Featured post

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Chapter 5 Belief Bias and Common Humanity - Meditations on Playwriting

The Anarchic, Outlaw, Dirty-faced Art Form -

Collaboration and Negotiation in Theatre

“How many friends do you have?” barked Skidmore down the telephone one evening.  Skidmore is a young chap I run into from time to time in bars and cafes. He wears tight trousers and, I regret to say, his baseball cap back to front. I’m not sure how many friends Skidmore has but he always seems to be hanging out with a different group every time I meet him. 

I replied that, for me, at the last count it was well over 600.  Thank you very much.

“I don’t mean Facebook Friends, I mean actual, flesh and blood face to face friends. Playwrights! That’s the trouble with you old fogeys.  You think the world revolves around Facebook.  If I didn’t phone you from time to time you wouldn’t have any friends at all. You need to get out more.”

I declined Skidmore’s invitation to accompany him to a lap-dance club and, no doubt, to pick up the tab.  I had been considering cutting Skidmore from my social card (ie my Facebook Friends list) for some time.  He always seemed to want to drag me off somewhere or take part in some mad scheme.  I’m too old for all that now but I had a surreptitious glance through my contacts list to see how many people I can actually call face to face friends.  And that reminded me of a piece of research by a professor Allen who discovered that the more often people meet each other face to face, the more likely they are to phone each other.  He came up with a graph which became known as the Allen Curve demonstrating that the closer we are to our peers physically the more we will share communication and information with them.

We do not keep separate sets of people, some of which we communicate in one medium and some by another. The more often we see someone face-to-face, the more likely it is that we will telephone the person or communicate in some other medium."

And when I considered Skidmore’s original broadside I suppose the answer might better be, “How many friends do you think I need?

 In his book that asks that very question (“How Many Friends Does One Person Need?”) Professor Robin Dunbar puts the number of others that we can comfortably interact with at somewhere between 100 and 250, probably about 150.  This is the size of the tribe or working group.   And surprisingly enough if I count family and friends and theatre contacts that’s approximately the number of folk I do keep up with.    And Skidmore himself. So, for once I fit into the “normal” category and, if he hadn’t run off to do whatever it was he wanted to do with tonight’s gang I should have phoned Skidmore back and told him.

But the kind of friends I have and the places I go to socialise are changing.

A few years ago Robert D. Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone” advanced the theory that in America at least, “Social capital” was being undermined by TV and video games (“Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community”) And I do have a nagging feeling that there is something in what Skidmore says.  I do perceive a disengagement from the larger social life as I might once have had.  Maybe, Margaret Thatcher was right after all. “There is no such thing as society.” Or maybe it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Either way, for the health of us all we need to audit our social capital.   

Actually, on looking in to the matter a bit further I find that Putnam’s ideas are not borne out by research.  It seems that, although the idea is very popular, he has been widely criticised as merely rehearsing ideas that were common about the advent of radio in the 1930’s and which even then were not supported by actual contemporary research.  Contrary to his stated belief it appears that Americans are still participating enthusiastically in various social enterprises; it is just that those enterprises are different from the ones from those of the original research. Indeed, I see this very situation where I live. The old places of social interaction are becoming empty and closing down, churches, pubs, working men’s clubs but many other social venues are taking their places, coffee bars, night clubs.  Exactly the sort of places where Skidmore spends his time and his (or other people’s) money.

However, we do seem to be losing out in the rough and tumble of face to face discourse and reasoned argument that we might once have been fought out within union meeting or political rallies.  Real conversation.  And if we follow the Allen Curve the truth still remains that we are social beings and we need physical contact to function effectively as human beings. Perhaps I should have accepted Skidmore’s invitation after all and got into some sort of dialectic with the lap dancers.  Perhaps not. Nevertheless, this whole area is part of the role that live theatre has given away too easily and needs to regain.  Live theatre can be a forum for debate and argument as well as providing the ritual experiences that we all crave and, for many, has been lost with the disappearance of the religious service or political rally.

Theatre is where we can go to engage with real human beings doing real human things and thinking real human thoughts.  It is a human scale activity engaged in by groups of people for people about people.

