Ah, the Andrew Parkin Drama Cup. Every October (or not, depending on the English Department’s whims) we gather once more in that dingy little performing venue known as the Sir Run Run Shaw Hall, and put on our plays in the name of collegiate glory. As the next APC draws closer, this three-time scriptwriter thought he’d pass on some of the wisdom gained over the years to you kiddies waiting in the wings. These are all supplementary suggestions, of course, and they’re probably not much help if you’re writing an actual play — but if you happen to find yourself writing a twenty-minute piece for your school production, then I hope the following ten commandments will be of some comfort and guidance.
1. Plan your script ahead of time
University students are procrastinators, sure, but your actors do need to know what they’re going to say before they step onstage. It would be nice, therefore, to give your actors the script at least three weeks before they are due to perform (and that’s presuming that you’ve got intensive rehearsals). Don’t worry about getting it right first time — minor tweaks along the way are fine, so long as you don’t rewrite the whole thing 48 hours before performance. People tend to hate that.
2. Tell the director exactly what you want
Remember that neither the director nor the actors have a hotline to your brain. If you would like to see your vision onstage, explain it as much as possible in the stage directions: how long actors should pause, how they should move across the stage. If you are egomaniacal enough to also direct, include these directions nonetheless for the benefit of the novice actors. But do remember that not everything will be done according to your whimsies: perhaps the director/actors will find a better angle than you, in which case you should accept their advice and sulk in private.
3. Write a good opening
A hallmark of a winner is that you know it’s one almost immediately after the lights go on. Stun us at the beginning of your play: a sudden, dramatic movement, such as somebody running onstage and collapsing (thanks for this one Linus!), or throwing stuff on the ground or just screaming will do. Make your play memorable from the start, and your audience will be much more receptive to what comes after. You’ve only got twenty minutes, so make use of every second!
4. Don’t write long speeches
Unless your cast includes a very talented actor, it will be impossible to have your actors memorise long monologues AND THEN say them without boring the socks off everyone else. If your characters are speaking for more than two lines on the page, consider breaking it up with a pause from the character while they do something else, or having another person respond to them. (I am told this is how normal people converse.) Either way, just make sure there’s enough energy to keep your audience engaged, so that they can’t start thinking about how much better the previous play was.
5. Don’t write complex settings
This is the Sir Run Run Shaw Hall, not the goddamn Cultural Centre. The most advanced thing we have here is a smoke machine, and even that malfunctions from time to time. See if you can set your scenes in an intimate environment, one that can be replicated or represented using nothing but a few school tables and chairs, along with a few of your own props. If you have to have that ball scene, find some way to evoke it without spending a fortune (YOUR fortune) on props and costumes. If the SRRSH allow you to build that landscape… yeah, stop kidding yourself, it’ll never happen.
6. Include supporting characters
This applies less in the year of writing, but as we all know the APC is above all a pretext for recruiting cabinet members into the college jongs. To entice as many people in as possible, it might be nice to create a couple of characters who are there for only one scene — thus ensuring that even people unfamiliar with acting can join in the fun, and/or giving people with busy schedules the opportunity to fulfill their stage ambitions. You want cabinet members next year, don’t you?
7. Put music between scene changes
Picture the scene (literally): your characters have just provoked humongous laughter. They walk offstage. Then… silence as the lights go out and some embarrassed shuffling as the props for the next scene are wheeled onstage. The lights go up, but the mood has shifted, the energy lost. You might find it useful to tide people over by playing something over the speakers as backstage do their work. Of course this isn’t necessary — the aftermath of an argument, for example, is best served by a bit of silence while the tension sinks in — but a good music cue can help set the mood and prevent viewer boredom. (If you’re going for pop songs, make sure the cues are as recognisable as possible — your audience might not know what you’re getting at if some obscure Moroccan tune floats through the darkness.)
8. Don’t preach
Okay, this is more a matter of personal taste. I know that the winning plays at APC tend to be those with deep, shocking themes: political points, for instance, or societal issues that resonate with your schoolmates. And if you know how to make your point subtly, or inspire us to think about it, good. But DON’T make your point and then have a character go on and on and on about it for another 90 seconds. It may be cathartic to make comments on the National Security Law, and you might win, but at a certain point it’ll just get in the way of the play itself and become weird. As Humphrey Bogart once said: “if you want to send a message, use Western Union.”
9. Don’t share credit
The Department, in its infinite wisdom, likes giving out book coupons as prizes. For some reason they have settled on the extravagant sum of $300, which means that if you are sharing credit with somebody on the brochure, you will most certainly not get the prize because you cannot evenly split three coupons amongst two people (and the Department has spent any extra on the actors). Kick your co-writer (or co-director) off the credits, and cough up if they’re sufficiently bothered to blackmail you for it later.
10. Have fun
Drama is serious business, especially if you’re a theatre kid looking to prove yourself, but there’s no reason why it should be a horrible experience for everybody involved. This is the APC, after all, not some huge production which will make or break your writing/directing/acting career. So above all, write something that’s fun for you and fun for everybody to perform, something that’s not too taxing and has a couple of jokes in it. (I wrote a jokey script on the perils of stage fright at the APC, and it was the best move of my entire undergraduate career.) The important thing is to create great memories for your actors: make them laugh, make them gasp, and perhaps some of that exhilaration they find in performing your script will find its way into the hearts of your audiences too.
That’s it! That’s everything you need to know to grab that coveted scriptwriting award (and those precious book coupons). See you all under the lights, and may the best team win!