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Did you know I have a ‘thing’ about water? Not a ‘thing’ thing, just a writer’s thing. I blame early indocrination on Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath and T S Eliot – and, oh, I could go on. Thus far in my writing life I have made characters fall into the river Cherwell, mythologise a trip to a Scottish loch, dance in a fountain, skinny dip in a lake as 1999 passed into 2000 and decide the future of their thirty odd year relationship by a duck pond. Indeed in a first draft read through of that particular play the most universally loved aspect of the play was the ducks and I understood why. I could list the one hundred and one metaphorical/ literary/ allusive reasons I come back to water time and time again, just like I could try and list the reasons why I could never live somewhere that wasn’t (at the very least) near a river. And why I have to make periodic trips to see the sea or else I might combust. But I’m sure you’re smart enough to guess them – or, better still, invent your own more complex ones.
The water thing, then, was part of the reason that I immediately loved the idea of Hannah Nicklin‘s The smell of rain reminds me of you. The idea is that you submit your (true) stories of kissing someone in the rain. As it happens, in the depths of my ‘Unblogged’ file I had one such story I’d already written up (but then, as the title of the file it resides in suggests, had never published because of things like scruples and privacy and the fact that the blog post concerned goes on to talk about my watching the son of someone famous take drugs in the lobby of a hotel. Ah, those were the days). So I found said blog, cut and pasted the relevant bit as – crikey – four years later I know I’ve shared much worse.
So now it resides as part of the growing collection of The smell of rain reminds me of you. Th0ugh, no, I’m not saying which is mine (though, if you know the lyrics of Gary Lightbody then it shouldn’t be too difficult). And if you’ve got a story and feel even vaguely writery then you should add yours too to what is fast becoming a beautiful, funny and often moving project.
[As a side issue should anyone feel like taking in other weather conditions I have a cool snow story too].
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that in the British Theatre Blogosphere (yes, you may shoot me for using that word) Such Tweet Sorrow, the RSC’s twitter adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, has been as well received as a proverbial lead balloon. Or a Montague at a Capulet cabinet meeting if you want a more story-appropriate simile.
I confess – my problems with Such Tweet started quite early on. I’m going to quote Such Tweet‘s Director Roxanna Silbert from an interview that appeared on the Guardian site and see if you can spot where my problems started:
“I think [Shakespeare] would’ve loved it. All you’ve got on Twitter is the actor, the story and the audience. I’ve directed at the Globe where there aren’t lights, sound effects or much staging so in fact there’s something rather pure about this.”
Yep, that would be my highlighting (the academic in me almost put a ‘my emphasis’ note in there). Now twitter might be lots of things, but an actors medium? Really? The elephant in the room would be the word ‘writer’. I could (and will) continue on this point but since I’m here and Silbert has expended words that are so blatantly questionable I can’t help but look a little closer at the comparison between the Globe and twitter (not a sentence I would ever have thought I’d type). Not only is Silbert wrong in her perception of what does or doesn’t make a production at the Globe (need I go any further than Lucy Bailey’s current production of Macbeth to prove her assertion at best outdated, at worst lazy?) but twitter being ‘pure’? One of the joys of the medium is everything you can throw at it – all the twitpics, the audioboos, the YouTube links, the spotify playlists, the blog links, the RTs, the memes…and on and on until you get to doing that quiz to work out which member of NKOTB you should marry. Twitter is about the words – those 140 characters – but it’s also about the noise that goes with it. Coming in unaware – or in denial – of this is to fundamentally misunderstand your tools.
I think many of my problems with Such Tweet stem from this starting point. The failure to address the fact that twitter is a writer’s medium became immediately apparent. Anyone can use twitter. As with anything, some use it better than others. Some people give information, some make me think, some make me smile. Some people use it brilliantly to create – or ape – character (I follow a Malcolm Tucker who is pretty much pitch perfect). Such Tweet, however, requires more than all that. It needs not only character but also story. Whether you’re writing, devising or improvising dialogue (for twitter is dialogue, in all the ways that something can be dialogue) it’s often not about what you say but what you don’t say. It’s the wants the characters feel they must hide or – and this is where it gets more difficult – the wants they don’t know that they have. It’s the much uttered show don’t tell. Don’t write on the nose. All the things that writers get told or learn or ignore and end up writing Days of Our Lives. The “I” form of twitter encourages on the nose writing. We all do it. The best tweeters just do it a lot less than the rest of us. But to be dramatically interesting – to build the connections and the interest that a play demands – Such Tweet should have created some warning system whereby if more than 10% of tweets were of the on the nose variety the actor typing them got a small electric shock.
