Where I Came From
Before I began writing plays, I was an actor. That is a person who read and studied play scripts for a particular purpose - to create (or give a live representation to) a character on a stage. In fact, one of the motivations that lead me to toss my hat into the playwright ring, was my experience as an actor - as you know an actor is forever reading scripts, memorizing lines, uncovering subtext etc.. An actor will live, breathe, eat and sleep with a script. As an actor, I knew a script backwards and forward. It was this routine and knowledge of theatrical scripts that created the urge to try writing a play.
I did not jump immediately into writing, nope - baby steps -I began writing short skits for a comedy sketch group that I was involved in around St. Louis. From short skits, I moved onto one act plays and finally two acts. So, my point is that my formal training was not in playwriting, but in play performing - one could say I came to the craft from the inside out.
When I started writing plays, I wanted to know some basic information about the technical side. How did it work? What were the do's and don'ts, the rules or laws? I found many books and articles on content and conflict and character arc and so on - but that's not what I wanted to know. I was interested in how it should look - fonts and type size and margins. The technical stuff.
The funny thing about this technical quest is that I found I was not alone. A few years after I had a few short plays produced, an old college teacher contacted me and asked if I could fill in on a playwriting panel he was hosting at a writing conference. His scheduled playwright called in sick. Yea, sure I guess I could. I mean, I knew a little bit.... So I showed up, trying to look like a playwright - whatever that is. I sat at the head table with another local (well known) playwright and the moderator who was the Chair of the English department. What am I doing here?
We were asked to take 5 minutes and introduce ourselves, I was called to go first - I tried to stretch out my intro to 5 minutes but I think it lasted all of 2. The other playwright began her intro and was very eloquent, she began talking about the beautiful weather and weaved that into the craft of playwriting - the muses and the psychology - the art and blah blah blah - it was all very nice. And then the moderator opened it up to questions. The first question was simply - "How much stage direction should you write?" followed by "Does it matter much about character description?" "Do you need to specify furniture colors?" - It dawned on me at that moment - this is what new writers wanted to know. Forget the artsy fartsy crap - give us the details! The nuts and bolts!
As a side note - I immediately fielded the stage direction question (I drew on knowledge from my acting background, not my writing) It was my experience that most directors ignore stage directions. All an actor really needs to know (or cares about) is when to enter, where to walk, where to stand and when to exit.
If a playwright composes a stage direction such as: "Howard enters the 18th Century styled drawing room looking worried. As if the weight of the world rests on his shoulders and the sorrow of humanity reflects in his eyes. His angst rides just below the surface of every breath he takes. "
A director will tell the actor playing Howard - "Ignore the wordy crap. Just enter on your cue. "
When it comes to format and how a play should look on the printed page - I simply used the format of every play I ever read or performed in and most of the plays came from the large publishing houses like Samuel French or Dramatists - and it looked like this on the page:
HOWARD: (enters) Hello, everyone. I am worried. The weight of the world is on my shoulders.
I believe the above format -Character name followed by the dialogue is called British. Later I began seeing a different format - some called American - it looked like this:
Hello, everyone. I am worried. The weight of the world is on my shoulders.
Or maybe Arial.
No, it's Verdana! Definitely Verdana!
And it should be 12 point. No, it should be 11. And your top margin should be 0.75 -
No, it should be 1.00. Your left margin should be 1.0 - no it should be 1.5 and your right margin should be 1.0. What self-respecting playwright would even dream of having a 1.5 left margin?
Each page you write should be considered to be 1 minute of time. No, it should be a minute and a half. But it depends on the amount of white space. And the pace of the scene. And if you have an actor that pauses alot. Do you have a lot of action? Then add 45 seconds. A lot of dialogue? Then subtract 25 seconds.
My 2 Cents
You get the idea? You can Google "play script format" and find endless theories and rhetoric on the subject. As I said at the beginning before I was a playwright, I was an actor - and as an actor, I can tell you - at the Bottom Line - It really doesn't matter.
Your fonts and types and margins. Where the characters name goes - No, I am sorry Mr and Mrs Professional MFA in Playwriting - It doesn't matter. Actors get the scripts, highlight them, scribble all over them with notes, doodle little graphs, spill coffee on them - how they are formatted has no bearing on anything.
Actors memorize the words and toss the scripts aside. The words get spoken on a stage. Actors don't speak the fonts or types or margin dimensions.
As an actor, I have been in new plays and the scripts have been handwritten on a legal pad. Even pages scribbled on the back of napkins. All I needed to know is what I had to say on stage. Commit it to memory and toss it down.
While I understand, each art form must have rules and standards - and some will hold play formats in high regard, I get that. People must be able to read and understand a script, I have no objection to that. At the end of a day - a play script is eventually transformed into a living thing on the stage and that is where the art really lies. How you put it together has no bearing on the overall result. If the audience doesn't like your work, the correct format won't change their minds.