Biographical Playwriting II: Theatricality Vs Reality
When writing a biographical play you will inherently come up against the struggle between staying true to your source and creating a theatrically engaging story. Hopefully, you picked this story because you saw something theatrical in it, but it is important to be aware that not every aspect of the truth is interesting to watch on stage. The first step in finding this balance is:
What makes something theatrical?
Conflict is the source of all engaging stories. The struggle between two forces. The higher the stakes of the struggle, the more interested we are as an audience. In a word: drama. In order to create drama, we need to have action and reaction. Things need to happen. A play is, at its heart, characters standing around talking to one another. However, that does not mean that we want to see a play about people standing around talking to one another. We want to see dynamic characters with a myriad of deep and changing relationships running around screaming at each other.
This, however, is not how life works. Real-life is not a series of drama school platitudes about stakes and action being thrown back and forth every day. Now that you know what is theatrical, we must consider the truth.
What is the “truth”?
Without getting too philosophical about it, the truth is what happened according to your source/sources. This could be the way the person you are writing about remembers certain events, the way events were reported in the news or in history, or the events as you remember them happened to you. It is the story that inspired you, without the corrupting artifice of “art” put on it yet. You should accept very early on in the process that this is not the story you are going to tell. Your play will be different from this “truth.” You are setting out to write a play, a drama, a fiction. I can’t help you write a docu-play, I only trade in lies.
“Based on” versus “inspired by”
Determine early on which of these two options you are going to go with. “Based on” implies a telling of the story that is closer to reality, with only minor changes to the plot. “Inspired by” gives you more freedom to change situations and characters to suit your story. Go back to your agreement with your source. What kind of terms did they set down for you? While working within their parameters; is your story “based on” them, or “inspired by” them?
Your guiding light in this process will always be the principal question, the major theme, the nugget of human truth at the heart of the play. If you are writing a play about the struggles of motherhood in the early 20th century, then craft every scene around that idea. Your scenes may be based on real events, but they need to tell that story.
Utilizing the magic of theatre
Theatre as an art form requires the audience to buy into theatricality immediately. They know that you cannot bring them to the streets of Rome in the 12th century, but they are willing to believe that these two columns imply 12th century Rome nonetheless. Use the willing suspension of disbelief to craft a play that represents a real story or person. We know it may not have been exactly like the way you wrote it, but the very possibility that it was this theatrical is what audiences are coming to see.
You must determine how much truth you are going to use in the details. Unless you were present for every single second of the story you want to tell (though, if it is autobiographical, you might have been), you will not know what was being said all the time. You will not know all the details. This is where you, as a talented writer, create the story inside the truth of what really happened.
This is far and away the most difficult concept to wrap your head around when it comes to biographical playwriting. You will inevitably be stuck with a scene that doesn’t work, agonizing over altering it away from “what really happened”. As a pre-write exercise to help create a roadmap for your project, start by writing down the true story. Write down every event, conversation, character, and detail that you know is the “truth”. Read it again to yourself as a completely fictional story. Where are the points where the theatricality is low? Where are the plot holes? What characters seem to be little more than plot devices? Highlight these spots as the points where you will need to invent and start there.