I can only conclude that even a less cruel-to-actors system wasn’t in place. Had there been discussions about language? About cliché? About reversing audience expectation? About what you can do with the unsaid? In the same interview that Silbert suggested the Globe/Twitter parallel Charlotte Wakefield (Juliet) also said something that made my warning alarms go off:
“I’m nearly 20 so I would normally type in quite a sophisticated way, but a 15-year-old today will use a lot of text speak.”
If that statement were a bucket then it would have a lot of holes in it. Again I lay my prejudices down: if the Goldsmiths teaches you anything it is that a generalised statement in the place of accurate research is, quite frankly, not good enough. Maybe some teenagers do use lots of text speak. Maybe some don’t. But what about the specific teenager you’re portraying? The chances are that when a writer is praised for how accurate their language is they’re being anything but literal. Listen to how a conversation actually goes. Listen to how people communicate. Not only would it make pretty much no sense if it were directly copied down, it would also be incredibly dull (look at verbatim theatre, for every play of that genre that works and is pleasurable to watch/ read there’s at least ten which will make you fall asleep). You need the lexicon but beyond that you need imagination not reality. We’re adapting from Shakespeare – if that doesn’t give you a license to engage your imagination then I don’t know what does. The blunt truth, however realistic or not, is that I (and I imagine others) do not want to read text speak.
It wasn’t until the list of credits that @SuchTweet tweeted today that I became aware that there were writers (plural) involved in the project. Their role (as far as has been declared) was to create the overall narrative and then the mission sheets which the actors were given each day. And here we have another problem. Such Tweet didn’t need a writer (if we take it that the actors are going to devise/ improvise the actual text) – Such Tweet needed a Dramaturg. It needed someone who not only planned the narrative but who dealt with the structural problems that twitter brings with it. Someone who sat down and before a single tweet went live decided what the conventions of the piece should be. Depending on conventions we might accept that people burst into song (and know all the dance steps), that there is a narrator, or direct address, or Pinter pauses. Audiences will go places with you if you set your conventions – and then stick to them. How should the public/private oxymoron of twitter be addressed? Would characters respond (or not) to those outside the narrative? Would they respond to criticism within the play or ignore it? It seemed that no one had sat down and found an answer to these (hugely important) questions. Equally the huge change in tone – and lexicon – midway through from Romeo pointed to the distinct possibility that there hadn’t ever been a character tone (and how a tone might be created) meeting somewhere down the line.
I know I’ve chosen to analyse Such Tweet on its artistic rather than social or marketing merits. I think there is much to be said for how it has clearly engaged an audience (and proven that a twitter full length play might be a feasible prospect). I’m also aware that the project marks a significant experiment in form (of which no one, least of all me sat pontificating here, could have seen the ways it would develop or the problems which would arise). I do know though: I stopped properly following the story one week in. I dipped in and out of the @SuchTweet list for the rest of the project but with something approaching duty rather than real interest (Shakespeare. Twitter. New writing. I couldn’t ever abandon it entirely).
I wanted more. I wanted everything that a play can be. I wanted the RSC to have taken it seriously enough to have thought of all the stylistic/ narrative problems that it would inevitably encounter. I wanted it to not just be a gimmick.
I wanted the writing to be as innovative – and as exciting – as the concept itself was.
Election night in WBN Towers went something along the lines of: watch rolling news in a vaguely obsessive compulsive manner, order pizza, discover that said pizza wasn’t as good as it used to be and thus blame David Cameron for affecting crust quality already, rubbish the exit poll (no one exit-polled us. In fact no one has exit polled me ever), drink wine, feel amused at the army of young people lifting ballot boxes in Sunderland (“Child labour up North – they better get used to it”), drink more wine, talk a lot about voting problems – and which polling station in Lewisham it had been that continued voting until 10.30, feel pain when the Conservatives make their first significant gains, WHERE ARE THE RESULTS?, shout loudly when Tooting stayed Red, generally be a little bit confused, drink more wine, indulge in calculations about seats needed, concede we might have been a bit wrong re: exit poll, feel sad for Dr Evan Harris (in twisty, turvy nature of fate someone who’d been MP for everyone sat in the room at various points during the previous decade), still be confused, fall asleep for twenty minutes somewhere around 5.00am, wake up with head in sofa cushion and discover am even more confused, swap wine for water, what – Lewisham have only just started counting?, like Caroline Lucas lots, conclude that we’re not the only ones who are confused as Nick Clegg retains his seat, COFFEE. And – er, who’s in charge exactly?
