Write Plays? Read Plays!

Before the first session of Writing Is Rewriting even started at East West Players' David Henry Hwang Writers Institute, I asked the students to read five plays that I said we would reference often in the workshop. The reading list I compiled comprises narrative plays (as opposed to experimental pieces), but each of the plays approaches its narrative in stylistically and structurally different ways:

Durango by Julia Cho is about a Korean-American father and his two sons on an emotionally wrought road trip. I chose this play because it tells its story in short scenes (there are 19 total, which is a lot for most plays) and it's very clear from scene to scene what the character's objectives are and what tactics they use to get what they want. (Here's more from the New York Times.)

Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare is about a man who dupes high-society New Yorkers into believing he is the son of Sidney Poitier. The play's thematic canvas is wide, and it's fascinating that how the play is told—characters recounting anecdotes to each other and sometimes directly to the audience—contribute greatly to its meaning. (Here's more from the New York Times.)

God's Heart by Craig Lucas is a challenging love-it-or-hate-it play that, for the most part, takes place in a shared dream between its three main characters. I am struck by how Lucas handles weaving in and out of multiple, head-spinning storylines and by how he manages to elicit deep sympathy for his characters, even though we're not watching them in the "real world." (Here's more from the New York Times.)

Collected Stories by Donald Margulies is about the increasingly conflict-ridden relationship between a college writing student and her professor. Many beginning playwrights these days are so influenced by the speed of movies and television that I thought it was important to take a look at a play that was only two characters and six scenes—to demonstrate how to stay within a scene for a long period of time while keeping it interesting. (Here's more from the New York Times.)

Hamlet by William Shakespeare needs no introduction or justification, even for a Shakespeare-phobe like me. Don't pretend you've never recited the "To be or not to be" monologue in your bathroom mirror while whacking it. (Wait. I'm not the only one who's done that, am I?)

Go forth and learn, young playwrights!


  1. Okay, I'm curious: You don't like reading novels, but you like reading plays? Do you hate the description parts of novels, or would you actually not read plays if it weren't a requirement for staging/writing them? (I don't like reading plays much, but I love seeing them. Maybe it all depends how good you are at visualizing stuff without an author's help.)

  2. to chill or not to chill.... (from my daughter's version of hamlet's speech that she wrote in eubonics)

  3. Cheryl, I think I like the speed with which I read plays. Since I can read them in one sitting or two, there's no break in narrative continuity. Since it takes weeks, even months to get through a novel, over time I lose the narrative and character threads in my mind.