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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Playwright's Craft - Collaboration



Theatre is considered by many to be a bastard art-form because it is not the work of one person.  It is the coming together of actors, designers, makers of all descriptions, clever technicians, and above all, an audience.  Theatre is unique in its need for this great collaboration and for its essential ephemerality.  For a short while these many people with all their skills come together and then it is over and gone and lost forever.  There may be film or video of this moment but this is only a record not the moment itself.  

And for me it is this sense of collaboration, of this coming together of a family devoted to this one production, almost like a workshop manufacturing a great machine, is what fascinates and beguiles me to want to experience this process over and over gain even though it can be exhausting, annoying, frustrating and can drive you sick and mad.  And I have experienced pretty well every role within that family.  I have been an actor, director, stage hand, electrician,writer so I know what it’s like to be an unnoticed cog in that particular machine.  And I have learnt something of the psychology and management skill that is required to turn that unruly mob of talented individuals into a coherent working group with a common aim and output of great beauty and emotional force.

At various times, particular individuals or skills are in the ascendancy; audiences may be drawn by the work of a particular actor, director, designer or writer but the thing itelf is still an overall collaboration in which every single part contributes to the whole.  

So at the South West Theatre Makers Conference on Saturday I was interested to hear how Chris Chibnall approaches this collaborative effort.  Chris is clearly someone of great skill and imagination.  He wrote “Broadchurch” for the television and has just written the first new work for Salisbury Playhouse for ten years.  He has a long background in theatre so he is worth listening to. For him the collaborative process involved an actual writing process during the rehearsals themselves.  A couple of scenes would be run through with the actors, discussions would ensue and then he would go home and rewrite accordingly.  The next day these two scenes would be rehearsed and the next two scenes examined and subsequently rewritten.  This is a total collaboration in which the actors and the director have a direct input on the writing process.

For me the process is different.  I love the cut and thrust of the rehearsal room and the lurching towards an understanding of the meaning or working of the play.  Cuts and edits and even reordering may take place as the actors explore the piece but for me there is no rewriting.  I claim the right to maintain the artistic integrity of the piece, I have spent at least six months creating these characters and their interactions, and I have mapped out the journey that I want the audience to take. I have chosen exactly the order and structure of the story and the interactions that will demonstrate the moments that I think have most force and relevance.  I hve developed and pared the dialogue until it can convey exactly the nuances that I have intended.  I have considered points of view of the spectators and how they will experience them.

To a contemporary theatre maker this may seem an old fashioned and reactionary approach but I consider myself a craftsman who has served a forty year apprenticeship in that craft.  I still don’t know everything about theatre and how it can work but I do know about this particular play.  Once I have written it, I am happy to hand it over to the other craftspeople and artists who will make it work for an audience.  I am not so arrogant as to believe that I have any right to the final say on the production or the absolutely essential skill of performance. But to me, the play as I hand it over is complete in its construction and all I ask is the respect of the other practitioners that I give to their work.

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