Featured post

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Playwright's Craft- How long should a play be?

One of the things that comes into consideration when writing a play is "How long should it be?".  On the face of it that sounds an eminently daft question to which the answer should be "As long as it needs to be."  But there is a reason for the question which involves an audiences ability to concentrate and the playwright's ability to juggle all the elements needed to tell a story well.

When I started in the theatre back in the sixties, an evening of drama would be expected to last around two and a half hours with at least two intervals for drinks at the bar.  Bar takings were an important way of subsidising what went on on stage. I've known customers ask for their money back if a play ran under two hours.  And let's face it, Shakespearian audiences expected four hours with a Jig ( a shorter comedy thrown in for good measure). Of course, all of that was before TV came on the scene so audiences today are desperately consulting their watches to see if they can be home in time for the "I'm a Celebrity" catch up.  Two hours is now a maximum and I have seen pieces down to an hour and a half and even an hour.  I suppose Opera audiences are still able to concentrate for longer and there are some honourable exceptions in the theatre but these are actually flagged up with warnings about their length.  I saw a magnificent production of "The Wandering Jew" some years ago at the National which clocked in at four hours.

But for me, an ideal length is around two hours for the sort of story I want to tell.  There is usually a bit of a pattern I like to follow with a main turning point half way through and several smaller twists on the way there and back.  So that readily falls into two acts with two or three scenes in each act with the climax coming just at the interval.  The number of scenes varies but I don't like to have more than three per act or the steps become too complex and we lose audience focus.  Anything over a total of eight scenes becomes a television drama in which audiences have to rush in and out to the kitchen whilst watching and so can't be asked to watch for more than two minutes at a time.  The beauty of live theatre is that the drama unfolds before your eyes at an appropriate pace not driven by the next ad break.  Longer scenes give the characters space to breathe and demonstrate complexity and development.

So given, the format I like to work in, and given that I aim for around two hours running time I find that my best guide to length is word count. And I reckon that at somewhere between 15,000 to 20,000 words including stage directions.  (Usually stage directions last as long on the stage as they do to write).  Of course, this is a bare guide but it does give me an indicatiion that I've given the characters enough room to develop fully without become windy and verbose.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Playwright's Craft - Pig Unit

My new play “Pig Unit” is about my experiences of working on a pig farm some years ago. I hasten to add that while the situation is true, the drama is not.  I’ve got most of the dialogue down and I’m quite pleased with that.  I love the process of writing dialogue and getting it down to a sort of abstracted verisimiltude.  That usually means cuttting and cutting.  Slicing away sentences and whole paragraphs until I’ve pared it down to that almost incoherent series of non sequiturs that contain just enough information for a conversation to carry some sense to the protagonists.  And also remembering that real life people have difficulty conveying meaning, not listening to what others are saying and, sometimes, just lying.

The next stage, which I find more challenging is trying to order the set pieces, that is scenes within the main flow of scenes, that tell the story to the audience.  One of the characters comes out with a long piece of explanation about himself and what motivates him.  But where do I put this revelation?  Too near the end and it well appear like an Agatha Christie denouement.  Too near the beginning and it will have less impact without the audience knowing the other characters thoroughly.  And I want it to plant a few ideas that will play out at the end.  What’s more, I have to ask, which of the other characters will need to know about it?  Will they be present when he spills the beans? Or will the news filter through to them piece by piece?  And how will the other characters react? Will they realise the significance of the revelation there and then or will it be a slow burn with them reaching a slow dawning of understanding? Will the audience find it too obvious or can I disguise it in some way as if our character is appearing to reveal one thing whilst accidentally revealing another?

There are no rules to guide the writer here so the simplest way is to try the passage in different places in the play.  Cut and paste is a wonderful tool.  And with each experiment, if I read it out loud as I always do, I will rootle out what is right and most effective for the piece.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Talking about Typewriters

Today the last typewriter made in the UK was produced and sent straight to the Science Museum in London.  The BBC produced a eulogy for the machine with a contribution from a friend of mine, Keira Rathbone.

