Playwrights on Playwriting - Beginnings

Posted by Tom Brogan on Saturday, January 27, 2018 Under: Writing Process
How do playwrights get ideas? How do they begin writing their plays? What do they do to get the first draft completed? Below are some thoughts from playwrights on how they begin.

Ideas and Getting Started

"I’m a thorough planner. I don’t write from nothing onto the page. There are five stages of the writing process for me. There’s a lengthy period of months and months of mulling. I move from what Peter Brook describes as “a formless hunch” to starting work on a play. I’ve got to go very slowly with it. The slowness is key. Then I will start researching—reading around the subject I’m writing about. I might look at art, listen to music, watch movies or interview people—to just start filling up the sponge. From the research comes a lot of note-taking: I’ll do exercises to start generating material, and that will take a month or so. Then I’ll start to land on the characters in the play—what they want, what’s stopping them from getting what they want. After that, I’ll figure out how many scenes the play has and how many characters are in each scene. Then the process of writing is like painting by numbers. I really love that because it allows me to work very quickly. The tension between slowness and speed is really useful. Simon Stephens (Birdland, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Heisenberg) from

"Once I do miraculously start writing a play, it’s usually helpful when I can kind of taste the end of the play. If I know exactly what the ending is going to be, then my play gets obvious and boring. But when I feel that on some strange unconscious level I’m writing toward something, that’s good. I also take a lot of notes before I start writing a new play. I used to think this was a form of procrastination — and it is, sometimes — but it has actually proved to be very helpful. By the time I start writing a first draft I have about 30 pages of nonsensical-seeming fragments and I usually work off of those." Annie Baker (The Flick, John, Circle Mirror Transformation) from Flavorwire

"I spend a ton of time just coming up with the bits that will make a piece. These might be stand-alone images or puns or moments in time. They might be lines of misheard conversations. They might simply be two words put together that don’t usually go together. They might just be simple twists on the everyday. I write these in notebooks while on trains or on pads while sitting around the flat; often they come in the middle of the night in that pre-dream state when your mind is trying to get through the real-world stuff you’ve put into it over the course of a day and, enough already, it wants to get crazy. So these ideas next go through a process of mulling and reproduction. Lists and lists of them get transcribed into a notebook, about 25 to a page. Once in here they can be re-examined and continue to baffle. After a while they get typed into a computer, get printed out and re-read. This distillation is important as, over time, connections and mysteries reveal themselves. For my last solo show – Each of Us – I eventually had about 1250 ideas placed in a printed out document." Ben Moor (Coelacanth, Not Everything Is Significant, A Supercollider for the Family) from Skylightrain.

"I have usually begun a play in quite a simple manner; found a couple of characters in a particular context, thrown them together and listened to what they said, keeping my nose to the ground. I've written nine plays, for various mediums, and at the moment I haven't the slightest idea how I've managed to do it. Each play was, for me, 'a different kind of failure'. And that fact, I suppose, sent me on to write the next one." Harold Pinter (The Birthday Party, The Room, The Dumb Waiter) from a speech made at the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol in 1962, as quoted in 'Plays 1'.

"[My writing] definitely runs away with me. I feel like I’m strangling an idea if I plan it. So far I’ve just written people saying things until I get interested then get all those bits together and string them together with a story. That can leave me writing for a looooong time, but it can be worth it!" Phoebe Waller-Bridge  (Fleabag) from 17 Per Cent.

"It’s very simple. I discover that I am thinking about a play. I am not a person who gets ideas for a play: “Oh wow, wouldn’t it be good to write a play about this.” I write the plays to find out why I’m writing them. I’m aware that I’m “with play” and usually it comes to term. By the time I’ve finished the piece I’ve gotten so involved with the reality of it that I don’t think much about what caused it." Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Zoo Story, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?) from Interview Magazine 

"Let's face it, most writers are pussies. We sit back and watch the world go by, writing down the things we find funny or sad while trying to make a buck off it. We use our lives, or the lives of others, for personal gain, and we defend it by saying it's "in the public domain" or "true", and therefore OK to slop around in someone else's pain." Neil La Bute (This Is How It Goes, Some Girl(s), Wrecks) from The Guardian .

"It takes me about two years to write a farce from the very basic idea - say, a man with two wives. You make lots of little notes and then you sit down a work a basic plot. An then there are the characters that you have to serve. In Run For Your Wife - the man with two wives, what kind of job would he have? A lorry driver? A cab driver? - they're funny anyway and eccentric. Then you have to think what's the danger? In farce you always have to have the danger. Of course you have the two wives finding out - which is wonderful danger - and then you can get authority in somewhere like the police. Then I map the whole thing out but I don't write a word until I have the whole thing in my mind from beginning until the end. I am viscous with my own plays - I rewrite a lot." Ray Cooney (My Giddy Aunt, Run For Your Wife, Wife Begins at Forty) from an interview with The Stage April 25, 2002

"It's different every time. Sometimes you'll wake up in the morning with an idea and you'll think, I've got to get it all down and it'll be a perfect scene, and you won't do anything with it, to change it - that'll be the scene that goes on in the theatre. Other times you can spend years with a load of material, that you know is good, and you know you like it, and you heard it in your head so you know it's real, but you can't shape it, it resists shaping, it resists crafting, and it takes years for it to finally untangle itself. Blue/Orange was like that. I had those elements in my head for years and years, and I'd written bits and pieces, but it wasn't until one stormy night that it came together. Then I wrote it very quickly, in a couple of weeks. But I'd had it in my head for about seven years - attempting to write something and then thinking, oh, that's going nowhere, and leaving it." Joe Penhall (Blue/Orange, Some Voices, Dumb Show) interviewed by Harriet Devine in 'Looking Back Playwrights at the Royal Court 1956-2006'.

