Two weeks ago Mala and I had a meeting with Tim Weigand and Cecile Davis at the Avalon Theater. We had sent them the first draft of the Christmas play “At Christmas I Believe” and wanted to know if we were remotely on the right track. If they told us it was crap and start over we’d have done that. If they’d told us it was crap and to go away, we would have done that. But we got lots of warm fuzzies about how much they liked it and then suggestions about how to make it better.
Cecile said, “It reads like a script.” Funny she should say that since scripts are what Mala and I have been writing for the last two years. We knew “At Christmas” had to be fixed to read like a play. There are some significant differences. In a film you can close in on an actor’s face to show a wide range of emotion. In a play the back row has to get the emotion through the voice and the power of the words. In fact this has been one of the hardest things for Mala to get through her head about screen scripts. In this play we have an actor hold up a Christmas ornament he made as a child. He says, “I made this for Mom when I was in second grade. (beat) Sure is ugly.” In the play you have to say that because the people in the back row can’t see how ugly the handmade ornament is. In a film, the camera would zoom in and show the viewer so you don’t have to have that line of dialog. It’s something like the showing vs telling we pay attention to as fiction writers. It’s just done in different ways in a screenplay, in a stage play and in a novel.
In a screenplay you insert slugs that tell you the location of the scene. For example, “INT: WILL’S BEDROOM”. Film can establish place with visuals. Stages can establish place, but with a much more limited repertoire. Films can take advantage of multiple locations with what are called establishing shots. A flyover of Washington, DC and you know the general location where the next scene takes place. But the next scene might be in Boston with some sort of visual to alert the viewer to the location change. Stage plays usually have just a few locations to minimize scene changes.
Also, stage plays usually have a much more limited cast. In a film, an extra can walk through a scene, say nothing or say one line, and walk out. On the stage the cast is usually restricted with some actors occasionally playing multiple parts.
Of course the biggest difference is that once the curtain rises on a play, the show goes on until the end. The rehearsals may have taken months, but the actual play is time limited and there is never a chance for a do-over – until the next performance.