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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Playwright's Craft - Direct Address to the Audience.

You are sitting in the cafe sipping your americano and thinking idly about nothing in particular.  The cafe owner is ostentatiously polishing your table and rearranging the sugar bowl in a meaningful way.  He lifts your copy of the Independent and wipes underneath it. Perhaps you have been there a little too long for one cup.  But at the prices he charges these days...


At the corner table two more coffees, a capuccino and a mocha, grow cold as their owners are deep in conversation.  You catch the occasional word.  What was that?  “Bomb?” “Knives?”  You become intrigued and angle yourself slightly to see if you can catch some more. “Slitting and gutting” accompanied by demonstrative arm gestures. You pick up your newspaper and lean towards them in its lee.  The cafe owner has given up and gone back to making hissing noises with the Gaggia so that you miss a chunk of the conversation.  Now you push your chair right out and lean sideways until you are nearly sitting at their table instead of your own.  “I swear by The Readers Digest Cookery Book.”  “Yes, the best ice cream bombe recipe there is.”  “And thanks for the advice on the trout”.

Ah well.  I’ll overhear more than a discussion on the culinary arts next time.  But something else occurs to me.  It concerns our inbuilt human desire to overhear other people’s conversations and, more importantly, to make something out of it.  We are hard wired to take in, to solve clues, to understand without all the information being present.  Our understanding might prove to be inaccurate but we still delight in gossip and trying to unravel something about the characters and situation involved.  Presumably in the early days of our species such understanding was a vital tool for being able to trust the people you were hunting alongside.
And so with theatre.  Writing for the theatre is a process of offering titbits of information to the audience so that they can follow and begin to fabricate an understanding from what is happening there in front of them.  This why I believe theatre grew up as a medium for dialogue between characters and why I find, as a rule, direct address to the audience rather untheatrical.  An audience member needs to arrive at their own interpretation of a character which, quite often, will be at odds with that of the writer.  So much the better, it proves that there is both depth and width in the writing.  It provides an experience more akin to real life.
And there is something else: the direct address is a deliberately alienating device.  We all know about Bertholt Brecht and his attempts to break down the barriers of theatrical convention.  But he’s done that, did that, over eighty years ago.  He was successful.  We understand the complexity of an ironical, alienated world.  Because that’s the one we live in during the twenty-first century.  We have moved on.  As writers we have to consider what live theatre really has to offer in these days of Big Brother, Jeremy Kyle and I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here. Direct address to the audience has become the language of television; almost every programme relies on that device from news, to comedy to scientific documentaries.  They all have to be presented to us. And Ironically, given the glass screen that separates us, I think that’s where it works to greatest effect.  Television is broadcast outwards, pushed towards us.  Live theatre is a medium for allowing an audience to come in, to enter a new and different world from the one they inhabit on a daily basis. We invite the audience to overhear, to become part of an event that is happening right there before their eyes.  We do not need devices to push them away. On the contrary, we need to study the craft and skill that enables an audience member to become absorbed, to become part of what is going on.  

For me, I think Direct Address shows a bit of a lack of trust in the audience.  As with all artists, the watchword ought to be: Do your work, don’t apologise, don’t explain. We don’t need to turn the theatre into the lecture hall. We need to trust that the audience has enough sympathy to be able to unravel even if they don’t understand fully.  And that we don’t need to bombard them with our vision of what they ought to be seeing.

Monday, October 29, 2012


From Cafe Conversations by Peter John Cooper

The woman sitting at the table in the corner calls on her mobile

Hello! Hello?
Hello....  Oh hello Andy.  I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday darling.  You’re not in at home so I’ll try you at the office.   Happy Birthday  mwaa mwaa.
She drinks her coffee and tries the phone again

Hello.  Hello.  Oh yes, I wanted to speak to Andy Stapleton.  He’s not at home and I can’t get him on his mobile so could you put me through to his office.   No, I don’t know his direct number.  That’s why I’m coming through the switchboard.  Well, I haven’t got it.  It’s Jane his wife, I’m away for a few days.  I haven’t got my address book.  You must be new.  Yes, Jane....  No?  Never mind, I’ll try again in a few minutes.

A few minutes pass.  She tries again

Hello, yes, it’s Jane Stapleton.  That’s right... Andy.  Could you try him again for me.  No?  Well, would you give me his direct number then I won’t have to bother you again.   No.... I’ve got his mobile.  I’ve already left a message....  I know it’s not company policy to give out personal numbers.  Of course I know his home number.   I live there.  I’m his wife.   No, don’t get him to call me at home because I’m not there.  If you remember, I said I’m on holiday.  I just wanted to talk to him.  It’s his birthday.  Never mind. Just put me through to his office.  It’s marketing somewhere.  No?  Not answering?  I expect they’re in the morning meeting.  They do drag on a bit.  I’ll try again.

