In the second panel, Renee Liang, Alice Canton, Chye-Ling Huang, Marianne Infante, and Nathan Joe offered their advice on writing for theatre and the stage.
Photos by John Rata
Differences between theatre and the screen
Renee pointed out the role of the audience and how the work changes each time it’s performed, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally where the actors make mistakes or make different changes. Where film remains unchanged, theatre is dynamic.
That goes to the production process prior to performance too. Chye-Ling compared theatre to a webseries she’s been writing. For her, the form of theatre invites more experimentation and rule-breaking than the screen does. It encourages writers to move beyond three-act structures and traditional narrative arcs. The dramaturgy — or the shape, the architecture — of the screen has more limitations.
Alice made an important distinction between playwriting and theatre-making, with the latter being the creation of a visual space as opposed to the written word. In her view, playwriting is not a literary form. Plays exist in multiple dimensions, in space and in time. Theatre-making would include a whole range of other forms like dance, performance, poetry.
What’s missing in the theatre scene
The panel had an insightful and in-depth discussion about what they were hungry to see from theatre. The answers ranged from wanting more new and diverse voices to seeing movement as language to recognising our privilege in New Zealand raising the stakes for new work. Don’t be afraid to take risks and make people uncomfortable. Figure out the purpose of what you want to say and figure out the best way to deliver it in a way that isn’t just the fourth-wall, three-act play.
It’s hard to know how to put on a play. The panel offered advice around funding, getting people on board to build confidence in the project, and how to get help from institutions on really practical matters such as finding a rehearsal space.
Audience members put questions to the panel, such as: how do you know when an idea is dead? How do you write characters that are different from your own experiences?
In answer to the lifelessness of an idea, Alice related a story about how she found herself telling someone about a project and being dead in the eyes when she was talking about it. When you’re not excited about it or you don’t want to write about it anymore, leave it to rest.
As to writing characters that aren’t yourself, Renee related how she manages to put bits of herself in every character she writes — including old white guys — because that’s how she makes them real. Make sure also that you do research and ask people with experience on those identities. Chye-Ling spoke about how helpful it was to admit that your work is always going to jump off from you or what you care about, while Alice shared a practical writing exercise to write out verbatim the way in which people spoke in interviews to help dislodge your own verbal patterns.
And ask for help! There is a growing ecosystem here, so reach out and ask for advice or a coffee.