is best known for being unusually prolific (House: “You’ve written a billion plays” – Sainsbury: “Only 100,000”); while Henderson’s biggest success so far has been developing a feature film, Fantail, out of a 10-minute student monologue in which she played all her characters, via a full length play script. Since touring a considerable proportion of the world with her two-hander, My Brother and I are Pornstars, Jackie van Beek spent some years in Australia making self-funded short films, before recently returning to live in Auckland.

The evening’s commentary on the shift from play scripts to screenplays could be described as full of contradictions. On the one hand, in the theatre there is a huge respect for the word – whereas “In screen no one gives a shit about the script” – Sainsbury. There is also a great freedom in writing for the stage – the audience has very few expectations in terms of structure and suchlike, whereas writing for the screen is much more prescriptive in terms of form and structure – and particularly in audience expectation. But then with the screen, one potentially has much more control – especially if one is directing as well as writing. In the theatre the actor has primacy – once opening night is reached, the writer and director have very little control over what happens thereafter.

But with the screen one can shift and focus the audience’s attention onto what you want them to see much more specifically, using the tools of framing, composition, cutting and so forth.

One thing was clear to all the panellists – the biggest factor in moving from theatre to film is learning to write in images, not words. “You can’t just copy and paste from theatre into film” said Henderson. There is the joy of being able to dispense with necessary exposition in one or two images, rather than having to write a page or three of words; but on the other hand, for example, Shakespearean-style asides to the audience are much harder to pull off when addressed to a camera lens.

All the speakers were fans of the long rehearsal process involved in staging a play; but interestingly, while they were keen to have the opportunity for rehearsal in screen work, they were less inclined to dig into the most intense scenes during rehearsal – preferring to try to capture a spontaneity in performance when working for the camera.

There is the added advantage in working in the theatre that one is forced, generally, to go much deeper into character development and complexity. The greater opportunity to explore subtle nuance is extremely satisfying. The panelists felt frustration at the perceived demand to write much more specific detail into their scripts for the screen. It was suggested that in screen work directors need to take more responsibility for drawing out nuance in a script.

The participants really relished the freedom to be more innovative, to take more risks, when working on the stage. With the screen, too often the budgets involved force people into playing safe – and none of our panelists wanted to play safe! Van Beek’s solution thus far, with her short films, is to be entirely self-funded.

It’s wonderful to be able to show dramatic events on screen in weird and wonderful locations that are difficult to capture on a stage. The old habit amongst playwrights of previous generations to describe dramatic events that happen offstage is simply a no-go in film.

But with such possibilities in screenwriting comes huge expense. So the panellists’ advice to a writer that if she or he is finding it impossible to get their screenplay greenlit, to try writing for the stage in order to get both exposure and experience makes a lot of sense. It’s a heck of a lot easier and cheaper to get a play up than it is to get a film onto the screen. But, as Sainsbury pointed out, that also means it’s easier to get a crap play up! Of course, the best feedback by far comes from sitting anonymously in an audience – and with a stage piece that feedback is infinitely more immediate.

For a theatre writer adapting to the screen our panel suggests:

  • Learn to write in images instead of words and to relish the brevity therein.
  • Learn about pace, and about non-verbal beats in the story.
  • Learn to let go your ego. The producer and director and editor will have much more say than the writer when working for the screen. But there are ways of turning this to your advantage… an opportunity to develop one’s skills.
  • The best place for learning is the edit suite; grab any and every opportunity to sit in an edit suite, whether with your film or someone else’s.
  • Learn about audience expectations, how to fulfill and/or expand them.
  • Try to write your whole script without a single word of dialogue. Only use dialogue in the moments when that proves impossible.

Being a writer for hire in the screen world – something not so common in the theatre – also has its advantages. Sainsbury: “You’re more objective”. Van Beek: “You can pay the bills.”

And what have they learnt about playwriting from working on the screen world, besides brevity? Jackie van Beek relishes the fact that you can “be more in your face”; while Sophie Henderson is determined to write much more in the way of stage directions next time – she condemned “the idiot at drama school who told us not to use stage directions in our scripts!”

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