Why being a director helps with being a playwright.

Oh, what a miserable delay there’s been between the last posting and this! Apologies. Thing is, I’ve been up to my lucky ears in directing a play – one of the other things I do besides writing them. In fact, I’d say, one excellent area of training as a playwright is to direct or, at least, shadow a director if you can find one willing to let you. It’s how I learnt, for example, that the last thing a director wants – or needs – are lengthy stage directions. More importantly, it’s how I learnt to ‘see’ a scene that I was writing from a director’s perspective – whether a scene was do-able; how it would sound; how it might be communicated to an audience.

The play is Federico Lorca’s ‘The House of Bernada Alba.’ It’s on at The Marlborough in Brighton from April 19th to the 25th. – tickets from: www.brownpapertickets.co.uk
Or: 0800 411 8881. The play was originally set in 1930s Spain during the rise of fascism and is seen as Lorca’s commentary on the political and social context in his country at that time. Following her husband’s death, Bernada has decreed that she and her five daughters will spend the next eight years bricked up in their home, observing the traditional course of mourning. Her daughters, hungry for experience, for life, have very different ideas.

I’ve moved the play into a Middle Eastern setting with a soundscape of the 2011 Arab Spring. In this way the daughters’ aspirations are reflected in the demands of the demonstrators, most particularly those of the women protesters.

The production is being staged by the Company I formed with three others. We’re called ‘Pretty Villain Productions’. Find us on: www.prettyvillain.com Anyway, come and see the show if you can. Tell you what, if you are in this country, and I know from your email addresses that some of you aren’t, but if you come along and afterwards can honestly say you didn’t enjoy it, I’ll give you your money back. Can I be fairer than that?

On in Mexico.

My ten-minute play, ‘Brief Encounter’ that won the ten-minute play competition at NVT in Brighton in 2010 and was then put on at a Naked Stage event at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge, has been chosen to close the Diez Minutos festival to be held in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico this coming March. It’s going to be directed by the very clever (and lovely) Christine Foster with whom I shared some coffee when she was over here in England back in December. Christine is Canadian and lives in San Miguel which has an arts community that has been growing for a number of years and has attracted artists involved in a range of different art forms from all over the world. It was a memorable meeting for all sorts of reasons: her description of San Miguel; the range of her work and the different countries in which she has lived and worked. One of the things I’ll not forget was, when we were discussing the text, she suddenly picked out a specific line – I forget which one now – telling me that ‘That’s so English. An American, for example, would never say that.’ We forget – or I forget anyway – how closely we are tied in to our culture and its linguistic forms without even knowing it. So does that mean that those writers who have a world-wide readership/audience are somehow able to transcend those cultural conventions?

‘You’ at The Courtyard (2)

The run came to an end last night. What a wonderful experience to work with two such fine professional actors, Sarah Meadows and Stephen Myott, directed by the excellent June Abbot. So many memories, one of them being the night the audience sat in silence after the actors had taken the curtain call and had to be asked to leave by the technical crew as they had to get cleared up for the following evening. Thank you to all of you who were able to get along and who texted/mailed me afterwards.

The whole process reinforced for me the notion, to which I have referred in previous blogs, that writers have to be sure to hand on their script to a director who then must hand it to the actors who then, in turn, hand it to the audience. For me, it’s the audience who, consciously or otherwise and however minimally, allow their experience of the play to affect their conversations, their understanding of others, their behaviour and this, like the ripples we get when we throw a pebble into a pond, will reach another writer and so starts the cycle all over again. So, there we go.

‘You’ at The Courtyard Theatre, London.

My big news of the month: ‘You’ is on at The Courtyard Theatre in London from October 23rd to November 3rd. You can book at: www.thecourtyard.org.uk.

There’s a full description of the play elsewhere on the site. To save you looking: Kathleen, sits waiting for the knock on the door from the man who, as a baby, she was forced to give up for adoption. The memories of that time, the people involved – some of whom she never met – fill her imagination, allowing her to tell her story. It’s a show performed by two actors who take on each of the characters. It lasts about an hour – I so hate a lengthy show, don’t you?

What a Play is For.

I’ve been away directing ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at NVT in Brighton – a big beast of a play, to be sure. So here’s just one, of many, thoughts to come out of the process. It’s about what I think a play is for and our role as creators within the process of making it. Two things: our first task as creators is to tell – to perform – the story. Ie, keep faith with the writer. Our second task is to tell the stories of the people watching by being truthful to the story– to act – and by never forgetting that duty.

In other words, I think that it is our job is to put language and form – something to hear and see – so that they can recognise either at a conscious or at an unconscious level their own lives within the lives of the characters on stage. As a director I can get as much from watching the audience as I do from watching the cast at work. And what I see, if we have done our job as story-tellers, is people ‘getting’ their own stories. Obviously it can be a fully conscious recognition: they ‘see’ a parent, a partner, themselves. At another level it is unconscious and without language; their physicality, especially their faces, ‘tell’ that sudden and powerful surge of emotion. It’s why I believe that an audience can be such a huge part of the story-telling. Imagine the experience of sitting on your own in a theatre watching a play to get a sense of what I mean by that. It’s not empathy for the character. Empathy, however closely we might feel it, still has that ‘me over here; you over there’ sense to it. It’s closer than that. It’s as close as you can get. It is recognising ourselves and that is about learning.

