Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Play’s the Thing

A recent blog by a friend, Catherine Czerkawska, focused on the rehearsals for her new play The Secret Commonwealth, which lucky people in Glasgow can see at Òran Mór between 1st and 6th February. I wrote a comment on the blog and as I did so, all sorts of anecdotes and associations came into my head – too many for a comment. So, if you choose to continue reading, that’s what to expect.

The first bit of advice I offer to anyone who wants to write a play is to get some experience of the rehearsal process beforehand. Unlike novels and stories, where it’s just you and the reader, plays are organic things which change and develop according to the interpretations and insights of the director and actors, and the physical presence, voice and personality that each actor brings to his/her role. That doesn’t mean that you submit your script and anticipate that, at the end of rehearsals, your characters will be using completely different words from the ones you wrote, but it does mean that you may have to defend or adapt them as the words become flesh. Don’t be surprised if your baby grows into something which may be different from what you envisaged. During the recording of my first ever radio play, I heard the director telling an actor something about his character which hadn’t occurred to me as I was writing it. The play was reviewed in The Times (Ah, those were the days) and the reviewer had also heard things in it that were new to me.

In his marvellous book The Empty Space, Peter Brook identifies what he calls the Deadly Producer – one who arrives at the first rehearsal with all the moves already blocked out. He describes his own experience as a very young director invited to direct Shakespeare (I don’t remember which play). He did his research, made a cardboard model of the set and cut-outs of each of the characters, and spent hours placing them in tableaux and positions that he thought fitted the various scenes. Then, the moment the first actor walked onstage at the first rehearsal, he threw them all away.

I’ve written, directed and acted in lots of stage and radio plays, at amateur and professional levels. I’ve also translated Molière and worked with theatre students in the UK and the USA. Without exception, my attitude to and understanding of each play, including those which I’d written myself, developed and changed thanks to what the various people collaborating in the production brought to it and made of it. I’ve seen countless Hamlets and no two have been the same. Some (including a hugely hyped and well reviewed version at the National Theatre) have been excruciatingly bad, others (including Sam West’s with the RSC) spine-tinglingly excellent. But the point is that they all used the same script to create a different experience.

Academics who treat drama as pure literature may sometimes offer valuable insights but, far too often, they don’t understand what’s going on. Take Macbeth. Opinions differ as to whether it’s all the Thane's fault or whether his over-ambitious missis egged him on to do the deed. Well, it depends. Look at the crucial exchange:

MACBETH: My dearest love,
Duncan comes here tonight.

LADY MACBETH: And when goes hence?

MACBETH: To-morrow, as he purposes.

Shall sun that morrow see!

If you just read the words, she’s the one who introduces the idea of assassination. But now try reading it again and putting a longish pause after ‘Tomorrow’. It’s the equivalent of Macbeth saying ’Tomorrow … at least, that what he thinks’, and his wife picking up on his intention and supporting it. The things that actors and directors do with the words alter their impact and significance. (Which doesn’t mean that you therefore might as well not bother too much with your choice of words because they’ll be distorted. On the contrary, your choice will shove the actors in the direction you want the characters to go, so you have to take extra care with them.)

The interaction with actors can produce all sorts of surprising results. In one of my radio plays an actress asked me if I’d mind her saying something other than ‘Oh God’, which I’d written in some of her lines, because she was a devout Christian. In fact, it was a trivial point and I didn’t mind at all – but the effect was to create a slightly different character from the one I’d written and give her a sort of innocence and youth that were completely appropriate for the role.

Then there are actors who ask about motivations and the ‘meaning’ of particular words or scenes. The assumption behind their questions is that the play’s a watertight entity with all its meanings and significance locked into it rather than a springboard for collaborative creativity. In the same play as the one I just mentioned, one character was an old, blind and (according to the neighbours) evil woman. She told the young girl who befriended her that her grandson Billy was a famous photographer. She said he’d even had a book of his photos published. At the end, the young girl handed her a book and told her it was Billy’s. The actor playing the old woman asked me if Billy really was a photographer and was it really his book. And I had to tell her that, honestly, I didn’t know. It would take too long here to explain why but she was a bit upset that I seemed to be withholding ‘facts’ from her.

