3 How to Read a Play and Watch a Production
You are likely familiar with reading a novel, a short story, an article, or many other forms of narratives. Plays are a different beast, and unless you are in the theatre business, the chances of you reading a play are rather small. Unlike any other form of fiction, plays are exclusively written through dialogue (what the characters say) and stage directions.
Reading Stage Directions
In a written play, you won’t find paragraphs that describe how the characters feel or what the characters see. Instead, there are stage directions, which deal with what needs to happen on stage or with what the stage/characters look like or do.
Stage directions are useful to the director, the actors, and the designers to understand the mechanics of the performance: where is the scenic design? What does the space look like? Where do the characters enter from? Where do they exit? They also provide information about what needs to happen outside of the dialogue, such as a sound—a doorbell or a telephone ringing.
The way stage directions are written is visually different from the dialogue. Usually, they are italicized and separated from the dialogue.
It is important to understand whether the stage directions have been written by the playwright or if they just relate to the original production of the play. In the first case, it is important to follow them as they represent the will of the playwright, while if they are just a report of what happened in a previous production, they can be discarded. Either way, they are never read out loud on stage! Famous American playwrights Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are famous for writing very specific stage directions.
Identifying Characters: Who Are They?
Every play has a protagonist. The protagonist is the character who carries the story and pushes it forward. It is the character who changes the most during the course of the play. In the case of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, they are both protagonists but actually function as one (as they are a couple). Some actors will consider the protagonist the character with the most lines, but while that might often be the case, it is not the correct definition. There are, in fact, cases in which the character with the most lines is a supporting character, for example in the case of a play with a narrator—like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town— or in Shakespeare’s Othello, in which the character who has the most lines isn’t the title role. The protagonist is the character who needs to solve the main conflict and overcome the main obstacle.
In all classic Greek theatre the Greek hero―the protagonist―is ALWAYS a male character. As a matter of fact, women were not allowed to perform at the time and female characters were played by men wearing masks.
The embodiment of the obstacle is called the antagonist. Now, while the protagonist is ALWAYS a character in the play, the antagonist can be a character or something else, like a disease, society, a concept, or a fear. To understand who the antagonist is, the best way is to focus on what or who the protagonist needs to overcome in order to achieve what he or she wants. Supporting characters, while they don’t have the status of the protagonist, are all important as they help the story move on and provide vital information for the audience.
When reading a play, it is important to identify its structure to better understand the play’s message and the actions of the characters. Script analysis is the first step for every actor and director when approaching a play. What are we are looking for in a script analysis?
A play begins when something happens that breaks the stasis, the routine of everyday life. This is called initial event, or inciting incident. The whole trajectory of the play aims to restore the stasis and solve whatever conflict was caused or ignited by the initial event. Keep in mind that the initial event might not necessarily be at the beginning of the play. It might have happened before the play even began. For example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the initial event is tied to the feud between two families, which was ignited by something before the play starts. That is what prevents Romeo and Juliet from being together and is what they try to overcome for the duration of the play.
Once the stasis is broken, the play begins, and several events happen that lead the characters towards a breaking point: a moment when the main conflict is at its emotional high point. At that moment, called the climax, whatever actions the protagonist undertakes will lead to the resolution of the conflict and consequently to the resolution of the play. All the actions that happen up until the Climax fall into what we call rising action, while everything that happens from the Climax to the end of the play is called falling action. In a good play, the climax is as close as possible to the end, because once the main conflict is resolved, there is little left to keep the audience engaged.
The climax needs to involve the protagonist of the play and deal with the main conflict. Let’s go back to Romeo and Juliet. The main conflict of the play is that Romeo and Juliet—both protagonists—want to be together, but because of the hatred between their families, they can’t. Yet, they conceive a way to be together that entails several actions, which include getting the nurse on their side, getting secretly married, running away from Verona, and drinking a sleeping concoction. All of that falls into the rising action. The climax is when Juliet is in the tomb, still asleep, and Romeo walks in. While the audience knows that Juliet is merely sleeping, Romeo is clearly unaware of that. What the audience wishes for is for Juliet to wake up BEFORE Romeo does some extreme gesture, and that moment is exactly the climax. It’s the moment when the audience doesn’t know how it is all going to end. Once Romeo kills himself with his dagger, we know they will not live happily ever after. When Juliet wakes up, it is too late. Romeo is dead, she can’t fathom living without him and uses his dagger to kill herself. That is the beginning of the falling action. Then the Friar arrives with the two families, but it is too late to save the day. His final speech functions as the resolution of the play and highlights its moral: hate will only lead to tragedy. As you can see, in the case of Romeo and Juliet, the climax is really close to the end of the play.
