Writing for stage and screen

Writing for Film and Stage: there’s a difference

A screenwriter/playwright friend of mine says that

“a film is a story told in images, and if dialogue is there, it’s to support the images. A play is a story told in dialogue, and when images are present (such as a set design or projection images) they are there to support the dialogue.”

In my attempt to translate my first play from stage to screen, I have found my friend’s definitions to be true. And I’ve learned a bit about why.

Perhaps the best advice I’ve gotten about transitioning from one form to another is to write the film script as if I am imagining a silent movie, letting the visual component tell the story and using dialogue only where those images need support. It is the images, then, that create my characters. But any playwright knows that, in a stage play, the words themselves have to create the characters, and those characters reveal themselves through what they say and what is said about them.

Both the film and the play are ultimately collaborations with not just directors and actors but with so many others like set designers, lighting and sound technicians, costume designers, and behind-the-scene staff. The final product is a joint effort. The difference is that in film, the final product is unchanging, no matter how many times the film is viewed by an audience. In the theatre, however, the script remains unchanged but the performance on stage is different every night. And the playwright engages in a new series of collaborations, strategy sessions, and script adjustments each time a different theatre mounts a production of the same play. My play The Vanishing Point works well in smaller theatres of less than 100 seats, but when it played in a 350-seat theatre, we had to light the center of that stage and let surrounding darkness create the intimacy the play needed. Wrong Number fit beautifully on its rectangular Brooklyn stage, but when the play moved to the Manhattan theatre district, the theatre’s squarish stage had me rewriting the location

of some scenes to accommodate the restraints of the space.

There are obvious differences between the two forms, such as budget, cast size, and use of space. The playwright has to envision the characters’ world within the physical limitations of the stage. Even with the flexibility that recent technology makes possible (especially visual projections or sound enhancements), the stage play has to create its world with and within the imagination. The film story has freedom to shoot a more literal world on location at any number of appropriate spots.

When it comes to delivering dialogue, film allows for multiple takes for the actor to get it right. But a performance on stage is live, and one little tongue twister in a play script can suddenly pull the audience out of the play or kill an important speech. In debriefing with the cast after the dress rehearsal for one of my plays, one actor pointed out a tongue twister that kept him in the grip of anxiety until he got past that line in the performance. I learned fast that some lines sound great while I type in front of the computer, but when an actor tries to deliver them, I need to pull out the pen for rewrites. The playwright must hear the script read aloud in order to learn what works.

In film, there is no intermission, no release from the tension building in the story. And in the process of filming, scenes can be shot any number of times and in any order. While on stage some recent plays forego an intermission, most still use the convention. The intermission has an impact on structure and demands a tightening in tension at the end of the first act right before the audience is released. The playwright’s job is to keep everyone involved and reel them back in for the second act. Except for the intermission, once the play begins, it is live and moves inexorably toward its end. There are no chances for multiple “takes”; the actors have to keep getting it right the first time.

Another point in shaping structure is that the playwright also has to consider costume changes in a way that a film writer doesn’t. Stage actors don’t have unlimited time for wardrobe changes. Timing affects the structure of the play script, and the playwright who doesn’t take into account any wardrobe changes needed to denote a change in time or place is facing rewrites during rehearsal. That was my penance when I didn’t give Wrong Number’s Cassie time to change the size of her padded baby-bump that would show the progression of her pregnancy. I had to get her off stage earlier at the end of one scene and add to the beginning of the following scene so she had time to dress.

The goal both forms share, however, is to tell a compelling story that makes the audience forget they are sitting in a theatre. Suck them in, make them laugh, break their hearts—then release them back into their own worlds all the more enriched for having visited yours.

Nedra Pezold Roberts

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