‘Welcome to the grid,’ said Kevin Flynn in Tron: Legacy, ‘A digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer. What did they look like? […] I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see. Then, one day, I got in.’
Never did I think the opening lines of a science fiction blockbuster would have such resonance with the process of creating a play.
All the elements are there; the computers, the groups of ideas and actions sometimes flowing systematically, sometimes connected in an unexpected yet satisfying way and at others broken, tangled and at worst, unintelligible. It does indeed feel like a dreamworld. And, like a dreamworld makes absolute sense, until the moment you try explaining it to someone else. Then, it crumbles around you.
Enter stage left; the action table (aka, the grid.) All kudos to Anna Jordan (YEN, 2013 Winner of the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting) for introducing this concept during her uStream broadcast (available on YouTube) as part of the 2015 Bruntwood Prize advice and tutorials. The premise is simple; divide your page into five columns with headers labelled scene, characters, location, what happens, what changes and what do we learn.
‘I devised this when I was doing a particularly tricky rewrite of a play that had had lots of different titles, three different endings; it had gone from six characters, to five, to four, to five…I just didn’t know where to start. It just felt like a complete car crash’ – Anna Jordan
Once you’ve got the basics in place, you can add extra details such as the date, time of day and the number of pages in each scene. As an inveterate tinkerer, I’ve also added a RAG status to mine in an attempt to focus on the scenes that need major development rather than perfecting scenes that are in an “ok” state.
What the action table allows you to do is step back and look at how you’ve structured your play. This is an exposing process. You will see in clinical binary terms the characters that are standing around doing nothing. You will see the characters who vanish in scene three distraught and appear two scenes later inexplicably restored. You will see every pitfall, every poorly expressed motivation and every flaw in your work. This is your project roadmap. Fix these flaws and as Anna explained, ‘What you can end up with is a blueprint…this is the bare bones of your story.’
This analytical approach to a creative endeavour might feel counterintuitive. But as the playwright Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time, Birdland and many more) explores in another of the Bruntwood Prize tutorials On Dramatic Action, ‘the noun ‘wright’ in the compound noun ‘playwright’ does not stem from the verb ‘to write’… but stems another word which in the past tense is pronounced ‘to wrought’.
‘The work of the playwright is not literary…Our work is not to write language, it’s to map behaviour. The subject [of the playwright] is not what people say, it’s the stuff that people do as they try to control their lives under the shadow of their own inexorable mortality.’
Approach playwriting with this mindset, and suddenly the grid method begins to feel less clinical. It allows you to pull together clusters of action and reaction, removed from the technicalities of what your characters are saying to each other and focus on what they are doing to each other. Who knows. Perhaps one day, like Kevin Flynn, you will stop dreaming of a world that you thought you’d never see. Perhaps one day, you too, will get in.