I started my regular play-writing life out of necessity while teaching drama to teenagers. It was very hard to find scripts that suited the number of students in a class, or were engaging for young people today. So I wrote to order, taking into account what I felt would challenge individual actors. I now have many ten to twenty minute pieces for around eight actors, usually predominantly female.
I also ruthlessly adapted such classics as The Importance of Being Earnest and Antigone down to twenty minute pieces, which was a useful exercise in identifying the essentials of storytelling.
For me the whole point of playwriting has always been to create a workable piece for a particular group and then realise it on stage. This has always been my main motivation. I don’t see the end of the process as a script, but only consider it finished once it is playing to an audience.
Because of this, I am visualising the action onstage as I write. There is always an audience present in my mind, and usually some kind of lighting to highlight what I am trying to create – the atmosphere of a certain moment. So the process has a very practical side, which sometimes I think must constrict my supposed creativity. But on the other hand there is no point in coming up with something that is impossible to stage.
My usual starting point is telling some keen young actors I will write a script for them and then having to do it – at the last moment, and reluctantly. I even once submitted ten pages of a script to an International Women’s Playwrights Festival and then had to write the rest when it was accepted for a reading. So either a deadline is necessary to my process, or it is just laziness.
I often have little idea of what I am going to come up with when I start to write. It is maybe just a moment or an atmosphere. This is where writing for particular actors comes in; somehow they help me produce characters and then the situations come from there. Generally I have an idea of the production’s scale and a feeling of the emotional areas I could be entering – a comedy for thirty students such as The Beanstalkers, or a small-cast drama such as Affinity.
It is sometimes surprising though, when I get going and something very different from my vague imaginings starts to appear. I write both serious and fun stuff, but don’t always know which it will be. There are times when I have tried to be serious and it just won’t happen, so I decide perhaps comedy is the better way to pose a serious question anyway. This also goes for attempts at lightheartedness that emerge rather grim.
Not being a very original thinker, I console myself with the thought that Shakespeare often used already-existing stories. My starting point could be the concept from another play that then develops into something quite different. For instance the idea of two couples in adjacent hotel rooms in Noel Coward’s Private Lives became Crazy Joint Love – two teenage couples in a backpackers come to Wellington for a rock concert. In no other way could you describe them as similar, but I have definitely not invented the situation myself. I always admit to this and encourage the cast to read the originals. I also take characters from well-known plays and put them together in different contemporary contexts, such as Hamlet, Antigone and several others who became modern teenagers in 2b or nt 2b. This is good fun to do.
I worked with particular groups on particular issues – for instance I drew on the experiences of young people with depression or other mental health problems for Inside Out, and feminism in New Zealand with Eating The Wolf. The input and life-views of these groups were integral to the plays’ final results, and so much of each play reflects the essence of the original group for whom I wrote it. I can still picture those actors performing. My latest play, 4 Billion Likes! – a one-person comedy which also raises the serious issue of rape and rape culture in New Zealand – was created for Neenah Dekkers-Reihana who had been a student of mine for several years and, between us, it seemed to write itself.
If I don’t put myself in situations where I promise a script, they will probably never be written. I will do just about anything other than sit down and get started. The whole thing is at least fifty percent struggle and probably less than fifty percent buzz.
The first few pages are a buzz; the rest, a struggle. I guess if I were someone who knew from the outset what they were trying to say, maybe I would have more signposts. Eventually – maybe even as late as when rehearsals start and we have to unpick the states of mind and motivations of the characters – what I have written becomes clear to me. It seems obvious and I am surprised I didn’t realise it at the time. It can also be amusing when reviewers find meanings in my plays that never occurred to me.
The next step of rehearsals is much the same with the balance of struggle and buzz, except the buzz comes at the end when the wonderful young people are onstage giving life to something that started as just a thought in my head. That’s a great feeling. For me, that is the real goal of the writing process.
Sarah Delahunty is a playwright, director and teacher of theatre working with teenagers. Her plays include 2b or nt 2b, Eating the Wolf, Affinity and 4 Billion Likes! She ate her lifetime share of chocolate before she was forty-two and hasn’t touched it since (it’s been a while!).