Tag Archives: play

A new way to find the perfect play script

Overcoming the tyranny of choice

Sue Gordon

Some time ago, Sue Gordon made a plea for us to add a “busy teacher” button to the Lazy Bee Scripts web site.  This was essentially “never mind all that choice, just give me the script I want”.  At the time I mocked Sue by suggesting that the real message was “never mind all that choice, just give me one of Sue Gordon’s scripts”.  (Nothing wrong with that.  She writes very well. If what you want is one of Sue Gordon’s scripts, then they’ll be absolutely perfect for you.)  The difficulty with Sue’s suggestion is the amount of mind reading involved.  On the other hand, her point is a serious one.  Offering a hundred scripts is off-putting to someone who has time to look at no more than three.  At the time of writing this, we are offering 2721 on our web site.  That amount of choice can be overwhelming.  (We even have scripts about the tyranny of choice.  See the sketches Skinny Cap to Go by Richard James and, in a different style, The Coffee Shop by Ray Lawrence.) So we’ve implemented a new search engine called Find A Few.

Find A Few doesn’t work quite as well as Sue Gordon would like (it sometimes suggests other people’s scripts), but it’s as close as we’re going to get.  It can be approached in two ways: firstly there’s a Find A Few option in the Search menu.  In that case, Find A Few will start with no prior information and will ask questions until it reaches a manageable number of scripts (or none, if the customer wants something we haven’t got).  Secondly (better in my opinion – but that reflects the way I would search) every time other searches or links lead to a list of more than three possible scripts, a Find A Few button appears which will allow the customer to narrow down within their current field of search.

Take for example, our wealth of scripts involving Cinderella.  Currently, if you approach this via the Pantomime pages and the Cinderella link, you will get to a list of 43 scripts.  Just above that listing, there is a button to [Find a Few] which will then ask questions to determine what manner of Cinderella you want.  Our goal is to narrow down to no more than three scripts.

Guess Who

Are you familiar with the Guess Who board game?  The object of the game is to identify a character from a field of 24 by eliminating those who don’t share particular characteristics (hair colour, spectacles, beards, moustaches, and so on.)  The game has been around long enough to draw academic comment about how well it represents demographics.  (It doesn’t.  The original characters were created for easy grouping into overlapping sets; so, for example, it under-represents women, not least because the designers chose two forms of facial hair which are easy to represent visually, as is male-pattern baldness.)
The Find A Few search engine works in a similar way: it asks (largely) binary questions to reduce the number of scripts suggested.  It chooses the questions by selecting characteristics that will (ideally) pick (or eliminate) half the remaining scripts.

In our Full Search engine, the customer chooses the issues that are important to them.  With Find A Few, the computer chooses the questions.  It may well ask something that the customer doesn’t care about, or hasn’t thought about (“Do you want a set with practical doors or windows?”)  In doing so, it will exclude lots of plays that the customer would enjoy, but it does so to find the most efficient path to a manageable set of scripts.

All this is to offer the customer a small number of plays without trying to tell them what they want.  (“People who bought Dig In for Murder also purchased a bottle of poison, a flash-light and a spade.”)

How Long is a Piece of Theatre?

How long is...So you’ve written your play, now you want to know if it’s the right length.  At one level, that doesn’t matter: the ideal length for your play is the time it takes for you to say what you want to say.  The perfect play might last three minutes or three hours.  To someone selecting a play, however, the run time matters.  Does it fill an evening’s entertainment?  Does the length justify the effort of constructing the set?  Will it fit within the time limits allowed by a competition?  From that viewpoint, some way of estimating the length will be useful.

At this point, I have good news and bad news.  The good news is that you can make an estimate.  The bad news is that it won’t be perfect.  Firstly, some aspects of timing are outside the writer’s control: stage business, scene changes and slickness of production.  Secondly, style make a lot of difference to run time; for example, compare Samuel Beckett’s lengthy pauses to the manic pace of a Ray Cooney farce.  Estimates of stage time will be approximate. So what’s the best approximation?

