Writing for Performance 3: Holding the Mirror up to Nature by Bill Kirton

Alas, poor Yorick.
When Hamlet gives his instructions to the players, we’re hearing from Shakespeare as writer and director. ‘Here are my words,’ he’s saying, ‘don’t eff them up. Treat them with respect. Don’t do all that acting stuff. Be normal.’


What you write is a blueprint for a production. It calls for teamwork so, even though it’s your baby, you have to accept the fact that you’re only a part of the experience. You may get requests for rewrites, actors may ask questions about their role to which you don’t have answers.  For them, their character is everything, for you he/she is part of a larger whole. In my last radio play, the main character,  a blind woman, receives things through the post from her grandson which may be ordinary postcards or examples of his own sketches. She shows them to people, proud of the fact that she has an artist grandson and people, not wanting to upset her, tell her he’s very talented. The actor playing her asked me whether he was an artist or not but I said I didn’t know. Because, in terms of the script, it was important that the character didn’t know. She clearly didn’t appreciate my answer. Another actor in the same play was a committed Christian and unhappy that her character had to say ‘Oh God’ a few times. I agreed that she could substitute whatever she was comfortable with, but it did change the character and the way she related to the others.

When I was writing those plays, I was familiar with literary criticism; it was part of my day job. But the experience of seeing my first ever radio play in production brought home how much more practical it is in drama. I heard the producer telling an actor that he needed to say one line in a certain way because it illustrated a particular motivation his character would probably have. The actor then countered that by telling the producer why he’d spoken the line the way he had, which suggested an entirely different but equally legitimate line of reasoning. The revelation to me was that neither of their interpretations had ever occurred to me as I was writing but both made perfect sense. Then, it got a great review in The Times in which the critic revealed another interpretation which, again, had never been part of my thinking (or, at least, I hadn't been aware of it).

Every text is open to very varied readings. Actors and directors can ignore the author's intentions, stated or otherwise, and see meanings that might be uncomfortable for or hidden from the writer. So it’s not just the actors’ age or physical appearance that can subvert or enhance a text. The simplest stresses on syllables or a judicious pause can invite widely varying reactions from an audience. Remember, we judge people (and audiences judge characters) by their words and actions.

I wrote in the first of this series of blogs about how the audience is NOT a passive element. It contributes to the overall creativity.  Performance is a highly complex experience and the words we write reveal character not just in what is said but in how it’s said. For example, who’s the guiltier party, Macbeth or his wife? Take this little exchange.

MACBETH: Duncan comes here to-night.
LADY MACBETH: And when goes hence?’
MACBETH: Tomorrow as he purposes.
LADY MACBETH: O, never shall sun that morrow see!

She’s guilty as hell, isn’t she?

But wait. Try reading it again and leaving a bit of a gap between ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘as’, and another before she responds. It alters the meaning. If there are gaps, there’s room for us to assume various thought processes. Macbeth’s already thinking nasty thoughts. His wife’s picking up on them.

And his ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech is a wonderful, self-contained poem, a tour de force for the actor. But far more interesting theatrically is the exchange that immediately precedes it:

MACBETH: Wherefore was that cry?
SETON: The queen, my Lord, is dead.
MACBETH: She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.

First, there’s the way Seton delivers the awful news. He doesn’t say, ‘My Lord, the queen is dead’ or ‘The queen is dead, my Lord’. The way the line is written – the broken, hesitant structure – conveys his reluctance to speak, maybe his fear of Macbeth’s reaction. Shakespeare is directing the actor by means of that structure. More intriguing, though, is Macbeth’s reaction. How does he speak the two lines? They sound cold, uncaring, but he could equally seem broken by or angry at the news. The words are wide open to interpretation.

In fact, it's possible to think of it in terms of actors actually 'freeing' or 'releasing' a text, taking it into areas beyond even the author's imaginings. A couple of years ago, there was an excellent production of Hamlet, with the prince played (superbly)  by a woman, Maxine Peake. And this month, in London's Old Vic, there's a new and critically acclaimed version of King Lear, with Glenda Jackson in the title role.

The possibilities keep on multiplying and we're just scratching the surface. Never mind, just one more next month, about the language of theatre.


julia jones said…
That's fascinating Bill. Your lit crit posts are so good, I wish I had time to engage properly and do them justice. Are they collected anywhere?
Wendy H. Jones said…
Fascinating, Bill. A real insight and I'd never thought of it in that way
Dennis Hamley said…
Julia is right. These blogs should be collected and a book made out of them. Your words about interpretations of speeches are profoundly true. I've sometimes been asked - 'When you wrote those words were you trying to say that..?' My answer - unless I actually was saying it - was always on the lines of 'I hadn't thought of it like that but if that's what you take from it then I did.' We often write far more than we know.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, both.

Julia, they're only collected in my head. I often think that indulging in lit crit is like playing computer puzzle games - looking for clues which reveal unsuspected depths and conclusions.
Sandra Horn said…
Super helpful post! Thank you, Bill. I still blush to remember burbling on about a character's persona until I saw the steely look in the director's eye. 'It looks as though I'll have to re-write my notes, then,' she said - meaning 'pipe down, you lowly writer, you're stepping out of line.'
Bill Kirton said…
More thanks for the kind words.