There are other important terms to remember when it comes to script analysis. One of them is reversal, which is an unexpected twist in the plot. A reversal is a sudden complication that prevents the protagonist from moving forward. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, a reversal happens when the letter that the Friar sends to Romeo, warning him about Juliet’s fake death, doesn’t reach the young man.
It is also important to understand the difference between the story and the plot. The story is the whole thing: every fact and detail about what happened and how it happened. The plot, instead, is a selection of events from the story. The story is the bigger picture, the plot is the arrangement of snapshots. This is true for theatre and for the big screen. Think about it: take World War II. How many movies are about it? Hundreds, yet each one is different. The story, in this case, is World War II, while each movie selects certain events that happened during the war and arranges them into a timeline and into a screenplay.
When it comes to plots, there are two main types. There is the linear or casual plot, where everything happens chronologically, following the cause-effect chain of events. Then there is the episodic plot, which rearranges the events regardless of the chronological order using flashbacks and flash-forwards. As you can guess, the linear plot follows the laws of nature and sticks to realism, while the episodic plot lends itself to more complex narratives and storytelling. Flashbacks might provide insights into the characters or plant clues for something that might happen… at some point. That is often the case in television series, where writers do this to keep doors open to possible future developments.
Frequently, plays feature subplots as well, as a way to give supporting characters more background and provide more information about the world of the play. A subplot is a secondary timeline involving supporting characters who might have their own personal journey, with their own conflict to solve. Subplots also function as a relief from the main plot, a way to give the audience a break from the primary conflict. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, there is a subplot at the beginning, involving Mercutio and Tybalt, that leads the two characters into a fight that will eventually kill Mercutio.
ARISTOTLE’S ELEMENTS OF THE PERFECT PLAY
In his Poetics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle outlined the most important elements of script analysis, providing a specific example of a play that perfectly embodies all of them. The play he used for this purpose is Oedipus the King, by Sophocles. The elements he considered in his analysis included the following:
- Plot (mythos)
- Melody (melos)
- Characters (ethos)
- Language (lexis)
- Spectacle (opsis)
- Thought (dianoia)
For a play to be considered good and educational, it needed to have a compelling plot (in Greek, mythos) and a story that needed to be told. Oedipus the King tells the story of a young man who tries to defy his destiny and (thanks to his intelligence and good nature) becomes a king—only to experience a ruinous downfall. His downfall forces him to accept his fate and become a living example of his own wrongdoing.
Melody and language are also important elements. Melody can be achieved both with music and with the rhythm of the language. Classic Greek tragedies used verse, which gave the speech rhythm and rhyme, and the performances also had music in them – with dancers in the orchestra.
According to Aristotle, characters needed to be of noble birth because the common citizen had to learn a lesson: if someone above a common citizen’s status made a mistake, recognized the mistake, and accepted his punishment, that character would be a good role model. The argumentation (thought) highlighted in the dialogue would make the protagonist’s personal journey more believable.
Finally, in order to keep the audience engaged, Aristotle recognized that some form of spectacle needed to be present. That element could be achieved with the dancing, but also with what is known as Deus-Ex-Machina (literally, “God Out of the Machine”), which is the closest thing to special effects that the Greeks created.
How to Watch a Production of a Play!
When you go to the theatre and enter the house, your theatrical experience begins. In order to enjoy it fully, there are a few things you should keep in mind and look for.
First, unwrap all of your candies now. Don’t wait to do it in the middle of the most tense scene of the play.