Page Count

The most common way of estimating is Page Count, with the usual approximation being one minute per page.  The basic flaw in this is that it assumes that everyone uses a standard page layout.  They don’t (and, in my opinion, they should not – a play should be written in whatever format works best for the writer.  See, for example ‘Was Solzhenitsyn a Synesthete?‘).
The run time of a page of a play depends on:-

  1. The size of the paper (US Letter paper, used in North America is a different size from A4, used in most of the rest of the world).
  2. Page margins.
  3. Line spacing (single spacing? double spacing? single spacing within a speech and double spacing between speeches?).
  4. The point size of the font.
  5. The packing of the type face (monospaced fonts like Courier will occupy much more space than a highly-packed proportional font like Times New Roman).
  6. Average speech length.
  7. Style (a one-minute Beckett pause should consume a full page).
  8. All the performance issues over which the writer has no control.

Average speech length can cause major variations in estimated run time.  Compare the terse David Mamet to the long-winded George Bernard Shaw.  By my estimation, the first nine speeches of Mamet’s Duck Variations consume 23 words, whereas the first nine speeches of Shaw’s Arms and the Man weigh in at 296 words.  (In 11 point Courier1, those nine speeches of Mamet’s will occupy nine lines, but Shaw’s will occupy 31.)  Typically a page of Shaw, with ten words per line, will take much longer to read than a page of Mamet with three.

Word Count

Word Count does away with the first five factors affecting page count and most of the sixth. Just take the text from the opening scene-setting direction through to the final curtain and count all the words2.   All you need to know is that 10,000 words of script will occupy around an hour of stage time and pro rata from there – so 1000 words take six minutes3.  This is the same sort of estimate as the estimate behind Page Count, but Word Count does away with most of the variability in Page Count and will therefore, typically be more accurate with the additional advantage that it needs fewer rules.

Spurious accuracy

Just because Word Count is more accurate than Page Count, it doesn’t mean it’s perfect.  In addition to the issues of style and performance, some aspects of the writing may lead to an inaccurate estimation of duration.  Consider the following stage direction:

Carl takes a revolver from his briefcase, cleans it carefully then loads five bullets.

Word Count would say that takes five seconds, but that careful cleaning might last a minute. Then consider

Whilst Fran is talking, Carl takes a revolver from his briefcase, examines and cleans it slowly and carefully then loads five bullets, leaving one chamber empty.

Word Count allows nine seconds for this (the same action4), but actually it takes no time at all, because the time is occupied by Fran’s speech.  Directions can throw the estimate out in either direction.  (Note that this also applies to Page Count.)

On the Lazy Bee Scripts web site, we give an estimated length of each play based on Word Count.  We use the same measure throughout for consistency, and we base our category boundaries and the web site searches on that estimate.  Typically, this will mean rigid boundaries where reality is more fluid.  This is at its most problematical for one-act play competitions, where (typically) the rules require plays to run for between 20 minutes and 50 minutes, with penalties for breaking the rules.  Something that we estimate at 55 minutes may come in below the 50 minute boundary in a pacey production; a bit of creative stage business may make an 18 minute short play into a one-act festival piece.
For festival performers, the moral here is not to be too rigid with the published timings; find a piece you like, then test the length based on the way you intend to perform it.  For authors writing for festivals with time constraints, aim to give a cushion around the boundaries – but bear in mind my opening remarks about the perfect length.

  1. The speeches that took up 31 lines in 11 point Courier used 23 lines in Times New Roman.  Courier is a waste of space.
  2. Your word-processor will usually do the counting for you.
  3. I had been using 10,000 words per hour as a rule of thumb for several years when I came across a statistic that the typical speed of spoken English is 170 words per minute.
  4. Long-winded stage directions will distort run-time estimates.


