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Friday, March 28, 2014

Why are Playwrights needed at all?

Have the days of the playwright come to an end?  Is there no further use for an individual who knows the craft and skills required to assemble an idea and project it through words and characters so that theatre companies may have something genuinely original and challenging to share with their audiences?  Are the  skills of the playwright entirely redundant?

Looking at the plays advertised in your local paper you might think so.  Titus Andronicus (heavily adapted by the company) A Doll's House (even more mucked about with), adaptations of novels or TV shows or films. Original work consists of “physical theatre” but not in any sense that Grotowski would understand.  Everything is larded with music, film, dance, lighting effects so that not a shred of original thought is allowed to shine through.  What playwrights’ work is to be seen is that of film and TV scriptwriters or students straight out of scriptwriting courses.

Where are the new plays that rely on interchange of ideas that challenge the audience?  Where are the plays that speak intelligently and which can cause a real emotional response rather than a manufactured sentiment.  What I see is cheap, tawdry theatrical pornography.  The simple pushing of buttons to cause easy reactions and plenty of effects to hide behind.

Of course, there are playwrights working to produce all this work but their status is so downgraded as to be that of the person who picks up the empty ice cream cartons in the auditorium between shows.  These are the people who are turning out these adaptations and “scripts” (I notice that no one writes plays any more but “supplies scripts”). Playwrights no longer seem to any natural place in the creative heirarchy, their work is filtered through a dramaturge and then director and actors will alter what emerges to suit their own needs in the rehearsal room.

So what is contemporary theatre missing by not embracing the playwright within the bosom of the creative team?  Well, first and foremost ideas.  Theatre companies tend to be notoriously inward looking.  They tend to have the perspective of the company members. They want more of what they did last year because they can’t think of anything better.  They want what the other companies are doing.  Obviously they want something that dovetails with school syllabuses and national events.   That’s all fine in itself, even Shakespeare had to write a Romeo and Juliet because every other company in London had one in repertoire at the time but if you have to do a play about, say,  some world event, make sure you’ve got someone with a perspective from outside the company who can create something different and interesting.

And what are the particular skills that we keep banging on about?  The most fundamental is that of telling a story through an interaction of characters.  Playwrights have to understand how characters work, how they manifest their inward turmoils through dialogue.  They have had to attune their ears to the nuances of speech by countless hours sitting cafes drinking coffee and listening to people speak.  They have to be able to sculpt and craft these characters so that actors can inhabit them fully and by doing so portray something directly to an audience.  They must understand the deep psychology of human nature and how real people react to real situations and events.

In addition playwrights must know how to structure a narrative so that it guides the emotional journey of actor and audience.  They must know how to build a scene to a climax, where to cut into an action and where to leave it when enough has been said.  They must distort passage of time and rearrange space so that it appears believable without becoming tedious.  They must understand how the audience perceives what is going on in front of them and what should revealed and what hidden.   They need to understand which points in the action to show and which to hide.  Which interactions to include and which to do without.  In addition they need to have some real understanding of the technicality of the theatre space itself and how the limitations of space can best serve the interaction between actor and audience.

None of this experience and knowledge is gained quickly or without a huge amount of trial and error.  The writer needs to be within the creative process from the start.  His or her skills need to be appreciated and understood by directors as surely as the technical ability of the lighting or sound designer.

Above all a playwright needs the encompassing world view that comes with age and experience.  He or she needs to be able to talk of the experiences of all ages and sections of society not just from the viewpoint of one particular set of individuals.  For this he or she must be endowed with big imagination and empathy for what they observe. The playwright must be able to create “the other”, something the actors cannot envisage themselves and to challenge them to invest themselves in this otherness.  And they must do all this with some artistry and a touch of theatrical magic.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Playwriting Competitions - Some further thoughts

Why are playwriting competitions important to the playwright?  Competitions are one of the few ways for a writer to get his or her work in front of directors and audiences. 

Over the past few years new writing has taken something of a back seat in the theatre world.  However, writers do not stop writing just because it is no longer fashionable.  The ideas keep coming, the muscles need to be exercised. Apart from commissions I probably write at least one complete new play a year.  This is completely for my benefit but it is a loved little thing even if it will soon be an unwanted orphan and join the other orphans in the drawer in my desk I like to call The Orphanage.These little waifs and strays have little chance of finding a home to go to. It is of little use packing a little suitcase and sending them off to producing managements and directors because a) They aren’t considering new work b) They haven’t got time to consider new work because they are too busy boiling up a three handed version of Timon of Athens.  So my little waif is intercepted even before he reaches the door of the Playhouse by a stern beadle called a dramaturge. The dramaturge comes in two forms  - the embittered older writer who enjoys giving a sound kicking to someone else’s snivelling foundling or a fresh faced young person for whom this is the first job after their university writing course and who has never actually seen a play except once when he or she was in the sixth form.  Either way the dramaturge is there to keep your off spring as far away from the theatre space as possible.