There is no right or wrong way to experience a theatre production and you might end up loving it, hating it, or anything in between. You might be in attendance because you chose to do it, because you are going along with a friend, or to support someone in the production, or just… because you got a free ticket, and, why not! You might have previous knowledge about the play, or not. Regardless, allow yourself to be surprised and be open to what the performance is bringing to life and to you. The one thing that should not happen is that the performance leaves you indifferent.
Theatre happens live every time. The show begins and doesn’t stop until the end. You can’t “pause” it like you do for shows and movies on TV. You can’t replay one scene because you missed it and got distracted. You have to pay attention and retain the details of the story as they are presented to you.
As you are sitting in the house, quite likely someone helped you to your seat. That would be an usher, who has also given you a program, also known as playbill. Inside it, you will find all the information about the show, including brief biographies of the actors and of the creative team and a director’s note, which will introduce you to the play and to the specific concept for that production.
When the house goes dark and the curtain rises, the magic begins.
Invocation and Instructions to the Audience, from the musical “THE FROGS” by Stephen Sondheim (1974)
Below are the lyrics for the opening number of Stephen Sondheim’s musical The Frogs. The original production opened at Yale University in 1974 and starred Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Christopher Durang. It later moved to Broadway and starred Nathan Lane in 2004.
This song summarizes theatre etiquette…..food for thought, readers!
Gods of the theater, smile on us.
You who sit out there stern in judgment,
Smile on us.
1st ACTOR: 2nd ACTOR:
We offer you song and dance.
We offer you rites and revels.
We offer you gods and heroes.
We offer you jokes and insults,
We offer you paeans and pageants, We offer you
Bacchanals and social comment. Bacchanals and social comment.
Bless our play and smile.
Yes, but first, some do’s and don’ts. Mostly don’ts.
Please don’t cough,
It tends to throw the actors off.
Have some respect for Aristophanes
Don’t say “What?”
To every line you think you haven’t got.
And if you’re in a snit
Because you’ve missed the plot
(Of which I must admit
There’s not an awful lot),
If you see flaws, please,
Don’t drop your jaws, please.
No loud guffaws, please,
When actors enter late.
When there’s a pause, please,
Lots of applause, please.
And we’d appreciate
You turning off your cell phones while we wait…
Music stops. A cell phone rings.
I think it’s you. [to the other actor]
Hello? This really isn’t a good time.
I said, this really isn’t — can you hear me now? Can you hear me now??
Don’t go “Oh,”
Each time you see an actor that you know.
And if you have to use the lounge below,
Don’t wait until we’re halfway through the show,
Especially if you’re sitting in the middle of a row.
No smokes, no chow —
Unwrap the candy wrappers now.
When we are waxing humorous,
Please don’t wane.
The jokes are obscure, but numerous —
When we are waxing serious,
Try not to laugh.
It starts when we get imperious,
And if you’re in doubt, don’t query us,
We’ll signal you when we’re serious —
It’s in the second half.
Do not intrude, please,
When someone’s nude, please.
She’s there for mood, please,
And mustn’t be embraced.
If we are crude, please,
Don’t come unglued, please.
Let’s not be too strait-laced —
The author’s reputation wasn’t based
So please, don’t fart —
There’s very little air and this is art.
And if you feel offended,
Don’t lose heart.
That’s what the man intended.
He was smart.
When everything’s up-ended,
We can all depart.
But first —
Sound of thunder — the gods are getting impatient.
Allow yourself to suspend your disbelief and focus on following the story. Remember: the actors can’t see you, but they can “feel” you. A good audience energizes and complements the actors and truly helps them move forward. It is part of the live component of the theatre, the mutual exchange of energy going from the stage to the audience and vice versa. So, please, turn off your cell phones! Not only are they a distraction for you and for those around you, but they are visible from the stage too. Do you really want to let the actors think that they are boring you to the point of resorting to scrolling your social media? Please, be respectful of the work that everyone in the production has put into it. A show is a brief moment in your day, and usually has an intermission where you can catch up on with the outside world.
Emergencies aside, refrain from leaving the theatre in the middle of the show. Many productions won’t allow audience members to re-enter the theatre once they exit and the same can be said for latecomers: if you arrive after the show has begun, you might not be allowed in for a while, sometimes until intermission.
