Saturday, June 30, 2007

I was once told by someone (I forget who now, but they seemed authoritative at the time) that David Hare once observed a fundamental difference between British and American playwrighting styles. Hare posited that Americans write plays from ‘the inside out’ whereas the British tradition tends to write from ‘the outside in’. What he meant by this is that the Americans begin with character groupings – families, workplaces, friendship groups – and tell their personal stories, allowing any issues or themes to emerge organically from those stories. The British (and certainly Hare himself, and many of his generation) by contrast largely start with the theme – postcolonialism, female emancipation, the state of the judiciary – and then populate the drama with the characters best placed to explore this theme.

Now I don’t want to get sidetracked in a big comments box discussion pointing out all the exceptions to this broad rule of thumb, because whether it’s true or not of those particular countries and their playwrighting traditions is irrelevant. It’s the distinction itself that has always interested me, as it does seem to encapsulate two very distinct approaches to playwrighting and play commissioning with which I myself struggle.

There are advantages and drawbacks to each approach, of course. At their worst, plays written from the ‘inside out’ can avoid hitting on any interesting issues at all, even accidentally, and can turn out to be narcissistic affairs about the writer’s immediate circle of friends, without any insight to offer about anything much at all. But they may also be great examples of writing psychologically watertight characters, with all the messy urges, contradictions, and nuances of fear and longing that characterise the human condition.

‘Outside in’ plays at their best can be political epics of Homerian scope and Shakespearean complexity, offering devastating critiques of the world around us and the forces at work in it. But at their worst they offer weak one-dimensional characters, who act as mere ciphers for the playwright’s transparent agenda, parroting ideology uninformed by human complexity or heart.

There are fine (and terrible) examples of both, from both sides of the Atlantic.

My natural tendency when thinking of new ideas is to use the ‘outside in’ approach. It's not a choice, it's just how I work. Characters in plays very rarely occur to me as the initial seed. When I’m sitting in those meetings casting around for an exciting way to sum up a play idea that is at that stage a mere feeling in my guts, I never start ‘Well, it’s about this guy whose marriage breaks up …’ Instead I usually try to sum up something at the heart of the idea that I feel is far more important than the mere people involved. ‘Well, it’s about what happens when you unleash market forces into the public sector…’ or ‘Well, it’s about whether choosing to remove oneself from society is the ultimate pursuit of freedom or the ultimate death wish’ or ‘Well, it’s about the logical effects of consumerism and where humanity as a species is likely to be in fifty years time.’

You can see commissioners eyes glaze over. Sometimes they’ll lie and say ‘Hmm, sounds interesting’ then just not call. Other times they’ll gently reveal their subtext ‘Do you think this could be done with a lighter touch?’. Occasionally they’ll come right out with it: ‘No-one wants to think about that, it’s too depressing. How To Disappear was really funny, can't you do something like that again?’.

Actually, How To Disappear was bleak as fuck. It’s just that I know how to make bleak subjects entertaining, because I work hard at my craft and I know what I’m fucking doing. I just can’t tell you prior to the first draft all about my main character’s love life, favourite food, happiest memory and the colour of his garage door. But I know I’m onto something important with what the play’s really about. I just need you to take a small leap of faith and commission that draft so that I will have a roof over my head while I show you how it will work. Trust that I will pull it off - I’ve done this before.

Commissioning from the inside out drives outside in writers up the fucking wall. Does anyone else have this problem? What's to be done?


olly emanuel said...

Fin, I had a similar experience but with the terms 'micro' and 'macro'. A 'micro' play is apparently a play where the characters talk about themselves and nothing beyond it; a 'macro' play is a play where the characters talk about BIG issues. So David Hare, to take your example, is a 'macro' writer because his characters talk about trains and government policy; whereas Gary Owen, in Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco to take one, is a 'micro' writer. Personally, the distinctions are purely from a Literary Manager's point of view, a way of giving posh words to the idea of a BIG play as opposed to a SMALL play (whatever that is). Therefore, it is only possible to get a commission for a play that is perhaps 'macro' while seeming 'micro'. For me, these distinctions are utterly facile, it's always the characters and the story that come first - I suppose I count as an inside out writer by your terms - and the themes take care of themselves. But the goal of any writer, no, of any writing culture which wishes to produce more than one kind of writer, is to allow for both. The problem always comes with dogma, when people say 'a play should be like this or that'. Literary departments are of course free to commission as they wish but they should understand from the writers' point of view that strict adherence to a 'method' or an 'approach' is useless and always leads to dead writing.