I could give lots more examples but my main point is that, for me, it’s the rehearsal period that’s the most exciting part of working on a play. Building the structure, writing the dialogue and creating the script is absorbing but it’s only when the words are being spoken and the actors are searching for their motives and characters that the text begins to breathe. Director, actors and writer get to know one another – as the characters and as themselves – and there’s a feeling of community and purpose. I’m not sure that audiences ever get as much from a play as those who create it for them.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Life block

I may have mentioned this before but, ages ago, I read an article by Terence Blacker in which he wrote not about writer’s block but about what he called ‘Life Block’. I hope I’m not misrepresenting his argument with this summary but it went something like this. The writer (we’ll assume she’s female to save all the his/her confusions) sits at her keyboard, immersed in the world of her characters. She knows them all well, is comfortable with them and, while they can still surprise her, she likes the time spent in their company and it flies by. She belongs there, contributes to it all and has a clear role.

The working day ends and she then has to make the transition to ‘real life’. And what does she find there? She finds people (even friends and close family) whose motives and actions she can’t predict or control, whose preoccupations don’t always coincide with her own. In brief, integration into that reality is qualitatively different from the total immersion in the reality of the fiction she’s just left. She feels more comfortable with the expectations of her characters than with those of the real people around her. The former are, on the whole, easier to be with. And that’s ‘Life Block’.

So why am I bringing this up? Because I understand and agree with Blacker on this and because the recent silly blog about wanting to be a guru and the wonderful set of responses to it proved it yet again. And in a bizarre way. Because I know that you (i.e. the person reading this) are real, with your own joys, sorrows, idiosyncrasies and passions and yet those of you who left comments became part of the fiction. In my head there’s now an actual hut (thanks, Michael), in which I (or rather the fictional guru I) sit and dispense wisdom, parables and dubious aphorisms about inserting animals into bodily fluids. And there are others wandering about there, with their own desires (such as Rolls Royces and dreams of women who use long words). And each evening, as the sun slips behind the trees, a group gathers at the Candy Store. Over a low humming sound, one or two tentative voices can be heard:
‘Is she really going out with him?’
‘Let’s ask her … Betty, is that Jimmy’s ring you’re wearing?’
And soon, as the dusk thickens, the sweet voices join in the harmonies of Leader of the Pack.

And it’s the same with that blog I did months ago – The Lovers of Wensley Dale – those fictions are still lurking there and I know that they just need me to get together with them again to live out their lives. And it's true of all the individuals we've created. But more than that, in our completed novels we've given them and their lives meaning, purpose, structure, significance, something which life itself never manages to achieve - because we're always becoming rather than being. Maybe the meaning we've given them only applies within the context of the book but there is a completion, a satisfaction about it which is elusive, not to say unreachable outside of fiction.

I don’t think Life Block suggests that we’re tongue-tied misfits in our daily routines but there’s a real contrast between the intense reality of our fictions as we inhabit them and the relative tameness of normal life, between the layers of meanings and personalities to which we have access as we write and the guesswork that constitutes so much of ordinary social interaction.

Yet again, I think we’re very lucky and very privileged to have been programmed to be writers. Success would be nice, so would money, but having that extra dimension of experience is already a very sweet advantage.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Leader of the Pack.

The suggestions for reality TV shows which I made in a previous posting may take a while to filter through so meantime I’ve had another career-change idea. If I’m honest, I want something which doesn’t involve that strange concept of a work ethic. I’m not looking, either, for a luxury yacht, a Monte Carlo pad (do people still say ‘pad’?) or a cellar full of Château Pétrus. And, despite my unflagging egocentricity, I want to keep my carbon footprint as small as possible.