"If I’m going to write a play or a film I’ll say, I’m starting it today and then I’ll go three hours a day, or three pages a day until it’s done. Then stop, maybe type it. I’ll do it until it’s done, and then not write for ten months. No, I don’t write constantly. I don’t even take notes, really. I don’t even think about it too much. I like having things seep in. No, I don’t write every day; I don’t think I could. I should write more than I do probably." Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane,  A Behanding in Spokane, Hangmen) from Bomb Magazine.

“It's a process of discovery. I discover a play, in two or three drafts, maybe four." Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ) from The New York Times.

"It takes me a long time to germinate a play. I have the germ of an idea now but I shall have to wait until other ideas build around it before I can even begin to sit down at the typewriter. No play is one idea. No, I hate [writing]. There is absolutely no joy in the process of putting my thoughts down on paper. Completion is the only art form I can think of where the real creation takes place when the artist (ie the playwright) has done his bit." Terry Johnson (Insignificance, Hysteria, Dead Funny) from an interview with The Stage June 27, 1985.

First Drafts

"Plays often have no more words than a longish mid-length short story so it is possible to write a draft in a week or less. I wrote Temptress’s ten thousand words in three days of lying on a couch, napping, listening to music, reading and writing the occasional burst of dialogue. I write a first draft by hand and so quickly that afterwards some of it is illegible even to me. But it’s best not to linger over dialogue at this point. Get it down and move along. That helps generate pace. A reader can skip past the less interesting parts of a novel, and a viewer can fast forward through a DVD, but the audience has no control over the speed of a play and may drift off mentally if you don’t absorb them deeply in the action." Philip St John (Maxine, The Sylvia, On City Water Hill) from

"Give yourself permission to write really bad first drafts and write things that feel crazy, offensive, and dangerous. Write about the things that terrify you. Go look at the first page of the first draft of “The Homecoming” in the British Library. Pinter wrote things and crossed them out. A lot." Emily Bohannon (Water on the Moon, The Dog Watcher, Noel Gallagher's Guitar) from Adam Szymkowicz's 1000 Playwright Interviews

"I begin by sharpening six pencils and laying them out. My first draft is done in pencil, on a pad. I do three pages a day. I like the speed of a pencil. Then I type it up. That's like my second draft, and I make changes while I type. Sometimes that's it. Other times I pencil in changes on the typed pages." Martin McDonagh from The New York Times.

"Think of the first draft as typing. Type and keep typing until you have a draft. Writing is when you get to the rewriting much farther down the road. If you take the pressure and preciousness out of the first draft you won’t freeze up as much and before you know it you’ll have something worth worrying about." Nate Eppler (Long Way Down, Good Monsters, The Ice Treatment) from Adam Szymkowicz's 1000 Playwright Interviews.

"First drafts just need to get written. You're in a tunnel, and you don't know if there is a way out. But before the first draft, or during, if I'm stuck, I'll do monologues for each character to strengthen their voices. I'll also write the story of the play several times, once in each character's voice. This is usually very revealing because, of course, everybody tells a different side to the same story. I also believe in giving a first draft some breathing time after it's done before going back to write it again. I'm trying not to use the word revising anymore. I'm thinking of rewriting as just continuing the writing. It's more opening, less restrictive." Katherine Koller (Last Chance Leduc, The Seed Savers, Coal Valley: The Making of a Miner) from Playwrights Guild of Canada

"The first draft is always the most difficult for me. Once I have the draft then I become a bit like a rabid dog constantly going through the play. I like to write notes on a hardcopy, put the changes in the computer, and reprint... It's not the most enviromentally friendly way of working... I write out of sequence so that I'm leading with the moments that mean the most to me. Location is very important to me. I tend to watch a lot of documentaries and transcript the dialogue to learn how to write the speech cadence and vocabulary of a specific location - the setting for the play." Lindsey Ferrentino (Amy and the Orphans, Exile, The Vultures) from Playbill.

"I wait a long time before I write the play down. I trust my intuition and don’t rewrite very much. Like everybody else I write a little too much and get carried away with the sound of my own voice, but I can cut. And I’ve learned one other important thing: If you have some notion as to where you’re going, and in the middle of the play you find out that it’s changing, trust your intuition." Edward Albee from Interview Magazine.

"The only time I’m really happy is re-reading what I’ve handwritten the day before. Re-reading it and being surprised that I actually wrote that. That’s sounds pretty arrogant, but there’s a joy in that, flipping back the last two hand-written pages and being surprised. I think it probably gives me more joy than anything else I’ve done up to this point." Martin McDonagh from Bomb Magazine.

In : Writing Process 

Tags: "playwrights on playwriting" ideas "first drafts" 
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