On the 23rd of November, Mahesh Dattani, an acclaimed playwright, was cordially invited by the School of English to present a drama workshop which was held at F4B09. The workshop aimed to give students an insight into how writing for drama offers possibilities for a dimensional scale that is spatial and temporal, just like how an architect draws out a blueprint that is then transformed into a tangible mass.
Hailing from India, Mahesh Dattani is an international filmmaker, screenwriter, stage director and a playwright who has won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for his book entitled ‘Final Solutions and Other Plays’ in the year of 1998. Besides that, in 1993, a movie that he wrote and directed, ’Mango Souffle’ won the Best Picture at the Barcelona Film Festival. He has a very international circuit as he travels around the world for training, teaching and directing purposes.
The discussion was conducted in a small intimate circle. Before reading his texts, Mahesh wished to draw the distinction between a writer and a playwright as he was always mistaken for being a writer. He claimed that a playwright is a person who is affiliated with crafting dramas through writing scripts. Moreover, writing for theater is a very specialised craft as it involves many layers of elements which cannot afford to be overlooked if a playwright was to present to the public a work that adheres to the conventions of ‘good’ drama.
A playwright is involved in the craft of drama, and I actually prefer to be called a dramatist.
— Mahesh Dattani
Theatre writing is, as mentioned before, a specialised craft. The best way to study it is by seeing the performance of it – when the text comes into motion. While watching a performance, all of our five sensory organs are present and thus we are able to fully indulge ourselves in the beauty of the play; and, it is only then we truly understand the implications in the play and how actions and gestures are integrated and incorporated to evoke and stimulate imagery. Mahesh further added that we do not read a play but we watch a play, unless it is for academic purpose.
Now, in literature, it is a notion that imageries are created through the choice of words, syntax, forms and many more – an epitome will be literary elements presented in Shakespeare’s works. On the other hand, how does a playwright create images? Mahesh explained that words in the scripts are transformed into moving images and those moving images are not realistic – they are merely a reflection of what is presented in the text.
It is not real; no matter how real it tries to be, it can never be real. It is an art.
After the brief introductory discussion, Mahesh read out an excerpt of a play he wrote, entitled ‘30 Days in September’, and a video of the same scene was shown so that the students could detect and experience the difference between merely reading the text and seeing the performance of it. ‘30 Days in September’ is a tale of love and betrayal which revolves around two main protagonists – Shanta is a religious mother who has a daughter named Mahla, who is depicted as promiscuous in the play as she changes partners every 30 days. As the story unfolds, it eventually becomes a dark and twisted story of sexual harassment and denial.
Mahesh mentioned that drama, is at its most powerful form if it is presented in the present, not the past nor the future. Thus, most scripts are written in the present continuous tense to vividly convey and depict imageries and the use of verbs acts as the core of theatre writing. Moreover, he suggested that although flashbacks could be included in scripts, it is not recommended as it will divert readers’ attention and distract them from imagining the ‘present’ that the play is trying to depict.
Conversely, in literature, written works can be of different forms: past tense, past continuous tense, future tense, etc. They also tend to contain a generous use of adjectives to delineate the connotation of certain diction. A student raised the following statement, commenting on Mahesh’s reading of his play:
It is interesting to know how at some points during your reading, the name of the speaker did not have to be mentioned but we know who was speaking that particular line.
Mahesh added to the above comment by stating that the characters’ state of mind has to be clearly conveyed when writing a script and that characterisation should be of the utmost importance. If characterisation is done and executed in a dexterous way, characters involved in the play will leave an impact on the readers and hence making them memorable.
Besides that, Mahesh provided some tips on how to write a good script. Firstly, you will have to know your characters and have their attributes on your fingertips. With this, it will offer a better chance for your characters to be more impactful and memorable and that you will not lose track on how to voice your characters and their personalities. Secondly, craft and imagination are the two main important aspects of theatre writing and they co-exist. Without either one, it is nearly impossible to produce a script. Lastly, the appearance of every character in the play has to be justified.
Theatre writing is just like planting seeds. You are setting destiny for your characters but you are getting destiny to be written by itself concurrently.
With that, Mahesh wrapped up the drama workshop. Conclusively, theatre writing has to be focused on the present and speech defines the actions; there is a fine line between literature and theatre writing in terms of how texts are transformed into motion in the latter.
By Kelvin Wong
Photographs by Karthik Arunasalam