If you break the word "playwright" down into two parts, you already have a great understanding of what playwrights do: they write the scripts for plays, which then go on to be staged in theatrical productions. The play is a unique writing form, consisting of two principal elements: dialogue and stage directions. Using only these two elements, along with a brief character list and introduction to the play's setting, playwrights weave complex dramatic narratives that are intended to truly blossom in live performance.
Even more so than other forms of writing, playwriting fundamentally requires the ability to observe: to pay attention to and capture the essence of characters, relationships, settings, styles of speech, and more.
For most playwrights, getting one's plays produced, or staged, is a large part of the job—after all, it's the main way that playwrights get paid for their work. Once they've completed a play, a playwright might start by submitting it to theater companies, production companies, producers, or directors, hoping that it strikes someone's interest. A play might be sold for a fee or, more likely, leased for a small fee in addition to the promise of future royalties. In some cases, especially first stagings, the playwright might participate in the rehearsal process, advising the cast and crew as (or in addition to) a dramaturg and making small rewrites based on feedback from the actors and director. In other cases, the playwright's role ends as soon as he or she turns the script over to the producer or company.
Playwright at a Glance
Playwrighting doesn't require a specific degree, but being good at it certainly requires prior experience in and appreciation for theater, which is why playwrights often have degrees in theater. A playwright's level of success can generally be measured by where their work gets produced. At the beginning of their careers, playwrights usually get started writing plays for their own pleasure—many of which go unstaged—and gradually progress to writing plays that are produced by local or regional theater companies. Eventually, skilled and successful playwrights' work may be produced on bigger and bigger stages, winding up in prestigious locations like New York City's Broadway. Playwrights might also write for opera, in which case they're called librettists, or collaborate with composers to create original or adapted musical theater shows.
Most playwrights don't have employers in a traditional sense, or at least not for their playwriting; they produce work independently and based on their own desires. However, they can be—and often are—commissioned by theater companies, festivals, and musical theater adapters to write a single script, usually on a specific topic or theme. They can also be employed by colleges and universities as teaching artists, temporarily engaged by theater companies or other arts nonprofits in programs called residencies, or work in some other capacity—for example as a director, dramaturg, or actor. In order to get their plays staged, networking with producers, directors, and artistic directors is essential.
- Script writing
- Literary theory
- Plot and character development
- Observational prowess
- Editing and revision
Playwriting is about storytelling—creating a world and characters from scratch and capturing listeners with their story—but it's also about live performance; in fact, it's this critical element that separates playwrights from novelists or screenwriters. Understanding what goes into a compelling live performance is vital for playwrights, as well as having a strong sense of the capabilities of theater and the visual imagination to envision a performance before it occurs. Additionally, even more so than other forms of writing, playwriting fundamentally requires the ability to observe: to pay attention to and capture the essence of characters, relationships, settings, styles of speech, and more.
The work life for a playwright has everything to do with their employment situation, as well as what stage of their career they're in. A moderately successful playwright might teach playwriting at a college while developing new work on the side. On the other hand, a beginning playwright is likely to have a day job in the theater world (or elsewhere) competing for their time, while the most successful playwrights have free rein over their schedules, but might be kept busy with commissions and deadlines.