This past September I attended the Educational Theatre Association’s annual conference in Las Vegas and sat in on a workshop on script analysis by playwright Lindsay Price. After the workshop, we chatted for a bit about how directors and set designers analyze the scripts, and how we both really look for a lot of the same things even if we’re not always consciously aware of it. We also spoke about detailed stage directions (“John crosses DS and sits down on the sofa.”), and how many of these often show up in published scripts even though most playwrights rarely write them into the play.
One thing led to another, and I asked Lindsay if she’d like to do a guest post here, discussing how playwrights give us information about the story and the characters without resorting to descriptions as used in novels. I was delighted she agreed to do so, and here it is.
The answers are in there
By Lindsay Price
When you create a theatrical set design, one method is to think of the set as another character in the play. The set, through communicating the world of a play, can have many of the same character details: age, era, background, social status. The more specific the communication, the deeper an audience will connect to the play.
Playwrights leave a lot of character clues in the text. We only have the text to communicate our intention to actors and directors. More often than not, a playwright is not in the room giving helpful hints for characterization during production rehearsals.
Here are a couple of character clues that can be found in a play.
Facts and Inferences
The first step is to gather the information about the character in the text. This is done in two ways: facts and inferences.
Facts are unchangeable details. They are always found in the dialogue (not in the character list or stage directions). They are not based on emotions, opinions, or attitude. Think about your own facts: name, age, family members, where you live. If a playwright has put this information in the dialogue, pay attention.
Inferences are educated guesses about a character based on how they act, how they talk, how they behave and how others act around them. If “Sally” talks a lot what does that say about her as a person? Inferences about a character will change depending on the actor playing that role. One actor may see “Sally” as friendly, while another may see her as insecure. Both interpretations are valid.
The sentence structure of a character holds many clues: what is the character’s primary punctuation? What is their average sentence length? Do the sentences meander all over the place or are they clipped statements? What types of words do they use? Do they have a ten letter word vocabulary? Do they understand the words they use? Do they use contractions? Do they use slang?
Playwrights build a language profile for each character and these details act are a direct line of communication from playwright to actor. When a playwright defines how a character talks, this gives an actor clues for how to perform the character. If “Sally” speaks with a lot of exclamation points, that suggests an energy to her personality.
Another clue is when the sentence structure changes. Once a language profile is established, a playwright can easily signal subtext (perhaps a secret, or a lie) for a character by changing the structure. If “Sally” speaks energetically throughout the play, except for one scene where she is monosyllabic and clipped, something has happened to the character that may not be spelled out in the dialogue.
If you’re in search for an answer about a character, it usually can be found in the text. Look for the clues the playwright has planted in the dialogue, either through the content of the line or the sentence structure, and you’re well on your way to fully communicating with your audience.
Lindsay Price is the resident playwright for Theatrefolk (www.theatrefolk.com) a publisher of resources for drama teachers: playscripts specifically for schools and student performers, and The Drama Teacher Academy (www.dramateacheracademy.com) an online membership site with curriculum, professional development courses, and professional learning community events just for drama teachers.