Think you know how to read a play? Well, have you ever been in a conversation — or worse, a classroom discussion — where other people read the same play as you sounded like Einstein and you sounded, well, not like Einstein? Yeah, been there, felt that way. The truth is that the people who sound so smart have developed a way of organizing their response to a play.  You can do this, too!

With the right tools, your insights have a stronger foundation and stand out more clearly in the gallery of public opinion.  Read on; help is on the way!

How to read a play: DRAMATIC ACTION

What is the overall action of the play? What is the central conflict, what do the characters want, what do they do to get it, and at what cost? When expressed, the dramatic action (e.g., to be happy, to exact revenge, to find freedom) needs to encompass all the characters’ pursuits in order to be useful. (Note: This is another way of saying: “The play is about people who …”)

How to read a play: THEMATIC FOCUS

What might the play mean? It’s useful to consider many meanings before focusing on central and orbiting themes. The theme and dramatic action should interrelate — they are two ways of thinking about the same thing. Dramatic action describes characters in conflict; thematic focus describes the meaning extracted from that action and its results. (Note: This is another way of saying: “This is a play about … [fill in the noun, but don’t use “people”].)


Drama is about characters who change. Sometimes characters are driven by a desire for change, other times change is forced upon them. Either way, an effective way to understand a play is to ask, “How, where, and why are the main characters changed from the beginning to the end of the play?” Onstage, relationship is the best way to measure change, impact, and meaning in a play. If relationships don’t change, does anything happen, has anything been affected?


A French scene chart is invaluable in mapping the rhythm and progression of a play. The chart is based on character entrances and exits, and includes the page length of each scene, the names of the characters who inhabit it, a note on the physical location/setting, and a scene title (of your own devising) that summarizes the action. By looking at a French scene chart without knowing the play, it’s possible to understand major scenes and central characters, as well as analyze the sequence and duration of scenes that comprise the overall rhythm of the play.


In theatre, language is one of the primary means of conveying vital information about character, through exposition and delivery: social class, region, culture, age, and more. On the page, language is also the exclusive medium, so it’s essential to pay particularly close attention to the power and purpose of verse, images, motifs and colorations of accent, dialect, and mannerisms such as malapropisms.


Take notes when you read a play for the first time: What you do and don’t understand and what makes the greatest impression when the play is new to you are crucial. If you work on the script, you’ll never have those first reading experiences again, but the audience will, every performance.


A play in which characters make no choices isn’t much of a play; therefore, it’s useful to focus on the moment of decision, the choice itself. Find those moments, what leads up to them, and the consequences that follow and you’ll hold your audience’s attention all night. By the way, what isn’t chosen, what doesn’t happen, should be a very present shadow of what is and does. It’s how we understand regret.


How much does it matter to the characters if they achieve their goals and attain their objectives? Are we talking a matter of life and death, anticipated happiness or despair? Is someone’s future at stake — marriage to the villain, loss of the family farm, unrequited love, financial ruin? A play without high stakes is like a walk in the park. Nothing wrong with that, but not very exciting either.


A motif is a recurring element that helps develop and inform a play’s major themes. The motif can be anything that shows up multiple times in a play: an idea, a visual element, a sound. Motifs often evolve in the course of a play, and the changes in ideas, images, and sound can signify important developments in character, action, and circumstance.

Now you have more tools in your kit to help you respond lucidly to the questions posed by a work of dramatic literature. If you work on mastering just a fraction of these, I guarantee you’ll never be abashed in drama class again. What’s more, whether you are a director, actor, or designer, you will be ready to help put a play on its feet and create a dynamic production that offers a surprising and rewarding experience for its audience. 

Sarah Garvey is a thespian (forever!) and a member of the Educational Theatre Association staff. This story appeared in the March 2010 print version of Dramatics

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