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What are the considerations one has to take into account when writing a play, that are imposed by the format of a play, a.k.a by the fact that it is played on stage?

For example, in Shakespeare's time, all "corpses" had to be carried off stage, because there was no curtain and no lights that could be turned off, so the corpses couldn't just get up and go away. (Particularly noticeable at the end of tragedies, when there are many corpses to be carried away. That's why we have Fortinbras in Hamlet, for example.) Today, of course, no such consideration exists.

Another example: classical ballets are structured in such a way that the principals can catch their breath after a demanding pas de deux. This comes into play not just during staging, but already at the stage of writing the score.

An obvious theatre consideration is "people can't fly" (unless the production has a lot of money), same for other special effects. What are other considerations that must be taken into account when writing a play that living people would have to perform on stage?

To clarify, I am not interesting in staging - that could be re-imagined depending on who's producing the play. I am interested in that which has to be written from the start, by the playwright. Shakespeare had to write Fortinbras in from the start, so that someone would be there to remove the corpses in the end.

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    This seems extremely broad. Everything from sightlines to costume changes, blocking to special effects, casting – even lighting and acoustics…. Considering the Greeks had gods ascending on ropes suspended by a boom, and modern theater is often in the Robert Lepage/Julie Taymor school of visual spectacle, there are almost no parts of a play that cannot be re-imagined with innovative staging. Narrow the question to one (or related) aspects of playwriting. – wetcircuit Feb 25 at 12:54
  • @wetcircuit Better? – Galastel Feb 25 at 13:03
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    I think the example of corpses getting off stage is still the work of the director and dramaturge, not the playwright. This question is similar to "What special effects should I not include in my screenplay?" There is no "answer" to this question. Actors invoke things that are not onstage all the time, and the audience willingly ignore Kuroko stagehands. This is what theater is about – not "realism". Since the beginning plays have been about "unstageable" concepts like sea battles, wars of "thousands", journeys to fantastical places, monsters and gods… with only a few actors and no sets. – wetcircuit Feb 25 at 13:12
  • A famous play is about a man who has sex with a horse. The "horse" is a man in a mask. There is nothing that cannot be presented on stage, that is kind of the whole "magic" of theater. If you include Grand Guignol, they presented every horror they could come up with on a tiny stage with only a few actors. Defying the limits of what's real is what actors believe their job to be. – wetcircuit Feb 25 at 13:17
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    A note on Fortinbras: together with Horatio they play the equivalent of the choir at the end of the play. They honor Hamlet, thus giving a moral stature to his tragic deeds. It is true that Horatio could have ended with a monologue amidst a field of corpses, but not rendering Hamlet the due honor in the final moments would have been far too much of a nihilist tragedy for some author like Shakespeare. – NofP Feb 25 at 23:44
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Stage productions aren't just about the script.

In your corpse example, there are several ways to handle it and it depends on the director more than the playwright.

  • The corpses pile up and then there is a marker to indicate the end of the act which resets things. The corpses turn back into actors and get up and walk away.

  • The character falls over and dies off stage (or falls onstage and crawls off to die). The injury causing the death would be onstage and obvious. Actors left onstage could react to "seeing" the character die, even if the audience can't see them.

  • Same as above only the final fall-down-and-die is behind a set piece.

  • Someone drags them off.

This is something I've actually dealt with. In the classical ballet production of The Nutcracker, one of the acts is The Battle Scene where toy soldiers come to life and both they and mice grow to the size of humans and engage in battle. In most versions, both soldiers and mice get stabbed and die on stage. In the production we're involved with, other mice or soldiers drag off their fallen comrades-in-arms. In small productions (like ours), the dancers playing the dead come back on stage as reinforcements. (And trust me where I say that not having the young children doing this rehearse pulling the dead characters all the way off stage before the dancer resurrects leads to some unintended consequences.)

In general though, the director will make changes. In ballets, a double pas de deux will turn into a pas de trois, if you're short a man (as small companies often are). A scene designed for 5 characters might become one for 4, if they're down an actor. Or 6, if they need to fit someone else in.

Your job as a playwright is not to dictate the absolutes, but to make clear which parts are important to keep as is and have flexibility for the rest. To minimize changes, make sure your asks are possible.

The most important thing to keep track of is where your actors are. Don't have a character enter stage right 5 seconds after exiting stage left. Either allow enough time to get around or change the staging (and here I mean, don't write something that requires an actor to come to a particular location that isn't feasible...the director will figure out blocking early on in rehearsals).

This includes keeping track of costume, hair, and makeup changes. While performers can and will change in the wings if they have to, there are still limits on how fast this can happen. For example, if you use the same actor to be a 30 year old and then her/himself at 70, put a transitionary scene between the time jump. The dancers I work with can change costumes in about a minute and a half (in the wings, with help, assume 4-5 pieces per costume), 2.5 minutes if they also have to change shoes. If they have to do anything more to hair and makeup than pull out a hairpiece and stick in another, not only does the time needed increase dramatically, but you have to account for time to and from the dressing room because they will need more light than you can have in the wings.