Here is something I wrote after talking about typewriters with Keira a little while ago

Talking about typewriters last night has set my mind racing back over all the machines I have loved and lost over the years.  I had been writing poetry since I was about three and by the time I was a teenager I knew I was going to be doing it as a serious part of the rest of my life.  Both my brothers in law used typewriters in their work and I knew I had to have one like theirs if I was going to be taken seriously.  One was a nuclear physicist and the other was a journalist and both had portable Olivetti Lettera 32s.  At that time I could only dream of such style and such cutting edge technology but on a visit to a small typewriter shop close to the station in Southampton I found a portable Remington.  It was a bit old fashioned and ungainly but I loved it and I used it continuously for the next seven or eight years.  It took me all the way through college but, strangely enough, looking back through my papers I tended not to write essays on it. (When I could be bothered to write essays at all). I think it had become too personal and was only for poetry and plays. The typeface is clear and precise with only theT and H showing signs of fading.  But that could have been down to my self taught typing style which means I press more lightly on those keys.

Once I was writing for a living I knew I had to upgrade and I traded in the Remington for an Olivetti Dora, a lighter (and cheaper) version of the Lettera. This did me equally as well and lasted some ten years.  On it I wrote all of my early performed plays.  Again I swopped and this time I opted for an electric Smith Corona.  This was still much the same as a manual in appearances but had a sort of motor which made key operation much lighter and consequently, typing speeds could be much quicker.  The ribbon was made of plastic film and came in a cartridge that you slotted into the side.  There was also a correcting ribbon which could be inserted in place of the ribbon and by typing back over your last letters you could delete them.   It may seem primitive from here but it was a huge improvement over tippex and correction papers that we used up to then.

By a series of chances I was out of work for a year and a half and it was almost inevitable that I managed to find a job selling typewriters.  I worked in a shop that specialised in office machines and had the franchise for a Swedish brand called Facit.  These were probably the top brand at the time and competed head to head with the IBM golfballs which, by then, had reached the peak of their development.  The problem with the IBM was that the golfball tended to wear out and the replacements cost nearly as much as the typewriter itself.  People used to prowl into our shops and ask if we could get replacements but they could only be obtained direct from IBM.  The Facits had a typehead arranged in a daisywheel.  These were very simple to replace and relatively cheap and came in many typefaces.  The staff and owners of the shop knew I was a writer and when I left they presented my with an expensive fountain pen and a Facit T120 portable electronic.  This was a beautiful state of the art machine with memory and automatic correction.  The pen lasted about a fortnight. The typewriter lasted me for fifteen years and even after I had gone entirely over to computers I still kept the Facit for form filling.  That machine only went to typewriter heaven as late as the autumn of 2007.

It was whilst I was working at the typewriter shop that I saw the writing on the wall for the typewriter.  We had the first consignment of Amstrad word processors and we could see straight away that this was going to be the future.  Ironically, at the same time, we also had a consignment of Russian portables that were the last hurrah of an old technology.  I can’t remember the brand name but they were truly awful and were always breaking down and I spent more time trying to persuade people not to buy them but they were cheap and a lot of people were prepared to battle with them to produce the occasional letter.

Am I nostalgic about typewriters?  No.  I loved all of my typewriters at the time and I loved the lifestyle that they formed a part of but when I think about ribbon changing, cleaning, tippex, carbon paper I’m happier with my computer.

Here is the link to the BBC news article

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Urban Fox Hunt

We hunt the foxes up and down
From Camberwell to Kentish Town.
On steeds of steel in coats of red
We follow Reynard to his bed.
No close or alley we don’t know
From Peckham Rye to Pimlico
Where Reynard dares to lie and hide.
We chase him like a scarlet tide;
He twists and turns with might and main
Through Marble Arch and back again.

Then, frantic at the huntsmans blast
He sees a haven safe at last
With bursting lungs and shivering skin
He dives beneath a compost bin.
He begs no mercy unaware
That safety may be close by there:
A saint, with coffee table tomes
Of bunnies, pussies and of gnomes;
A wild life lover to the core -
She’d give him shelter, that’s for sure.
Hearing the horns she ventures out
And sees the fox’s pointed snout.
“Ah, view halloo!” Your fox is here!”
She shouts with voice both loud and clear.
Alas for Reynard!  She can’t give a fig.
Last night he stole her guinea pig.
And now the hunt is at an end
The fox is lost without a friend.
The hounds are on him, rip out his throat.
The hunstman winds one final note
And far away, in Fetter Lane,
The vixen waits him, all in vain.
The cubs are anxious, they whine and fret
And ask if it is tea-time yet.