Writing for Performance 2. The Empty Space by Bill Kirton

The Empty Space is what Peter Brook called his terrific book on performance. It’s a space which only superficially resembles that occupied by the audience in the theatre and in their daily lives. In ‘real’ life, we live in a perpetual ‘Now’. In that ‘Now’, we construct a past from memories and a future on speculations, so they're both fictional rather than actual, built from the elements we prefer to select and stress.  But when writing for the stage, we’re not confined in that way. Simultaneity of past, present and even future can be achieved by such simple tricks as having two or more sets, dividing the stage area into locations that represent different time periods in which actors can ‘be’ the person they’re depicting at different times of their life or, indeed, the character may be represented by different actors so that the audience sees older and younger versions of him/her at the same time.

And if we can simultaneously represent, for example, the barely comprehensible political movements and structures of today’s world with what many seem to see as the comfortable certainties of colonial rule, or the vast gap between trench warfare and the gung-ho attitudes which sent a generation to such a barbaric fate, we can fill the empty space in even more adventurous ways. It can be both real and fantastical at the same time. We can use it to act out dreams, imaginings, we can juxtapose public and private moments and intensify and explain them by their proximity to one another. We can underline social status and/or emotional condition by the simple expedient of having upper and lower levels onstage so that tragic figures utter their grand speeches – the 'Pride, pomp and circumstance' ones which trumpet their status – from the higher level and step down (to earth, perhaps) when their common humanity breaks through, reality takes over from facade, and they're staggering about yelling 'Noses, ears and lips'.

Nowadays, those spatial levels have expanded even further; actors don't even have to be earthbound, and not simply by being hoisted on sometimes all-too-visible harnesses. Thanks to computer-generated imagery, next month (November 2016), audiences watching The Tempest at Stratford will 'feel as though they are in the ship as it starts filling with water. Actors will appear to be thrown into the air by crashing, swirling waves' and, says director Greg Doran, 'You will see an avatar of Ariel in real time, flying, walking and moving in the middle space, in the air'.

With radio, we can even dispense with space limitations altogether. Radio drama can go anywhere and everywhere – under the sea, into space, back and forward in time, in and out of minds. Objects can speak, acquire personalities; a brain  can converse with the heart that’s providing its blood supply; a monologue delivered by the mould on a shower curtain in a dubious hotel could be fascinating – or even aspirational. They’re all effects which can also be achieved in other forms of writing, of course, but with theatre the difference is that the effects are actually embodied, i.e. made REAL, by actors, or conveyed by their voices, and thus the impact on the audience is different, more direct, more personal, more human (even for the shower mould).

So would-be dramatists need to be aware of the nature of the empty space, with its special rules. But just as important is the need to have a secure sense of the beings who move around in it and their potential for interpreting the text in wildly different ways. Take these words spoken by two lovers:

And all my fortunes at thy foot I'll lay
And follow thee my lord throughout the world.

How silver-sweet sound lovers' tongues by night,
Like softest music to attending ears!

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.

They’re from the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene, of course, and we all have our ideas of how it should look and be played. But what about Tom Morris’s version at the Bristol Old Vic in 2010, when the two lovers were played as 80-year-olds in a care home? Juliet (Siân Phillips) was 76 and Romeo (Michael Byrne) 67, but the script (apart from changes necessitated by facts such as the unlikelihood of the parents of 80-year-olds still being around to scold them), was essentially the same as that used by Baz Luhrmann in his 1996 film with Leonardo DiCaprio (22) and Claire Danes (17).

It’s a brilliant example of how the same words can have totally different resonances. On the one hand they’re the familiar, irrepressible urges of immortal youth, on the other they challenge our preconceptions about love, age, hope and its absence. It’s hard to believe that even Shakespeare had both these interpretations in mind when he wrote it, so does that mean the writer’s at the mercy of the actors and director? That’s a question for next month.


Umberto Tosi said…
Well put! I've performed, but never written for the state, preferring to stick to prose. But, as you point out, it's important for writers to be aware what distinguishes storytelling mediums, and that what we don't see - space - is as important as what we do. Best of all, you remind us of the myriad realities that we can explore using various imaginative spatial constructions.
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, the old begetters of the Miracle Plays, the Wakefield Master and Ranulf Higden, to name but two (!), knew this instinctively. Hell-mouth, Heave, for God to appear with gold paint on his face, and our fallen world below - an instinctive understanding. I think - hope - in my own fiction that I'm aware of space because it is something which silently speaks to us with subtle levels of meaning.
Excellent as ever, Bill. I don't know how many times I've found myself asking writing groups to free up their imaginations because anything is possible on the stage. Beginners so often tie themselves in to domestic interiors, pinning the actors around a table. I remember advising people not to do this for a competition I was judging only to find that about half of the writers had set their plays around a hospital bed instead! I know it's possible = good playwrights have done it - but at first people have to realise that actors like to move about, and that you can expand the space to encompass all kinds of times and places - but it's incredibly hard to get that across. I used to tell them to go away and read Dancing at Lughnasa just to see what can be done. But learning the trick of being in several places at once and watching what your characters are doing is invaluable for fiction too - or so I've found.
glitter noir said…
Bravo, Bill. I'm getting hooked on this series...and once again I commit to exploring the wonders of theater.

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