Other things to keep track of are set pieces and props. If you want to go from a scene at school with 10 actors sitting at desks to a scene in someone's living room, you're going to need at least 3-4 minutes in-between (and frankly, this is better done with an intermission).

I was in a play in high school where the actors who weren't on at this time had to work behind a closed curtain in the dark to make a change of this magnitude. We had 2-3 minutes while a small scene played out in front of the curtain. During dress rehearsal, I found myself still on the raised set platform as the curtain started to open. I rushed, flew off the platform on to the main stage, and ended up in the ER with a (thankfully only) badly sprained wrist (and did my performances in a brace). While this was the director's fault (we'd asked for glow-in-the-dark tape to mark the stairs and/or low-level lighting and didn't get it), there was no reason for the author to have made this transition so fast. A major company has special equipment and moveable sets, but high schools don't.

With props, remember that a prop off stage stage right isn't going to magically appear for an actor to grab stage left. Not all props are easy to duplicate. If you write that an actor drops a prop on stage, unless it's the very end of the act, write in a way to get that prop out of the way. If a prop needs to be swept up (falling snow in the Nutcracker's snow scene), make really sure it's at the end of an act. This is how accidents happen.

If your play requires certain types of staging, state that up front with the cast list. It's okay if you must have flying harnesses, backdrop changes, rear curtain projectors, etc, but make sure no one commits to the play before they realize this. If you can provide alternatives, do it.

There are many more examples but hopefully these are useful.

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    Very useful. :) You're giving a general approach with some examples. It's a very good place to start. – Galastel Feb 25 at 22:17
  • @Galastel Thanks. Seriously though, someone could write a book answering just your question. I'm sure several people have. :-D – Cyn Feb 25 at 22:18
  • And here I thought I asked a question the answer to which might be a null set. :-D Shows what I know. – Galastel Feb 25 at 22:20
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All the technical considerations really do come back to the fact that someone has to stage it. So from that point of view, you'd want to put yourself in the place of those choosing a play to do. Of course, what they are looking for could vary largely. Here are a couple of possibilities:

  • High School Play - Lots of high schools do plays, so that makes up a relatively large market. Some schools stick strictly to well-known classics, but others take some chances. They'll be looking for maximum participation, so they'll want a large cast. Depending on the director and the community, they'll probably something that would be rated G, PG or PG-13 if it was an American movie. They probably won't have much budget, so they'll need simple, minimalist sets and few or no scene changes. This is why so many high schools continue to do "Our Town." Community theater presentations, with volunteer actors, will be looking for pretty much the same range of considerations.

  • Indie Production - This is a low-budget, but professional production. Since they are paying their actors, they'll want a small cast --three to five characters --and more challenging, meaty, and adult material. Given the low budget, they'll also need simple sets.

  • Blockbuster Musical - Since this is a big budget spectacle, you'll want to pull out all the stops. Full cast of union actors, full orchestra, multiple fancy sets and big pyrotechnic gimmicks. Although, if you can find creative ways to do any of that on the cheap, you'll do even better.

  • Actor Showcase - This is a piece that a veteran actor can take on the road. It shows off all of his or her skills (he sings, he dances, she makes people laugh, she moves them to tears) but it doesn't require much in the way of other actors or a set. So, it's basically a set of monologues.

You may have noticed that pretty much everyone is going to be looking for a simple set because sets are expensive. There's a philosophy of theater, going back to the ancient Greeks, that plays should respect the "three unities" (one action, one place, one time), which of course, does make the sets simpler. More modern plays often get around this with creativity. Scenery is visibly carried/portrayed by actors in The Lion King. Most of Death of a Salesman takes place in the main character's head. The sets in Man of La Mancha are explicitly presented as hastily improvised and makeshift within the play's narrative.

These aren't artistic limitations they're technical ones, but they are pretty decisive. I think you'll find nearly all the modern plays you've ever seen fit in one of these boxes. The artistic creativity comes in finding out cheats or ways around these limits (which, after all, is pretty much what Shakespeare did too).

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One of my favorite "constraints" is that the audience is more willing to accept things. If it's a film/video/tv, they expect some realism. If it's a play, instead of needing to go On Location, a single tall stepladder can be the Cliffs of Danger. One actor can be many characters. Some things may be represented by puppets or a single cardboard sign. 2 chairs may sometimes be a car, a board room, a counter at a coffee shop, etc.

I feel that the barer-bones the production, the more the audience has invested -- they've filled in some blanks, so they want the show to succeed, whatever "success" means for that show.

I think this is why Audio Theater is often so engrossing, too. Listen to some OTR of X-Minus-One from archive.org, for some great examples.

The biggest problem is it's often easier to spend money than time/imagination -- so your audiences may be more limited in quantity, because they're used to the simplicity of filmed works.

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