Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Writing for Performance (Introduction) by Bill Kirton

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

That word ‘Introduction’ is a bit ominous, isn’t it? Especially in a blog about writing for the theatre posted by a novelist. But as I started it, I realised there was far too much for one post, so there'll be a follow-up. Anyway, in my defence, before the novels and short stories, I wrote radio and stage plays and I’ve also been involved in theatre as actor and director. In fact, it was as I was writing my latest, 100,000-word novel that I realised I was using a lot of dialogue to tell the story, perhaps going back to my roots. Whatever the reason, it reminded me of a talk I gave to a writers’ group several years ago on the subject of writing for the theatre.

I was introduced, walked to the lectern, sorted out my notes and looked at the audience. And I continued looking. In silence. Then I looked at my notes again. Then back at them. It was all very uncomfortable but, despite the fact that one of the critics in Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound says, ‘You can’t start with a pause’, that’s exactly what I’d planned to do. It lasted for about a minute which, with growing embarrassment on all sides, is a very long time. In fact, it was difficult for me to sustain but I needed to do it to make my point. When I did eventually start, I pointed out that the long silence wasn’t actually ‘scripted’. I hadn’t written or said a word and yet something mildly dramatic had happened. All the elements were in place - bloke standing at lectern, notes in front of him, hush of anticipation - but nothing happened, and things got tense, uneasy, uncomfortable.

Obviously enough, the audience is a crucial part of a performance. They come with expectations  and those expectations are part of the whole experience, a part that’s outside our control as writers, but something of which we need to be aware when we’re writing to provoke a response.

(As an aside and in the interests of historical fact, I should confess that, while that was what I’d actually planned, it didn’t quite turn out that way. Near the 55 second mark, just as the tension was about to be relieved,  there was a fire alarm. We had to leave and gather at an assembly point. I explained nothing, the embarrassment continued and was exacerbated by the time-filling conversations as we waited to be allowed back in. I’m not sure whether that was more effective than my original plan or not, but it certainly helped to make my point.)

So the silence didn’t need scripting and yet it was part of the writing – the part I didn’t do. Writing for performance sometimes includes not writing anything, or leaving thoughts unfinished, suspended.  Equally though, it’s important to recognise that, as well as that uncontrollable entity, the audience, there are many other groups and individuals who contribute to give your words and silences particular significance(s) which you may or may not have intended. The writing is the crucial skeleton but much of the flesh is added by a variety of processes.

Sarah Bernhardt - a challenging Hamlet
Take one of the best Hamlets I’ve seen, Sam West directed for the RSC at the Barbican by Steven Pimlott. At the start, the house lights go down. In the darkness, the courtiers around Claudius start whooping and applauding, the stage lights go up and they’re walking downstage smiling and being sycophantically joyous about having a brand new king. When we get to the final scene, Fortinbras comes in, looks around at the carnage and says something like ‘Hmmm, seems like there’s no one in charge here. OK, I’ll take over’. Cue silence and uncertain looks from the (same set of) courtiers, then the occasional clap which quickly builds so that they’re all applauding Fortinbras in exactly the same way they were greeting Claudius at the outset. Then simultaneously, total blackout and immediate silence. The suddenness was shocking. But then, in the darkness,  the stunned audience began to mimic the courtiers with a few tentative claps coming from individuals which built until we’d all joined in. That simple directorial trick dragged spectators into a sort of insecurity,  maybe a collusion with something difficult to grasp. It created an intensely personal dramatic perspective on what they’d seen which you won’t find anywhere in the script.

Perversely, the same sort of intensity can be generated spontaneously and undermine what’s happening onstage. I once, with daughter and two grandsons, had to sit through a production of The Jungle Book in which Mowgli was played by an unprepossessing actor whose appearance and accent, we all agreed, would in reality have led the Wolf Father to get in touch with Shere Kahn and say, ‘Come and get him. He’s all yours’.

I’m making it sound as if playwrights have precious little control of the effects their works may provoke, but that’s misleading. The point is that, if they really make sure they understand all these aspects of the medium, they can exploit them. I’ll now leave you in silence for a month before returning to some of these ‘aspects’.

15 comments:

Reb MacRath said...