So I think I need to become a guru. It’s nice having followers on this blog but it’s no substitute for followers in the flesh who come to my hut to ask for guidance, waft about singing ethereal songs, making Peace signs and, basically, worshipping me. Or not even that. They can worship someone else if they like. The only problem with that is, if I’m their guru, then it’s up to me to tell them whom or what to worship, and I don’t want to create a religion. All I want is a little sect. (Ah, think of the gags I could have written if, grammatically, it had been legitimate to make that noun plural.)

Now, how do I get to be a guru? I don’t think there are courses or degrees in it yet but it seems that all I need is some gullible people (Simon Cowell – again – has shown there are plenty of those about) and stuff to preach. The last bit’s easy; I’m a writer so I can just make stuff up. Let's see then. What do I need? Gnomic utterances. OK. How about ‘The sweetness of the butterfly is the only true way’? Hmmm, not great. To some people that might seem to make sense. How about ‘The sweetness of the butterfly drowns daily in the morning’s echoes’? Yes, that’s better.

So a follower (let’s call her Helen) stands at the open door of my hut. I smile and beckon her in. She sits beside me on the goose-quill bed (no, I don’t know what that is either) and says: ‘I’m troubled’.
I smile again, stroke her hair and say ‘The sweetness of the butterfly drowns daily in the morning’s echoes’.
She nods quietly, head bowed. ‘I know,’ she says, ‘but what does it all mean?’
I take her hands in mine.
‘Helen,’ I say. ‘Feel the swan in your blood.’
We sit there for twenty minutes. Not another word passes between us. At last she smiles again, kisses my fingers and says ‘Thank you’.
‘No sweat,’ I reply, before realising that’s not a guru thing and adding ‘Inhabit the crystal’.
‘I will,’ she says, and goes to water the cannabis.

See? It’s not hard. I might have to expand on some of these little pearls, make them into sermons. No, not sermons – they explain stuff, draw conclusions. Parables are better. Just have to remember to get the context right. None of the people working in vineyards stuff. They’d better be IT consultants or media studies tutors. Something like ...
‘A lifestyle coach was walking along a country lane when she passed a garage. Inside, a mechanic was leaning over an engine. She stopped and asked him what he was doing. “Cleaning a carburettor,” he said.
“Have you cleaned many?” she asked.
“Hundreds,” said the man.
“Different types?’ she said.
“SUVs, Jeeps, Dodge 58s with the old-style overhead camshafts, Aston Martin DB8s ... even a flat four overhead valve 1486 cc Jowett Javelin with twin Zenith carburettors,” he said.
The woman stepped towards him and laid her white hand over his.
“I have a collection of over three hundred Barbies,” she said.
The man looked at her and a tear formed in his left eye. The woman raised her finger, collected the tear, placed it on his grease-smeared lip and turned away to continue her walk.
The mechanic watched her go, the tears welling in his eyes once more. He reached for a hammer and began hitting the carburettor with fierce, unrelenting blows.
Every molecule is worth preserving.’

OK, I think I’m ready. Just need maybe twenty or thirty followers. And a hut.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Our true ancestors

Apparently, we need to change our ideas about what constitutes refinement. I say this because of a great item in yesterday’s paper. First, though, when I write the word ‘Neanderthal’ what springs to mind? My guess is that it’ll be creatures of indeterminate gender with no foreheads who sit in caves grunting and tearing raw meat from bones with their prognathous jaws. Perhaps now and then, one will stand, rise to his (this one’s a male) full height of 4 feet 10, club a neighbouring creature (this one will be a female) and drag her off to procreate. My apologies to any of you whose vision is of noble savages sitting around a fire listening to their equivalent of Brahms.

