Playwrights write scripts intended for live stage production.
Play writing is a profession with a long history, and new work is vital to the theatre community. Professional playwrights are more than just writers - they are builders of worlds who have taken it upon themselves to show an audience a particular story. Some plays are linear, while others are more experimental. A playwright's unique style can make the prospect of staging their work exciting to a director or theatre company. Some plays are very specific about their setting, while others may leave more room for sparse staging or imaginative direction. Some are dialogue heavy, while others may be more action oriented. Playwrights who write musicals may collaborate with composers or write music themselves; in some cases, the idea of what constitutes a play may be expanded to include those who write the underlying text that serves as the basis for an opera or ballet. Whether a playwright dreams up a densely populated world with hundreds of actors or a one-performer show, their text may undergo a transformative journey between paper and stage.
Writing plays can be a harrowing process of story planning, character study, dialogue (and dialect!) research, not to mention actual writing and continuous revision. Many new plays are first performed as staged readings, which are exactly what they sound like: actors reading from the script in a live performance setting, moving around the space as directed - often by the playwright themselves. Staged readings can be valuable revision tools for playwrights, who may be able to see holes in their work they had not considered or hear audience feedback.
Work as a playwright may include...
- Developing character traits and arcs
- Building the internal world of a play and determining its rules
- Writing dialogue, character actions, and stage directions
- Workshopping new scripts in performance and critique settings
- Researching the setting of a play and incorporating its unique characteristics
The degree to which a playwright is involved with a show's production process varies; those early in their career often make a point of being involved with a show's run and attending its opening performance, while more established playwrights may go as far as to select a production's director. Some direct their own work, though doing so becomes more difficult to swing in professional theatre settings. The main issue playwrights face is getting work read and produced; contests, workshops, and calls for new plays from specific companies can be an aspiring playwright's ticket to success. Many playwrights, especially those just starting out, have some type of day job to support the pursuit of their art.
It's rare for an untrained writer to sit down and write a play, though it does happen. Playwrights often start out as appreciators of theatre and are driven towards training at the high school or college level. Youth and student workshops can be a great way to learn the rules of script writing, from acceptable formats to narrative development. Most college theatre programs involve at least some coursework in play writing, which can include exercises in adaptation, storytelling, and critique. Students who pursue Bachelor's degrees with a focus on play writing are expected to read numerous plays and usually produce at least one of their own works before graduating. Aspiring playwrights who want to hone their craft in a structured setting may opt for Master's degrees in the discipline, which typically take two years and culminate in a final product. Working with local arts spaces and performance groups can be beneficial to playwrights looking to see their work staged in some capacity. Numerous theatre companies have residency programs for playwrights, which can provide staging opportunities and lead to significant exposure.
If you're imaginative and committed to contributing new written work to the world of theatre, consider jumping headfirst into a career as a playwright.
The Dramatists Guild is the national trade association of playwrights, composers, lyricists, and librettists, protecting their work and rights.
The Playwrights Foundation is dedicated to creating space for playwrights to explore, create, and collaborate on new works.
The Playwright's Center sustains, develops, and advocates for playwrights and their work to realize their full artistic potential.