Nine Principles in Creating a Community Play

Since the beginning of the 70s our work in community theatre in Israel has followed the basic concept: “Drama from within the community and for the community”, following an intuitive approach to the subject without any prior assessment of its worth. In experimental field work with different communities in Israel (carried out by the Department of Theatre, Social Theatre Division, Tel-Aviv University, Bar-Ilan University, and others), we attempted to determine the various components of the drama and to organize them in logical succession to establish a common basis for creating community drama. Many years of successful and less successful efforts eventually led us to realize that basic principle “Drama from within the community and for the community” is only a beginning. Many additional surveys and analysis of experiments in the field enabled us to scrutinize previous works that had been created through intuition alone; an intuition that had proved itself in practice and had initiated a social dialogue by means of drama.
Today, two decades after those first attempts, we are able to go into the field with established basic principles for creating drama. These, now obvious principles, developed, improved and underwent rearrangement during the course of our work, creating the tools to construct a dramatic scenario. Artistic plays, that are not specifically community plays but those with a general social message, also benefited from the application of the principles.

Stages in the production of drama
a) Sources.   A search for dramatic sources constitutes the initial step in any dramatic activity. Impressions are acquired through surveys, observations, involvement, asking questions, and collecting the various materials from which the drama will eventually develop. The search for sources can be social, group, or community effort, and it can also stem from a personal viewpoint – one can find drama within oneself, in one’s personal story. In the latter case work will constitute an artistic one that is not intended to be a part of the community drama.
b) Documentation.   Upon completion of collecting the sources we now have a documentary ‘file’ of the subject – written material, photographs, tape recordings, etc. the more material that this file contains, the more it will assist us in understanding the complexity of the drama in its entirety.
c) Creating the drama.  This is the decisive stage. Preparations have been competed and we are about to write the play itself, plan the event, and arrive purposefully at the theatre. Playwrights can on occasion ‘get stuck’ in the middle of writing if they do not have enough material collected in the earlier stages. Sources collection and documentation constitute a pre-production phase to the play or theatrical event.  
d) Producing the drama.  At this stage the entire production team get together – playwright, director, actors, musicians, scene designers and others, all associates in the same drama.
e) Staging the drama.  Unlike literary works, dramatic writing is intended to be staged before an audience. The audience is therefore an integral part of the drama, and the playwright must bear the potential audience in mind as a partner to the dialogue. (See principal 8, below: Dramatic dialogue).
f) Running the drama.  What sort of audience will we be facing?  How many performances do we intend to give?  Where will it stage?  What sort of space will be at our disposal – outdoors, indoors, large, small?  All these and many other questions must be discussed right from the outset of creating the drama. The answers will have a significant bearing on the entire dramatic process.
 Following these six planning stages, we are now ready to start writing the play. It is now that the ‘nine basic principals’ come into play and accompany the work, from the writing to the directing, and then to the production itself. 

Method and application
 The ‘nine basic principles’ method offers an approach to analysis of the play during its creation and staging. It can also be used to examine the work in the process of being created, and to analyze the play in its concrete form or after its presentation to an audience. However, before analyzing and studying the method, it should be noted that I do not conceive this system, or indeed any other, as a fixed formula for creating a play; neither do I possess a ‘formula’ for any other type of artistic creation. This method is simply an additional tool for playwrights, directors and instructors in creating a play. The nine principals that follow in order of importance constitute a tool for creating any play. Whether it be a community drama or any other:
1) Subject.        
2) Statement.    
3) Situation.   
4) Storyline.
5) Characters.  
6) Place    
7) Time  
8) Dramatic dialogue   
9)  Style or concept.