She drinks another cup of coffee

Hello?  Jane Stapleton.   Yes, Andy Stapleton’s office please.  No?  They’re usually finished by now.  Do you know whether he’s still in the building?  Yes, yes, I know.  Well, do you know where he’s gone?  I mean he’s not picking up his mobile...  Well it is quite.  Not earth shattering.  No emergency.  I just wanted to wish him Happy Birthday.  Why?  Because it’s his...  So that he’ll know I’m thinking of him.  He’ll think I’ve forgotten...  No, I can’t.  I’m on holiday.  I’m away for a few days and I wanted to wish him happy Birthday.  Look, I’ll try again in a few minutes.  If you could find out where he is in the building..  Yes, I think you said he was still there.

Another cup of coffee

Hello?  Andy.  Oh Andy... I’ve been leaving messages all over. Happy...  I’m sorry...yes, I know you don’t but I just wanted to say Happy Birthday darling... I mean it is your birthday... even the office...  Yes, I know the pressure you’re under.  I understand...  I know.  I just wanted you to know...  Look, please don’t take it out on me...  Please... Not now...   You what?  Pardon?  I didn’t catch that..  You...  I don’t understand...  Andy... are you sure. I mean, but when?  You can’t today....  Why not?  It’s your birthday.  When I get back... What do you mean you don’t .....?  You can’t.... Nonsense. It’s my home as well.  Not like this.   Andy, not like this.  It’s that new girl, isn’t it?  You know the one I mean.  The one on the switch board.  All hoity toity and “it’s not company policy.”  Andy, I know you wouldn’t, couldn’t, have thought of this on your own.  She’s just after your money.  She’s too young.  Andy....  How dare you.   How dare you.  I’ve never...   Of course, I’m losing my temper.  I’m upset.  I’m hurt.  And I don’t care who hears.  It doesn’t happen like this.  Not after this time.  I know it happens to other people but we aren’t other people.  We’re...  you and me.  Andy and Jane.  That’s who we are.  How am I meant to tell people?  People that I meet.  My friends.  How do I explain it?...  On the phone... It’s not...  It’s crazy... It doesn’t happen like this. Let’s sort this out properly.  Wait till I’ve got home.  I’ll come now.  Straight away.  We’ll talk about it.  Properly. It doesn’t matter about the rest of... We’ll talk about it.  We’ll sort it out.  Andy, don’t you dare ring off...  

But she has been talking to herself for some time
Andy...  Andy....

She turns to everyone else in the cafe who is now listening
I just wanted to say Happy Birthday.  

She picks up her shoulder bag and goes out of the cafe.  Her eyes are red and puffy.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Leaf Blowing as an Art Form

I’ve just spent ten minutes watching a man in an orange boiler suit weaving strange patterns across the lawn.  He is chasing leaves: Chasing yellow and gold autumn leaves across the grass whilst the breeze picks them up and swirls them back whence they came in bizarre, random arrangements. He is wielding that utterly baffling piece of modern technology the leaf blower.  Anyone who has ever gardened will know that the job can be done in half the time and at a quarter the effort with a rake and a stiff broom. So why is he bothering?

Coopers of Stortford Leaf Blower VacuumObviously the leaf blower has some function for garden contractors because the prehistoric visceral din demonstrates to the garden owner that work is being done, technology is being brought to bear, fuel is being used and the contractor can thus present a hefty bill each month sure in the knowledge that it will be willingly paid.

And yet we know, the general British public, those of us with gardens, or those who have tried to grab a few hours extra kip on a Sunday morning that the leaf blower is an expensive piece of kit that’s only function is to make a loud, unrelenting noise. So, why do we buy them up in vast numbers from B&Q and garden Centres?  Are they just to annoy the neighbours or is there some deeper need that is being satisfied?  Now it has struck me.  Given that a leaf blower is a piece of equipment that has no other function than to make a noise, it should in fact be classified as a musical instrument.  A loud and not a very harmonious one, I agree but a musical instrument by definition. The intricate patterns our boiler suited man is making across the grass, chasing the breeze is nothing short of ballet.  Leaf blowing is an art form. A strange, useless performance art that tells us something about the pointlessness of life in the twenty-first century.  It is existential in a way the even Jean Paul Sartre would understand. It is called "The Challenge of the Breeze" or "Random Arrangements in Yellow and Gold" or some such. It should be reclassified from being a gardening pursuit and brought under the control of the Arts Council of England (Other arts bodies are available). That way we would never hear of it again and we could sleep peacefully in our beds on a Sunday morning.