Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Script Evaluation 101

Marissa Skudlarek reveals what she looks for in a good play.

Earlier this week, a friend emailed me asking: “I am really curious: what do you look at when evaluating a play script? Are there any books you recommend on this? I’d like to glean some of your knowledge.”

(I know that people think that advice columnists make up the letters they respond to, and that I’m probably inventing a story about “a friend emailing me” in order to have a subject for this week’s column. But I assure you this is 100% true. I can hardly believe it myself, but I do have friends who write to me asking to learn the secrets of script analysis. What can I say? It’s a nice life.)

What follows is a modified version of what I wrote back to my friend.

In many respects, I feel like evaluating plays is the same as evaluating any other kind of narrative-based art (books, movies, etc.). No one feels like they need to have special qualifications or training in order to write a movie review on IMDB or a book review on Goodreads, and if you feel comfortable doing that, you should also feel comfortable evaluating plays. Maybe that’s one reason that, on my blog, I discuss plays, books, and movies according to what I feel like writing about that day — rather than limiting myself to one type of art.

I am very fond of Roger Ebert’s First Law of Film Criticism, which states “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” The corollary of this law, then, is that a critic’s job is to determine whether the movie (or book, or play) accomplishes what it sets out to do. If it’s a comedy, did it make you laugh? If it’s a suspense thriller, were you on the edge of your seat? If it’s a vehicle for a star performer, does it allow that performer the best opportunity to showcase his/her chops?

But perhaps there’s an even more basic question than “did the work of art accomplish what it set out to do?” That question is, “Did it hold your interest from start to finish?”

Ask and answer these two questions, and you’ll have an elementary method of distinguishing good plays from bad ones. To distinguish really excellent plays from merely competent ones, additional questions are needed. “Does the play accomplish something I’ve never seen before? Does it say something important about the world and/or display thematic complexity?”

Of course, evaluating a script isn’t exactly like evaluating a book or a movie. For instance, movies are a more visual medium than theater, so film critics often forgive a movie if it has a weak or silly story but stunning visuals. It’s much less easy to get away with that in theater. In my opinion, the strength of theater lies in complex characters, well-structured storytelling, and the back-and-forth of dialogue — and a good play will take advantage of that. Thus, I’m not very fond of plays that mostly consist of monologues or narration; if you want to do that, maybe you should write prose fiction instead of drama?

You asked for book recommendations; my favorite book for this kind of thing is Backwards and Forwards by David Ball. It’s so short that you can read it in an evening. But it gives you a very clear idea of how to read a play and determine if it’s well-structured or not. In Ball’s opinion, a play is a series of actions, and everything in it must propel the story forward. Good plays will have plots that proceed stepwise, each action kicking off the next; bad plays will be full of unmotivated events or red herrings. Ball’s theories also offer an explanation for why I am annoyed by excessive use of monologues or soliloquies. I don’t mind monologues that advance the action or bring the character to a new place — in that case, the monologue is dramatic and necessary. But I feel that many monologues exist merely because the playwright is in love with the sound of his own voice and wants to write something “lyrical” or “meaningful.” Cut those monologues out, I say — and David Ball would say that, too.

If you’re serious about learning how to evaluate plays, one additional skill you’ll need to develop is a sense for what will work well onstage, rather than on the page. There are plays that play better than they read — and plays that read better than they play. I recall enjoying Sartre’s Dirty Hands as a work of literature, but the script is so long, with so many extended philosophical conversations, that I suspect a theater audience might get bored before the end. Meanwhile, big scenes that involve lots of different characters can be very confusing to read, but clear and lively onstage (with the right cast and director). The “silent” Act II of Noises Off is a pain to read — a long list of stage directions describing how all of the characters pop in and out of the set’s many doors — but, staged, it is one of the funniest scenes in all of theater.

One caveat that applies to all of these tools and methods for judging plays is that they work best for traditional, realistic scripts, or, at the very least, scripts that attempt to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. These rules may not apply to the most experimental or avant-garde plays — although I believe that even an experimental play should accomplish what it sets out to do and hold your interest, right? I was on the Cutting Ball Theatre’s literary committee the first year it ran its competition to seek new experimental plays. So many of the scripts that we received struck me as dull, meandering, and humorless. The only submission that I really enjoyed was a play called Sidewinders, by Basil Kreimendahl. This script was definitely experimental in terms of language, character, and ambitions (it’s a Wild West, gender-queer riff on Waiting for Godot), but it also told a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and made me laugh out loud while doing so. Cutting Ball is producing Sidewinders this fall.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and all-purpose opinion-slinger. Find more of her thoughts on plays, books, and movies at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

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