Video Is Not A Human Right

I don’t really like videos of stage shows; they rarely do justice to the production.  A small part of this is dislike of my own performances.  I once gave a presentation which was recorded.  I seemed to have developed a pattern of movement rather like a simple box step – you know the one: right foot crosses over the left; left foot back; right foot back; step forward with the left and then repeat the whole sequence.  It was a bit like that; back across and forward, back across and forward.  I had my hands in my pockets and was leaning back slightly so that my legs seemed to reach my destination ahead of me.  I skimmed through the video on fast-forward and the movement seemed to be that of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp.

A live performance brings out the remarkable abilities of the human eye to focus on detail.  You can focus on the character speaking, or the various reactions to the speech, or anything else.  With a video, those decisions are made for you by the cameraman or video director.  That’s absolutely fine in a movie; the whole thing is planned to show you particular perspectives and there is no opportunity to see anything else, but in a stage play, there’s a whole show going on, not just the director’s cut.

Thus from my personal perspective, I prefer to see movies made as movies, rather than recordings of stage shows.  The two things can, of course, be connected.  Vagabond Alley Productions in Seattle staged Damian Trasler’s Love in the Time of Zombies and had fun making a trailer video as part of their promotional activity…

Other people go further and turn stage shows into movies.  The art-forms are different.  You can do things in a film that you couldn’t do on the stage; the most obvious being location shots, compared to the constraints of a stage set.  And, of course, you don’t have to build a set – provided that you can find a location to do the job.  Sometimes stage plays are used as short projects to develop the video-maker’s art.  Hideto Shimizu recently took this approach with Dog Day, a video production of The Doctor, a sketch by Gary Diamond and Ray Lawrence, taken off the stage and filmed in a realistic location.

You could never justify such a realistic set for a two-minute stage sketch…

Nevertheless, videos of stage shows can be useful – to the actors (my presentation style has improved), to the people back-stage who never got to see the performance, and to the people who couldn’t get to the show.  An example of the last case is the ex-pat group in Rabat who video their performances to reassure their friends and families back home that they are making an important contribution to international cultural exchange by staging comedy sketch shows.  There is, however, another issue with making videos of stage shows: just because you have a camera, it doesn’t mean that you have the right to make a video of anything you choose.

A video of a stage play (like a video of any other artistic work) is, in copyright terms, a derivative.  It could not exist without the work of the original artist – in this case, the playwright.  Under copyright law, the original artist has the right to determine what is done with his work.  In order to make a video of a stage play, you need the permission of the playwright.  (The playwright has the right to refuse permission, the right to set conditions and the right to charge fees.)  Taking the two examples above, Hideto Shimizu needed permission to make his film because it is a derivative of The Doctor.  Vagabond Alley didn’t need permission for their trailer because whilst it hints at the content of Love in the Time of Zombies, it doesn’t itself make significant use of Damian Trasler’s work.

For videos of live performances, Lazy Bee Scripts tries to make this process easy: our stage play performance rights automatically include the right to make one (and only one) video of a show.  However, if you want to make additional videos or additional copies of the original, then we will charge you a per copy licence fee.  Even then, there are limitations.  Licence to make a video is not the same as licence to display that video on the Internet, on cable television or at a public screening.  To do any of those things, you need specific permission, and you need to start by asking for it.

What’s In A Name?

That which we call – well, anything, really…

Moab Is My Washpot paperback coverWhen Stephen Fry was asked why he had called his autobiography Moab is My Washpot, he replied that people didn’t remember ISBNs.
Things need names; preferably memorable names (not necessarily metaphors from the Book of Psalms) but do they need to be tied to the content?

I got into a discussion about this a long time ago with folk singer Andrew Cronshaw.  He had an album  (yes, I’m back to the days of vinyl again) called Earthed in Cloud Valley.  That title sounds like some form of mysticism unless you know that it’s a line from a Cheshire hunting song.  (The Cloud in question is Bosley Cloud, a hill on the Cheshire-Staffordshire border – and the point of the line Earthed in Cloud Valley - Andrew Cronshaw album cover“earthed in Cloud Valley” is that the fox had gone to ground and evaded the hunters.)  The song itself was not part of Cronshaw’s repertoire; he took the view that his collection of songs needed a title, but it didn’t need to be – and indeed he preferred that it was not – a title that had anything to do with the songs.