Writing the big moments.

Someone once said – probably correctly – that we should write from experience. Someone else said, ‘We create from the damage.’ Well, this is not a warning, more a ‘watch out’. Sometimes we can write that close to ourselves and suddenly find we’ve put language to things that have until that moment only existed for us at the level of unconscious feeling. Up it comes. It’s a big moment: bringing these things to life in a way that has them staring – and shouting – back at us from the screen; sometimes just too many voices all at once. Harnessing the power of that is when the writing takes off and it’s like taking dictation, your fingers frantically trying to keep up with what’s coming at you. Scary though.

The NWS on-line ‘Writing for Radio’ course.

I’m now into week 7 of a ‘Writing for Radio’ course run by New Writing South here in the UK with the extraordinary Anna McGrail as the course facilitator. There are about fifteen of us on the course most of whom are based here in the UK although one of the group is a writer living in New York. We get listening and writing assignments each week and, from lesson 5 onwards, we have been encouraged to start thinking about and planning our own radio play. Through the on-line forum we get helpful notes from Anna and from the rest of the group which means lots of chat and an exchange of views and ideas. The course has been so helpful because it has not only ‘forced’ me to write something each week but it has reminded me of the basic building blocks of the writing process. Part of the lesson five assignment for example was to, ‘Describe your play in one sentence.’ How’s that for getting the important stuff sorted out and put in place? So, this is not only a plug for NWS and its on-line courses, it’s also a plug for writing, for ‘turning up’ as the great Julia (The Artist’s Way) Cameron describes it. No play was ever written by an empty chair.

Pace – what makes the work, work.

Pace and changing it: two elements of writing, acting and directing that we ignore at our very real peril; and really, they’re both pretty easy to keep close by throughout the work – a touchstone, a compass. It’s what never lets an audience settle, what keeps them challenged and uncertain – breathless. If the work feels poor and you come away remembering nothing more than the ice-cream you had before you went in, then it’s probably because of the lack of pace and lack of pace change. So, take me to plays where the writing, the direction and the acting have had time devoted to the emotional speed of the work, its vocal and physical speed. And take me to work where that speed is constantly changing so that I never settle, that I stay challenged and uncertain, so that I remain breathless. Went to see ‘Crush’ at The Finborough Theatre earlier in the week, written by my dear friend Rob Young, directed by the inestimable Laura Casey. There it was: Pace, its changes slapping me around the face, demanding and demanding attention. What a treat!

School Plays

November, and if you are a drama teacher or in any way seen as the key figure in the production of ‘THE SCHOOL SHOW’, you’ll probably be up to your eyeballs right now in hours of rehearsals, asking yourself why the only person who appears to care about this whole mad exhausting thing is you; or that’s how it can feel. But think of this: ask anyone what they recall from their school days with the greatest fondness and often with a level of detail they could never bring to a recollection of other aspects of school life, and they’ll often tell you about the shows they were in.

So, here’s to having to placate a group of car-key jangling parents noisily crowding the back of an overrun rehearsal. Here’s to finding out your lead actor is suddenly facing a three-day exclusion for what occurred in yesterday’s maths lesson. Here’s to having a bad dress rehearsal and then having to put up with bright sparks on the staff who cheerily tell you that, as a result, you’re simply bound to have great first night – what do they know? And here’s to you.

Welcome to my blog!

So firstly, welcome to the site and my first Blog. What I can promise you is some considered thoughts; I simply don’t have the time to be telling folks what I had for lunch etc, etc, and I guess folks won’t have the time – or the inclination – to read it.

You may have already looked at the ‘My Stuff’ page on the site where I explain how all of this writing came about – through a perceived shortage of large-cast, challenging writing for the kids I taught to perform in. I also explain how I see myself as just one part of a creative process – a cycle really – that doesn’t stop.

What I did not explain and what strikes me as a logical extension of that cyclical process is the growing absence of stage directions in my work. I started off detailing every move, gesture, pause that the actors were intended to take in order to tell MY STORY – I saw it and heard it in my head so the stage directions were my way of guaranteeing that whoever produced my plays would recreate that internal picture.

I moved from there to becoming more interested in the rhythm of the piece. I reckoned that directors and actors would know when to sit, stand, walk across a room, sit down again. If actors were inhabiting the character, they’d simply ‘know’ what to do. So I started to litter my writing with, ‘Pause’, ‘Beat’, ‘Silence’ as a way of ensuring that everyone ‘got’ the right rhythm.

That took me to where I am now which is a note on the front of the text that suggests that directors and actors work it all out for themselves – anything that does appear as a stage direction is there merely as a suggestion. Pretty soon I intend to stop doing even that.

I just think that writers, if they really are going to be part of a process as opposed to seeing themselves as the process, should let go and trust directors and actors to ‘tell the story’ and audiences to receive and internalise it. We don’t own our stories – no one does. We simply borrow them, dress them up in different clothes and send them on their way.