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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 440-441
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Writing Your First Play
Writing Your First Play. By Roger A. Hall. Second edition. Boston: Focal Press, 1998; pp. xviii + 159. $19.95.
Near the end of his slim book, Roger Hall offers his reader wonderful assurance: "Now you're fully equipped to put together your own play" (118). What does it take to be fully equipped to write your first play? Apparently not very much. You need to know what dramatic action is. You need to recognize the importance of conflict between characters. You should have an idea about characterization. You should know about writing dialogue. You should experience writing conflict that involves more than two characters. You should have written a scene from your experience and one from a non-literary source such as a newspaper article. That pretty much does it. Maybe that is enough: the ability to transform experiences, both personal and vicarious, into dramatic action which grows out of conflict between characters who speak believably--isn't that all it takes to write a play? Yes. But does this brief book have enough content in it to "fully equip" the new playwright? In itself, no. In the hands of a good teacher, probably.
In spite of announcing itself as a primer for nascent playwrights, Writing Your First Play will make its greatest contribution to playwriting pedagogy if it is read by playwriting instructors. It just does not have enough depth or enough content to provide inexperienced students with the perquisites for effective writing. But playwriting teachers who use Hall's methodology and reproduce his perceptive, supportive approach to handling new writers will serve their students well.
The first methodological secret Hall's book reveals is a purposeful focus on essentials. What is essential for new playwrights? That they write, and specifically that they write drama. Do they need instruction on how to do this? Yes, but probably not as much as they are usually offered. Hall wastes no time on telling the students why they should write, what attitudes they need to be playwrights, or what ideals should inspire them. Nor does he require them to wade through an Aristotelian quagmire of dramaturgical structures before doing what they enrolled in the course to do--write. Valuable as these preliminary insights and understandings are, they should not dominate playwriting courses or prevent students from writing drama.
The second methodological contribution Hall makes is his sequence of topics. He begins with a chapter on action as the most important quality of drama. He knows that the writer who can create action can write drama and that the student who does not understand action will not succeed as a playwright. Conflict, the concept central to most drama, is the next topic. This is followed by chapters on creating characters and writing dialogue. After these four elements, he addresses three techniques encountered by all dramatists: handling the three-character scene, writing from personal experience, and dramatizing events found in other sources. Individual instructors may decide to add topics or change their order, but Hall's exemplary sequential approach is clean, logical, progressive, and effective.
Each chapter is productively structured. Hall begins with a brief introduction of a concept and then presents a writing exercise designed to give the student experience with that concept. He then presents one or two writing samples from his students who did the exercise, and concludes with his own evaluative responses to their work. While I admire the structure of the chapters, I have reservations about their content. Hall's introductions of action, conflict, characterization, and other topics are helpful, but they do not provide enough information. In these introductions, his admirable brevity [End Page 440] becomes a limitation. In the chapter on character, for example, he concentrates so much on the debate between the relative importance of action and character that he ends up saying almost nothing about the process of characterization. In the chapters on dialogue, writing from personal experience, and writing from sources, he issues useful warnings against pitfalls but gives almost no positive instruction about effective...