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Theatre Arts: Tips for Writing

This guide contains an overview of the dramatic arts, including several recommended resources.

Tips for Writing Papers about Dramatic Works

There is a difference between reading a play or the book for a musical and seeing the actual production.  How you conduct an analysis depends on whether you are reading the work or seeing it performed.  Due to this difference, there are two sets of tips, one for watching the work, and one for reading the work.

Analyzing a Performance of a Dramatic Work

When you are watching a dramatic work and need to write about paper about it, here are some things to which you should pay attention.

  1. Timing - How good are the actors at delivering their lines and keeping the pace going?  Does the production drag?  Does it go too quickly, and you cannot follow the action?  Is it just right?  What does this tell you about the production?
  2. Sets - Do they add to the story, distract from the story, or merely act as background?  If there is a minimal set, what does this tell you about the production?  If there is an elaborate set, what does this tell you about the production?
  3. Blocking - Where are the actors on the stage?  Are they easy to see and hear, or does the placement create difficulties in seeing or hearing the actors?  Do the actors ever turn their backs on the audience (which is generally considered a faux pas)?  If so, what happens when they do this?  How does this affect your perceptions of the performance and/or production?
  4. Transitions Between Scenes - Are these smooth, awkward, perfect, etc.?  What does this tell you about the production?
  5. Directing - Are the actors natural, wooden, or something in between?  How does the directing affect your perception of the performers?
  6. Memorable Lines/Deliveries - Are there lines that stand out or deliveries of specific lines that stand out?  Similarly, are there muddled lines or even some improvisation?  What does this do to the production and/or performance?
  7. Costuming - Do the costumes work for that particular play or the time period being portrayed?  How does this affect your perception of the overall production?
  8. Lighting - How are lights being used?  Are these appropriate uses of lighting?  Does this add to the production, detract from the production, etc.?  How does this affect your perception or even interpretation of the performance and/or production?
  9. Sound - If there are no microphones, do the actors project their voices well?  If there are microphones, what is the sound quality like?  How does this affect your perception or even interpretation of the performance and/or production?
  10. Music - If there is music, is there a live orchestra or a recording?  How does this change your perception of the performance?
  11. For a Musical - Does the music set the mood?  Is it used to represent a character?  Are there favored chords or keys that are repeated?  Consider why those might be repeated/used.
  12. Lyrics in a Musical - Are the lyrics memorable?  Are you able to hear the lyrics, or do the performers fail to enunciate the words?  These things can change your experience.  Do the lines rhyme or not?  How does rhyming or not rhyming affect your ability to remember the lyrics?  Are the lyrics appropriate to the storyline?  Consider the lyrics carefully and how this informs your reception of the musical overall.

Analyzing a Text of a Play or The Book for a Musical

When you are analyzing the text of a specific work, you will want to look for several elements.  Here are some tips for analysis.

  1. Analyze figurative language.
  2. Analyze the thematic elements.
  3. Analyze the stage directions.
  4. Research the historical context.
  5. Research the cultural, psychological, sociological, etc. elements.  Sometimes dramatic works criticize cultural, sociological, etc. practices, so it is really important to pay attention to this.  Such research can also provide context for a work. 
  6. Analyze the characters.  Are they symbols?  Are certain characters being used as foils for other characters?  How are those characters being used?  Why are the characters being used in this manner?
  7. Consider the ways in which acts and scenes are broken up.  What does this say about the playwright or composer?
  8. Consider what the author wants the reader to walk away knowing .  What is the point of the play or musical?
  9. If you are analyzing a musical, consider what how the music drives the plot.
  10. If you are analyzing a musical, consider the keys, favored chords, etc. that a composer chooses.  For example, if a composer wants to demonstrate a nefarious plot, that composer might use the devil's chord.  The composer might also choose thematic music to represent a specific character.  The musical choices matters, so really consider this carefully.
  11. Consider the lyrics for a musical.  Do they rhyme?  If so, does that change the way one perceives that song.  If not, why did the lyricist choose not to rhyme lines?  What is being conveyed through the lines?  You still want to conduct a close reading of the lyrics.
  12. Do both the lyrics and the music work together, or are they discordant?  If they are discordant, is this on purpose?  If so, why?  If the two work seamlessly together, how does this affect your perception of the work?