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  • Practical Playwriting: A Guide to Writing for the Stage
  • Denise Pullen
Practical Playwriting: A Guide to Writing for the Stage. By Leroy Clark. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2007; pp. xii + 261. $16.95 paper.

Practical Playwriting is a comprehensive text for the new and experienced playwright. To say it is thorough is an understatement; the book is ambitious by design, attempting to guide the user through all stages of play development. With over 30 years of teaching experience, in addition to extensive playwriting and directing careers, Leroy Clark clearly has the knowledge and expertise to fill several books on playwriting, but he manages to pass along his insights in one comprehensive volume.

In the book’s preface, Clark lays out the plan: “After writing about six exercises, the writer should begin to focus the rest of the exercises on specific characters and develop a complete play” (xi). The text includes approximately 60 exercises that are placed at important intervals, allowing the writer to choose between beginner-, intermediate- and advanced-level activities. However, for the new writer, or a one-semester playwriting student, realizing all of the scenes and monologues—even a ten-minute collaborative play suggested in later exercises—might be a daunting task while writing a complete play. Accordingly, Clark invites the writer to pick and choose from these activities, and even offers some diagnostic advice for the writer with a play already in process.

The book is divided into 18 chapters; the first 16 include everything from gathering ideas, to developing premise, conflict, plot, rhythm, structure, character, dialogue, and monologues. The seventeenth chapter covers the first draft and rewriting, and the final chapter details “Readings, Contests, Productions, and Other Opportunities.” The chapters contain detailed subcategories and even some surprising topics such as scansion, the “Magic If,” and “The Johari Window.” Unfortunately, the information in some sections is occasionally difficult to follow: subjects are randomly repeated, and at times certain portions of the text seem misplaced and tangential, such as an effective section on the problem of “static conflict” placed in chapter 1, “The Essence of Drama” (14). Although Clark’s advice on escalating conflict is good, it can often impede the process to focus on such issues before the play is in motion. Another example is an extensive section on character detail, complete with a series of quite helpful questions, which appears in the third chapter, “Planning the First Draft,” under the subheading of “The First Scene.” Presented this early in the text and in the new-play process, these in-depth inquiries might help playwrights motivate character actions, but such technical issues can easily overwhelm the new writer.

Despite these minor organizational matters and a few editing errors, the majority of the material Clark includes is informative and inspiring. It introduces, or reacquaints, the writer with the practical needs of actors, directors, designers, and producers involved in potential productions. Clark’s background in all of these areas of theatre has no doubt influenced and informed his playwriting and teaching, and he employs this expertise to substantially enhance this text.

Although it is oddly placed prior to the chapter on “Plot,” one chapter that is particularly effective is titled “Rhythm.” When discussing rhythm, Clark suggests thinking of “two kinds of [rhythmic] movement: horizontal and vertical,” explaining: “Horizontal movement is concerned with the action that takes the story from Point A to Point B,” and vertical movement “occurs when you slow the story down in order to explore character” (54). He suggests that the writer alternate, perhaps following two or three horizontal scenes with a vertical, varying the length of the scenes as well. This instruction is well aimed, putting into practical terms a script problem often felt though not identified until the play is heard in its entirety.

Clark’s chapter on “Structure” offers a clear comparison of two potential types of structure that he characterizes as linear (“masculine”) and circular (“feminine”). Although readers may legitimately take issue with the gendered nature of this distinction, the author offers the writer organizational options with this insightful analogy: “To construct a house, you have to begin with the foundation and build to the roof. To construct a jigsaw...


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