What is a playscript? What does it mean to read it? Mark Pritchard takes us through the process of conjuring a three-dimensional world from the two dimensions of a page
I love reading plays. I’ve been Resident Dramaturg and New Work Manager at Malthouse Theatre for six years now, so reading plays has become a huge part of my life. I read them in all shapes, sizes and stages of life – from first sketches to final drafts, published plays, short plays, performance poetry, treatments, transcripts, translations, surtitle scripts, libretti and prompt copies.
Writing from the murky depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m missing the three-dimensional experience of theatre immensely. But I’m reading more scripts than ever, and it’s renewing my appreciation of the ways these documents conjure whole worlds into being.
I’ve come from being quite critical of the primacy of the script in contemporary theatre to developing a genuine fascination with the artistry of these documents – as blueprints, as archives, as tools for sharing a vision of a world and as sites of dialogue. Their fallibility, their porousness, their authority and their malleability interest me most as I navigate the complex relationship the playscript has with the embodied processes of making theatre. The playscript might present as a comprehensive document, but it’s forever fundamentally incomplete.
To understand playscripts, we have to wrestle with them – where they come from, who wrote them and why, who edited and formatted them, when in the process of play-making they were put down in print. We also have to consider what’s not on the page – what’s missing, what’s been edited out, what’s been misremembered, what changed after the pages went to print. What’s assumed and embodied and obvious to the body before that body was removed, leaving only this skeleton, this shell, this footprint of words in a shape on a page. So which one is it? A skeleton, a shell, or just a set of footprints?
A playscript is not essential for theatre. For thousands of years, theatre was made without putting a word on the page. As Iain Sinclair notes in State of Playi, the playscript as a singular document is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the Elizabethan theatre, actors received only their individual rolls/roles, with brief cuelines telling them when to come in. The implications for a rehearsal process are extraordinary to me – challenging if you’re trying to consider and shape the play as a whole, but thrilling as an act of listening and team work, as the whole cast attempts to keep the ball in the air. This was the standard approach for some 3000 years, until the invention of the printing press began to completely change our relationship to the written word and to the way we experience plays.
Printing plays meant we could commodify plays as artefacts. We could distribute them widely, pirate them, reproduce them, translate them, study them and even read them for pleasure.
Shakespeare is arguablyii the best-selling author of all time, but he never intended the plays to be published. The versions we have are generally cobbled together, preserved mostly by actors, and edited in various versions with added punctuation, footnotes and formatting decisions that have a huge subconscious impact on how we understand them. Thanks to the printing press, Shakespeare’s living, breathing, epic, messy, porous plays are now first encountered as literary constructs than as live acts on stage. In line with the colonial project and the history of Western literature, the written word became king.
We experience plays as having a single author, but in practice there are many voices folded into these documents by one or many hands. I’d argue that a play isn’t truly finished, if it’s ever finished at all, until it’s been through the gauntlet of production. In this process it gets pushed and pulled, embodied and interpreted, challenged and critiqued, consumed and regurgitated. The playwright can choose to capture as much of this feedback in the document as they choose, or leave it unedited for the next interpreter; but for me, this embodied process is essential to understanding the play.
A production is a living thing. It grows over time, emerging in the imagination through conversation and negotiation. It stays alive through the bodies of those who perform it anew each night. A production can tire, it can evolve, it can find new legs or new meaning in a new context. In this light, a script is a vain attempt to capture the play at some arbitrary moment in its life cycle, in whatever detail seems relevant to the document’s authors.
At the end of a production process there are many scripts that you could choose to preserve: the actors’ copies, highlighted, covered in notes and personal reminders, usually missing a few pages; the prompt copy, meticulously capturing technical cues and stage diagrams; and the playwright’s official version. In the foyer you might purchase a script that doubles as a program, published a week or so prior to first preview without any of the last-minute changes as the play moved into the theatre. To read any of these scripts can paint a vastly different pictures of a production, and none of them tells the whole story.
Many of the published classics on our bookshelves are crammed with confounding levels of detail. There are full pages of set description before a character even enters the stage, diagrams in the appendix of where the settee should be positioned, the placement of the doorways, a handy list of the props. The script for The Sound of Music prescribes every movement the actor should take, crossing downstage left before speaking some specific timeless line as if to the middle distance. It’s easy to forget that many of these versions of the scripts crystallised after the fact, aiming to capture some perfect production, to reflect the work of the first director, or to insure the copyright holders against future misinterpretations by licensees. For the reader they can be overwhelming, and they crush the creativity involved in the act of reading a play.
I’ve often heard a script described as a “blueprint”, an architectural term that has acquired a more generalised meaning to describe various types of plan. It dates back to 1842, referencing a specific new photographic reproduction process that revolutionised the speed, accuracy and affordability of sharing architectural designs. It facilitated the coordination of increasingly large and complex projects and became the final document handed over to the general contractor who was responsible for actually fabricating the design. Here we see the script as a communication tool, laying out from different angles the master vision for a production in detail, but one that needs to be interpreted and imagined in three dimensions.
