Writing for Screen and Stage: Tips from Christina Hamlett

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Most playwrights go wrong on the fifth word. When you start a play and you type 'Act one, scene one,' your writing is every bit as good as Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill or anyone. It's that fifth word where amateurs start to go wrong. -Meredith Willson

For every tale there is to tell, there is a way to tell it. Some stories make their emotional impact visually; seeing the cloud at Hiroshima vs. reading a description for example. Others wrap us in their arms and invite us to experience a character’s journey more intimately. Like any artist, you must know the limits of your medium and work within them. That is not to say you are limited though, it just means there are times when choosing a different medium brings a story to life.

Christina Hamlett has explored every way there is to tell a story. Author of 26 books, both novels and instructional material, 132 plays and 5 optioned feature films, Christina is also a professional ghostwriter and screenwriting editor for Writer’s Journal. She writes for PLAYS: The Magazine for Young People and contributes scintillating lesson plans for School Video News, a website targeted to K-12 video arts educators across the country. Whew!

Christina loves what she does and enjoys assisting other writers along their own storytelling journeys. She is currently offering two courses through WOW! Workshops and Classes: Introduction into Screenwriting and Introduction into Playwriting. Classes begin Monday, August 2, 2010 and are limited to 10 students each. I had the privilege of chatting with Christina just this past weekend…

Christina, you’ve worked as an actress, director, script consultant, and the list goes on. What drives your passion?

Christina: Well, I’ve always found that having to pay bills is a pretty strong incentive. But seriously, I grew up around the performing arts and have always loved the energy and imagination that goes into creating something that’s going to last beyond a lifetime.

You grew up around the performing arts? Were other family members involved in writing or acting or was it just the area where you were raised that sparked your interests?

Christina: Robyn--I was an only child in a wealthy family and, accordingly, much of my upbringing involved going to plays, concerts and galleries. My decision to go into acting was actually frowned on by my parents as frivolous and, further, they couldn't understand how anyone could possibly make a living as a writer. Their negativity, however, has been more than made up for by the fact I'm blessed to have a wonderful husband who is not only in the political arena but who also once appeared on the stage himself as an opera singer. He's the first to read all of my scripts when they roll out of the printer and is always involved in the brainstorming of new works as well. Because we both have a keen sense of audience and can do multiple accents (you should hear us mimic the cast of Blackadder), I'm pretty sure our neighbors think that at least 17 different people are living with us when we're reading my latest scripts aloud.

How fun!

Your journey as a storyteller has taken you in many different directions. I read that at one point you even started your own theater company. Can you tell us a little about that?

Christina: The Hamlett Players was a touring theater company I started as an offshoot of the acting and audition classes I was teaching in 1978. Getting your first part in a play is not unlike trying to get your first credit card; no one wants to give you one unless someone else has already proven that you're a good risk. When two of my students went off to an audition at a local community theater in Northern California and were not even allowed to read because they had no prior acting credits, I decided that I believed in my teaching/directing abilities enough to take a chance on them myself. In our first year, we did excerpts from popular plays (including Shakespeare!) and then I decided to start penning original one-acts for the company. By doing 3-4 one-acts per production, it afforded more acting opportunities for my students (of all ages) than if we'd been doing a full length show where there were only 2 or 3 lead roles. (One of my best friends, the late Richard Arlen Crane, was an incredible costume designer and so there were no limits in terms of time periods we could depict.) It was also the most fantastic forum for a playwright because I considered everything a work-in-progress and gleaned valuable feedback from the members of the cast as well as the audiences for whom we performed.

It sounds like it was a wonderful and unique opportunity all the way around.

You’ve had a rich and diverse journey as a writer, experience which no doubt enters into your teaching. This is good news for us because you are offering two separate classes through WOW! Workshops and Classes: Introduction into Screenwriting and Introduction into Playwriting. Talk to us a bit about the difference in the audience or target market for movies vs. plays.

Christina: In my opinion, playwriting is a much more challenging medium because you’re writing for an audience that’s typically smarter than those who go to the movies or watch television. Although theatrical scripts share a lot in common with screenplays in terms of three-act structure and duration, a play invites more sophisticated levels of abstraction and suspension of belief on the part of an audience than that which is required to watch a film. In workshops I’ve done on the subject, there seems to be a mystique about playwrights insofar as how we can transcend time and space within what most people perceive are the limiting parameters of a wooden stage. Therein, of course, is where the real magic lies!

Let’s say, for instance, you’ve written a storyline that includes a flashback to a street corner conversation in 1930’s Berlin. In a screenplay, you’d accomplish this through a dissolve, a match cut, a wipe or a dream sequence. You would have to not only replicate the architecture of 1930’s Berlin for the set but incorporate period vehicles, signage and costumes for dozens of non-speaking extras whose only purpose is to supply ambiance. In a theatrical script, however, you only need to incorporate period music or sound effects, costume the 2-3 players engaged in dialogue, and shine a spotlight on them while the rest of the stage is in darkness.

