Does the first line of your play make an impression?

January 9th, 2017 donnahoke


Plenty of plays start with “Hello?” and go on to be good plays; I’m not disputing that. What I am disputing is why any playwright, when there is an opportunity to deliver an opening line that creates the world of a play, that establishes something, would choose not to take it.


You don’t have to decide what that line is when you start; you may not even know. But I have found that every time I finish a play and go back to the start, I change/rewrite/tweak that first line to make it introduce the play.


Consider what these opening lines say about the play that follows, and also how it says it. It’s not always on the nose, and, sometimes, is all the more clever for it.


“Can’t sleep?” (Proof, David Auburn)

Image result for proof opening scene images auburn


“To take notice of safe: The slippery are very crafty.” The proper translation should be: “Slippery Slopes Ahead.” (Chinglish, David Henry Hwang)

Image result for "slippery slopes ahead" chinglish opening scene


“These nuts are all rotten.” (Tribes, Nina Raine)

Image result for opening scene tribes raine


“…you stepped over the line.” (The Shape of Things, Neil LaBute)

Image result for opening scene the shape of things labute


“Who are you?” (Sex With Strangers, Laura Eason)

Image result for opening scene eason sex with strangers


“What do you do when you’re not sure? That’s the topic of my sermon today.” (Doubt: A Parable, John Patrick Shanley)

Image result for opening scene shanley doubt


Isn’t that amazing? These first lines are not accidents. They tell you what the play is about, and, because they are the first words you hear, they automatically put you in the headspace of the play, even subconsciously. The playwright has done this carefully and deliberately, and when I see or hear a great first line, I smile to myself. If I hear “hello?,” you won’t have me–at least not yet.


That said, I’m not even going to tell you how many plays I had to go through on my shelf (or how many more I read for contests or favors or on NPX) before I found these stellar examples. There are very well-known and successful playwrights who begin their plays with “Hello?” or “[Insert name here]?” It surprises me, because, as the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Why squander it?



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Written by donnahoke


Dramatists Guild Council member and ensemble playwright-in-residence at Road Less Traveled Productions, Kilroys List and award-winning playwright Donna Hoke’s work has been seen in 46 states, and on five continents. Her full-length plays include ELEVATOR GIRL (2017 O’Neill finalist), THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR (Princess Grace semi-finalist, currently in its fourth year in rep in Romania), SAFE (winner of the Todd McNerney, Naatak, and Great Gay Play and Musical Contests), and BRILLIANT WORKS OF ART (2016 Kilroys List, Winner HRC Showcase, Firehouse Festival of New American Plays); she’s also authored more than three dozen short plays that have had hundreds of productions, and has been nominated for both the Francesca Primus and Susan Blackburn prizes. She’s also a two-time winner of the Emanuel Fried Award for Best New Play (SEEDS, SONS & LOVERS).

Donna is also a New York Times-published crossword puzzle constructor; author of Neko and the Twiggets, a children’s book; and founder/co-curator of BUA Takes 10: GLBT Short Stories. For three consecutive years, she was named Buffalo’s Best Writer by Artvoice, the only woman to ever receive the designation.

In addition, Donna is a blogger, advocate, and moderator of the 12,000+-member Official Playwrights of Facebook. Recent speaking engagements include Citywrights, Kenyon Playwrights Conference, the Dramatists Guild National Conference, Chicago Dramatists, Austin Film Festival, and a live Dramatists Guild webinar. Her commentary has been read at #2amt, howlround, the Official Playwrights of Facebook, the newly released Workshopping the New Play, and

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One Comment on “Does the first line of your play make an impression?”

  1. 1 Felice said at 7:17 pm on January 12th, 2017:

    I totally agree with you about first lines. I was, however,disappointed when one of my play’s opening line was lost by audience ‘mellowing out/ settling down’ noises after the curtain went up!

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