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Writers keeping it fresh

Given that the trio of speakers at March’s Writers Room all had a strong background in live theatre, there was only one answer 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.

The panel trio were all described in the publicity as actor/writers in the theatre world; although Tom Sainsbury has also often 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. Only 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

Tom Sainsbury

Tom Sainsbury is best known for being unusually prolific (House: “You’ve written a billion plays” – Sainsbury: “Only 100,000”). Henderson’s biggest success so far has been developing feature film Fantail from her 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”, according to 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.

Sainsbury also suggested that in the theatre the actor has primacy – once opening night is reached, the writer and director have very little control over what happens thereafter. (I’m afraid I cannot entirely go along with this – it depends how good a director you are! TF.)

Sophie Henderson in Fantail

Sophie Henderson in Fantail

But with the screen one can shift and focus the audience’s attention, 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.

In the theatre one is forced, generally, to go much deeper into character development and complexity. The greater opportunity to explore nuances 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.

Jackie van Beek

Jackie van Beek

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 forced people into playing safe – something none of the panelists wanted to do!

Van Beek’s solution, with her short films, was to self-fund.

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. 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. With a stage presentation that feedback is infinitely more immediate.

For a theatre writer adapting to the screen the panel suggestions were:

  • Learn to write in images instead of words – and to relish brevity.
  • Learn about pace, and about non-verbal beats in the story.
  • Learn to let go. The producer and director and editor will have much more say than the writer when working for the screen.
  • The best place to learn 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, turning things around, what had panellists learned about playwriting from writing for the screen?

van Beek relished the fact that writing could “be more in your face”; Henderson was determined to write much more in the way of stage directions next time around – she condemned “the idiot at drama school who told us not to use stage directions in our scripts!”

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