I'm frequently asked how writing a play is different from creating in other literary genres.
There's a magic moment in the theatre when the houselights dim, when the audience conversation is hushed, when an expected stillness permeates the auditorium. There is electricity, attention, a palpable intensity in the air. It is the moment before the play begins, and all who were gathered there want to transcend into another time, another place, another person's problem.
The Greeks believed that the theater was an instrument of catharsis, where we rid ourselves of emotion and leave refreshed and stronger or, in today's jargon, "recharged."
For unlike any other literary genre there is an immediacy to good theatre, an urgency. You can't stop in the middle and put it back on the shelf like a book or a video, you can't sit there holding a bucket of hot buttered popcorn like at a movie. Good theatre grabs you and holds you and won't let go. It demands your attention and respect. So of course does a good novel or a poem. But here's another difference.
You can't do it all by yourself. Theatre is by its very nature a communal event, so even when you think you are simply a spectator, in actuality you are a participant in the crowd. Theater is a performing art, designed for a live audience. When it's great it becomes part of you forever, a part of your intellectual and spiritual baggage.
There's also another major difference. Unlike any other genre, theatre is collaborative, not only in the process of creation but in the very execution. Although early drafts (I do anywhere from five to 15) are done in the lonely sanctuary of one's study, there comes the time for a staged reading, a developmental workshop production, and if you're lucky a premiere—and if you're even luckier, publication. All my scripts have gone through this process.
In the theater you are never working alone. For some authors that's a bonus and for some it's sheer hell—and for some it's both! The director, the cast, the designers, and the audience all contribute to the success or the failure of the script. A play is never finished until it's mounted. Though written by one, it's produced by dozens and perceived by thousands.
Novels, short stories, poems, essays and reviews once published do not change. Plays in production change continually.
Although the words of the play and the author's terse stage directions may last in printed form, all the other variables are ephemeral (i.e. cast, sets, costumes, properties, lights and sound.) Every time the play is done these components alter. This brings an extraordinary vitality, a collaborative creativity to each experience; but it can also gray hairs to a perplexed playwright's head.
Theatre is probably the oldest entertainment form of humankind. Probably because it always tells the story, and there's always human conflict. As Pulitzer Prize winner Marcia Norman points out, a play must deal with one central character who wants something and by the end of the play must get it or not. We as the audience witness the catalytic event, for on the stage it is always NOW. We witness in The Ice Wolf what makes Anatou beg the Wood God to transform her into a wolf. We witness what prompts Lizzie in Sunday Gold to sacrifice her gold nugget and help Annie escape. We witness in Angel in the Night why Pawlina is ready to die rather than admit the truth to the interrogating Nazi.
Although doomsayers perpetually predict the demise of the theatre as an art form, the fabulous invalid always revives. Why? I suspect because in that dark space exists our collective hopes and dreams and fears and fantasies. In that dark space we can laugh and cry—and identify.
For any who want to try writing for the stage, my advice is to read, read, read plays and more plays, the classics and the contemporary, to go to professional theater and to join a local theater group to experience all different aspects of mounting a show.
In this brief article I've highlighted a few of the differences between plays and other literary forms, so I'd like to conclude by saying what is precisely the same—that is the ability to observe sharply, listen keenly, write regularly—and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.