Along with what I suspect is every playwright in the country Charlie and I immediately wanted to write a play about the events (we’re now expanding to a six part television series). But the need to do contracted work that didn’t have anything to do with the election and sleep and whatnot filled up the next 24 hours. So I was rather excited (and impressed) that supporting wall had gathered together five hardy writers and (possibly) a copious supply of pro-plus, locked them in a room at 10.00pm on 6th May and made them write a short play in reaction to election day. Then merely one day later staged them. Things like this make me punch the air in delight – not only are they a little bit insane in the amount of work (and lack of sleep) that has to go into them but they demonstrate exactly how theatre can react to the world around it.
As Producers Ben Monks and Will Young (no, not that Will Young) noted the writers weren’t reacting so much to a result as to a question. And I was interested with what answers (or not) the five writers would dream up.
But…erm, it quickly became apparent that (on the whole) the writers weren’t reacting to election night (as the publicity suggested) as much as they were reacting to the election campaign (or, in one case, a rather generic election night). Which is all well and good, and in another type of evening, I’d have been very much up for a bit of campaign gazing. But I was expecting quick fire responses to what was becoming apparent was the most dramatically interesting election night of my lifetime. I couldn’t help but feel that aside from a couple of references (hello, Nigel Farrage) there was no reason at least three of the plays couldn’t have been written at a more leisurely pace (with all the tightening and editing that would have allowed).
The stand out piece – that had me from the moment its premise was announced if I’m honest (a group of prisoners watch election night on television) – was Anders Lustgarten’s Bang Up. Not only did it have a genuinely provocative premise (Prisoners can’t vote after all) it also had something which, I hate to say, was missing – or unintelligible – from the other plays: a politically beating heart. Which is before I get to the part about it being genuinely funny – so much so that I found myself writing down lines (“You winning Sunderland is like getting an STI at a Stag Party. Unfortunate but not exactly unexpected”. “I don’t understand how you’re a Conservative” “Why?” “You’re black and a criminal”. “We need change. Yes, that’s right – change is what we’ll be living on for the next five years under you”). As with any hastily written play there were problems (the ending jarred) but I hope Lustgarten continues with this piece – I’d certainly pay to see its final outcome.
In some respects the evening felt like a homage to other playwrights (Rex Obano gave us vintage Harold Pinter, Che Walker channelled Caryl Churchill’s Far Away and Phil Wilmot even went as far subtitling his play After Uncle Vanya). What I didn’t get was five distinctive voices (though there were five distinctive styles) on the events of May 6th 2010. And – schooled as I am by the Goldsmiths method – there was a definite lack of basic research going on (I know, I know, but pro-plus, coffee and a quick google about how PPCs are chosen wouldn’t have hurt). And, erm, other than actual politicians, no one does The Thick of It as well as The Thick of It so – stay away.
When I discovered that the writers had to deliver scripts by 3.00pm on Friday I wondered if the timings had led to some of the problems. My experience of the election night (if we take out the wine) would mainly have been characterised by mild terror, mild (blind) hope and confusion. To react to election night, really, you couldn’t have started to write until morning because the story took so long to play out. Did that impact? What parameters were given to the writers? And, out of interest, how politically engaged (or disengaged) did the writers consider themselves to be?
I’d like to think I’m fairly aware of the compromises that have to be made by shows written and produced in such a short space of time (both as a Writer and as a Producer) and my expectations (and enthusiasm) were for these reasons rather than against them. I guess – I wanted more. I wanted aspirations and anger and fire and triumph and loss and hope and – well, everything election night 2010 felt like to me.
By a stroke of chance (and the availability of two returned tickets when we strolled up to the Barbican) I happened to spend Friday night watching the TEAM’s Architecting. Which means that not only did I see the same production as Matt Trueman discusses on the Guardian Blog I also saw the same performance.
I’m with Matt in as much as I’ve never read or seen Gone With The Wind (though I did know it was a novel, but then I am a Book Geek as well as a Theatre Geek) and when I came out in the interval I couldn’t work out if I was enjoying the show or not. Because though I’d seen moments of brilliance Architecting lost me when it got deep into Gone With The Wind – and, yes, I did feel that my lack of knowledge of this particular American classic was proving a barrier to my engagement. I could sense that an important point was being made, that the text was being re-interpreted, re-visioned, questioned but I couldn’t for the life of me work out exactly how.
