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.


  1. How interesting. I hadn't thought about how the performed play can vary compared to the written version. A pity I don't get to see many plays anymore.

  2. Any plays of yours available to see or hear chez internet?

  3. 'fraid not Gary. They were all broadcast before we had access to all this instant gratification. I have recordings of most of them. If you really wanted to hear one, I could upload it to a file-sharing site. But you don't have time - get back to revision number 8.

  4. very interesting! I never thought how that works, really. I wonder what about movie scripts...does it work the same way?

  5. Scary, I think that might need quite a long answer but, in brief, I think the technical aspects of the film medium (close-ups, placing of actors within the frame, use of camera movement, the ability to set a scene in a tiny room or on Mars and even switch back and forth between them ... oh, all sorts of stuff) give greater power to the director. While visuals and sound effects on stage can be dramatic and powerful, the presence of the actors is what holds it all together and drives it. There's also the fact that in live theatre you only get one shot per performance whereas on film the director can reshoot until he has the version that suits his vision. In theatre, the director is helpless once the curtain goes up.

  6. That was really interesting, Bill, and it makes perfect sense that the interaction should make a difference. I'm hoping to get along to see Catherine's play if I find the time this week.

  7. Me too, Rosemary. Probably Friday.

  8. Very interesting post, Bill, and I agree with all you say. Including how very different film and television are from theatre - and, in my experience, take a different sort of writer to succeed - and often, a different sort of actor as well. I had a go at TV in my youth (it pays so well!) but could never come to terms with it (nor, I fear, it with me) nor with the relative unimportance of the writer to the whole process. You give them the script and they more or less say 'Thank-you. Now go away.'
    But I love the collaboration of theatre which is just as you describe it/ I was thinking about it because (in her excellent review in the Scotsman woop, woop) Joyce Macmillan said something like 'between them Czerkawska and Brennan...' and I thought, yes, that describes it exactly. Except that the director should have been in there as well, as a sort of triangle! Between us, we produced something. Nowhere near enough is taught about the experience of professional production - which would be invaluable for writers who are starting to work on plays.

  9. Thanks for that, Catherine. I'm writing this just having got home from seeing The Secret Commonwealth and I loved it. All the elements we're speaking about here - the acting, direction, writing, music - blended perfectly. It really was a showcase for all those different professional skills. Nothing was out of place and the audience was mesmerised by it. Chapeau.