So, am I social animal or a stay-at-home curmudgeon?  I need to know because, like it or not, theatre must be one of the most socially focused activities undertaken by human beings both in the production and the experience.

Let me think.

Social interaction is a neat strategy for survival and it begins with the birth of a baby which is so utterly helpless that it requires complete devotion from its parents.  And if they are not available then others will come to its aid and nurture it through its helpless few years.  This substitute parenting is not unusual and the instinct is so strong, so built in, we see it many other species and across species boundaries from elephants to cats and dogs if Facebook is to be believed. At the same time, we cannot dismiss the fact that in many species, including the higher apes, babies can be killed by an adult male wanting to protect his own gene line. This doesn’t get as much airtime on social network sites but it is still a fact, but in the main we still shudder at this behaviour and instinctively consider nurturing to be the higher good.

Biologists have suggested that this initial, nurturing, grooming phase of our lives where we are so utterly dependent on others is the origin of our capacity for language. The language that incorporates touch, smell, sound as well as words.

In a migrating herd of buffalo or antelope we can see social groupings numbering in the thousands.  This is a strategy for protection from predators where the sick or wounded may be safe amongst the crowd.  At the same time complex social behaviours can grow up as hunting strategies for packs of hyenas or wolves. 

Hunting is necessarily a social behaviour for homo sapiens because the human frame is so much weaker and slower than its prey. And this strength and speed differential probably gave us the capacity to develop language and abstract thought to a high level. To survive we needed to outwit our prey. What we couldn't do with individual physical strength alone, we needed to do together. And these capacities for strategic, communal thinking led on to other sophisticated behaviours such as farming and city building.  And here comes the next development, that of specialisation.  One human being has not the time in its life to master all the skills necessary for an urban lifestyle.  Initially this meant that there would need to be flint workers, metal workers, miners, archers as well as farmers and growers. And now we depend on a complex web of bus drivers, bricklayers, electricians, computer engineers, designers, playwrights and so on and so on to enable us to live.  Like it or not we are part of a huge web of interactions and trades in ideas and things. So hunted or hunting, social dependence and working together, seems to be the way to go.  And as a species we can be both.

In an article in New Scientist, Dan Jones reasons that our main driving force is that of argument.  He quotes the work of Mercier and Sperber who put forward the idea that our brains are designed to argue a point of view, right or wrong.  The thing being that, through argument within a group we arrive at a proper consensus for action.

So that forum for discourse and debate is an essential part of our humanity. And that leads us to a central mechanism of human interaction, that of negotiation and persuasion. 

Any new parent will tell you that babies learn the art of negotiation from a very early age. They enter a world in which relationships and networks are already formed.  Now, somehow, they have to worm their way into this complex web and assert their own place within it. They have to learn how to get their own way, to be fed when hungry or changed when uncomfortable.  At first a simple wail and associated facial contortions will do the job but eventually parents and carers will get wise to any overuse of this tactic.  The babe then comes back with the smile and the simper.  This, too, works for a while and then the novelty wears off that and so the Babe acquires a series of tactics which develop into that of full blown strategy of language.  And from then on the Individual has to spend the rest of his or her life negotiating by means of threats, cajoling, smiles and bribes to navigate their way through the web of society.

There’s an old story about an enthusiastic bridge player whose grandfather left him a small rosewood box with a note saying that it contained the secret of winning at bridge.  Our man went on to become a professional and could beat anyone in the world.  Everywhere he went he placed the small box on the table and when the going got tough he would open it and peer inside. When he died a wealthy man his son in his turn opened the box to see what the secret was.  It contained a small slip of paper which just said “Pass.”

