Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Honestly, will you people not let me relax? I'd just laid out my towel for a well-earned sunbathe when all these comments come flooding in requiring me to explain my self-censorship. Well, so be it. If this is the beginning of another two years out of work then I'll hold you all personally responsible. My site stats tell me where you live, you know ...

David, bless you for your concern. Whilst that row back in January (no I'm not going to link it) did of course make me sit up and take notice, it isn't the main reason for my current gloom. However, what it did do is make me realise that people actually read this stuff, and that there's no reason why I shouldn't take every care to formulate my thoughts here just as carefully as I would if I was writing in the pages of a national paper (not that I'm flattering my humble stats but you take my point; this is a public arena and I'm no less accountable, or exposed). And I have had some very positive social encounters with a number of writers and others in our biz since then that make me grateful to be involved in it, and glad to have colleagues (in the broadest sense) who are so interested in ideas, zeitgests and debates about proper intelligent stuff.

But it just puzzles and exasperates me that this is so rarely translated into our theatrical output. I honestly don't know why this is, but it drives me mad. Maybe I'm just not seeing enough stuff. Maybe my standards are too high. Whenever I start a new playwrighting class, I usually give the following little speech to my students (so long as they're adults and above a certain level of competence). I may have said something similar here in the past, but here it is again:

"When considering what it is that you want to write about, look for the nuggets of originality at all times. The hardest question I have ever been asked about my own work, and the question I now ask of all plays I see or read is: Why are you telling me this? What is so pressing about what you have to say that you have devoted 3, 4 or 5 months of your life to getting it down on paper, probably for no pay? In theatre you have a far more demanding contract with your audience than in any other art form. Why does the story you have to tell justify £20 of my hard-earned money, me giving up my evening, running the gauntlet of British weather and public transport, then sitting in the dark without talking for two hours or more, then risking my life making my way home in the dark? Not to mention the thousands of pounds and man-hours it will cost to produce. What you have to say has to be pretty damn devastating. When I come out of that theatre after seeing your show, I want to be totally blown away. I want to go out into the night saying FUCK! I had no idea that went on!!! Or, I had never thought of it that way before!!! The trick is to shine a light into hitherto uncharted areas of human experience. Or, if it is a subject that has been done before (which is most of them) then what is the totally unique angle that you are going to bring to it? Nothing less justifies my time and money - especially if you are writing in the subsidised sector and your commission fee is made up of this nation's taxes. Go out, meet the people who have lived through the experiences of your play, interview them, read about them, hang around where they hang around, immerse yourself in their world and lives. You are panning for gold. Find the nuggets of originality. You will know them when you find them by the bolt of pure excitement they send through your guts. Gather them together, wash off the crap, and polish them till you can see your own face in their reflection. Only then can you start writing your play."

I'm sure my comments box will fill up with all kinds of objections to this doctrine, but frankly, I don't really care. In a nutshell, as an audience member, that's what I expect of playwrights who are being professionally produced. And recently, I ain't been getting it. And at a time when our industry is under threat from Olympic idiocy, it depresses me hugely.

Why can't every play be fucking great? I don't think that's too much to ask.

I don't want to slag off theatre. But when you have friends who aren't involved in it, who used to go a lot, but who now say they won't bother again because they've been stung once too often after a hard day in the office with dire, dull, overpriced shows (which sometimes you have erroneously taken them to see after reading some promising blurb) - when you can physically see your audience drifting away before your very eyes and you can't blame them ... well, that does rather affect my mood. Especially when a certain loyalty to my own profession prevents me from letting rip about it here.

I read a lot of apocalyptic books about global warming and peak oil. I am utterly convinced that as a species we are going to hell in a handcart. And what's more, we'll have been such ignorant selfish brats that we'll deserve everything we get. But I don't see that reflected in our theatre. We still have a plethora of plays looking at boy-girl relationships and other minor domestic upsets. Where is the rage? Where is the terror? Where is the passion that should be unleashed by fact that we are now living through the beginning of the end of the human species? We're fiddling while Rome burns!

I'm not saying that all plays should be about global warming. Just that in the light of this extraordinary, unprecedented sword of Damocles hanging over every one of us (not to mention geopolitical complications) there's increasingly little excuse for navel-gazing plays about nothing much at all. Theatre, like the rest of the world, needs to get some perspective.

I don't entirely blame writers. As ever, it's what gets commissioned that gets through. And I have indeed tried and failed to get plays and screenplays commissioned on these very subjects. But that just adds to my sense of despair about the whole industry. I don't want to spend my life as some outsider peddling doom-laden but unfortunately truthful dramas that aren't deemed 'entertaining' enough to commission. In fact, part of the problem is that despite my recent successes I'm still not deemed skilled enough to make plays about Big Ideas suitably engaging and accessible.

I suppose I just want to be trusted enough to get to write what I think is important, and to be supported enough throughout the process to make a good job of it. Writing is the only means I have at my disposal to actually affect the things that I know we have coming to us. Without it, I'm impotent. And that makes me unhappy.

Anyway, enough. I have a towel on the balcony and an increasingly hot sun calling my name.

Oh, it's stared raining.


Statler said...

This post really gave me something to think about tonight. I genuinely love what you are saying, your higher aims for theatre and writing, your passion for wanting to make a difference and the standards you hold yourself and others to.

