Writing dialogue a ‘subtle dance’

Friday, May 13, 2016
Jane Harrison interviewed by Alex Fairhill

A portrait of Jane Harrison
Jane Harrison

Penning a stage play is more than putting dialogue on the page, says tutor Jane Harrison. She tells Writers Victoria’s Alex Fairhill that the end result is a collaborative effort.

UPDATE: Jane will be running an Indigenous Character Intensive at Writers Victoria in November 2017.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about writing a play?

That is just people talking, perhaps. All of the dialogue and all of the actions have to move the story forwards, and that’s challenging to do without making it didactic. So it’s a subtle dance between holding back information and still trying to make sense and keep the audience interested. And that dialogue should be like ‘real talk’ - yes, and no.

What impact does non-verbal components such as stage directions or the actors’ delivery of a line have on a work?

Actors are a wonderful invention! Give your actors leeway to embody an emotion of action - they bring so much nuance to a character. Although I am not a ‘funny’ person in real life, I love nothing more than writing a line that I know an actor will deliver in such a way as to make the audience laugh. While I can say the same line…nothing.

I tend not to write too many stage directions, unless it is to explain the setting or an action that has to happen. Entrances and exits are obvious. Directors and actors like to find their own ways into the dialogue and mainly find stage directions annoying. You don’t need to write ‘he gave her a dirty look’ - it should be in the dialogue that that is required - or the actor might choose to give a sweet look - and this might add another layer to the interaction. Mostly actors and directors make better choices than I would anyway.

As well as your award-winning stage plays, you’ve also written a novel, ‘Becoming Kirrali Lewis’. Does the way in which you engage the audience differ between stage and page?

They are very different, and it is a bit of a relief in writing a novel when you can describe the environment in detail and the inner workings of the characters’ minds, while in theatre you have to convey those elements through their actions and dialogue alone, and the environment is obviously an approximation, an impression. But then in theatre you can create any imagined world, and if you get the convention right the audience will accept that and go with it, so that’s a lot of fun, too. A play is such a compressed piece of time, but a novel can take its time to explore and build the characters and context. Usually with a play you are thrown right into it - you know who main people are and the context in the first few minutes. Which is why the first scene is always so hard to write!

What role does theatre play in conveying and developing Indigenous and diverse voices?

I think Aboriginal people have always been storytellers and that theatre is really just an extension of that, and perhaps that is true for many other cultures. Theatre has the fabulous elements of the actors, the sound and costumes and props, so each of these elements are also creating your world and telling another thread of the story.

What’s the key piece of advice you have for anyone wanting to write plays?

It is to persevere. It is a hard art and requires a team to bring it to fruition, so make friends with a director who you admire and trust and who has the profile that a theatre company wants to work with. Writing the play is hard enough; getting produced is the other challenge.

About Jane Harrison

Jane Harrison (Muruwari) is an award-winning playwright and writer. Her play ‘Stolen’ has been performed throughout Australia and in the UK, Hong Kong and Tokyo. ‘Rainbow’s End’ has also had a Tokyo production and toured across Australia in 2011, winning the Drover’s Award for Tour of the Year. ‘The Visitors’ was part of the MTC Cybec Electric series and the Melbourne Indigenous Festival in February 2014. Jane’s other publications include YA novel ‘Becoming Kirrali Lewis’ (2015), winner of the 2014 Black & Write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship.

About Alex Fairhill

Alex Fairhill is an emerging children’s and YA author. She posts writing-related thoughts on her blog and Twitter (@AlexFairhill).