I have no idea what the significance of that story is as I’ve never played bridge.  I’ll take it up with Skidmore because I know he likes to frequent casinos (Do they play bridge in casinos?). I take it that it’s something vaguely to do with bargaining and negotiation. Some years ago I took a university business management course and we were all given a handy little plastic card with tips on sales negotiation.  It’s proved really useful in all walks of life and I’ve kept it in my wallet to refer to at any time just as the bridge player did with his rosewood box.  The difference is though that my plastic card has got some really useful tactics on it and how to reply to them. They include The Vice (“You’ll have to do better than that.”) the reply being “exactly how much better?”, Salami slicing, Knocking product, Split the Difference and The Nibble. The course was a long time ago but if whoever came up with the list would like to come forward I’ll credit them in future editions of this book.  I’ve used these tips in all sorts of ways over the years and they tend to work. You could say that sales techniques reflect the way we interact in our day to day lives as we buy and sell ideas.


In short we are thinking and aware, we are individuals.  Our DNA is always proving us to be ourselves and to manifest our differences. But, at the same time, we are by nature a social species. And, as such, we can only operate as individuals within a social framework.  We may see that social scaffolding as family, tribe, nation or species but it always draws us from individual action to something more complex, considered, strategic.  We need to work together to create ends that are far bigger than one single idea.  Imagination has to be cranked up by our interactions.  We argue and negotiate. We haggle and reason and strike bargains.  And eventually it all turns into aspirations and ambitions.  Strategic planning comes as the result of specialised knowledge and above all concerted action is the result of negotiations.   All that manifested in and achieved by a rich metaphor laden language.  For a playwright, this awareness is a treasure trove that can be plundered in the creation and following of credible, sympathetic characters.

Here is a picture of Ned Kelly - leader of the notorious Kelly Gang

Theatre itself is an anarchic, outlaw, dirty faced and, in its truest sense, vulgar art-form.  It belongs to no one artist because it is not the work of one person. 

Theatre is the coming together of a disreputable band 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 the performance or the script may be published 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, that fascinates and beguiles me to want to experience this process over and over again 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 itself is still an overall collaboration in which every single part contributes to the whole.  

Here is what composer Roderick Skeaping says about the collaborative effort that goes into music making within his group Le Collectif International des Improvisateurs:

Within this performance genre it is considered courteous to show acknowledgement of the ideas of other performers – at the very least to listen to them, not that one is obliged to take an interest. If they do interest you, it can lead to better outcomes if you support the idea to magnify its impact and make it more meaningful and powerful. Ownership or authorship is not an issue here – it’s what everyone does with the idea that generates an exciting occurrence or not. If you are trying to inject an idea of your own into a texture that doesn’t already contain it, don’t be surprised or upset to have it rejected. A few strong, supported ideas will be more effective than lots of separate ones all competing for first place! If you really know your idea is great, still be prepared to abandon it for the greater good if it doesn’t take. In improvisation, a useful approach to new ideas is: Don’t block them, - rather say an inner ‘Yes’ to them. If you can add something of your own to enrich them, then this approach becomes ‘Yes...And’. If everyone is supporting everyone else, you too will be very well supported and your performance will yield a rich platter of food for thought and conversation – all part of the social process that interests us ...."

And the most shocking idea of all, In the world of ideas, using the rules and rituals of performance Le Collectif's Live Creation means that we are able to create in just such an analogous way to the uncertainty principle which allows A quantum fluctuation that gives the temporary appearance of energetic particles out of empty space. 

At a conference recently I was interested to hear how one writer approaches this collaborative effort.  Chris is clearly someone of great skill and imagination. He wrote a very successful serial for the television and has just written the first new work for a regional playhouse for ten years.  He has a long background in theatre so he is worth listening to. For him the collaborative process involved actually writing 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. I respect the skills of the actors and director but I expect them to respect my work accordingly.  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 emotional 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.  For me, the crucial debate is between the playwright and his or her audience. I believe it is important to understand fully one’s role in a collaboration. I believe theatre works best when within a collaboration respect is accorded equally. Cuts and edits and even reordering may take place as the actors explore the piece and reach an interpretation of it but, for me, there is no rewriting. The playwright should lead and guide and should be prepared to take that role.  It is the writer who has made the map, after all.

The audience and the actors and other members of the playmaking team play a game together.  They collaborate on suspension of disbelief, imagination and use of conventions to produce a social interaction that is understandable and satisfying to all in the room. 

No comments: