How to Write Political Theatre

I’d be willing to bet you’ve had some feelings about politics in the past few years. There’s an endless stream of things to be angry about. A lot of people carry a sense of hopelessness. They look for ways to find meaning in the chaos, provide a sense of catharsis or comfort, be heard. These are excellent motivators to write a play.

I’m gonna take a guess and say there’s a significant number of new playwrights inspired by the litany of political problems plaguing the country. “A generation in the making,” one might say. You may be one of them. I don’t feel ashamed to say I am. But when I began my writing journey, I fell through a vast number of pitfalls before I thought I made any compelling political work. My plays felt preachy, alienating, one-dimensional, self-absorbed, inert. I knew great plays involving politics could be written—look at The Normal Heart, The Crucible, Richard III. And I knew that my passions could not be bottled up and ignored. I felt compelled to put my mish-mash of thoughts and feelings on the stage. So here are some rules I’ve discovered in my own journey in writing political theatre that may play a crucial role in aiding yours.

What’s the Verb?

A surefire mark of a new playwright are scenes in which two characters pontificate on their respective ideology. These scenes tend to be one-sided. One character totally dunks the other character with their ideas because that other character is so dumb and you, the playwright, are so freaking smart! The truth is that your audience won’t care much about your character’s political ideas unless it plays into their action (also called the “objective”). All dialogue must have a purpose, and this purpose can’t be, “I’d really like to lecture my audience!”

The other issue with these ideological conversations is that most of them aren’t truthful to how people actually talk. To define a person solely by their political ideology is to create a one-dimensional character—a strawman for your political argument. You run the danger of coming across as you, the playwright, telling the audience what to think, as opposed to the far more exciting option of letting the audience make up their own minds. Tony Kushner pokes fun at this type of scene in Angels in America in which Louis goes on an overlong one-sided political tirade toward Belize. I highly recommend watching this scene if you haven’t. It’s quite good.

What’s the Question?

I rolled my eyes when people would say plays were about “asking questions.” I couldn’t decipher what it meant. Why couldn’t plays be unambiguous and accessible while being just as poignant as dense and puzzling work? But I’ve come to understand that “asking questions” isn’t about making your play confusing, it’s about playing in the space of grey and uncomfortable ethics. It’s about withholding moral authority and didacticism in favor of making the audience hold their own opinions about the actions of your characters. After all, isn’t that how real life works? We don’t observe the perspective of some omniscient force on the actions of your fellow man. They simply act, and you consciously or unconsciously judge that action as right or wrong. Watching a play is no different—the best plays make you feel like a voyeur into authentic private lives. Unless we’re discussing Brecht. Which we are not. Because fuck Brecht.*

Tell the Truth

It’s easy to write strawmen when crafting characters of a political persuasion of which you disagree. What’s far more interesting is, to tell the truth of what that type of character might actually believe and some good reasons they might believe it. This doesn’t mean you necessarily change the political argument of your play or even sympathize with the character. But you’ll add a layer of dimensionality and respect for the truthfulness and integrity of the person you’re writing by merely telling the truth. This might cause someone in your audience who identifies with said ideology to empathize and engage with your work, as opposed to shutting down by feeling misrepresented. It might even allow you to reach that person with your own perspective in a way that they’ll have to engage with on an ideological level.

Choosing to be Subtle

Subtlety is nothing more than a tool in your belt. There are times when it’s useful when crafting your play, and there are times when it will make your audience miss key moments or information. Subtlety one of the most central balancing acts of writing a play. “How do I get my exposition across without my characters saying it outright?” The subtlety I’m writing about here is about the drive to write “topical” plays. The raison d’etre you’ll hear for producing a play often includes its “relevancy” and how it “speaks to the current moment.” While I won’t knock these as inconsequential factors for a production’s existence, truly great works will be universal in its themes. Plays that merely seize upon the political moment often become lost to the zeitgeist.

Great political writers tend to write about events in which there is a degree of separation between the current political topic they’re tackling and the play itself. A lot of the time this separation occurs by setting the play in a different time—George Orwell was writing about the rise of Stalinism with his (at the time) futuristic book 1984. Arthur Miller was writing about McCarthyism by setting The Crucible in the 1690s, Tolstoy wrote War and Peace when the events of the novel were roughly sixty years prior.

This, of course, is a guideline, not a rule. Two plays, in particular, Angels in America and The Normal Heart, were written and produced during the heights of the AIDS crisis of which they were discussing. They were all the more potent for speaking to the urgency of the moment. It comes down to knowing your audience and the objective of your play. There are times when subtlety is a luxury, and you must grab your audience by the collar, and there are times when a topic may be nuanced and require a thoughtful touch. I suggest experimenting and intuiting when to use which tool for your play.

Stand Your Ground

The nature of political theatre is that it’s divisive, so will you naturally create opponents to your work by virtue of its existence. The broad point of my article is to protect you from vultures who mean to distract from your work’s focus or undermine its intention. It’s therefore essential to know the intention of your play and not deviate from it. Are you creating a call to action? An exploration of a political and a moral grey area? A satire? Are you attempting to anger, frighten, shock, or amuse? It’s possible you’re looking to create a combination of the above. I think it’s fine to not know the details of your play in its initial drafts, but have a general idea of the play’s intention before writing. To do otherwise is to create unusable junk. You want to finish your draft and be able to defend yourself against its detractors. Failing this, your play’s flaws will become blood in the water to an audience of hyper-critical sharks.

The argument can be made that all theatre, by its nature, is political. You can take all of the points made above and apply it to just about any play to improve its quality. But creating divisive theatre can be fertile ground in an artist’s garden of self-doubt. Writing a play is like building a house, but crafting a political play is like a blueprint that contains odd angles and sits on a precarious foundation. These guidelines boosted my confidence in writing strong, politically divisive work—that is to say, work that’s multi-dimensional, engaging, and specific. I hope they do the same for you.

*I don’t actually care about Brecht.

Disagree? Want to contribute your advice to give? Comment below.

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