Transcribing the imaginary performance

Kind of a provocation (or perhaps rant)

Since the sixties, the playwright Tom Stoppard has been stating the fact that:

A text is an event, not a text. A script is the transcription of an event that has not yet taken place.

and that the playwright’s job is to transcribe ‘the imaginary performance’.

When a script reader at a theatre reads your play, they are not trying to decide whether or not to put your play on…. they are trying to decide whether or not to put an imaginary play on…and the play that they are imagining may not be the same play that you imagined.

The trouble (or sometimes the delight) with writing the play at home then getting it produced is that there is always going to be a gap between script and performance. A play written in the ‘traditional’ way will never quite be performed as the writer imagined it – the definitive version is always the one on the page. That is one of the main differences between a text devised with performers, and a text written by a single author at home. A devised text can only exist in performance with those particular performers (or in that particular location with site specific work).

I guess script readers are pretty adept at imagining this imaginary play you have written. But I wonder, if the gap between what you write and what might happen on stage is intentionally left open, the reader might get lost in that gap, and reject the play because they just can’t imagine it.

Usually writers try to narrow the gap I’m talking about – through stage directions, well developed characters with motivations and reasons for talking…and any other method writers have of being clear on the page.  This clarity makes the text enjoyable to read. The reader doesn’t have to work too hard, because the writer has been clear, and is writing within a recognisable style and form. When the director and actors are brought in to work on this play, they too aim to keep the gap between writer’s intentions and production as narrow as possible – by understanding and executing the intentions of the play and the writer as best they can.

I’m interested in the plays that intentionally leave a wide gap between page and production. Plays that leave gaps to be filled by collaboration. Such writers do not necessarily believe that their words should always take centre stage. In the gap, there is room for music, dance, physicality, stage design, light, video…..these writers might see those elements of theatre as equally important.  They might need the director to interpret it in their own way – the writers themselves may not have all the answers. These plays are not particularly easy or enjoyable to read – because the play is only one ingredient, it’s impossible to imagine them, to ‘see’ them.  (It’s pretty hard to imagine something unlike anything else you’ve seen.)

Writers who often leave space for collaboration: Heiner Müller, Sarah Ruhl, Mac Wellman, Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill, Ronald Schimmelpfennig, Marius von Mayenburg… (I can’t find many in the UK – Tim Crouch & Howard Barker maybe, but they have particular approaches, maybe because they’ve had to find ways to manage the British system) In my opinion, plays by these writers don’t work when the text is left ‘to speak for itself’ and the production ‘stripped back’. I don’t think the text is supposed to speak for itself…the text benefits from collaborators who have visions on how to bring their discipline to the work.

Does a writer have a role in stage design, light design…? How does the writer use language to provoke collaborators? For instance, it’s a pity to ignore a stage direction such as:

The university of the dead. Whispering and muttering. From their gravestones (lecterns) the dead philosophers throw their books at Hamlet. Gallery (ballet) of the dead women. The woman dangling from the rope. The woman with her arteries cut open, etc…Hamlet view them with the attitude of a visitor in a museum (theatre). The dead women tear his clothes off his body. Out of an upended coffin, labelled HAMLET 1, step Claudius and Ophelia, the latter dressed and made up like a whore. Striptease by Ophelia….

(Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine)

I think a lot of productions either project this text onto a wall, or ignore it. To me (just like Sarah Kane’s rats who carry Carl’s feet) it seems to be a provocation – Hey designer, director, actors… here’s something to start you off. If stage directions are easy to execute, where’s the collaboration? It’s in attempting the impossible that something new is created.

Plays by these writers benefit from a looser, longer rehearsal process… maybe they require different acting styles/techniques, maybe they need a different working process…. when these plays are treated the same way a ‘traditional’ play is treated – they often don’t work. And then they give this kind of writing a bad name (pretentious/boring/academic/obscure).

The rules and structures in place in new writing theatres enable the theatres to get work onto a stage within time and financial restrictions. But is there a risk that writers write within these set parameters, to these processes – as otherwise the work won’t be staged…?

I was recently on the fantastic Aldeburgh/Jerwood Opera Writing scheme, and I think one of the points of the scheme is to bring people from different fields, who haven’t worked in opera before, together, in order to explore new methods of making opera, to collaborate, to experiment with alternative approaches. But when it came to the final week and we had the pressure of staging the work in front of the audience all the rules came back in. First the writers were told to keep quiet, then the composers too. Which of course makes sense – too many voices produces chaos etc….however the process became about staging the work within fixed parameters, instead of questioning and exploring the process itself and challenging those traditional roles.