David Eldridge said...

I'm sorry but I just think that's wrong to imply Fin.

In my experience theatre's are just interested in ideas they think are good or ideas that might fit in with an area that they want to explore.

It doesn't matter whether you're the kind of playwright to start with the characters, a thesis, a blank page or a worked out story or form theatre's are only interested in things that sound interesting to them at that point in time.

Actually I'm amazed that you claim that having a big subject is a block to a commission. Actually since theatre's interfere much more than they have historically - a discussion of what your subject is, is much more important now than it was, even a dozen years ago when I started.

I'm more of an inside out writer as a way of beginning than the other way round (though I have written in that outside in way) and my preference is actually to let the big ideas find me via the the journey the characters go on.

When the NT wanted to commission me four years ago I said it had to be on an open basis (e.g I don't know what it will be yet but you can have a play) as that's how I like to work - but the offer was withdrawn initially as they wanted to know what subject and kind of play I'd write would be.

I couldn't honestly say but I told them I had half an idea to write for Sheila Hancock and that sounded intesting enough to commission me.

But I'm also amazed no one will commission a play from you - esepcially on the basis of a talented play like How to Disappear. It's despressing that any talented playwright will get a knock back.

It is true that theatre's commission much less, if at all, on the basis of trust, previous form and talent. But I don't think it's accurate to say that just one type is discriminated against.

Actually if anything it's Robert Holman's that are hard done by - the writer's that have the balls like David Storey to start with a blank page. Who will commission them in this current climate?

We should talk about this when we have a beer. If I ran a theatre I wouldn't be especially interested in your pitch about consumerism - as the David Hare approach isn't to my taste - but nevertheless on the basis of your previous play I would commission your next play on the basis of your talent.

This is the real issue in commissioning I believe.

Anyone fancy giving me a job? ;-)

Fin said...

Ok there's several points here.

Firstly, I'm not confining this to theatres. In fact I've had more meetings with TV, radio and film people lately, where much the same approach prevails, if not worse. (In fact one good outcome of these meetings has been to make me appreciate just how much relative freedom theatre writers have). Either way I'm just reporting back how I've found these meetings to have gone. Other writers may well have got on differently, which is why I wanted to ask the question. In fact, I get the impression that most writers are 'inside out' writers and that I'm a bit of an anomaly.

Each of the examples that I gave were from plays I've either written or am currently working on. The first two, 'market forces in the public sector' and 'removing oneself from society' were my first and second plays (PROTECTION and HOW TO DISAPPEAR respectively). PROTECTION was developed in a bubble as part of my MA at Goldsmiths and so was in a very complete fifth draft state by the time I showed it to Soho Theatre. I am certain they would never have commissioned it if I'd taken it to them as a concept. Audiences are perceived to hate social workers even more that they hate moaning leftie plays about the public sector. It took a year of hard work to make the idea appealing, but i always knew it was.

The second, HOW TO DISAPPEAR, the same theatre company were completely bewildered by. They paid a certain lip service to 'developing' it (more out of a vague sense of duty to me as their writer-in-residence at the time than any real interest in the idea - they never paid me a fee) before turning it down at fourth draft stage - the draft that went on to win the award. I've talked at length elsewhere about how this chain of events almost ended my career.

The third idea, about consumerism, is an area of current investigation for my modern Jacobean play which I'm developing with Liquid Theatre - a maverick independent company lucky enough to have been awarded a substantial amount of ACE money, precisely because they have taken a conceptual approach to developing an unusual idea. I can't think of a single mainstream producing house that would take a punt on this one.