Geoff Bamber has form in this respect.  The title of his farce for adults, How Does Your Garden Grow has, arguably, nothing to do with the content.  More recently, I challenged Geoff about the title of one of his new youth theatre plays.  He had called it The Prince’s Tale, and a prince was integral to the plot, but his role was accomplished without ever setting foot on the stage; he was talked about, but neither seen nor heard.  Geoff’s response was that his original conception was along the lines of a Canterbury Tale, but that idea got ditched somewhere in the development process, and the plot mutated into something completely different (about a rather petulant princess).  Retaining the original title was, in this case, an oversight.  I gave him a list of suggestions, of which my favourite was The Old Sulk Road, but in the end he chose a title of his own.  Thus whilst we reviewed and edited The Prince’s Tale, we published Courting Aurora.

Writing by Numbers

A NumberThe Nuffield Theatre in Southampton have Caryl Churchill’s A Number in their current season.  It’s an excellent play.  (There was a brilliant radio version a while ago, with Michael Gambon playing the father.)  If you haven’t come across it, you can think of the writing as being like Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses.  That’s the one that contains a single sentence of 4,391 words.  A Number is a play, so the sentences are much shorter, but the style is similar with streams of ideas overlapping, hesitating and interrupting.  It’s brilliant, because that’s the way most of us normally speak.  The late Alan Coren was a notable exception; he had the knack of extemporising perfectly grammatical essays.  Most of us struggle to keep to one subject for the duration of a sentence.  (When I worked in a big company one of my colleagues reported a presentation by the managing director by saying “I counted seventeen sub-clauses without ever reaching the main verb.”)

I encountered A Number at a play-reading with my friend Dave.  Dave is a great guy, but sight-reading scripts is not his forte, and A Number was a real struggle.  If you’d cut his finger off, he would have gone completely silent.  He had great difficulty with speeches like:-

“It wasn’t perfect. It was the best I could do, I wasn’t very I was I was always and it’s a blur to be honest but it was I promise you the best.”

Two full stops, one comma.

To some extent, Caryl Churchill is in a privileged position.  She’s a well-known writer, working with professional companies who already appreciate her work and have faith in it.  They can approach that sort of dialogue in an exploratory way, teasing-out the meaning and finding the way to phrase it as natural speech.  If you are not such a well-known writer, with most of your readership coming across your work for the first time, then you will be given less latitude.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to follow the patterns (and disruptions) of natural speech, but, in my view, it means that you should make it clear what you are doing.  The way to achieve that is to identify and separate the different fragments within the rambling sentences.  It shows that you are being deliberate, rather than being a bad writer who has thrown an ungrammatical mess onto the page.  It can be done, but you have to work at it.  You get to something like this:

“It wasn’t perfect. It was the best I could do; I wasn’t very – I was – I was always – and it’s a blur, to be honest – but it was, I promise you, the best.”

So, if you’re composing a play, write what you want to write, but also remember that before it comes to the stage, someone has to read it.

Classified Information

A teacher complained about a script that one of her pupils had selected from the Lazy Bee Scripts web site.  She said that it wasn’t suitable for children.
We agreed with her.  It wasn’t suitable for children.  It wasn’t intended for children.  That’s why you couldn’t find it by browsing the Scripts for Schools and Youth Theatre section of the web site or by searching for scripts suitable for a particular school age-group.

In that case, it was a clear-cut issue.  (Our classification matched that of the teacher; our method of finding scripts didn’t match that of her pupil.)  Other examples of classification by age are more problematic.