Perversely, by the time I came out of the second act I had become convinced that I had seen one of the defining productions of my year (I might even go as far to say it might one day make that list of productions that make me the writer I am). All the strands – and the TEAM hadn’t exactly scrimped with them given they’d taken on Gone With The Wind, the relationship between North and South USA, reconstruction, individual genius vs community, race, the effects of Hurricane Katrina, feminism, the American psyche…well, I could go on – were pulled together. Architecting is a play with huge – epic – ambitions, reaching out to questions that truly need space to breathe (and, indeed, filter through your brain). Yes it is flawed; it is too long, at times too self indulgent and, at least in my opinion, too reliant on direct engagement with Gone With The Wind in its first 90 minutes. I felt in times it was a play in need of a Dramturg. But I would gladly see a play with those flaws which had even half of the aspirations, intellectual clout and sheer exhilarating presence as Architecting.
Though a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland (having seen four of their productions now I would trample over people to get tickets for their shows) I honestly don’t know if new writing of this nature would be created in England, at the very least it isn’t created for the major theatres. Which is a challenge if ever there was one.
As for Matt’s question as to if theatre can be too clever for itself I have to say that the question is a fairly flawed one. What is “too clever”? Something I don’t understand, or you don’t understand, or that the person sitting next to you doesn’t understand? At no point when I wasn’t getting the references did I think that Architecting was too clever. I thought it wasn’t properly edited. More so this is a play concerned with America and me, a 26 year old from the North of England, well yes – I may lose things in translation.
Are Hamlet or King Lear too clever because of their intellectual gymnastics? Arcadia? Katie Mitchell’s production of Attempts on Her Life? And where do we stop – is The History Boys too clever because it has a scene largely performed in French?
The notion that there is a level of “accessib[ility]” that theatre should include is blatantly a non-starter. We Will Rock You is accessible, that doesn’t mean I’m beating a path to its door. Content can create accessibility, but so can theatricality. There was a moment in Architecting when the space around me transformed (I’m not saying how as it’s still running and I wouldn’t want to spoil the moment) that made me understand absolutely, to the very core of my being. And should we, as theatre makers, have our main concern be having every audience member understand every moment every single night? Maybe because I found theatre after I found books (which are certainly not scared about understanding) I never assumed this was the case. Plus, I work on the basis that the audience is (at the very least) as clever as me. And I love it when a production or play treats me in the same way, even if it leaves me running after them (I still run after Hamlet to this very day, and I love it all the more because of that).
There is of course the question of audience numbers. Architecting would never support a West End run (well, maybe if you stuck David Tennant in the middle of it and even then it had better be a limited run). Did everyone in The Pit at the Barbican on Friday night love it as much as me? Matt Trueman’s article proves that isn’t the case. And that’s almost inevitable with Architecting‘s ambitions – and should we limit aspiration on that basis?
I think not.
Yet another interesting post over at 99seats – this time about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of writing rather than the ‘how’. For, as I know from my own experience, writing groups tend to focus only on the ‘how’:
“There is a problem, though, and it’s exactly this: the focus is on craft, style, but rarely, if ever on substance. The focus is on the How and never on the What. Or even more importantly on the Why.”
Of course people need to know how to structure and use form and image and metaphor and etc etc (sadly my experience of reading unsolicited scripts points to the fact that these aspects of the ‘craft’ of playwriting do get ignored) but some times you do need someone to stop you and ask: why?
If there is one question which haunted everyone during my MA it was the one which our course convener would utter at some point during every class: why now? And, I would argue, the case can always be made for good art (case in point: Alan Bennett’s The History Boys would have withered at that question and that play is, however you look at it, bloody brilliant). Whilst equally I do not want to sit through a hundred different plays about – say the financial crisis – because it is a ‘now’ topic. But what was so brilliant about asking us that question is that it forces you to examine what you’re writing and why you’re writing it. And – maybe most importantly if you’re looking to have a play put on and suchlike – why anyone else should care.
Over the course of the year we spent many, many more hours talking about the whats and the whys than we did about the hows. That meant that some times you would have to say ‘ I don’t know’ or question someone on the ideology of their play which some times made you want to go somewhere quiet and rock in a corner. And whilst I can’t speak for anyone else, just having that question floating around made me a better writer. My answer to ‘why now?’ may be as simple as ‘because I have to’. But I’m not scared of either asking it or having to answer it – and the more writers who can say that the better.