Dennis, the more I thought about that business of a text having meanings other than those we deliberately set out to convey, the more obvious it became that that's completely normal. Everything is in the eye of the beholder. The only thing I'd add, though, is that, for a critic, director or actor to opt for a reading different from the one the writer intended, the writer's own structures, sequences and 'meanings' need to be sound and consistent.

Yes, Sandra, it's frustrating that we provide the material without which they couldn't do their jobs and yet the writer's at the bottom of the heap. Understandable, in a way. AFter all, they're the people who have to face the public and say the words. We can just wrap ourselves around a G & T in the green room. But we can learn helluva lot from them, then do a better job on their behalf.
Susan Price said…
Presumably Shakespeare was also the bottom of the heap and when he ventured some comment on the performance of Hamlet was sternly told to go back to his ale, gratefully count his cut of the takings and improve his timing as the ghost.

Though I doubt they took the same approach with Marlowe.
Bill Kirton said…
There's a lovely collection of poems you may know of, Susan, called Archy and Mehitabel. Archy is a cockroach into whose body the soul of a vers libre bard has transmigrated. He types poems which the book's author, Don Marquis, collects and publishes. In one of them, Pete the Parrot claims he was a parrot in the Eastcheap Tavern when Shakespeare, Jonson and the rest drank there. He says Shakespeare only wanted to write sonnets but his agent kept nagging him to write plays because that's where the money was.
A very interesting post again, Bill. These have been very good and thought provoking. But after many years spent working in theatre and radio, I have to take issue with the notion that the writer is bottom of the heap. Theatre is collaborative, that's true, so I agree that you can't get 'precious' about your script. What emerges will probably be different from whatever you imagined, and if you're lucky, it will be better. But it's the director's job to discuss the script with the writer in detail beforehand and there should be a read-through with the cast to give you the opportunity to answer questions, to say what is non negotiable and then to talk to the director privately about potential problems and changes. Some directors like the writer to be there all the time, especially in radio where you may want to do rewrites on the hoof. Others are quite happy to be left to get on with it, with the writer dipping in and out, but any major changes should always be discussed.
There are some directors (I've met one or two) who try to put the writer firmly at the bottom of the heap, and some who are downright uncomfortable with living writers, but they tend to bully actors as well.
When it works best, you're right, it's hugely rewarding, and of course you do rewrites, shuffle things around, work around problems. But I would never go along with all requests for change. For example, I doubt if I would have deleted 'oh God' for the sake of an actor's religious scruples, although I have deleted all the swear words in one stage play when I was adapting it for radio. (It was of course, BBC policy not to use the F word!) But it's the director's job to defend your script. On the whole, the better and more skilled the actor the less inclined they are to quarrel with the script. Something may be demanding and lord knows I've written some stuff that - seeing actors struggling with it - I've offered to make changes - but the good ones enjoy the challenge of making it work.
These days, my considered response to a director who said they would have to rewrite their notes would be a firm but polite 'Yes, if that's what it takes.'
Jan Needle said…
My favourite line for interpretation was always Marlowe's 'My girl. My gold. My fortune. My felicity.' Pick the bones out of that one, then tell the audience what it says about Barrabbas! And what about The Fall? It went from a TV masterpiece to a complete dog's breakfast in three endless series. It was written by someone who also produced and directed it. Lunacy.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks Catherine. Perhaps putting the writer ‘at the bottom of the heap’ was clumsy. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest s/he does or should cave in easily under pressure from director or cast, but there’s a tendency among some actors (and certainly in many amateur groups) to treat the text as an approximation of what characters are saying to one another and provide their own ad libs and variations. I was also partly thinking of the sort of things William Goldman wrote about Hollywood script writers.

I agree with everything you say about how the collaboration should work and, most of the time with professionals, it is a meeting of equals. I always welcomed the chat with the director and the first read-through because, as you say, you pick up things that you can incorporate to make it a better piece.

I’ve maybe been lucky but I’ve never had to undertake any major rewrites. Nor have I had the ‘I’ll have to rewrite my notes’ whine. If I ever do, I’ll certainly steal your response.

Jan, yes, a tantalising line. It reminds me, too, that Marlowe’s at last been credited with writing some of Will’s stuff. Quite right, too. I think lots of his verse is right up there with the best. Can’t comment on The Fall, though. Perhaps strangely, I watch hardly any crime on TV, and lots of the ‘written, produced and directed by’ the same guy pieces are patently onanistic displays.
Umberto Tosi said…
A very illuminating post for this writer, who has been on stage without writers (in improv) and really appreciates what it takes to create dramatic narratives that entertain. My hat's off to playwrights and screenwriters. Definitely think about packaging these posts.
Greta said…
Such an interesting pots. I hope there's more.
Jan Needle said…
You got some pots you want washing, Greta, I'm yer man. It'll cost you though!
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks Umberto. I actually think that writing dialogue for characters in novels is one of the best ways of showing instead of telling.

Thanks Greta (and, despite what Jan says, his pot-washing rates are quite reasonable).
glitter noir said…
Marvelously done, Bill, as always,

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