There was one group that did it differently. The director/writer (Peter Cant) invited the composer (Marcin Stańczyk) to compose light, to contribute to the directing….and yes the final result was a bit chaotic, maybe didn’t do quite what they hoped/imagined –  but that’s irrelevant really. It’s impossible to make something like that work in such limited time. Even though we had the pressure of a showing with an audience– this was a rare opportunity to experiment and fail, and most of us, when it came to it, didn’t dare fail. (The pieces were great though and took risks in other ways 🙂 )

Maybe the writer doesn’t want a read through followed by a staged reading etc, maybe the writer wants to improvise with the actors, to work with a designer from the beginning….Maybe it’d be great if there was room for a writer within devised theatre companies, in non ‘new writing’ environments. (There probably is, e.g Abi Morgan-Frantic Assembly; Lucy Prebble-Headlong; Caryl Churchill-Out of Joint – I don’t know how those processes worked; the one that’s very clear is Tim Etchells-Forced Entertainment) But it would be great if these opportunities were easier to access for writers – it’d be great if you didn’t need to be successful via the other route first.

To me, from where I am (Plymouth) there seems to be a hurdle that’s tricky to clear. There is a pathway that most of the writers being produced have taken. It basically goes: Royal Court young writers’ programme/Soho young writers’ programme/any other London based writers’ programme run by a new writing theatre- development-development – getting work commissioned. Theatres don’t usually take risks on people they don’t know…. they would rather take a risk on someone they have already invested in and ‘developed’. That’s one hurdle to do with living a long way from London.

The other one is the gap issue I was talking about, the problem that faces a particular type of play.  I think, anyway, that theatres, through their selection of particular plays, are censoring playwrights and preventing development of ideas and approaches to writing. Looking at the tutorials on the website for the Bruntwood Prize demonstrates the preoccupations with a particular approach to character and narrative. (even though the reading process seems to leave room for the plays that fit in the ‘or anything’) category.  I think (and what do I know), anyway, I think that far more flawed ‘traditional’ plays are put on than flawed ‘experimental’ plays. (Of course the words ‘traditional’ and ‘experimental’ are inaccurate and vague but hopefully you know what I mean) – More flawed plays in the ballpark of Bartlett’s ‘Love love Love’  are put on than those in the ballpark of Churchill’s ‘Far Away’.  And, if, like me, you’re writing in the  ‘experimental’ ? ‘poetic’ ? ‘non-naturalistic’ ? ‘language based’ ? field – you need to see lots of these flawed productions/plays. Otherwise how can we get better at writing/producing them ourselves? I just don’t learn anything from watching plays like Love Love Love – because it’s simply nothing like what I want to do.

I was really interested to see Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer recently. I don’t think (and really, I don’t know) that a new writing theatre would have commissioned/produced it. Because it doesn’t really do character/narrative/high stakes….and there’s no plot (there’s not supposed to be). It’s hard to follow what the characters are saying a lot of the time (it’s supposed to be). It had beautiful moments, some really delicate, touching audience interaction. Some audience members loved it, some struggled with it. I absolutely enjoyed it and more importantly, learned something about this approach to  playwriting by watching it.  I needed to see what happens when a writer (as a playwright/theatre maker) bathes in poetry entirely and doesn’t worry about narrative and plot, and to experience that as an audience member. As the writer, it’s hard to put yourself in the audience’s/reader’s shoes.. (btw check out her website and past work –  stunning)

Without seeing my plays succeed or fail in performance, I’m really struggling to re-write them and write the next ones. My characters perhaps don’t have enough depth on the page, but I think I’ve left space between my words for the actors to bring them alive. (not that a script should even have to have characters of course – but I’m not sure there’s any point to sending a script like that off ) Maybe my scripts aren’t ready, I’m sure they’re not, but I think the next stage of writing happens in collaboration…(and that’s the bit I’m good at)

– quick detour: perhaps another obstacle is that some theatres/directors/script readers/whoever don’t trust what I just said… that the writer really does know about theatricality, about performing, collaboration and all the other elements of performance. There seems to be a general view that writers only know about writing. That they can’t know whether their plays are ‘stageable’ or not, I suppose that’s why writers like me end up having to perform/produce/direct their own work, to prove that it’s possible, and to prove that we know what we’re doing…

I’m very excited to have been invited by David Lane to be on the panel of a discussion at the next South West New Writing Network meeting:

‘The Writer is Dead: Long Live the Theatre-Maker’

 As new theatre writing continues to diversify, embracing spoken word, inter-disciplinary work, collaboration, immersive or site-specific theatre or solo writer-performers, should the playwright with the script in their hand wait in the wings, or move with the times?

