The Ballet of Writing

September 1, 2016 § 12 Comments

The Brevity staff gets back to basics.

The Brevity staff gets back to basics.

All professional dancers take ballet. Even this guy. It’s the foundation of their physical training, and it’s a particularly precise and detailed style of movement. Once a dancer understands and embodies the concepts of ballet, it’s considerably easier to master other styles of dance. The language of ballet weaves through other dance styles–while staggering through a 3-week residency with the choreographer Reggie Wilson (I was there as a scholar/researcher, but we all took morning class), I watched as he demonstrated sixteen complex counts, the feet coming from Haitian religious dance, the hips from a ringshout with a dash of Martha Graham. “What are the arms?” one girl asked. Reggie tossed over his shoulder, “Oh, it’s just port de bras fifth-fourth-third, alternate arabesque but en de dans.”* Everyone else in the room briefly nodded, and then they all did it, because they knew exactly what he was talking about.

All writers should take playwriting. I’m biased–my MFA is in playwriting, my undergrad in Theatre, and I spent ten years as an actor/creator/director. But the more I practice nonfiction, the more I realize that playwriting is the foundation of my work. Here’s why:

Better dialogue. When written dialogue is the only thing you have control over (directors often ignore stage directions to make their own interpretation of a play), the playwright must write to not only convey information but show emotional content. The writer doesn’t dictate how actors read lines, so if you want “angry,” the words out of their mouths had better take them there.

Show don’t tell. Everything in a play must be shown. While Our Town is still a masterpiece,  very rarely can anyone else get away with onstage narration. If you want information on stage, it must be in a scene. There’s no explaining the characters’ world–they have to interact with it until it’s clear. Backstory (“exposition”) is death on stage, because it’s someone talking at the audience about stuff the character already knows, rather than taking an action. And if your actors realize they are delivering exposition, they will start…

Questioning the writing. Yes, we receive feedback in our writing workshops, but it’s a whole new level of pain/wonder to hear your work read aloud, then listen to the people who read it have a vigorous discussion about why big chunks of it aren’t working and what they don’t understand. And how often does a writer see their characters get up and act out the dialogue? It’s the fastest way to understand which parts made sense in your head…and your head only. Which brings us to:

Fast turnaround. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t like the feedback. There’s another rehearsal tomorrow night and you’d better show up with new pages that solve the problem somehow, or the same actor will give the director the same exasperated look and sigh, “I still don’t know why my character is in this scene.”

Desperation is the mother of creativity. You want Mount Everest. The theatre’s budget is $39000 and that has to pay 12 people for nine weeks on top of the set and costumes budget. How your vision comes to life means collaborating, letting other people pollinate your ideas, and opening space in your vision for their contributions. (For the record, playwright Jamie Pachino’s Everest/artist loft/teenage girl’s room turned out amazing.) Fortunately…

Dramaturgs are amazing. Most new plays headed for production have a dramaturg–the writer’s advocate, coach, and sounding board. So when you get a pile of notes from the director, questions from the actors, and comments from audience members that contradict everything else you heard, you have a specific person whose job it is to sort through the feedback with you. They’ll help you figure out which feedback is useful to your intention and what may be valid but irrelevant, or not useful, or based on a different interpretation of the play. They’ll help you focus on what needs to be addressed first, which scenes can be given another shot before making big changes. But most of all:

Playwriting is about structure. The vast majority of plays focus on clear character arcs. The protagonist has a problem, or lives in an untenable situation. They must take actions to seek a specific goal. They must change on the way to that goal. And we must clearly know if they have succeeded or failed. Playwrights do write other structures, but it’s usually a specific choice to work with a different arc, and they plot it out just as thoroughly as a more-traditional structure. Everyone’s character arc has to make sense, and there’s a person playing that character who will be paying attention to whether or not it does (and often inventing imaginary details to pad out their personal concept of the character).

What makes playwriting great is a mix of process and product–which is why I recommend taking a playwriting class, preferably one that involves actors reading your work aloud, rather than just reading a book (although that’s a good start!). Spending so much time in dark rooms hearing people question my work, watching them act it out, having coaches who I knew had my back, and focusing intensely on structure has given me a specific set of tools and techniques that I can choose to employ. They’re precise. They’re detailed. And they are the foundation of all my work.


*I have no idea what Reggie actually said, because I don’t speak that language and I was clearly a baby rhino among gazelles, but you get my drift.



Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.

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