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!