David said I’d be perfect for the panel as I tick several of those boxes.  (David is wonderful, thank you for inviting me :)) but, this made me think…actually…the only box I want to tick is ‘writer’. Everything I have done, I do to get my writing out there. I don’t want to be stuck up a mast reciting poetry on a boat in Plymouth, I don’t want to be performing on my own every day at the Edinburgh Fringe, (especially not with these bloody knees) I don’t particularly want to travel for 2 days to perform ten minutes of spoken word (but please keep inviting me!)…. really….I want my plays to be staged, whether that’s through the conventional route, with all its pitfalls, or an alternative, collaborative (i.e I raise the money) route – equally challenging.

Is the writer dead? – If our plays aren’t getting staged…we may as well be.

I don’t think it’s spoken word/devised theatre/multidisciplinary performance/site specific or any of those forms that is killing the writer…I think it’s the theatres that reject our work, and that try to hold onto the differences between new writing and everything else. (To a particular way of developing writers and producing work)  – That’s probably not fair…and every theatre is different of course…and sure this kind of writing is not for everyone…

I’m not sure how to remain alive, I’m not sure where to go next with my playwrighting…. maybe next I need to make friends with theatre companies, directors, composers, designers, performers and other artists and writers…and find another way to get the work made.

p.s:  Dear directors, theatre companies, composers, designers, performers, artists, writers…please get in touch – I will travel to London!

4 thoughts on “Transcribing the imaginary performance

  1. Great stuff Hannah – absolutely loads to think about here and as usual, provocative, interrogative, articulately put! I suppose I end up with more questions having read this. A lot of them are about the associations we have with particular terminology: ‘performance text’ means something different to me than ‘play’ and help me make a distinction about how I consider them. Is that wrong? Or narrow-minded? Perhaps my definitions should be more fluid. I put on a different brain I suppose – when I read the former I’m aware of the big gaps you mention, and am looking for them and wondering around them; when it’s the latter perhaps I’m looking for the writer to be in total control of their vision. When does a play (or script) become a performance text? Do we need to separate the two (I’d say yes, we do, because they’re different forms of conceiving theatre on the page requiring a different sort of process from future collaborators – but it’s a hard and brave thing to step forward and say ‘these are the lasting definitions for these forms of writing’. So I’m not going to (what a coward!).

    As you point out, some writers are already hugely adept at writing work which one could argue, on the page, resembles both ‘performance text’ and ‘play’ (I realise I’m putting words in your mouth here – you never mention performance text in your post but I guess it’s helping me make a distinction). Although I wouldn’t describe Tim Crouch, Caryl Churchill, Mac Wellman or Mayerburg as anything other than ‘playwrights’ I wonder if they are so far away from what we understand to be a ‘play’ or not. Your argument is predisposed to defining narrative (story) and three-dimensional characters as the core defining elements that characterise a ‘conventional’ play, but I think the best plays are actually formed at the core by their strong ideas, a unique perspective on the world, a provocative politics, a sense of joy or wonder at the world, an ability to reveal or illuminate the human condition – this is what a writer does, in my opinion: introduces their vision to an audience/reader.

    I worry that you think readers judge plays purely through their nuts-and-bolts craft rather than through their broader brush-strokes visions (and certainly with the writers above, we are being given huge rich theatrical worlds to splash around in). I must admit I’ve never read for a theatre that hasn’t said to me ‘don’t miss signing the Beatles’, or phrases to that effect i.e. don’t mistake innovation for poor craft, imagination for lack of experience. Readers are interested in ideas too! I think your fear of something more pervasive existing among new writing theatres about styles of work being ‘favoured’ or not is gradually shifting to be honest: interestingly I’m more concerned about maintaining the platforms for work that is drama rather than theatre (in the Edward Bond sense of the world – theatre is about effect and spectacle, whereas drama is about the human condition; not that they can’t do both, but I’ve certainly seen productions recently where the theatre engulfs the drama and I fail to emotionally connect with what I’m seeing). This is where arguing in the abstract can get dangerous though: strict definition is anathema to originality, but without a shared vocabulary how do we cross the bridge from one artistic community or way of thinking about writing to another? We need to speak both languages I think, or perhaps create a hybrid.

    I think at the core of your post is the problem of how we speak about plays: I wrote an article for Studies in Theatre and Performance about this regarding Tim Crouch’s work, and how the plasticity of playwriting vocabulary is vital to extending our (and in particular dramaturgs or anybody who works in the field of play development) conception of what theatre writing might be (not what it should be, but what it could embrace). It’s the first thing one of the tutors on the Goldsmiths MA does when he meets the writers: talks about the difference between story, plot and narrative and how their different uses become tools to help the writer make clearer and more effective creative choices. I’ve also sat in notes meetings where I’m obviously not making sense to the writer because I’ve got a particular understanding of the different permutations of – for sake of argument – narrative or character (i.e. narrative can simply imply a sequence, a shift, a movement between one point and another, a development of understanding or journey a ride, and NOT necessarily ‘storytelling’; character might be role, body, echo, shadow, associative or theatrical figure and so on) and then I’ve been on the receiving end too, where it’s clear that the dramaturg I’m working with is trying to thump my play into the shape that most resembles a play to THEM (and I bet I’ve been guilty of doing the same to writers myself at some point in the last eight years). I’ll fling a few articles that are well worth reading your way (not just my own!) – there’s Elinor Fuchs’ beautiful Notes on a Small Planet, Tori Haring-Smith’s Finding a Vocabulary for Non-Realism and Julian Meyrick’s more extensive but excellent Notes on Dramaturgical Development.