Another note from a teacher said “in reading over the entire plays I noticed some offensive parts that I was shocked that elementary school plays would have in them”.  The drama in question was “Ambition” by Tony Best.  Amongst other things, the teacher drew attention to the star who doesn’t want to be a star because “a man with a telescope on a rooftop that keeps looking up her skirt”.
Now, Tony lives and writes in a world where there are uncomfortable issues and moral ambiguities.  There is an appropriate point to introduce children to those issues, and the fictional world of a play may provide a useful way of exploring them.
The problem here is that the “appropriate point” is not the same for all children – it varies according to local culture and according to the maturity of the children.  We have a further difficulty in that our classification system works in broad bands.  (Under fives, five to eight, nine to twelve, thirteen to sixteen and over sixteen.)  Our purpose is to be helpful, rather than prescriptive.  We’re trying to help customers to narrow down their search – there is usually little point in offering adults a script written for five-year-olds, and vice versa.  In the case of Ambition, we’d classified the script as suitable for the nine to twelve group and older groups.  However, the difficulty comes with the breadth of the group; I doubt that many nine-year-olds would get much out of the play.  In my view, a lot of 12-year-olds would, but not necessarily all.  We don’t know your group, so our classification is imperfect.
That’s where the other major feature of the web site comes in: you can read the scripts on-line.  That’s what the teacher had done in this case.  She had discovered that whilst she wanted her class to perform the play, there were some parts that were inappropriate and therefore, with our permission, she cut those parts of the text.
We always advise you to read before you buy.

What’s a Musical?

What is a musical?  That sounds like a simple question, with the obvious answer being something like “a theatrical piece where the dialogue is interspersed with songs”.  Unfortunately it isn’t that simple.  For example, is Evita a musical?  It’s certainly billed as one, but the dialogue isn’t interspersed with songs.  That’s because there isn’t any dialogue; the entire show is sung.  On that basis, it ought to be an opera, but it isn’t.  I think that’s because the form of the songs is designed to deliver clarity of plot, character and emotion through lyrics, rather than the operatic exhibition of the voice as an instrument.  I’m on very shaky ground here: it can be argued that bel canto opera has the clarity of modern musicals, or that the whole point of Wagnerian singspiel is to deliver the colour of emotion and plot…
But I digress; my concern here is not the upper boundary, where stage musicals merge into other fully-musical forms, but the lower boundary, where musicals merge into plays.

The reason that this is important to me is that in order to help customers of the Lazy Bee Scripts web site find the scripts they want, we need to classify them.  The classification has to mean something (the same thing!) to us and to the customers and each class has to have reasonable boundaries.  We found that the class of “all plays that include songs” was too broad, since it ran from pieces with an incidental song through to pieces with no dialogue.  (There are a couple of youth theatre pieces by Nicholas Richards and Tim Hallett which are completely sung; one of them – Saint Nicholas and the Three Purses of Gold – is, arguably, an oratorio, since it tells the story in song without (necessarily) having characters acting-out the story.  The other piece – The Lambton Worm – is fully sung but has definite parts for different characters.)

We could set the boundary on the basis of the ratio between dialogue and music, but what’s the rule?  And how would we deal with pantomimes?   (Panto is a form of variety entertainment in which it is normal to include songs, but frequently the songs are chosen to suit the available performers, so the length can vary enormously.)

Our compromise is to split into two categories, based on whether or not music is integral to the piece.  On the one hand, we have “Musicals” where the music is integral: the songs, regardless of the number of them, need to be performed as part of the piece.  On the other hand, we have “Plays With Music” where the songs could be left out without compromising the artistic intention.

This, for example, puts Louise Roche’s Girls Night firmly in the Musicals, since it is set in a karaoke bar where the characters sing popular songs, and it puts my youth theatre piece Witch Hunt into Plays With Music, since there is a song available to complement various parts of the action, but it is not essential.

The “Browse” and “Search” functions on the Lazy Bee Scripts web site now use these classifications – along with many others!