1) Subject
 The subject is the main point of the play. It should state, in one sentence, and sometimes even in one word, the content and meaning.  A long, rambling definition of the subject is clear-cut evidence for a play lacking in basic dramatic qualities. Even if more than one subject is to be raised in the play, there will always be one central theme around which the secondary themes will revolve. The main theme should appear in every scene, sometimes in each part of a scene. For example, the main theme in Ibsen’s The Doll’s House is the status of women. Many other matters are indeed scattered throughout the play, but the status and situation of the woman is the subject that winds like a thread throughout the play and appears in almost every scene. The main theme in hamlet is that of treachery. And again, while other matters make their appearance, it is the treachery and traitors that appear in almost every scene.
 If you begin to write a play without defined subject, you are setting off on a very hard path indeed. If the play’s subject is not clear, if it requires interpretation and explanation, it will hinder the production and will reach the stage with the director lost in a web of confusion. The subject is always the common focal point for the director and the rest of the production team. Upon staging the play, the subject will become a contract between audience and actors. If the subject has no dramatic import, involving a conflict, then it is possible that we may have a good story – but we do not have a drama. For example, the subject ‘flowers’ is not a dramatic one, but ‘camellias’, ‘the evil flowers’ or ‘flowers of desire’ are subjects imbued with drama. In the same way, while childhood is not in itself dramatic, a hard childhood is a subject charged with meaning. Any image that contains an antithesis to childhood can be a preliminary main subject for creating a drama.
In summary:  a) The subject requires a clear and briefly defined statement;
 b) The subject should possess dramatic quality.

2) The statement
 If we wished to tell a story for its own sake, we could allow ourselves a tale without a moral or a statement. I deliberately employ the word ‘statement’ rather that ‘message’, for ‘message’ involves different concepts. The reasons for using drama, and its power, lie in the desire to make a totally clear statement; and, like the subject, if the statement cannot be summarized in one clear sentence, we will be setting off on our journey either overburdened or under provisioned.  To return to the example of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, the clearest statement made is quite obviously that a woman is not a doll; a woman is not a plaything. The statement is in itself full of drama, contrast, conflict. The statement is an additional definition and delineation of the subject. For example, if the subject is ‘a hard childhood’ and the statement is ‘a hard childhood follows you throughout life’, then this statement will present the story of someone haunted by his/her childhood. However, the same subject with a different statement can constitute the basis for a totally different play; for example, the subject ‘hard childhood’ and the statement ‘a battered child becomes a violent parent’. Each of the examples demonstrates a drama with a different aim in mind. Their sources may lie in the same subject but their statement turns them into different dramas. Whatever the statement, it should be made in one single clear and comprehensible sentence. If this sentence requires explanation, then the play’s statement is defective, and may end by spoiling the play itself.
In summary: a) The statement is the outcome of the play.  b) The statement should be made in one clear sentence, without additional explanation.

3) The dramatic situation
 The dramatic situation is the main point of the play, and without it we have no link with the drama and dramatic literature. In this case too we can determine whether we have a ‘healthy’ and stable dramatic situation, by defining it in one or two sentences. If we cannot focus on a meaningful dramatic situation in two sentences, then we have a problem with the very core of the play, which will in turn lead to serous problems in its production. In The Doll’s House, for example, the dramatic situation is of a woman in crisis who leaves her home. All the rest of the events are part of a complex system that results from this central situation.
 The subject ‘hard childhood’ can contain different dramatic situations that enable many possibilities. For example, the subject ‘hard childhood’ and the statement ‘a hard childhood follows you throughout life’, can be represented by different situations such as: a man haunted by his childhood attempts to put an end to his life; children in an orphanage struggle to survive (Oliver Twist).
 In summary: a) The dramatic situation should be expressed in one or two sentences at most; otherwise it is not clear and suffers from a flawed central structure;   b) The dramatic situation and the central conflict are the core of the play.

4) The storyline
 The storyline is the web of events that combine to build the dramatic situation. The storyline does not appear in its entirety in the play. the ‘full story’, before the curtain rises and after it falls, (what will happen to the characters after the play is over, what happened to them before in began, where did the events occur before, and what will be left after the end of the play and the dramatic situation), will clearly determine all the actions of all the characters. The storyline, if written in advance of the play, can become a vital source from which to write the play itself. In this case, the more written detail and explanation the better. Many tales can be appended to the storyline of a written play. The Doll’s House, for example, can be many different stories, but at its core – the subject, the statement and the situation, it is homogenous. The storyline enables us to observe and explain the situation, each in his own particular way.
 In summary: The storyline provides the framework for the dramatic situation. Every desired detail can be inserted into it.