But I'm also left feeling disappointed in how shallow my own aims (and likely many others) are when it comes to my theatregoing. Yes I love to be challenged with a "big idea" once in a while but my main wish when seeing a production is to be *entertained*. That's what I want for my £10 (things are fortunately cheaper up here), and if I have my beliefs challenged that's an added bonus.

Of course "entertainment" is very subjective but for me usually comes down to one of two things - clever/witty dialogue or stylish structure/direction. Sometimes it can combine with a powerful moment of surprise that really makes my spine tingle - most recently watching a student adapted version of "Lysistrata" where the cast burst into John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance".

I sadly don't have the writers depth of knowledge to give examples of playwrights who really hit me hard - although I adore Shaw's "Saint Joan" and loved the style of David Greig's "Yellow Moon". I have to resort to writing for television to adequately describe what entertains me - teh dialogue of "Frasier", the emotional power and wit of Steven Moffat ("Press Gang"/"Doctor Who") and Joss Whedon's ability to have snappy dialogue in the most gut-wrenching moments.

I appreciate this probably makes me a poor theatregoer, but I also believe it makes me representative of the vast majority of theatregoers who have little interest in being challenged or stimulated, and unless that changes the market for challenging plays will be restricted.

And after writing that I'm not sure which of the two of us will be more depressed...

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Fin, David Eldridge just referred me to your January spat to illustrate his own recent tightening up of his blog - I'll have a proper hoke for it soon.

Anyway, as to this entry, I know what you mean. As a critic (and prepared to admit to it even here), I keep asking the same question as the little girl watching the State Opening of Parliament and seeing the Lord Chamberlain, in all his finery, walking backwards before the monarch: "Daddy, what's that man FOR?" And I ask it of plays. And entertainment is fine as a "for", Statler (you also get bonus points for singing the praises of Joss Whedon) - you just go on to weigh it up in the particular case. Spalding Gray used to ask people during his shows, "What makes this evening unlike any other?" - the corresponding question here would be "What makes you want to tell this story and not any other?"

Sometimes, especially with young writers, the "for" of a play is summed up in the generic title I once heard bandied around at a student festival: "Feel My Pain". Yes, all right, you are the crisis in masculinity and I claim my £5. Then, rapidly, to quote one of Joss Whedon's characters, "Bored now."

The most pernicious kind of all, really - and not the sort that ever really afflicts writers like yourself or David - is the solo-show syndrome, where "feel my pain" blends with "look, I can do all these different characters at the drop of a hat" - therapy as showcase, or vice versa.

But sometimes it becomes communal rather than individual therapy: yes, there are loads of pressing issues that we really ought to be paying attention to, but we ought to be doing it to some real end. I remember the Tricycle's evening of Darfur plays pissed me off no end, because it seemed to me that their real purpose was not to protest at the world's conduct, certainly not to effect any kind of change or improvement, but rather to console each other by sharing our decorous liberal guilt about it all.

And it's late, and I remembered where I put the Bushmills. Sorry - I've lost track of what this somment is for.

Anonymous said...

I am very used like yourself in seeing shows that are disappointing and work sometimes in a profession where I have no choice but 2 watch them sometimes 50 times. I have stopped looking for shows as a whole which are brilliant and am now happy to content myself with performances which are brilliant. Performances which promote understanding and compassion. You speak of anger and rage but people are surronding by this everyday they have no choice but to deal with it 24/7. For my money I enjoy shows where there are performances which are 3 demensional and give insight and understanding to other human beings and are done intelligently ,sensitively and compassionately. I believe you have under-rated subtlety. Why kill with a bomb when you can say one word and make the whole world dissolve.

olly emanuel said...

Re: commissioning. I've just had the rather strange experience of having had a play produced by a theatre that was commissioned and written over two years ago. Now I know, from other writers and friends, that this is not at all unusual and that often a work will 'join the queue' at a lot of theatres before it is eventually put on. What is interesting to me therefore, (as this was my first commission for a main stage) is the long journey that writer and play have to go on, keeping faith with one another through development, workshops, readings etc before a member of the public even get a look in. And before I sound like I'm moaning about the theatre culture blah blah, what is vital re:your post is that you, as a writer, are able to live with this play for all this time. What I think it requires is an absolute devotion to your subject and characters as well as an ability to KBO (keep buggering on). So what's the point in writing about your ex-girlfriend or your difficult first dinner party (I'm not kidding, I've seen it)? Tackling the big subjects, as Fin suggests, and finding your own unique angle is the only way to stand beside your play in two years time and say : 'This is what I reckon about stuff. Enjoy'. And if you're fortunate enough to be Michael Frayn or someone, you might have to stand by it in thirty years too.

Fin said...

Thanks for these thoughts everyone. I was going to get into a debate about some of them, but to be honest I'm too busy and I'll be late on a commission if i do. Sorry. I might come back to them in another post some other time.

Anonymous said...

The issue with global warming plays and political plays and such is that they often come across as didactic, which takes away from the drama. Unless you want to preach to the choir, give me some drama.

I've chosen to deal with race in some of my plays, and I'm trying my best to make even the heavies 3-dimensional. Not sure if I'll succeed.