Back at the start of September, Corinne and I found ourselves in Shunt Vaults as the über blogger part of Write By Numbers has already attested to. We specifically went to see a piece by some friends of ours (by the company Made in China) and it was exhilarating and relieving that their piece was by far the best thing we saw in the Vaults (exhilarating, because it is always pleasing to see friends doing so well, and relieving, as you don’t have the conundrum of ‘to lie or not to lie’ if they are not doing so well).
What really got me thinking about this piece however, are the demands and lengths the incredible performer went to achieve her performance: Cycling non stop on an exercise for 25 minutes whilst delivering a monologue. And every few minutes giving bursts of acceleration as the performer peddles as fast as they can. And in said bursts they complete tasks. And not simple things like, not dying of cardiac arrest, but tasks like applying make-up. Changing clothes. Necking a WHOLE bottle of champagne (I’m being serious). Eating a whole packet of chocolate digestives (if shoving them into your mouth all at once can be considered eating). All of which was done whilst riding an exercise bike extremely fast (I felt the need to reiterate that point). In the lulls of speed the performer had to concentrate on the small matter of delivering their monologue.
Suffice to say, all of the above was highly impressive. So much so that I can honestly say the virtuosity, the sheer ability, the commitment – however you wish to quantify – of the performer is what made this performance for me. The content was funny, well written and meaningful but it was the lengths the performer went to that made the performance. In fact, as my title suggests, the performer WAS the performance. Why is it that seeing someone push themselves to what we perceive as their physical and mental limits so enrapturing? Is it that we are really fascinated in seeing people: Struggle? Sweat? Suffer? Fail?
When I have my writer head on, stretching the boundaries and pushing the envelope of what performers can do doesn’t often occur in my thinking. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever considered writing a stage direction that reads something like: and the actor does double back flips around the stage for forty minutes (which isn’t to say that this was the case with this piece, as it was clearly devised etc, but just except my hyperbole for the time being). Such practice may not have necessarily occurred in the writer segment of my brain before, but it most certainly will do now. At least as an option.
Write By Numbers
I feel before I write this blog that I should probably attach some kind of disclaimer to it – the disclaimer being that the thoughts given are very much my own and that everyone is entitled to their own opinion…
Saying that, I do feel that some clarity needs to be given on what we can class as ‘new writing’. Where am I going with this? An example: I saw an adaptation of a well known ghost story the other day in a rather large local London venue. Suffice to say, it was poorly written, wearily acted and would have looked dated in the 1980s. Now, the fact that the script hadn’t seemed to have seen its way past a first draft (at least I assume not) which resulted in many minutes of boredom was not the problem. I have come to the sad realisation that ‘tat’ (in my humble opinion) will get commissioned for the stage.
My problem is that this well known short story adapted for the stage had to be classed as ‘New Writing’. At least, I had to reconcile it in my mind as such. Why this disturbed me so is not because it is an adaptation (I am fond of adaptations myself, and WBN is planning an adaptation of epic proportions), nor is the problem the productions dreadfulness. The problem I had was WHY NOW? Neither the script nor the production seemed to have any relevance to the world we live in today. The only reason I can fathom that this play was made was for financial reasons. In fact, I think the production meeting probably went something like this: … ‘People might know this story – and they def know the author… We could do it with just three actors and a shoddy set! Ooh, let’s pay a small child to write an adaptation for the price of a mars bar!’…
I am not trying to suggest that ALL new writing needs to be based on current affairs. Even I, with a love of political theatre, would get bored if every play on was a Stockwell or an Enron (by the by, if anyone has an Enron ticket they want to give me I will give many pounds or do things for them of a suspect nature). But surely New Writing should be coming from the now – the writer or creator is making it based on the world and life they are living today. If this is too much of a problem (or if this is just my sole humble opinion, and gets shouted down by the masses) could there be some kind of differentiation?
If a distinction hasn’t already been made, may I be so bold as to coin the term NOW WRITING. Writing we can see has been created for now – that resonates with the world today. That doesn’t mean it has to be about the Olympics or Iraq or current affairs but has a sense of today’s world at its core – in its being. Now, that is obviously going to be subjective and my argument may be flawed and problematic. But if we can find a way of separating new writing so the next Jerusalem doesn’t get tarred with the same brush as the inevitable new adaptation of Dracula (because Vampire are SO in right now) then I would be very happy… I’d be nit picking and snobby, but happy.
Write By Numbers