Pursued By A Bear: “Should I limit scene changes to get my play produced?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“Should I limit the number of locations in my play to avoid complicated scene changes?  I want to make sure my play gets produced, and I’ve heard that this can make theatres less inclined to put your play on (for budget reasons, etc.)”

We all hate the fact budget is such a huge issue in theatre. The purse strings of theatrical institutions are too often used as a garotte to strangle the last breath out of our creative instincts. It’s infuriating when a fantastic idea, a mind-blowing concept, is shot down with a cynical reaction like; “Where do you think you are? DreamWorks?”

The issue people tend to have with scene changes is that, generally speaking, scene changes and locations go hand-in-hand, if you’ve got more of one you’ll need more of the other. Recreating numerous fancy locations onstage costs money, you need props, you need backdrops, you need furniture, lighting, sound effects. Although you’ve only mentioned scene changes in your question, I’ll try to cover problems with multiple locations as well because they are really two sides of the same coin.

Budget’s not the only issue when it comes to extravagant scene changes. There are obvious physical limitations too; the audience are right there. There’s no possibility of cutting to another camera angle to hide the rough edges and create a seamless transition between locations. You can get a fancy lighting rig, you can pump smoke into the auditorium from every angle, you can design complicated sets with ropes, pulleys and new-fangled machinery to fling backdrops and furniture around.

The fact remains scene changes in theatre will always be a challenge. That’s part of the fun; you have to get creative.

Fortunately, there are ways of utilising your audience’s imagination to achieve wonderful effects onstage. You have to look at the lack of money on offer as an incentive to be inventive, rather than a weight on your shoulders.

Remember, it’s normally down to the director to plan out and implement scene changes. You can always describe how you envision a change happening, but it will ultimately be down to your director to find a solution that’s within budget. Good directors live for this stuff, so don’t panic that they won’t be able to do your vision justice. The beauty of working in a collaborative medium is that other members of the team will come up with brilliant ideas that never would have occurred to you.

Having said that, if you ever end up directing a piece of your own work, or even somebody else’s, the job of planning and creating scene changes will fall at your feet. At that point the following might come in handy. If the thought of directing your own work is as appealing as giving yourself acupuncture with a garden fork, it’s still worth paying attention because understanding what can be done physically onstage will allow you to be more creative in your writing.

Some playwrights will deliberately try to push their director by writing in particularly ambitious scene changes. It’s up to you how far you want to take this, I don’t think anything is impossible, but remember you want to inspire your director rather than demoralise them.

It’s become more and more common to use the actors you’ve already got on stage to move furniture and even backdrops around. This can save you time and money, and if it’s choreographed smoothly it can even become an enjoyable part of the performance. Have your characters wheel the sofa offstage, have them swing the set around to reveal another setting, have them paint the name of the new location on the walls in giant letters.

If you can’t hide the scene changes, make them into events.

You’d think there might be a limit to the number of scene changes you can get away with, even if you’re being super-creative. I remember watching The 39 Steps and being amazed at the number of changes of location crammed into the play. This is a great example of how you can use the audience’s imagination to create the sense of a fast-paced, movie-esque journey. A character’s luggage is quickly flipped over to become the bench seat of a stagecoach, a single door on wheels is moved around rapidly to simulate an entire house, actors simply start bobbing around on their chairs to create the impression of a moving train.

As long as the audience are invested in the story they’ll accept almost anything when it comes to scenery. Dim the lights and have your actor hold a metal rod vertically in each hand, you’ve got a prison cell. Turn the lights up really high and play some wave sounds, instant beach. Turn off all the lights except for a few roaming spotlights and dump scrap metal all over the floor, you’ve recreated the futuristic warzone from Terminator 2.

What I’m trying to convey here is that you shouldn’t avoid complicated scene changes just because you’re working in theatre. There are ways to make absolutely anything happen. The more creative you are, the more impressive it will be to your audience. And remember, sometimes the simplest tricks have the biggest impact. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked out of a theatre discussing the scene changes, they can even become a highlight of the play if you’re bold enough.

The second part of your question is more difficult to answer. Does being ambitious with your scene changes make a play less attractive to theatres? There are a lot of factors at play here. First of all, whatever you’re trying to achieve, there are a million different ways to do anything.

Let’s go back to our prison cell scenario from earlier; you could spend thousands of pounds building an exact replica of a cell from a maximum security prison, complete with sliding doors, stainless steel toilet and uncomfortable bunkbeds. Or alternatively you could create a couple of custom lighting effects which cast the shadow of bars and use sound effects to simulate the cell doors sliding open and closed. This effect could be accomplished in any theatre with a decent lighting rig and a talented designer. I’ve actually seen it done at the National Theatre in a Complicite production of Measure for Measure. This was the National, they probably could have spent a lot more on the set, but instead they used clever lighting to build an entire prison, to great effect.

I like to believe if a theatre really wants to put your play on, they’ll find a way to do it. There may be some compromises to make in terms of budget, they might want to strip things down to the bare essentials. If a scene change is essential to the story they should be able to find a way to convey it to your audience which is within budget. The question then is whether you’re happy with the solution.

Having said that, I always feel like there are a lot more plays produced which take place in a single location. Is budget the reason for this? It’s probably a factor. However, there are also dramatic reasons such as the classical unities. The theory is it’s easier to build dramatic tension by keeping your story focused in a single place and time. Scene changes can detract from the story by deflating the tension you’re trying to build. A lot of new playwrights get quite attached to the unities of place and time, trying to tell every story in a single location on a single day. Minimal plotlines are definitely fashionable and they conveniently happen to tie in nicely with low-budget theatre.

Is your play more likely to be produced if you keep the scene changes minimal? Unfortunately I think this might be the case. I don’t want to discredit any of the great theatres out there telling big stories in small spaces with tiny budgets. However, there are definitely theatres who prefer the tight, stripped-down plotlines of small, single-location, two-handers. If anything, I think your plays will have a wider appeal among theatres if you keep things simple.

If you’re at the beginning of your career you should also consider the fact you don’t have a lot of budgetary pulling power right now. Your name unfortunately doesn’t carry a lot of weight, you’re not a guaranteed audience magnet, so theatres will be less willing to put grandiose amounts of money into your pirate-ship-to-Buckingham-Palace-ballroom transition. In years to come, when you’re a great success you’ll be able to write in whatever you want and someone, somewhere will find a way to pull it off.

Finally, if you do have a complex scene change which you feel might discourage theatres, you can always suggest ideas in your stage directions. If you’ve envisioned a smart and simple way of conveying your interstellar spaceship’s warp-speed black hole jump through time and space, by all means let the theatre know it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.They may not even use your idea in the end, but providing an example of how it could be done may convince them to give you a shot.

There really are no limits when it comes to the human imagination. Don’t let concerns over budget stop you from writing something fantastic if it’s essential to the story you want to tell. At the same time you need to be mentally prepared for what a director might do to your spellbinding moment. If the mind-bendingly vast and beautiful cityscape in your mind is reduced to an actor gazing out of a black box with an expression of gratuitous wonder slapped on his face, so be it. At least your play is on.

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

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