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’.