Well done, Bill. I've been well-trained by Lev to sit tight month after for the next installment his epic series. And I hope this train goes on a while.

Wendy Jones said...

Loved this and I'm in the edge of my seat waiting for the next one. Really, I am.

Jan Needle said...

Bill, you promised you'd never mention my Mowgli in public. I hate you. Dan.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks All (except Dan).

Lynne Garner said...

Very interesting. I've worked back stage in theatre (a long time ago) so the only concerns I've ever had is wondering if the actor remembers where I've put the prop or how long do we have to do that quick change.

Dennis Hamley said...

Fascinating, Bill. And so true. Back in my long ago acting days I once played the newspaper seller in Pinter's lovely sketch 'Last to Go.' I was thinking about this very point and so I decided just to try it out for real. The play appears to be an inconsequential (though, as it was Pinter,it wasn't) conversation between a passer-by and the newspaper seller late at night. As I remember, the paper seller says, 'I only had one left. Then that went.' Here, I stopped, looked up at the ceiling and let my eyes travel slowly all the way across the roof of the drama studio of Milton Keynes College of Education. It took just under a minute. I was aware of the audience following my gaze and getting restless, obviously not sure whether I was doing it on purpose or had suffered a memory malfunction. Then at last I came out with Pinter's magnificent, in the context, next line - 'Like a shot.' I was quite pleased with the effect and so, I think, was the audience. However, the passer-by was not. Still, I thought, why should I tell him everything?

Bill Kirton said...

A perfect example, Dennis. How long before the passer-by forgave you?

Jan Needle said...

Dan here. My most interesting example comes from a studio version of a Russian play I watched while studying drama at Manchester University. A young student called Viv Kettle was standing still and silent, holding the back of a rocking chair. After a few seconds of contemplative silence, she started to rock back and forward, still using the chair as a prop (not a prop?). We were fascinated by this original and most effective piece of acting. Then she slumped to the floor and lay unmoving for a good few seconds. Nobody had the faintest idea of what to do. Was she still acting? Was it method gone mad, as the Daily Mail might say?After about twenty seconds of Viv on the floor, Geoff Joyce, our magnificent technician, obviously thinking 'well bugger all you poncey stuck up students' walked onto the acting area and confirmed that she had indeed fainted.

Just goes to show, dunnit? What would old Pinter have made of that, eh, Dennis?

By the way, I do forgive you, Sid.

Dennis Hamley said...

About three minutes. Bill. And Jan, Pinter would have been very impressed at how brilliantly Viv (any relation? had interpreted his intentions.

Jan Needle said...

No Dennis. My Viv's most famous studio performance was as the albatross in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Maybe she assumed I was that mariner? Who knows....

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Great post, Bill. And if nothing else, writing plays has given me certain skills with dialogue, knowing what works and what doesn't. It always fascinates me in a theatrical production how different audiences can be from night to night - and how that affects the production, changing it in all kinds of subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. The Traverse used to provide programmes that included the script, which was a doubtful benefit when some members of the audience would determinedly follow what was on the page and then look disapproving or alarmed when the actors' words didn't match what they were reading. This was because the programmes had to be printed before the rewriting stopped - in a new writing theatre the writer only stops adjusting the words when the actors (often with a look of extreme panic in their eyes) tell you and the director that they can't learn anything new! But some audiences seem to be much more receptive to a performance than others. I used to sit in on several performances and was always intrigued by how much they would differ - and it was all to do with the audiences and their response that somehow changed the performances. Looking forward to next month's post!

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks for all the contributions, folks. It's interesting to see how many of us have actual stage experience. Interesting but also scary since I'm clearly performing a grandmother/eggs/sucking exercise. It seems as if the next blog could simply be a series of 'How about when the cue...', 'How about when the prop isn't...', 'How about when the prompter's asthma...', etc. and I'd just leave you to fill the rest in with your comments.

Reb MacRath said...

Regrettably, there are no props for me to use while I flounder about and scratch my head and smoke my thumb while wish I'd rated a personal thanks.

Bill Kirton said...

Reb, Reb, Reb - consider yourself overwhelmed by my most glutinously sycophantic gratitude.

Reb MacRath said...

Aw, Bill. Thank you. But I thought you were gluten-free.