I have another idea currently entitled ENTROPOLIS. It's about entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, and how it affects a city. I've given up even talking about it to people. It's one for the back burner, when I'm senior enough to be trusted to do it properly.

Although all these ideas were eventually (or will be) fully rounded plays with watertight characters replete with back stories and motivations, none of them started life that way. In some cases the character and story were a long time coming. For me, *what* the play is about is always more important than *who* it's about, at least at first. But the people in the 'gatekeeper' positions (in whatever dramatic medium) seem almost entirely character-led in their approach, and turned off by ideas that don't have those characters in place, and in some considerable detail, from the outset.

Despite it's road-movie-esque narrative and Edmund-style central character, I would argue that HOW TO DISAPPEAR is not a character-led play. We don't really find out anything about Charlie. He's an empty shell by the time we meet him - that's the point. He's entirely passive for the first half of the play as events wash over him. The play is not about Charlie Hunt, it's about the concept of Identity. I'm fairly certain that's the main reason why it spent such a long time out in the cold.

I'm not saying that theatres aren't interested in plays about big ideas. Once the play is finished they're often delighted to find one that has something more to say than usual. But over the years I have noticed a distinct inability amongst gatekeepers to imagine what a writer means when they describe an abstract idea. This is compounded by a lack trust that this writer will do a good job, even if the commissioner doesn't quite get where they're coming from just yet. The onus is always on the writer to go away and write several drafts in their own time, for no money, until they can come back and plonk a decently-realised version down on someone's desk and say: 'Like that'. *Then* you get paid (or not, as the case may be).

For me, this turns playwriting into a speculative activity - ploughing one's own time and money into creating something with no guaranteed payoff at the end. It's difficult to plan a life on this basis.

I'd like to think it gets easier as your profile increases. I hope so. Not being trusted to do what you know you do well isn't a very nice feeling.

AcidDrip said...

I assume that just as for us Actors, it will indeed get easier as ( or IF!!) our profiles increase. "It is not a nice feeling not to be trusted to do what you know you can do well".. but it has to be down to supply and demand.. if there was only One Playwright in each city you would have your pick of the great jobs... obviously just as in the Actor World this is not the case... everyone thinks they would like to be an Actor so the rate of competition must be even more brutal than for the Playwright? I guess that the most persistent wins out in the end.. not the most talented? (ps thanks for your advice before Fin as I got my competition listed with bbc writers room!)

Ellie Jones said...

Oh Fin, I wish I ran a theatre... I would commission your outside-in ideas at every opportunity. Please dont write us all off yet... Sometimes we just don't understand unless we can see someone like ourselves to relate to.

David Eldridge said...

Yes, but that's exactly the problem isn't it Ellie?

I'm sorry I mised your production of Fin's play - which I hear was rather wonderful.

Ellie Jones said...

It may be... but I think it's more complicated than that... Fin's right that How to Disappear is about the concept of identity but I can't direct a concept and actors certainly can't play it.

I also disagree with him (sorry Fin) that it's not character led - Charlie's not passive - he makes choices all the time, even if sometimes those choices are to do nothing or to run away. We understand from his actions what kind of a man he is and we see that in ourselves. SO many people talked to me afterwards about feeling like Charlie... they relate to his search for identity because they see themselves in him. I believe we "get" them because they are emotionally involved in his story rather than intellectually involved in a concept. Or at least that's the kind of theatre I hope to create. The consideration of the concept has to come after the emotional experience for me.

I totally believe in theatre being about big ideas AND wonderful characters that allow me in to their lives....

It seems that the question of trust and faith in the writer to do both is a bigger issue... If I could, I would commission Fin tomorrow, but then I've seen how his work affects an audience and I've had a joyous time working alongside him on a personal level... If I was running a theatre and only had seven or so slots to programme I suspect I would be more cautious about a writer I knew less well.

Thank you for your nice words about the production, David, I was lucky enough to have a brilliant script to work with and a hugely talented cast.