Theater also has the advantage of identifying time shifts (“three days later”) and location transitions (“Sophie’s apartment in the Bronx”) in the context of a printed program. To that end, a full production could transpire on a completely bare stage; if the audience has been prepped that it’s a forest, a ballroom, or another planet, they’ll readily accept this premise and allow their imaginations to fill in the missing details.

Playwriting further encourages more intimacy and immediacy with an audience than that which can be achieved in a Surround Sound Movie Theater with bigger-than-life faces projected on a giant screen. Whereas film calls for a lot of physical/visual action to keep it moving, a play revolves around dialogue and relationships that unfold in “real” time as opposed to “reel” time and are witnessed vicariously through an invisible fourth wall that--in smaller venues--is only a short distance from the front row. In addition, a movie audience only sees what the camera allows it to through the device of a single lens. A theatrical set, in contrast, is generally visible to the viewers all at once. This, then, takes a skilled playwright and an accomplished director to nudge the viewers’ focus via lighting and movement toward whatever they should be paying attention to at any given time.

So, the writer actually lends a different treatment to the story depending on which way it is going to be told. Is it safe to say, then, that writing for film or stage exercises a different set of skills than writing a novel?

Christina: The core consideration here is that films are driven by action, plays are driven by dialogue, and novels are driven by imagination. Accordingly, a screenwriter needs to be able to craft a visually compelling story that could be followed with the sound off, a playwright has to have a great ear for spoken conversations that could be understood without any accompanying visuals; and a novelist must be able to paint a world so rich in detail that a reader will be vicariously transported.

That said, one of the things that this trio does have in common is that their content is usually character-driven versus plot-driven. This means that the players undergo internal changes (character arcs) over the course of the story rather than simply responding to external events. An example of the latter would be the recurring characters in sitcoms; rather than evolving, they simply react each week to a different crisis but in a manner that’s both predictable and consistent with what we already know about their personalities.

It should next be kept in mind that a movie or play is written to be watched in its entirety and, therefore, can’t afford to dawdle around over the course of two hours by embedding excessive back story and superfluous subplots. Books, in contrast, are served up in modules (chapters) that allow stopping points to absorb--or even revisit--all of the information divulged. If you want your readers to vigorously keep turning those pages, you need to embrace the art of cliffhangers.

Last but definitely not least are the skill sets necessary to write good dialogue. This is one of the most difficult things for newcomers to the stage or screen to master because they try too hard to emulate the pace and superfluous nature of real-life conversations. In addition, they frequently use dialogue to provide back-story and explain things to the audience that the characters themselves presumably already know. In contrast, dialogue in a book that’s not meant to be read out loud tends to use bigger words, tongue-twisters, longer sentences and more formality. As I tell my students, what may look just fine in print can sound doofy if it’s coming from the mouths of live actors. Example: “I just saw something on Uranus.”

LOL. Yes, dialog can be tricky. If we were to write dialog the way we actually talk it would be completely boring not to mention difficult to follow.

Since a film is driven by action and a play by dialog, is the process of forming and writing a character different for film vs. stage?

Christina: In film, a character’s actions speak louder than his or her words; in theater, it’s the opposite. In both cases, however, a writer needs to create compelling roles that actors will want to play and that audiences will be able to relate to. When you look at the roles that garner awards for performers, they are most often those in which extraordinary individuals must function in an ordinary environment or ordinary individuals are thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

We really do need to approach the story differently depending on how we decide to tell it, whether on stage or screen.

Will the skills learned in these two courses strengthen a student’s writing in other areas?

Christina: Absolutely because it will help them to think visually in constructing scenes, minimize superfluous elements that slog the pace of the story, and hone their skills for writing dialogue.

What new insights do you feel your students will have regarding their work at the completion of your class?

Christina: For either venue, my students always come away with an appreciation of just how much work goes into crafting a story for actors to perform. They often tell me, in fact, that they now look at movies and plays in a completely different way based on the secrets they’ve learned. I’m also pleased that I’ve been able to make agent, editor and publisher introductions for students whose finished projects demonstrate fresh and exciting promise for today’s market.

That’s terrific! Those introductions are priceless.

Christina, I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you. Thank you.

Please visit our classroom page to enroll in either Introduction into Screenwriting or Introduction into Playwriting. Classes begin August 2nd and run for 6 weeks. Class size is limited.

Bio: Former actress/theater director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, ghostwriter, instructor and professional script consultant whose credits to date include 26 books, 132 plays, 5 optioned feature films and hundreds of articles and interviews that appear in trade publications throughout the world. Website: http://www.authorhamlett.com/
Interview by Robyn Chausse


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