Today in my playwriting class, we talked about some differences between plays and screenplays. Although the class is composed of mostly theater majors, being that we are in Los Angeles with a great film school right next door, most of us were more used to the structure of screenplays. Our teacher brought up a good point – we are so used to watching television and film that our mind creates stories based on these more visual mediums. A big different between plays and screenplays is that screenplays are more plot and visually driven while plays are more dialogue driven. They both have similar dramatic elements in need for setting, characters, and conflict. But why is it that we all were more familiar with television and film than theater, especially as theatre students?
The most obvious reason is because film and television are more universally accessible to us, even from the comfort of our own beds and couches. Watching a movie or television series does not have to be a social event. Although people do still go to the movies, if you want to watch a piece of theater, physically being present to watch the show is an absolute requirement. But I don’t think the lack of theater-goers is the result of a form of laziness on current society.
Another aspect of film that is not as necessary in theater is structure. Theater has more permission to be abstract and can stray from realism. Film and television both are developed from a structure. People love shows like “Law and Order” and “CSI” because there is a structure to follow. A conflict will be presented and it will be solved within an hour by characters the audience is familiar with. Even having taken some screenwriting classes – the structure is valued for its high importance. In just comparing these two classes, we have not even talked about structure in playwriting because there is no one structure right for plays.
We also talked a bit about the commercialization of Broadway. One of the reasons why television and film is so well accepted and watched is because people are familiar with what they “should” be watching and what is available to them in terms of entertainment. The equivalent of this well-advertised, universally known entertainment of film is Broadway in theatre. People all around the world know about the shows on Broadway. But now Broadway is becoming not a place for new artists for thrive, but a way to get as many people as possible into the theater. Disney dominates Broadway with shows like “Mary Poppins” and “Aladdin.” The movies are also taking over Broadway with shows like “Ghost,” and “Once.” How can a different medium of entertainment such as theater thrive when it is trying to replicate film?
Instead of trying to bring film audiences to the theater, we need to embrace that these two mediums are different. Yes, plays are more dialogue driven, versus films which are more plot and visually driven. There is value and importance in both of these art forms. We need to bring more original plays to Broadway and bring more people to community theaters. Theater does not need to replicate film or follow in film’s advertisement footsteps, but rather needs to find its voice in this technology-driven society. There is a reason why film and television are thriving, just as there is a reason why theater does still exist even if some say it is on the decline. The value of both is similar, but different, and this difference is what will make it valuable to go to the theater as well as the movies.