We can also approach a new work as a hypothesis, a framework I owe to Declan Greene, Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre. Here it’s a theory made up of actions that you take to the floor, with which you attempt to create meaning on stage by shaping time and space. You take this proposition to the reading, the workshop, the rehearsal room, the stage, and you test it out and refine it on and with other people. What does it do to you? How does it make you feel? What do you notice? What has meaning? And how does the action continue to sustain those threads of meaning, keep adding to the plot, and indulging your interpretation?
Reading a play is like untangling a puzzle. We start with an empty space, and gradually insert things into it. Anything is possible. Everything that gets conjured into the space is deliberate on some level, and has been put there by the playwright. Elinor Fuchs envisions a play like an undiscovered planet that we must explore on its own terms. She asks us to see this planet not as a mirror of our own world, but as a world unto itself, a world with its own codes, landscape and climate, and to “become curious as each element is revealed as a player in the play”.iii
What is the playwright trying to show me? What does this piece offer in relation to the one before? What might be emerging as each active gesture shifts the alchemy of the space? There’s a process of accumulation, as the playwright manipulates space over time and leads me on a journey of meaning-making into an imagined world. And by collecting, interpreting and connecting these intrusions into the empty space, the reader creates their own unique production, in which they are both the spectator and the director.
This lens of interpretation is one of the fundamental challenges of reading a new work. Whose version of the play am I reading – the playwright’s, or mine? As a dramaturg, my job is to distil what’s central from what’s peripheral, to determine what’s meaningful, either to the playwright who put it there or to an imagined audience witnessing it in production. And I have to put myself in there: I have to be comfortable with my role as interpreter, navigating my own clumsy path through the landscape of the play.
We’re often talking about intent when we look at a play, tracking what we think the playwright is “trying” to say. It’s an approach that privileges the conscious and the intellectual, when so much of the creative process can be subconscious, instinctual or even accidental. A play can surprise even the playwright, and the so-called unintentional can be what’s most compelling and vulnerable about a work. I often talk about dramaturgy as a process of dream interpretation, witnessing the inside of the playwright’s imagination and trying to describe it back to them, without judgement. The blockages and kinks can reveal just as much as the free flow of words and action onto the page. Together we distil the essential mechanics of what’s coming out and what it all might mean.
When I read a play, I’m trying to look at it from outside and from within. First I’ll position myself in the audience, an unassuming spectator watching the action emerge on stage for the first time, discovering the play, trying to make sense of it all or relaxing into the uncertainty. What am I noticing? What’s it evoking in me? How does meaning accumulate through this manipulation of space and time?
I imagine myself as the playwright, drawing on all the information they’ve given me about the play, and try to follow their impulses, the compulsion to words’ certain articulations, so I can tune into the vision embedded in the lines. And then I imagine myself as the actors, working together to bring this material to life, processing these words and actions through my voice and body. And in all these approaches I have to locate myself as myself, interrogating my own responses and what the phenomena of this uncharted planet are bringing up in me. The act of reading is never neutral, it’s an active and deeply personal process that can reveal as much about the reader as it does about the text.
Read Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury and you’ll see the potency of this constantly shifting perspective, and the power of scripts to capture multiplicity, conflict and tension.
Act One appears to be a comedic family drama.
Act Two watches Act One.
Act Two pushes further into Act One and tries to drive it forward to make Act Three.
Reading the script is a process of construction. It requires focus, criticality and a willingness to put yourself in the room and consider yourself in relation to the action onstage.
Read Angels in America: Parts One and Two by Tony Kushner and feel the focus and economy of this monumental attempt to make sense of lives lived in the grip of an epidemic. Then read The World Only Spins Forward, an extraordinary oral history of how this play came to be one of the most significant plays of the 20th Century. Read how difficult it was, how arduous: the legal stoushes, the burned relationships, the decade of rewriting, the myriad versions of how it might play out, the impossibility of ever truly finishing it. And then finishing it, and the story going on and on.
Read Far Away by Caryl Churchill to awaken your imagination. See how deftly a world can be conjured, how words play as actions, and how thin the veil is between the familiar and the incomprehensible. See how limitless theatre is; how there are no rules, or if there are rules, they’re constantly changing and totally up for grabs.
And then read some new local plays, be they rough drafts or finished pieces. Put yourself in the room, wander around in it, watch the action come to life in your mind’s eye. Walk the play out as if you’re marking out the foundations on a new block of land. Dream on the play. Commune with it. Let it speak to you from some other unknown realm. Argue with the play. Deliberately misinterpret it. Commandeer the play’s logic and pollute it with your own. Drop a mouse into the play and watch him probe his way out. Waterski across the surface of the play, waving at the author’s name on the shore.iv
i Sinclair, Iain (2014), ‘Some Notes on the Text: A Personal Perspective on the Fall and Rise of Australian Dramaturgy’ [https://australianplays.org/some-notes-on-the-text]
ii Agatha Christie may have recently over taken him in terms of sales. The works of both are said to have sold approximately 4 billion copies.
iii Fuchs, Elinor (2004), ‘EF’s visit to a small planet: some questions to ask a play’
iv With thanks to Billy Collins’ Introduction to Poetry (1988).