Bizarrely, though, the Brahms faction may be nearer the truth than the rest of us because it seems that Neanderthals wore make-up. Not only that, they also made bracelets and necklaces. For me this is a welcome discovery because something about illustrations of Neanderthals going about their business has always puzzled me. We see them sitting among their scraps of meat and discarded bones looking, frankly, not unlike straightforward apes. There’s no sign of a shower cubicle in the recesses of the cave, no shelves, not even any dishes to put on them. And yet, and yet … they’ve taken the trouble to fashion things out of fur resembling skirts, which they tie around their waists. Why? Did they have a rudimentary Bible which told them that, once Adam bit the apple, he was aware of his nakedness and covered it up? Why does someone content to eat raw meat and show affection by clubbing his woman feel embarrassed about his genitalia? Was the obsession about size already a factor? It’s always been a disturbing riddle, a profound mystery simmering insolubly in our past.

Well, now we know. If they wore make-up, they must have been more self-aware than we imagined up until now. They cared about their appearance because (as the journalist noted in his article) ‘they were worth it’. All homo sapiens did was daub graffiti on his walls, but Neanderthals decorated themselves, they were proud of their appearance. So pre-history will have to be rewritten and, consequently, our evolutionary notions of our own origins must be modified. Look at today’s TV, our celebrities, our icons – for the most part they consist of appearances. I don’t mean appearing at openings of galleries, first nights at the opera or red carpet premieres, I mean they are what they look like – beautiful, painted, constructed, wrapped in luscious fabrics. The only possible conclusion, then, is that if not all, then quite a lot of us are descended not from homo sapiens but from Neanderthals.

And the more one follows this line of argument the more obviously true it becomes. The careful combination of brutishness and giving precedence to appearance throws a much brighter light on most international relations and political ideologies. The Bush and Blair photos at Camp David were simply refined examples of mutual grooming. The club is still preferred to reasoned debate and as long as things LOOK right, they ARE right. For those of us who were despairing of ever seeing the desired perfectibility of humankind, we can stop worrying – we were looking in the wrong direction. The Neanderthals showed the way. Thank God for make-up.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

A milestone (possibly misleading) and the babblings of an official communicator.

A quick blog sparked by two things. First (and I hesitate to write this because putting it on paper commits me to follow through on it), I decided at last to start on a sequel to The Figurehead. That doesn’t appear until May, so that gives me time to get ahead of the game. I also thought it might help me to keep track of exactly how I go about writing a novel and how long the various phases take. So today I went to the library and got out three books on the history of Aberdeen in the 19th century to refresh my memory about it all and maybe give me a few clues as to where the novel will take me. I already have the main characters. This is the start of the search for what they get up to, who gets killed, whether anyone falls in love with anyone else (and admits it), and so on. So I guess this is the beginning of the research phase. (The books are on the desk unopened. Tonight there’s a football match on TV, so today doesn’t count.)

The second spark came as I was about to leave for the library. A company for which I write commercial stuff phoned then sent me a document asking for ideas on a specific training programme. I won’t name the creators of the document but it was written in the type of English that has become prevalent under New Labour in the UK. It’s language designed not to say something but to hide it in order that they can duck responsibility for any information that might accidentally be conveyed. Here’s a taster:

“The materials for each module will directly relate to and be interspersed with web-based exercises or reflective interaction. Therefore, it is envisaged that a mini-series of visual materials will be used to enhance each module. The voiceovers or visual materials with each visual subsection will prompt the viewer to undertake the web-based components and acknowledge their return to the next instalment of the visual material. Reference to the correct web-based section will be used to create an overall impression of a journey through the module.”

There were three pages of this (although the full document apparently ran to thirty-two pages). I’ve collected many such examples of confused and confusing emptiness from commercial (and, tragically, academic) sources over the years and I’ll put some of them in a blog soon. I’m sharing this with you so that you’ll understand why I sometimes question the whole process of evolution. This was written by someone in charge of supplying training services, in other words an educator and communicator. He (I bet it’s a he) should be strapped to a chair and have these words soaked in vinegar (or worse) and fed to him as a sort of verbal porridge – preferably up his nostrils (decorum prevents me from articulating alternative routes to his digestive system).

