Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays

By: David Ball

Precis by Hani R. Eskander

What I found interesting and worth taking away from this book is a lot. This is by no means a plagiarism or an attempt to summarize the entire book. This is simply my notes during my reading of this book.


The theatre artist who perceives little on the page, puts little on the stage.

A play is a series of actions. Action occurs when something happens that makes or permits something else to happen.

Your first task when reading a play is to find each action: find each action’s first event (its trigger), then its second event (the heap).

An event is anything that happens. When one event (trigger) causes or permits another event (heap), the two events together comprise an action. Actions are a play’s primary building block.

Sometimes the domino path divides to become multiple. Meaning, a trigger leads to two or more simultaneous heaps.

Sequential Analysis means following the play domino by domino from start to finish.

Going forwards allows unpredictable possibility.

Going backwards exposes that which is required.

Examining events backwards ensures you will have no gaps in your comprehension of the script.

Sequential Analysis of actions is most useful when done backwards. It is your best insurance that you understand why everything happens.

Stasis is motionless. A condition of balance among various forces; a standing still; an unchanging stability; a state in which all forces balance each other, resulting in no movement.

Intrusion is a pushing, thrusting, or forcing in. In every play something or someone comes along to shatter stasis.

Stasis comes about at the close of the play when the major forces of the play either get what they want or are forced to stop trying.

Dramatic Stasis occurs when things go on the same forever if something didn’t come along and happen.

Dramatic Intrusion is the thing that comes along and happens, setting free the irresistible forces that run a play from that point onwards.

“Drama is Conflict.”

David Ball

What a character wants motivates talking. If you want nothing, you say nothing. What I want determines what I say.

An Obstacle is any resistance to my having what I want.

Dramatic Conflict – want vs. obstacle – can be four types:

  1. Me vs. Myself
  2. Me vs. Other individuals
  3. Me vs. Society
  4. Me vs. Fate, Universe, Natural Forces, God/s.

Don’t spill the beans too soon!

Cherish the audience’s ignorance. Don’t impose your knowledge of the play’s end upon it’s beginning.

Often the core of dramatic tension resides in keeping information from the audience. Don’t negate the tension by premature revelation.

Something is theatrical when it garners great audience attention and involvement. Playwrights put their most important material into the play’s most theatrical moments, thus taking advantage of heightened audience attention. Identifying the theatrical elements of a play discover what the playwright considers important.

Exposition is the revelation of information needed by the audience to understand the play’s action. There are two kinds:

  1. Information the characters all know.
  2. Information not shared by all characters.

At its best, such exposition involves the use of information by one character to propel another into action.

A Forward is anything that arouses an audience’s interest in things yet to come. It is any myriad of devices, techniques, tricks, maneuvers, manipulations, appetizers, tantalizers, teasers, that make an audience eager for what’s coming up.

  1. Arousing interest in what’s next.
  2. Heighten & Focus attention.

Dramatic Tension requires that the audience desire to find out what is coming up. The greater the desire, the greater – and more active – the audience’s involvement. Playwrights employ many techniques – forwards – to increase the thirst for what’s coming up. Such techniques are also a key to spotting elements the playwright considers important.

The nature of any stage character is heavily determined by the actor in the part.

Action results from what a character does to get what he or she wants (motivation) in spite of obstacles.

What a character does is half the revelation. Why the character does it is the other half.

Action speaks louder than words, and talk is cheap.

Characterization is partly in the eye of the beholder, because we always judge others in terms of our individual selves.

No one knows a better way to present or interpret character then through what a person does.

The best reading approach is to discover the skeleton of character as revealed by action.

An image is something we already know or can be easily told that is used to describe, illuminate, or expand upon something we don’t know or cannot easily be told.

Precision at the expense of totality is for Science. Totality at the expense of Precision is for Art.

David Ball

The simultaneous communication of both understanding and emotional experiences in the domain of Art.

A successful image evokes different responses from person-to-person yet falls within a certain common range for everyone.

If the title contains an image, know its implications and how they evoke the shape and/or nature of the play.

Never underestimate the power of the repeating image.

Images evoke and expand, rather than define and limit.

Ambition… Revenge… Love… Fate… Greed,,, Jealousy… Parent/Child… Justice… Faith… are all abstract concepts.

The Theme of a play is an abstract concept which part or all of that play is “about”.

The Theme is not what a play means, nor is expression of theme the “purpose” of the play.

Theme is the result. Look for it last.

A Theme is an abstract concept made concrete by a play’s action.


  • Every available kind of information is useful.
  • The most useful information comes from other works by the same author.
  • Assume what’s in a script is there for a purpose.
  • If you alter or cut whenever you have a difficulty you may miss something important.
  • Customs, styles, politics, laws, tastes, and almost everything else change from age-to-age, period-to-period. But something we know intimately changes little: relationships among family members.
  • When reading, consider what the original audience thought and felt about the world portrayed in the play.
  • The Ending of every play could be the Beginning of a new play because it is a stasis, and stasis begins plays.
  • Before your first rehearsal or conference, read the play out loud to yourself.

.the end.


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