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Choose the Right Setting for Your Play

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Before you sit down to write a play, consider this: Where does the story take place? Developing the right setting is essential to creating a successful stage play.

For example, suppose you wanted to create a play about a James Bond-styled globe-trotter who travels to exotic locations and gets involved with lots of intense action sequences. It might be impossible to effectively bring all of those settings to life on the stage. Ask yourself: Is a play the best way to tell my story? If not, perhaps you may want to start working on a movie script.

Single Location Settings: 

Many plays take place in a single location. The characters are drawn to a specific place, and the action unfolds without dozens of scene changes. If the playwright can invent a plot that focuses on a limited amount of settings, half the battle of writing is already won. Sophocles of Ancient Greece has the right idea. In his play, Oedipus the King, all of the characters interact on the steps of the palace; no other set is needed.  What started in ancient Greece still works in modern theater -- bring the action to the setting.  

Kitchen Sink Dramas:

A "kitchen sink" drama is typically a single location play that takes place in a family's home.  Often time, that means that the audience will see only one room in the house (such as the kitchen or dining room).  This is the case with such dramas as A Raisin in the Sun.  

Multiple Location Plays:

Plays with a wide variety of dazzling set pieces are sometimes impossible to produce. British author Thomas Hardy wrote an enormously long play entitled The Dynasts. It begins in the farthest reaches of the universe, and then zooms down to earth, revealing various generals from the Napoleonic Wars. Due to its length and the complexity of the setting, it has yet to be performed in its entirety.

Some playwrights don’t mind that. In fact, playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O’Neil often wrote complex works that they never expected to be performed. However, most dramatists want to see their work brought to life on stage. In that case, it is essential for playwrights to narrow down the number of settings.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Some plays take place on an empty stage. The actors pantomime objects. Simple props are used to convey the surroundings. Sometimes, if a script is brilliant and the actors are talented, the audience will suspend its disbelief. They will believe that the protagonist is traveling to Hawaii and then on to Cairo. So, playwrights must consider: will the play work best with actual sets? Or should the play rely upon the audience’s imagination?

Relationship Between Setting and Character:

If you would like to read an example of how details about setting can enhance the play (and even reveal the nature of the characters), read the analysis of August Wilson's Fences.  You'll notice that each part of the setting description (the garbage cans, the unfinished fence post, the baseball hanging from a string) represents the past and present experiences of Troy Maxson, the play's protagonist.

In the end, the choice of setting is up to the playwright. So, where do you want to take your audience?

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