New Writing vs New Work: Collaboration

PART TWO (of…)

Chloe Langford in ‘Five Star Hotel’ by Hannah Silva & Chloe Langford, (dance film, Berlin 2006)

The ‘them and us’ polarisation set up in the title of the Capital Theatre Festival debate is precisely the polarisation that Alex Chisholm says is nonsense in her Exeunt article.

In the Capital Theatre Festival panel itself, the division was blatant. Half of us (me and Rebecca Atkinson-Lord from the Ovalhouse) were talking about new work (not excluding plays and writers), and the other half (Philip Monks and playwright Fraser Grace) about new writing. Philip Monks (chair of the debate, from the Writer’s Guild) stated at the beginning that the debate was about ‘the process of getting new writing onto the stage’ (which wasn’t what I thought it was about) – and his approach seemed – listen audience, to the pearls of wisdom and experience from the panel – rather than we’re all in this together (genius).

Having Philip Monks chairing also reminded me of another issue around this new work/new writing question. I joined the Writers’ Guild in November, mostly because I needed help with a contract. They tried to help, and provided a few comments, but said they couldn’t do more because I wasn’t just wearing a ‘writer’s hat’ but was also a co-producer and performer. And I thought, but there are lots of artists who are writer/performer/producer all at once: Chris Goode, Caroline Horton, Inua Ellams, Melanie Wilson, Sabrina Mafouz etc etc. I have cancelled my membership.

Which raises a question….Where do you go for help? Proper help, real support? –If you don’t fit into Equity or the Writers’ Guild and can’t afford the ITC and don’t have an agent?

Hannah Silva in ‘Different Kind’ Ludwigshafen 2007

Back to the debate in Birmingham – although I remember getting a bit passionate about things, I felt that we never actually managed to debate. It is impossible to debate a topic when the ‘opposing’ sides are talking about completely different things. For that reason I thought I’d invite Arnold Wesker to the fray (seeing as it was recently his birthday and all). This is from ‘Interpretation – to impose or explain’ (1988 in Wesker on Theatre, 2010).

The playwright’s vision of the human condition has become secondary to the director’s bombastic striving for personal impact: the playwrights’s text, the playwright’s visual concepts, his rhythmic arrangement of scenes, her emotional tensions, his unfolding of narrative action, her perceptions of human behaviour, are distorted- re-arranged, cut, or ignored by the director and sometimes by the actors.

He talks about the problems of interpretation:

Imagine that I have created the character of an unfaithful wife shaping her to be presented as gentle, bewildered, and demanding of our pity. Has an actress the right to present that unfaithful wife on stage as a ruthless woman because she thinks unfaithful wives are ruthless women?

A playwright writes a character in a particular way, the director  or actor changes the intention behind the words, and the writer’s vision is lost. I would describe this as ‘misinterpretation’ rather than interpretation. Wesker’s example also demonstrates that in his opinion, we go to the theatre to hear the playwright’s voice:

 If the director is imposing his views in a stage production by cutting text, re-arranging the sequence of events, placing the action in a setting different from what the playwright has imagined; and if the actress is interpreting the unfaithful wife as a ruthless woman rather than rendering her a gentle bewildered woman, then how will you know what it was that the playwright wanted to say?

He talks about the problem of a kind of ‘tower of Babel’ on stage:  ‘We surely don’t want to hear all the voices together, do we?’

‘Boat on the Water’ Hannah Silva, Chloe Langford and Alice Tatton-Brown, Plymouth 2009

– But when Wesker’s line of thought leads to a discussion of ‘voices’ on stage, I  think the word ‘interpretation’ is no longer useful. I don’t think the director’s job is either to ‘to impose’ or ‘explain’.  I think we need to talk about collaboration. Collaboration that involves bringing different skills to a creative process and working with several disciplines to create one work. It doesn’t involve each discipline ‘shouting’ simultaneously at the same volume, it doesn’t involve one cancelling another out. It is an act of compromise. At one point one discipline might come to the fore – the words, at another point it might be movement, and through this act of compromise and collaboration, something stronger is created.

Does this involve a diluting of the writer’s vision? It didn’t in the case of Three Kingdoms; I thought the collaboration made the work stronger, layers of meaning created a more complex vision rather than the babel effect.  The character of the ‘Trickster’ that I mentioned here didn’t even exist on the page.  Of course, as Dan Reballato blogged, Simon Stephens wrote the play for Sebastian Nübling in the first place. He knew how his director worked with texts.

Unusual looking ‘text’ – Gesti, by composer Luciano Berio for recorder

I had an interview the other day – Playwright in Residence – and the interviewer/potential director of the play in question – said he wouldn’t want to have a script that he couldn’t cut or move around or play with. And I replied that as long as the writer knows that’s how you work from the beginning, no problem. So if I work with him then I’ll write a play that can be played with. It might have a section that is instructions for performance, it might have motifs that can be moved around, it might have sections without specified characters where actors can interchange roles, it might have sections of improvisation on certain words, or sounds, or ideas. So that’s all fine. (And how refreshing just to be commissioned to write a play and know it’ll be on – none of this development, rehearsed reading malarkey)

Arnold Wesker says some shocking things about directors that I disagree with completely. Here’s an example, just for fun:

After a performance you know of a director only the degree of their talent for organising spectacle, and their skill for orchestrating performance and movement on stage…

Ma Ying Ni ‘City Fragments’ Dir. Hannah Silva, 2007 Exeter

I was/am a director and have tons of respect for directors and obviously think this is ridiculous. As at the Capital Theatre Festival, it’s hard to have a real debate if the people arguing don’t understand each other at all. So here’s something from Arnold Wesker that I do understand:

The raw material of the playwright is their individual experience of life. This experience is a kind of chaos into which occasionally there shines a light […] Those primary sources are their own being and experience for which an original quality of imagination, and a kind of courage is called upon because they are going where no one dared to go before.

I understand this in relation to my play ‘Hunger’. If I’d written it in collaboration, with others, through a devising process, or for a particular director, I wouldn’t have written the same play. It came from a deeply personal impulse to write. The writing itself was an individual experience. It was quite important to be writing it on my own in a room.

I’ve been working on it for three years. Honing it, perfecting it, there’s not a word out of place. The rhythm is such an important part of the work that there is no way lines can be cut or moved or the structure changed.

But having said that, while writing it I felt that I was leaving room for collaboration. Because there are no stage directions – I have no fixed idea of how the work would be staged. I wrote it with the idea that the director and designers could bring additional imaginative layers to the work, and the thought that many different stagings might be possible. I don’t want a director to interpret the words, I want a director to collaborate with.

Bonding with a teapot in ‘Boat on the Water’ devised with Chloe Langford and Alice Tatton-Brown, Plymouth 2009

2 thoughts on “New Writing vs New Work: Collaboration

  1. In answer to where do you go for help the answer is here! Any Literary person worth their salt is there as a support for writers/artists not just a for the service of the theatre. Your colleagues are also a good source of knowledge and support – seek out people who are/have done similar work (if their are any) and ask their advice. Also some agents will give you contractual advice before they take you on if they are interested in your work. Again see with friends/colleagues who has an agent who is friendly and approachable and ask.

  2. Thanks Alex! Yes, that’s true, that’s what I did, and it was helpful, I got advice – but I was looking for someone with specific knowledge about contracts who’d be able to negotiate on my behalf. I didn’t find that, and anyway it worked out in the end, but it’d be great if the Writers’ Guild were able to provide support for writers who wear other hats at the same time as the writing one! Thank you for reading!

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