Is it OK to clap in the middle of a show to compliment the actors? Well, not really, although the etiquette isn’t that definitive. It is not unusual to see the audience clap at the first entrance of a famous actor on stage. Broadway shows often feature well-known stars and the audience acknowledgment through clapping is almost expected and given its space in the staging of the scene. Otherwise, clapping may interfere with the storytelling and create a distraction for the actors, who struggle to stay in character. The best practice is to hold the clapping for the curtain call when all the actors will drop their character, line up and bow.
How to write a theatre review
Fun fact! Theatre critics are invited to review a production on opening night, or right after it. They can’t attend or write about rehearsals or previews because artistic choices are not finalized until opening night, hence, they can’t be critiqued until then.
What makes a good critic or review? Open-mindedness, specificity in the comments, constructive criticism, and research to back it all up.
When you write about a theatre production, keep in mind that the reader needs to understand from your writing what the play is about and what the specific production you have seen has done with it. You have to assume, then, that your reader has not seen the show and has little to no knowledge of the play as well. If you follow this perspective, it will be easier for you to figure out what information ought to be discussed and how detailed you need to be.
When you have seen the show, you should have been given a playbill (program), which is where you will find all the people you have to credit when you discuss the acting, direction, and design choices. Remember: there is only one play called Romeo and Juliet written by William Shakespeare but there are thousands of productions of Romeo and Juliet every year all around the world. The production you have seen is unique. It was conceived following a specific and original artistic concept and was performed by a certain cast. That is the production you are writing about!
It is also important to point out what the production has done with the play in terms of interpretation.
I’ll use Romeo and Juliet to make an example. As we all know, Shakespeare writes the tragic deaths of the two young lovers. At the end of the play, Romeo rushes to Juliet’s tomb. Believing she is dead, he turns his dagger against himself. Juliet wakes up just a minute too late, sees him dead, and kills herself in return. When Friar Cristoforo arrives with the two families, it is too late and all that is left to do is to deliver the moral of the story. This is what happens in the play. This is what was written.
In a 2017 Filipino production directed by Ricardo Abad and produced by Tanghalang Ateneo, the entire production was staged in a traditional Filipino style and the ending was slightly different. The two lovers still die and the two families still arrive too late to save the day… but they perform a ritualistic dance to grant the deceased a peaceful journey into the afterlife. At the end of the ritual, they cover the bodies with a white sheet, place a small box on top of them and leave. Then, something magical happens. The lights change and narrow on the two lovers, who “wake up” and start dancing together. In a final climactic moment, Romeo and Juliet embrace as she opens the small box setting two real butterflies free.
Blackout. End of the show. No lines are added to the script, but the atmosphere of the play acquires a completely different tone as it shows that while the two lovers couldn’t be together in this world, they can be so in the afterlife.
So you see, the artistic choices made by this production, while they do not conflict with the original material, they do have a strong impact on the audience’s perception and experience of it.
In a review, it is then important to distinguish between what is an artistic choice of the production and what is the play itself. In order to successfully do so, you might have to do a little research, in particular, if you are not familiar with the play to begin with. The research will also help you support your thoughts and will ground your review. Be careful though! If you are using quotes from pre-existing material, such as someone else’s review, or an article, or a chapter of a book, you must include the source and cite it, otherwise you will incur in plagiarism – stealing someone else’s work and making it pass as your own.
Please credit the actors, not the characters! Romeo doesn’t exist: he didn’t “rush his lines” or “seemed not to understand his role”. The actor playing Romeo might have done all that instead.
Exercise constructive criticism: you might not have enjoyed the show, and you might want to make it clear to the world and to your readers, and that is absolutely fine, but… Be respectful of the work that has been put into the production, regardless of the outcome.
Finally, refrain from generalizing your comments. Avoid using terms such as “good” or “bad” without any kind of contextualization. If you liked something, explain what made you like it, as “good” and “bad” mean different things to different people. Once again, imagine the readers haven’t seen the production! They should be able to form an opinion about the production from your writing.
Inciting Incident/Initial Event
Falling Action / Rising Action
Flashbacks / Flash Forwards
Linear / Casual Plot
Plot / Sub-Plot