5) The characters
 Each character is a dramatic structure complete in itself. If sufficiently complex, a character will contain the nine principles within itself – a main subject, statement, its own dramatic situation, storyline, place, time, dramatic dialogue and its own particular style. The encounter between each of these components is the dramatic art. For example, if we examine The Doll’s House from the perspective of the husband it will be a completely different play, with different subject, statement and storyline. In the same way, from the perspectives of any of the characters in Hamlet it is possible to see a different play (and many other plays have already been written from the different characters’ viewpoints). We should therefore now repeat our preliminary work on scenario structure, employing the nine principles, to each one of the characters (in this case too, brief character definitions are necessary, e.g. Nora – ‘the wife’, as well as the ‘husband’ and the ‘doctor’, etc.).
 In summary: a) Each character in the play constitutes in itself a nucleus for a ‘complete play’, and the nine principles therefore apply to each;  b) Just as we examined the subject, statement and situation, so too does each character require a brief definition to verify its validity.

6) The place
 The place in which the subject, the statement, the dramatic situation, the storyline and characters all occur, will, if located elsewhere, make a different play. Shakespeare’s setting of Hamlet in Ellsinore in Denmark was deliberate (what would have happened if he had located the play in a castle in England?). that same Nora in The Doll’s House whom we find at the beginning of the fight for the different story had she been placed in a palace in Cairo or Damascus. The place, therefore, also makes a statement.

7) The time
 Time is a dramatic component. Events that take place in the past present a different structure to those taking place in the future. If the play is taking place in present time the entire arrangement will again be different. Even such detailed time as the day of the week, season, hour of the day or night, plays a significant role.

8) Dramatic dialogue
 By dramatic dialogue we relate principally to the dialogue between the play and its audience. This point of view clearly differentiates between the social and other approaches. What target audience do we have in mind when writing and staging the play?  This is a complex question that demands a clear approach to the work in mind. A play directed at one particular audience but presented to another will appear in a different light. When writing the text we have a direct link with the audience we choose for our preliminary dialogue. At a later stage this dialogue can be adapted for an audience but for the moment we should choose a target audience for our dialogue, to which we shall direct our statement and present our storyline. From the same perspective that the partner to our dramatic dialogue is chosen, it can be clearly seen when the play ceases to be a community drama and starts to become a general social one. There are local plays that are intended to be only ‘local’, and that will interest a specific community only. The names and concepts broadcast in these plays may mean absolutely nothing to a wider audience.
 In summary: The dramatic dialogue has two sides: that of the dialogue between characters, and that between the play in its entirety and its target audience.

9) Style or concept     
 The style or concept cannot be chosen haphazardly. The playwright makes a deliberate choice of whether to write, for example, in blank verse or in a symbolistic, or surrealistic, or any other style. The style and concept finalize the contract between the writer and his/her work.

