Playwrights are not Writers by Hilary Bell

Nothing like a provocative title! Now that I’ve got your attention, let me explain.

Well, of course you are a writer – you spend your time putting words on paper. You share with poets, short-story writers and novelists other professional aspects, such as working alone in a room for months on end; perhaps a stationery fetish; certainly a habit of ostensibly going for walks, but in fact busily processing ideas. Maybe you even have a love of wordplay, a hatred of seeing language mangled and abused.

But playwrights are in a different business, because what we write is not an end-product. It’s not written to be read, it’s a blueprint for a future structure, an architect’s plan. It’s a roadmap, a set of instructions, a code to be cracked. Our collection of words on paper outlines something ephemeral and virtual: a world waiting to be given physicality, breath and life.

When I go to literary festivals, I feel like the odd one out. There’s something fundamentally different about what I do. I feel more at home with costume-designers and stage-managers. Playwriting is not a literary pursuit, nor can its collaborative nature be overlooked. Novelists sometimes have a hard time making the transition to playwriting: they aren’t comfortable with input from all corners; they don’t like having to rewrite according to the strictures of an actor’s limitations, or a company’s budget. Playwrights understand that in order for a production to serve their vision, compromises must be made.

In fact, the joy of playwriting lies in watching your fellow artists bring your vision to life. There’s no point being didactic or precious; there’s no pleasure for them in realising a script that doesn’t allow room for their own imaginations.

But just as we need our collaborators, they need us. To laypeople, the playwright’s job is to write dialogue. They don’t understand that the words spoken are merely the tip of a very large iceberg. And sometimes it’s not only laypeople, but theatre-makers as well: It drives me crazy when they talk about not needing a writer, that they’ll “improvise dialogue.” (The most gifted artists can come up with good material, but that doesn’t make it a play. If it is a cohesive, affecting, well-structured, thought-provoking work then I would argue that someone in that group has some playwriting talent.) They should know better; they should know that the playwright is responsible for the characters, narrative, structure, relationships, exposition, meaning, the world of the play with its rules and atmosphere, the sense of being taken somewhere and through something and out the other side. All these things are augmented – the sound designer makes that atmosphere chilling; the actor makes the character unforgettable – but without the playwright these artists have nothing to build on.

While language can certainly be a useful tool, it’s not what playwriting is ultimately about. An audience comes to the theatre not to hear poetry, but to see characters in action: characters under pressure, characters in relationship with each other. They come to see what people are prepared to do to each other in order to get what they want. Characters’ dramatic actions – how they act upon each other – are what we are interested in, and the words they use are a means to an end.

I don’t mean to denigrate good dialogue or wonderful language – if you have a gift for these, so much the better – only to point out their secondary place in compelling theatre. “What about Shakespeare?” you ask. “What about Caryl Churchill, plays like ‘The Skriker’ or Jenny Schwartz’s ‘God’s Ear’, which are all about language?” Yes, language is an integral part of these writers’ works, but it is never prioritised over the drama. We don’t go to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for the poetry, but to see those young lovers struggle to be together. The words they use are Shakespeare’s gift to the actors, the rhythm and breath as much as the imagery and assonance help the actors realise their characters in their particular emotional states. If this weren’t true, Shakespeare would be remembered as a poet only, not a playwright. His work would not continue to live across all cultures four hundred years on. Ask any school-kid about the difference between reading ‘Hamlet’ in class and then seeing it performed well…

(In my experience as a dramaturge, it’s often the writers of dazzling repartee, snappy one-liners and luscious poetry that have the hardest time rewriting: gorgeous language is hard to turf. We get attached to a good scene in a way that we don’t to a bullet-point outlining an action. That’s why I recommend not actually starting the writing of scenes until you’ve got a strong idea of structure, character, shape etc: like this you’re less likely to have to do a major overhaul down the track.)

One thing that sets us apart from our collaborating theatre-makers, and aligns us with literary writers, is the time we need to take. The writer’s job is to think. We have to spend the time in our heads going down rabbit-holes, hitting dead ends and working our way back out again, turning over every possibility, making choices and then refining and polishing these until they glow. This can take a few months, or a few years. It’s deep work, and can’t be rushed over. That’s why it takes a long time to write a play and only six weeks to rehearse it: the groundwork has been done.

A novel, poem, short story is complete in itself. A play is not, it’s a provocation. Its job is to inspire and engage the imaginations of the director, designer, composer, choreographer, actors.

The balance for us playwrights is between making clear the intention of our work, while leaving enough open space for our collaborators to fulfil this intention.





Hilary Bell writes for stage, radio, screen and music theatre. Plays include Wolf Lullaby (Griffin, Atlantic, Steppenwolf), Fortune, The Falls (Griffin Theatre), The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Ruysch, Memmie Le Blanc (Vitalstatistix, Deckchair), Open-Cut (WAAPA), The Mysteries: Genesis (Sydney Theatre Company), The Bloody Bride (NORPA) and Angela’s Kitchen (with Paul Capsis and Julian Meyrick). She has written libretti for musicals (The Wedding Song, comp. Douglas Stephen Rae), song cycles (Talk Show, comp. Elena Katz-Chernin), opera (Mrs President, comp. Victoria Bond) and for Phillip Johnston’s score to Murnau’s silent film Faust, premiered at the New York Film Festival. The White Divers of Broome, for Black Swan State Theatre, has just played at the Perth International Festival.

In train are a musical, Do Good And You Will Be Happy, with Phillip Johnston, The Splinter, coming up at the Sydney Theatre Company in August, and Victim Sidekick Boyfriend Me, for the National Theatre’s Connections programme across the UK. Mrs President premiers at Anchorage Opera in November.

Hilary is a member of the playwrights’ company 7-On, and a recipient of the Philip Parsons Young Playwrights’ Award, Jill Blewitt Playwrights’ Award, Bug’n’Bub Award, Aurealis Award for Fiction, the Eric Kocher Playwrights’ Award, the 2007 Inscription Award and an AWGIE for Music Theatre. She is a graduate of the Juilliard Playwrights’ Studio, NIDA, and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. She was the 2003-04 Tennessee Williams Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of the South in Tennessee. She is a director on the Griffin Board, and on artistic advisory panels for Griffin and the Production Company, New York. Hilary also works as a playwriting teacher, mentor and dramaturge.