kenbwKen Cameron is the Artistic Director of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival, a national festival showcasing exceptional new Canadian work, co-presented with the National Arts Centre. Also a playwright, Ken is the author of Harvest, My Morocco and My One And Only. All three plays will be published by Newest Press in 2010.

What do you look for in a script?
At Magnetic North we do not produce scripts from scratch, like a theatre company: instead we present touring productions by theatre companies, bringing in the ready-made work to our festival. As a result I am not really looking at scripts these days, so much as I am looking at full productions.

But when I think about scripts that I love, they are often “rich”: rich in characterizations, rich in plot, rich in dialogue. I am really intrigued by plays which give the actors lots to play with in relation to one another – lots of opportunities to attack, cajole, insult, seduce in turn – dramatic action in other words.

From a practical standpoint – is there an ideal number of characters or script length?
Since the mid-90s when government funding for the Arts hit the first of its many crises, the average cast size on Canada’s stages have steadily shrunk. At about the same time Canada’s Fringe Festivals emerged as a popular and cost-effective platform for emerging playwrights to develop their craft. Both factors put pressure on playwrights to create plays with ever smaller casts, culminating the ultimate small cast: the one-man show.

It’s not entirely a bad thing. By focusing on only three or four characters a playwright has the opportunity to really develop character, intention and plot. Every character matters and must be full fleshed-out, and the playwright must use all their skill in drawing the remaining characters into conflict and sustaining tension between a small cast over a full length play. It’s a great way to practice one’s craft. And one- or two-person plays often provide the actors with opportunities to show off their craft and turn in a truly virtuosic performances.

Fortunately, though, we are starting to see Artistic Directors and audiences tiring of small cast plays and looking for those affordable plays that allow them to create with a larger canvas.

Does script formatting matter or can it get in the way?
When I was the Executive Director of the Alberta Playwrights Network the most common question we received from budding playwrights was “what is the proper format for stage plays?” I’ve often surmised that this question comes from reading manuals on how to write a screenplay. In film, there are rigid rules for how to format a script. And I mean rigid. This is because, if formatted properly, a page of screenplay really does translate into a minute of screen time. This is not the case for stage plays, however, where an average page can vary widely in the time it takes to play out onstage.

I feel very strongly that the format of a script should reflect the play itself. I am publishing a book of three plays later this year and one of the plays, a one-person show, is formatted quite differently, with line breaks to reflect the cadence and flow of text. It’s not something I do often, but when a script demands it I will break from traditional formatting.

And what is that traditional formatting? There are several different options, and Canadian publishers vary even amongst themselves. Buy a few plays and see what works for you.

How do you feel about detailed stage directions?
I think Samuel French has lead many playwrights astray. Scripts available form Samuel French are covered with detailed stage directions and annotated with set descriptions and props lists. Beginning playwrights often over-write their stage directions feeling it is their responsibility to follow Samuel French’s example.

What many people fail to realize is that these directions are usually based on the first production or the Broadway hit production and are rarely written by the playwright herself. Often they reflect the director’s vision. Oddly, directors and actors are taught in theatre school that the first thing they ought to do is cross out stage directions and begin from a blank slate, using the words and the actor’s impulses as their only stage directions. I once wrote an entire script without a single stage direction as a challenge to myself to see if I could communicate my intentions through the text alone.

Beautiful moments can emerge when a director and playwright trust the actors to bring the script to life. Theatre is at its best when it involves collaboration, and trust is at the heart of it.

What turns you off in a script?
If it’s not clear from the above, over-written stage directions turn me off!

Does the topic matter as much as the delivery? Or are there topics so important any discussion is worthy of staging?
I think topic and delivery are intertwined and inseparable. There are many important subjects that need to be dealt with, but if that is one’s primary impetus for writing a play, the really you are dead in the water. A play that deals with an important topic is the same as any play – it must tell a compelling story and it must tell it in an interesting way that captures and retains the attention of an audience.

What bad habits from television / movie scripts does a playwright need to break?
When Directors talk about how a play is too cinematic, they oftentimes mean that the scenes are very short, not leaving enough time for the characters to develop. Just as often it can mean that plot points are introduced and just as quickly resolved. Theatre has difficulty “cutting” from one location to another, so once you have asked a director, designer and cast to go to all the work of creating a particular time and space, then its important to let them stay and explore one another in that space. (Note I said “explore one another”, not the space itself – a play is nearly always about conflict between characters).

I recently saw the film Inglourious Basterds, and was surprised by just how much time the director takes with each scene. If one can set aside all the violence and Second World War revisionism, then each segment of the film builds to a scene that is essentially little more than two or more characters sitting at a table with one another. Yet, because of the plotting, the characters and the given circumstances, these simple moments are rich with dialogue, subtext and dramatic action. Truly virtuosic storytelling on the part of the writer/director and the actors.

What is the most important play of the past 100 years and why?
For Canadians it’s likely The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. The odd thing about having a country that is so young is that our theatre culture is very, very recent. Rita Joe premiered in 1967 in Vancouver: and starred Chief Dan George, then chief of the Squamish Band of Burrard Inlet, BC. Two years later it was revived at opened the studio theatre in The National Arts Centre. That was the year I was born. Its worth noting that The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is sometimes called one of the first plays written about Canada to be professionally produced: in a way Canadian Theatre is as old as I am. So I like to think Canadian Theatre is very, very young.

I saw Rita Joe in 1990 while I was a 20-year old student at McGill University. The same year that I saw the play a group of Mohawk Warriors blockaded a bridge in Montréal to protest the development of land which they claimed they had land rights. Here were political events outside my doorstep that had their roots in the same institutionalized racism depicted in a play that had been written two decades earlier. It sad that this political situation should persist: but I think it also champions the relevance of theatre generally.

Fill in the blank. I wish people would stop telling playwrights to…
… think about their audience. The worst plays I have written in my life are plays I wrote to please someone else. At one point in my career I discovered I was over-concerned with what an audience might think of a particular moment or a turn in the plot, or an atrocious action a character might make or shocking line of dialogue they might say. Write what you want to see onstage: write a story that grips you, about a subject you personally are passionate about.

If you could give emerging playwrights three pieces of advice, what would they be?

  1. Go to the theatre and see plays. When I was at the Alberta Playwrights Network I was astonished at how many budding playwrights turned up at my door wanting advice on their script, but who had not set foot in a theatre in years. When I asked them about this many simply blinked at me, curious as to why it would matter. Would you expect to be able to play hockey if you had never seen the game played?
  2. Go to the library and read plays. A play on the page is never the same as on the stage. The actors, director, designers and creative team breathe life into a play that, on the page, is only a blueprint of production. Better yet: read the play before you go see it onstage and compare what was in your imagination with what you saw onstage.
  3. Write. Many playwrights forget this stage. Writing is hard work, and it’s easy to get distracted and to spend one’s time talking about writing. One can only go to the pub and talk about how hard the writer’s life is before one needs to stay home on a Thursday night and actually do some writing.