A (Very Personal) Reading List for Newer Playwrights
Recently, some of my incredible playwriting students at the University of Victoria asked me to recommend books about playwriting. I take this as an encouraging sign that I haven't completely turned them off this semester.
Not wanting to simply recommend the "how-to-books" since they are taking a class that is sort of how-to, I thought about books I could recommend that would expand on structure and get into some more philosophical approaches.
It took longer than I thought, as I thought back over the past 15 or so years of me (still) trying to do this thing. But it took long enough that I figured I would share the list I put together for them on my blog (with some modifications to make it a little more folksy).
This is a highly biased and incomplete list, but I figured it was better to try and be personal than prescriptive or too cool here; my goal was not write one of those lists that attempts to enhance my own cred or elevate my own work into something it's not. There are much cooler playwrights than me who might have much cooler lists. But these are the books that shaped my softer brain at some point, and there is a large element of exposure bias. I get it.
So here is that list of 6 with oversimplified notes meant for the students. This list is meant for writers who are fairly new to playwriting, but could use a deeper jostle. In any event, here goes...
Poetics by Aristotle (335 BCE)
Though well over 2000 years old, this discussion about the elements of the successful drama of the time still makes sense. It’s distilled and direct. I particularly like Aristotle’s division of the six parts of tragedy (plot, thought, character, diction, song, spectacle). Though the labels have changed in some cases, these elements are still a part of what we write into our plays today, which points to the ceremony and instinct of the “well-made”play.
The Theater and its Double by Antonin Artaud (1938)
This is a highly charged rant, and though much of the revolutionary ideas within it might now be taken for granted or left behind (or have been synthesized by other more prolific playwrights like Jean Genet and Peter Weiss), these essays often focus on theatre’s power beyond the text itself. Artaud challenged not only the playwright, but confronted complacent audiences leading to the movement known as Theatre of Cruelty which sought to unsettle traditional theatre audiences. A modern and applied version of Artaud’s ideas might be the in-yer-face theatre movement, which is a hallmark of playwrights like Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill.
Playwrights on Playwriting by multiple authors, edited by Toby Cole (1960)
This is a series of essays, letters and advice from (then) working playwrights that still doesn’t seem dated. There are so many gems in this book and it’s easy to digest in smaller doses, or just by looking in the table of contents for playwrights whose work you admire and reading their perspectives. Highlights for me include Anton Chekov’s Advice to Playwrights and George Bernard Shaw’s How to Write a Popular Play.
The Empty Space by Peter Brook(1968)
Adapt! I have always dug of the idea that inspired Brook’s title that “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” There’s more to this book than that obviously, but the ideas of being able to imagine your plays outside of traditional theatre spaces and to adapt to the time you are creating in has broken down a barrier to producing, and site-specific work has certainly been an important part of my public presentation process. Companies like Itsazoo (Vancouver) and Outside the March (Toronto) have taken this idea to new and successful places as of late.
Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen (1973)
Though largely meant as a resource for actors, this book breaks down the idea that characters are revealed through action (as opposed to emotion and thought). Her focus on the cultivation of artistic discipline (i.e. "working") and the process for the actor’s craft of discovery and motivation is also applicable to the process we go through as playwrights in building characters from the raw materials of need and desire.
Backwards and Forwards: a Technical Manual for Reading Plays by David Ball (1983)
For a long time, this book was my secret weapon. It’s my favourite book on how plays work (and by extension, how playwriting can work) and if you could only choose one book from this list, I would make it this one. Ball largely focuses on Shakespeare’s Hamlet as way of contextualizing his concepts—it is not merely theory. If anything, it is a plainspoken update to many of the concepts first laid out by Aristotle.
Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet (1998)
This is Mamet’s exploration of the political theatre, but it contains a lot of practical advice for structural problems in the modern play. He grapples with some intriguing concepts, particularly as it applies to the problems playwrights face in the “second act” (or middle). It also goes into the “11 o’clock song” concept, something I have discussed in class where a character explains their state of mind before the play; Mamet argues that this justification of a present drama via pre-play events is the sign of lesser works. But he's such an ass sometimes.
There is no substitution for reading and seeing plays. Once you find a playwright whose work you like, read all their work. Adopt the playwright. Devour their work. Recognize the progression, the peaks, the experiments. Identify where they have been expanding their form and where, perhaps, they have rested on past successes.
Let me know if you ever find yourself with one of these books and what you think.
Victoria, BC. March 15, 2016
Addendum: I know this list is essentially 5 dude controlled perspectives with only 1 woman. I am completely willing to accept this as my own shortcoming and largely white academic education. Please please please if you have suggestions, post them below, as I am always looking for more readings from women, POC, and other diverse voices.