*  *  *
Does the ‘nine principles’ method work?  It can be tested by comparing plays that were staged successfully with those that failed. The answer will lie in one of the nine principles: perhaps the subject was important but there was mo statement; perhaps the message was important but the dramatic situation remained unconvincing; perhaps the subject, situation and statement were all clear but characters were flat; or perhaps all the first eight principles were accomplished, but the style and concept had nothing to say or the dramatic dialogue was not directed at the right audience.
  For the sake of additional clarity, I would like to present below several brief examples from the many in our own experience, or the many that you could create for yourselves:
A) A play for a community theatre commissioned according to the conditions of a specific neighborhood.
In a survey carried out by the local director (dramatic sources) it was found that the area suffered mainly from overcrowded habitation. According to the evidence gathered, it was generally assumed that this overcrowding was the main cause of other social problems. The community director/playwright thus bore in mind overcrowding as a central theme when creating the drama. A brief scenario follows:
Subject – overcrowded living conditions.
Statement – overcrowding leads to general chaos.
Situation – a quarrel between neighbors stemming from the mutual discovery that both families tend to pry into one another’s lives.
Storyline – for many years it was the ‘ family entertainment’ of the Levy family to sit by their open window in the living room and watch the Cohens’. On a fixed day each week all other activity stopped and the Levys’ would spend the entire evening watching the other family, to all intents and purposes as if they were at the theatre or cinema. They had been carrying on this way for years, and would even invite guests especially for such an evening. On the evening that the play begins, a neighbor from across the way comes in to borrow some sugar. Just a few moments previously the Levys’ had organized themselves for their weekly ‘entertainment’. Mrs. Cohen, who has disappeared from their view in the meantime, enters the Levys’ home and discovers to her amazement that she is looking into her own home, from the viewpoint of the Levys’, and her life from that moment on changes for ever.
Characters – Mr. Levy (father); Mrs. Levy (mother); Sarit Levy (Daughter); Nurit Levy (small daughter); Shula Levy (fat daughter), Menachem Levy (oldest son); Dorit (Shmilo’s girlfriend); Smilo Levy (son); Yonatan (guest); Rachel (his wife).
Mrs. Cohen (the neighbor); Mr. Cohen (the neighbor); Uri Cohen (their son); Nir Cohen (the small son); Chagit (the daughter).
(Here too, a more elaborate description will be provided for each character that will tell its story, its situation, the subject, the statement and so on. Each character will receive its own set of eight principles).
Place – the living room of the Levy family in a specific neighborhood.
Time – the present; Wednesday evening; the regular day for watching the neighbors.
Dramatic dialogue – the local residents versus the housing authorities. 
The audience, who were in the main local residents, saw themselves depicted in a grotesque fashion and clearly pointed to the representatives of the establishment who had been invited to watch the performance.
Style – a zany grotesque, with audience participation. The choice of this style was two-fold:  a) only through the grotesque could such an absurd situation still be considered ‘reasonable’; b) co-opting the audience and the descent of the actors into the auditorium had an immediate effect on the dramatic situation and the involvement of the spectators.

  1. B) A play for International Children’s Day
    Subject – battered children.
    Statement – a battered child will become a violent parent.
    Situation – the struggle of violent mother to prevent her daughter being taken into custody.
    Storyline – Mira has been divorced for two years. She lives with her four year old daughter Tal. Unable to control herself, the mother daily turns the child into a punching bag upon which she takes out her anger. The neighbors complain, the police intervene, the social services are called upon to deal with the case, and the social worker advises that the daughter be taken from her mother’s custody.
    Characters – Mira (the mother); Alma (the social worker).
    Place – the social worker’s office at the Family Therapy Center.
    Time – the present; fortnightly meeting over a two year period.
    Dramatic dialogue – children versus the adult world.
    Style – realistic, until a sudden turning point when lights go on in the auditorium, the play stops, and the style changes sharply to one of debate with the audience, with the leading question: “which of you, ladies and gentlemen, was a battered child?”  The realistic style was chosen in order to introduce the spectator to someone else’s  story. In actuality, the spectator sits in the dark, protected from all immediate involvement, until the focus suddenly falls directly on him.
    Adaptation of a classic play for community theatre
    The play Romeo and Juliet, being a classic play and a classic situation, has undergone many different theatrical adaptations. It contains the elements of a clear dramatic situation and a social struggle, with significance and a moral message that transcend time and space. In many cases, therefore, such as that of West Side Story, the adaptation works in a different way to the original play.
    Subject – forbidden love.
    Statement – love knows no boundaries.
    Situation – boy and girl from feuding families fall in love.
    Storyline – the Capulet family have a long-standing feud with the Montagu family. The son of one family falls in love with the daughter of the other. By the end of the tale both lovers have tragically died. (Begin the storyline and end it as you wish).
    Characters – Romeo (the boy); Romeo’s family; the Nurse, Juliet (the girl); Juliet’s family; the Priest; etc.
    Place – the Tikva Neighborhood (a deprived area in south Tel-Aviv).
    Time – the present.
    Dramatic dialogue – south Tel-Aviv (a poor area) versus north Tel-Aviv (an affluent area); or a dialogue between the poor and the affluent societies.
    Style – rock musical with large cast.

     In summary: If we adhere to the nine principles we are providing ourselves with a ‘safety net’ during the writing and production, and with a fine mesh sieve while analyzing the play. If the playwright, Director, actors, etc., follow these guidelines step by step, they will possess a useful tool that will help them to avoid confusion and writer’s block – those enemies of any creative process.


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