    Anyway my train is about to get into Birmingham New Street so I have to stop. And I’m getting garbled too. Thanks for this and looking forward to next week now!

    1. Hi David,
      You are never garbled. Thanks for engaging in the debate! Unfortunately as I’m no longer part of a University so I can’t access those articles online. Perhaps I should subscribe to a few journals. I have read Elinor Fuch’s ‘The Death of Character’, Lehmann’s ‘Postdramatic Theatre’ and various other books on the topic – but rather revel in not having to be academic anymore and just stating all ideas as mine even when my ‘gap’ theory is perhaps Roland Barthes’ or Umberto Eco’s ! (If you don’t mind emailing me your essay I’d love to read it)

      Anyway. Yes, we get a bit stuck when it comes to terminology. I always cringe at being described as a ‘performance artist’, even though I can understand why the label might apply. I have a very specific view of what a performance artist is – shaped by studying at Dartington with several of them. To me performance art is more about carrying out an (often unrehearsed) action (e.g ‘I’m going to walk naked down the room and drip red paint on the floor’), rather than my process of crafting a script, working on performance technique and rehearsing a lot… (Apologies to performance artists for my horrible caricature). I think the only answer can be – it’s performance art if the artist says it is – it’s a play if the writer says it’s a play – it’s a performance text if the artist says so – etc. Or is that just avoiding engaging in an interesting debate? I think it is. Even though it’s hard to define what the difference is between a performance text and a play, it’s interesting to try.

      I love your open definition of ‘strong ideas, a unique perspective on the world, a provocative politics, a sense of joy or wonder at the world, an ability to reveal or illuminate the human condition’
      – if you apply that to Opposition, I think it could be called a play. But (perhaps oddly), I see it as a text for performance…

      ‘This is what a writer does, in my opinion: introduces their vision to an audience/reader.’

      I wonder what a writer like Kathy Acker would think of that idea….it’s a bit close to the artist as genius thing…perhaps a writer doesn’t have a definitive vision of anything, perhaps a writer wants to play with many visions at once, use other people’s visions, perhaps to ask questions, perhaps to confuse. I may be misreading your comment – I think in fact your comment allows for the fact that a writer’s vision may be that the world is full of conflicting visions of itself.

      I love your view of narrative too. It would be great to see perspectives like yours out there more. And hopefully I’m wrong in my view that your view isn’t typical. It may just be that we don’t talk enough about these fluid definitions, and what comes across in books on playwriting and guidelines on theatres’ websites is something more conventional.

      ‘I must admit I’ve never read for a theatre that hasn’t said to me ‘don’t miss signing the Beatles’, or phrases to that effect i.e. don’t mistake innovation for poor craft, imagination for lack of experience. ‘

      – Yes, I am aware of that, and that’s great. But how is innovation and imagination spotted when the whole work doesn’t exist on the page and perhaps simply can’t be imagined by the reader? That’s not meant as a criticism of a script reader, but just, I don’t think this work has been explored enough in a new writing environment for the people who work in this environment to always recognize it when they see it. (the comment isn’t a bitter one suggesting I think readers are wrong not to recognize my work – I know I’ve still got work to do – I just wonder if sitting in front of the computer is always the best way to do it)

      ‘I’m more concerned about maintaining the platforms for work that is drama rather than theatre (in the Edward Bond sense of the world – theatre is about effect and spectacle, whereas drama is about the human condition; not that they can’t do both, but I’ve certainly seen productions recently where the theatre engulfs the drama and I fail to emotionally connect with what I’m seeing).’

      – the tricky thing is, it’s hard to write non character based experimental (I hate using that word) work that does connect on a human level. I think that’s what many experimental (argh) writers are striving for though, they just might not always get there – perhaps to do with production, perhaps because it’s so much harder to write experimental (ouch) work that connects in this way. For instance – I couldn’t connect to a production I saw of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, but when I read it on the page I was blown away, and when I looked up other productions on youtube I saw some exciting, different versions of staging the work – to me, it’s an example of a play that doesn’t work when ‘stripped back’ , a text that demands collaboration. But also a text that works on the page. Respect.

      Now I have lost track, and must eat.
      Looking forward to Friday!

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