There is another little wrinkle that amuses us writers greatly and that is the “emerging writer syndrome”.  ACE delights in funding new writing from new writers. These are youngsters with the same background as the dramaturge (2). The emerging writer may well be full of ideas but they need to learn the craft and so their work is usually a vehicle for the director and company to lay into leaving very little or the emerging writer’s work to emerge.  But, of course, having learnt something from this experience they are now no longer an emerging writer so they have immediately excluded themselves from ever being commissioned to write a second or even third piece.  Thus skill and experience drains away and the status of the playwright takes even more of a hit.

So the competition circuit becomes an important conduit for new but not emerging writers and us old hacks to get work to the public and to try and recover the idea of plays that are not written to a formula.  To charge us a fee for the privilege of actually being read by a potential management is adding insult to injury.  This is where the new and important ideas will come from.  Apart from the fact that I can’t afford to fork out £20 I feel demeaned to be considered such a low specimen in the theatrical hierarchy.  For us a competition is a sort of audition, we may not succeed but we know at least we have given it our best shot.  But are actors charged £20 a head to audition? Lighting designers, £15 a pop for an interview?  How much would you charge an Artistic Director?  Or a dramaturge?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Playwriting Competitions - Why I won't be entering.

2014 seems to be a good year for playwrights.  There is a sudden burst of interest in our craft.  Competitions are springing up all over the UK and many of them with prestigefull regional companies as part of the headline.  The latest include The Royal Court Liverpool.  I applaud these initiatives and  efforts to publicise the event . I think this sort of competition can be worthwhile and an excellent way to get playwrights to rise to the challenge of getting new material in front of new managements. However I must explain why I will not by entering or recommending anyone I know to enter despite the lure of a £10,000 prize.

I disagree strongly with the idea of paying a fee to enter.  In the case of one it is £15 and Liverpool Hope Prize it is a whopping £20.  Not an earth shattering amount but quite a chunk for some of us who are struggling to make ends meet.  What I really object to is the reduction in the relationship between the playwright, director and company.  In the past this has always been one of equals.  By charging the playwright a fee you are saying, in effect, “you are an appellant, a lesser part in the process”.  Playwriting has now become a vanity hobby rather than a serious craft. I have seen the status of playwrights whittled away over the last few years.  A writer who has spent his or her lifetime wrestling out the details of a craft and an art form is no longer considered part of a team who creates something new and thrilling.  As a director I have worked with new and emerging writers, they are indeed, the future, they are the ones who will shake up the industry but there is also something to be gained from those who are serious about their art and craft.  Neither should be charged for the privilege of reading their work.  In the case of the Liverpool prize one of the judges is John Godber.  Would the Royal Court charge him £20 to read one of his plays?

You will undoubtedly counter by saying that this small fee goes towards administrative costs.  This, of course, is a nonsense.  I believe it is up to you  to raise the money to fund the exercise properly.  Did you not include “administrative costs” in your original budget?  

In future I ask you to accord due respect to the artists and crafts people you rely on to create your programme and not expect playwrights to subidise it.

Please don’t think my in any way antagonistic towards you, your company or the competition. I merely argue against the underlying assumptions.  Best of luck.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Playwright's Craft - The final polish

There's one last process before you hand the script over to the director and cast- this is the final polish.  You've done everything you need to make the play work: you've got the narrative structure right, you're telling the story in a crisp, stylish way, you've got the scenes in the right order and the overall dynamics look good.  You've edited out all the dross and you've got the characters speaking in their own voices.  The interchanges of speech and action flow naturally and easily. You've done your grammar and spell check (making sure it's set on UK English if it's for the British stage). The play is finished. Except for the Final Polish.

The Final polish is that last little bit of tweaking time.  It may be a couple of hours, a couple of days or, perhaps, if you've finished ridiculously early, a couple of months. The best thing is always to put the thing away and come back to it with as fresh eyes as you can manage.  Now read the play for one last time.  And make sure you read it it closely, not the sort of skim that you've given it up to now. You're on the look out for those little anomalies that the actors will pick up straight away; little solecisms of speech and character.  Ask yourself "How does this character know this?" "Where did that piece of information come from?" "Shouldn't this character be aware of that fact before now?" and so on. Actors are notoriously good at spotting these errors and inconsistencies.

If there is time in the rehearsal room you may be able to make these adjustments but don't count on it.  Rehearsal time, as I've said before, is for rehearsing not for rewriting. And if you iron out these little glitches beforehand you will appear that much more organised and the actors will have more confidence that the rest of the thing is going to work.

At this stage I am not suggesting rewriting anything, you should be far beyond that necessity.  No, I'm talking about tiny details that can be rectified with one or two words or, at most a sentence. I've just finished polishing a piece that relied on two characters knowing each other but I realised I hadn't made that clear.  It only took a "I think I've seen you in the Co-op" when they first meet to settle that.

So there you go.  Final little tweaks and it's ready to go into pdf for sending off.  Good luck.