Unlike screenwriting, playwriting has more limitations as plays are staged in real-time in front of an audience. There are many things that can be shown in a book or on a screen that cannot be done in a theatre, given the constraints of the stage, actors and the time. Therefore, during the writing of a play, the design of characters, scenes and plots are different from screenwriting. Here are some rudimentary guidelines on playwriting through the analysis of the play, 'East is East'.
In film, unimportant characters can appear once for a short time, and there can be many of them; whereas a theatre play has a limited number of actors. Although some actors can play several characters, it is important to give each actor enough time on stage. A good example to consider is 'East is East' by Ayub Khan Din. Originally as a play, 'East is East' was adopted into a movie in 1999. The marriage arranged by family coercion is the plot. It tells the story of a Muslim family of a Pakistani father, English mother and mixed race children that face both internal and external cultural clashes. The father of this Muslim family, Geogre Khans, arranges for his sons Abdul and Tariq to marry the two daughters of Mr. Shah, who also come from a Muslim family and reside in the UK. When the two families officially meet for the first time Mr. Shah brings pictures of his daughters. In the film two actresses are cast as Mr. Shah's daughters.
Compared to screenwriting, plays are usually more driven by one or several main characters. In order to resonate with the audience, it is important to portray the characters as humans with souls rather than as a stereotype. To make characters more rounded, there should be a backstory that gives hints of what has happened before and foreshadows what will happen after the play has finished. While designing the characters’ pasts, consider their local and cultural identities. Having these identities conflicting against each other, connecting them with social trends, and putting the characters inside a dilemma to explore how they react can make them vivid and surprising. When the play is finished, the character development that occurred should impinge on the characters’ future decisions.
Figure 1. 'East is East' movie, George Khan and his wife Ella
Scenes and Plot Designs
The plot of a play is tight and driven by characters, unlike the plots of movies, which are flexible. Here is an example of the frame of a character-driven plot. Take 'East is East' as an example.
Reveal the negative light of the characters. By forcing his youngest son Sajit to be circumcised, Geogre's tyrannical character and rigid adherence to Muslim traditions are shown.
Create a situation where their flaw leads to trouble and somebody warns them. Geogre's third son, Tariq, destroys the wedding favours that Geogre has prepared for him. Geogre's wife, Ella, gets into an argument with him over this issue and is beaten by him.
Things go wrong in the worst possible way. Geogre's fifth son, Saleem, who starts an art foundation, creates an artwork of a woman's private parts. This work is accidentally shown in the family meeting and makes Geogre feel humiliated in front of Mr. Shah's family.
Characters have lost enough, and it is their choice to turn back to the right path or go down in flames. Geogre feels defeated. He shows his vulnerability and potential to change.
The number of scenes in a play are limited. Each scene needs to contain conflict to make the audience stay focused. To create conflict, each character needs to have an objective before entering a scene, and conflict arises when two characters have different objectives. Both in playwriting and screenwriting, the character's motivation is usually not directly stated but rather shown through dialogue and action. For playwrights, it is constructive to think about what the scene needs to reveal before designing it. In addition to this, it is also important to consider what the scene suggests in order to provoke thought in the audience.
Figure 2. 'East is East' play. The Khan Kids.
Both in screenwriting and playwriting, dialogue broadens the scope of action. In terms of dialogue, the first thing to pay attention to is the language of characters. For example, people tend to stutter a lot when they are nervous, excited or angry. Given a character’s background, such as the class and where they were raised, a different dialect and particular grammar may be heard. For example, in 'East is East', since Geogre Khan is from Pakistan, his language is tinted with the influence of his native language, but his wife and children speak authentic English.
Apart from the fact that people use their language differently in writing and speaking, in their daily lives, they often do not say what they mean directly. Take this dialogue in 'East is East' as an example. In this dialogue, Mr. Shah shows Geogre and Ella the pictures of his daughters who are overweight and not beautiful at all. By talking about the frames, Ella alludes to Mr. Shah's daughters.
MR. SHAH: Yes, let me show you, these are my daughters, Nigget and Afsal-jaan. (He passes them
the frames, they are quite heavy).
ELLA: Oh they're quite hefty … the frames I mean! Look George, aren't they lovely?
In order to give lines purpose, transitive verbs are used as a redrafting tool to describe the purpose of the line. Those words include, for example, ‘to humiliate’, ‘to embarrass’ or ‘to warn’.
Figure 3. 'East is East' movie. Mrs. Shah and her daughters
As opposed to screenwriting, playwriting has to take into account the stage, the time and the actors. This limits the creativity of a writer, and the stories completed within these frames are often tightly plotted with vivid, impressive characters. They are, undoubtedly, a visual treat for the audience in a given time and space.
Ayub Khan Din, East is East, Nick Hern Books, 1997
Jeffreys, Stephen, Playwriting : Structure, Character, How and What to Write; McKeown, Maeve, editor.; De Angelis, April, writer of foreword.; London : Nick Hern Books, 2019
Wright, Mills, C., The Sociological Imagination, New York : OUP USA, 1999
Lawson, J. H, (2014) Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting.
Simon Stephens interview: The Nature of Dramatic Action<https://www.writeaplay.co.uk/cms/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Simon-Stephens-Transcript.pdf>
Figure 1. 'East is East' movie, George Khan and his wife Ella, from 'REMEMBERING OM PURI: Why East is East was a defining film for British Asians', The Argus <https://www.theargus.co.uk/news/15007481.amp/>
Figure 2. 'East is East' play. The Khan Kids., from 'Theatre Review: East is East', Left Lion <https://www.leftlion.co.uk/read/2017/may/theatre-review-east-is-east/>
Figure 3. 'East is East' movie. Mrs. Shan and her daughters, from 'Movie Quote of the Day – East Is East (Damien O’Donnell, 1999)' <https://enchantedbyfilm.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/movie-quote-of-the-day-east-is-east-damien-odonnell-1999/>