Sunday, 3 January 2010

My route to Forbes Magazine

In that wonderful half-world between waking and sleep last night, my true calling was revealed to me. A couple of titles came into my head and I realised I was being led by a greater power to duplicate the career path of Simon Cowell. For any of you unfamiliar with this colossus, he’s the creator of many varied TV reality shows which have been franchised world wide and which work on the premise that people will do more or less anything and submit themselves to the grossest humiliations simply to be on TV and get their 70-odd seconds of being a celebrity – the sine qua non of existential credibility.

Anyway, Simon Cowell is immensely, obscenely, unforgivably rich – which was apparently his stated ambition when interviewed near the start of his career. And the good news is that, thanks to my late night Damascene event, I’ll soon be up there with him, gate crashing the pages of Forbes Magazine. Why? Because of MY SHOWS.

That was the first title that swam into my brain and the idea is so simple I’m surprised Simon hasn’t already copyrighted it. On stage, the presenter introduces a guest. Hidden from presenter and guest are three individuals sitting on stools (or perhaps in beds or wheelchairs – the reason for this alternative will become obvious as I outline the nature of the game). If the guest is female, these three are males and vice versa.

The guest is gorgeous, intelligent, sexy, desirable etc., etc. The hidden individuals are the opposite. They’re ugly, misshapen, have the intelligence of earthworms or have no discernible value in any area of human endeavour. All they have to do is answer the guest’s questions and then, on the basis of the intelligibility of their answers, the closeness of their vocal responses to ‘normal’ or whatever other criteria the guest wishes to apply, he/she selects one of them, the screen rolls back and the two are properly introduced and given the wherewithal to go on a ‘Kind Date’. It's a kindness which the hapless individual chosen by the guest would never receive under normal circumstances.

They return the following week to give their separate accounts of the evening spent together. The guest’s tale will be one of disgust, embarrassment, superiority and a confirmation of his/her determination never to frequent the lower orders again. His/her date’s tale will be one of shattered dreams, humiliation and a confirmation that he/she has no place in decent society. It’s entertainment which fits perfectly into contemporary social mores.

(I accept that this is rather close to a title already copyrighted by Simon but I think even he will accept that the format is just different enough from his own to carry it off.)

At first, it’s a straight copy of the original. Contestants will audition at various centres around the country in the hope of being selected to feature in the actual shows. The ones who succeed will duly appear on stage before a huge audience and a panel of celebrity judges drawn from a short list of tone-deaf singers, middle-aged show-business men and young women with lots of make up, long hair extensions and big breasts. And me.

Each contestant will come on stage and describe him or herself and his/her achievements (if any). They won’t be required to sing or dance or demonstrate talent of any sort. This is a show about them, not their foolish, irrelevant attempts to be entertaining.

When they’ve finished their little self-portrait, the judges will take turns to comment on their character and (lack of) personality but there’s a twist. The one voted off each week will be the one who is potentially the most interesting or deserving one. Given the exhaustive elimination procedures which have preceded their selection this will make judging difficult because the contestants really will be the dregs, but that’s how we’ll earn the vast fees we’ll be paid.

The final show will consist of a face-off between the three contestants who really have nothing at all to offer. All charisma will have been discarded at the audition stage and any vestiges of personality will have been identified and ruthlessly expunged by the judges, who will then have their final say. It will be left to me, as the game’s inventor and the richest person on the panel, to step onto the stage, announce the winner and tell him or her why he/she should never have been born. And that will be the year’s Ex-Factor.

There are other formats in the pipeline – Britain’s got Malevolence and Big Stepfather are just two of them – and as soon as the viewing public experience the new depths which TV can plumb, I’m certain they’ll be clamouring for more. Truly Britons will once more be able to echo Wordsworth’s:

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven.”