Wednesday, September 26, 2007

My latest play for teenagers We Are Shadows opens at Half Moon tomorrow night. It’s an interesting diversion for me and a very different play from last year’s Locked In – a high energy ‘hip hopera’ set in the world of east London pirate radio. We Are Shadows is a much quieter, more introverted play, and it will be interesting to see how teenage audiences respond over the forthcoming tour. There is a received wisdom that writing for this age group needs to grab attention rather than coax it, so we shall see if this is true.

The play takes its name from an inscription on the Masjid Mosque on Brick Lane, which in its time has been a Huguenot Church, a Methodist chapel and a Jewish synagogue. The inscription on its sundial, Umbra Sumus, Latin for ‘We Are Shadows’ is a fitting tribute to the imprint such changes have left on the psychology and fabric of east London, and the unique inheritance bestowed on each successive generation of young east Londoners.

The play itself is a series of stylised interwoven monologues for nine characters all aged 16 or 17. This form was initially a response to a request from Half Moon’s schools, and its own youth theatre, who were struggling to find monologues for characters of this age to polish up into audition pieces for college and other drama groups. But rather than simply dash off nine unrelated speeches I wanted to use the opportunity that this form afforded to expose some of the invisible links which connect people in areas of high density living. The result is a sort of solo La Ronde (without the sex) where the actions of one character have a profound effect on the life of the following character, whether they are aware of it or not.

The theme of The Shadow running through the play was in place very early on. In thinking about this image as a metaphor I first looked up a dictionary definition, and was surprised (and pleased) to find that there are about 20 entries for ‘shadow’. There is of course the obvious patch of shade caused by a blocked light source, but it can also mean a person’s ‘dark half’ or a spectre or ghost. ‘Shadow people’ and ‘shadow demons’ appear in many of the world’s oldest mythologies. It can also mean shelter or protection - ‘seeking solace in the shadow of the church’. It can be a premonition, ‘a shadow of things to come’. It can mean an exhausted or half-dead individual, ‘a shadow of his former self’. It can mean both a repressive dominating presence in one’s life (‘he overshadows you’) and an admiring positive youngster who follows you around (‘he’s your shadow’). As an image it litters our language.

As a symbol of the psychological struggles we face in our teenage years it seemed appropriate. You only have to open the papers for another story of teenage violence, be it murders, rapes and assaults or suicide and self-harm. This isn’t the totality of being a teenager of course, but it is this visible manifestation of when things go most horribly wrong that gets the media attention. I’m not a psychologist, but it seems to me that some crucial battle is happening here, as young human beings transform from children into adults. The struggle that takes place at this age against one’s own personal darkness, of whatever form, often dictates the outcome of the rest of our lives. Sometimes we overcome our shadows and sometimes we don’t. In the play, I wanted to show examples of both.

I’m very interested in why, as a species, we tell stories. It’s interesting that so many of the stories we tell are aimed at the young. I’ve just finished reading the extraordinary book The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. It’s a truly monumental piece of work that took him 30 years to complete. It not only examines each archetypal story form in turn (Overcoming The Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth) but then moves onto a fascinating analysis of what these forms - evident across all barriers of time, geography and culture – tell us about human psychology. It’s hard to do justice to the breadth of his thinking here, but in short, he concludes that almost every ‘dark force’ in a story is in some way representative of the human ego, and its destructive effects on individuals and whole societies if left unchecked. Booker asserts that the words ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ contain the same etymological root as the word ‘heir’, and concludes ‘the hero or heroine is he or she who is born to inherit; who must grow up as fit to take on the torch of those who went before. Such is the essence of the task laid on each of us as we come into this world. That is what stories are trying to tell us.’

Facing our dark half, our Shadow or Ego, experiencing its power, and learning how to control it, is how we become fully human. We all have to go through this in one form or another before we can become fully mature and take up our place in an adult society. It is the responsibility of the existing adults in society to help their young people in this difficult process by providing safe spaces where this can take place, alongside empirical guidance and positive role models - as those who have come through it themselves and not only survived, but grown and prospered.

Theatres are one such space, and the stories we tell there are our maps for this journey. They are a humanist bible, available for study by anyone who wants to know the workings of the heart and mind of our species. Often they are cautionary tales, but just as often they are celebrations of the rewards that await those who prevail. They chart every possible outcome of this struggle, from the most triumphant to the most disastrous. We should tell them to our young people with honesty, with pride, and with love.

I hope that We Are Shadows might be one small contribution to this immense cartography of life.

7 comments:

Clive For Nothing said...

Tour?

Clive For Nothing said...

Oh yes, I've just seen the link. Sorry. I'm such an arse.

Fin said...

Yes sorry Clive. Harrow's as far north as this one goes I'm afraid.

jmc said...

Hi Fin! By a coincidence, I've just been reading (or should that be "ploughing through"?) Booker's tome. I reckon it's a highly flawed book. There might be something in the idea that there are a few basic bone structures which underlie stories (it's debatable) but Booker spoils the topic by allowing his own reactionary politics to drip through virtually every sentence in the book. According to him, the "light masculine" (supreme representative of good) is a martial warrior; the "dark feminine" is any woman who doesn't conform to the "traditional" Patriarchal view of what a woman ought to be. Lord knows where gay people fit into his world-view - in fact, he more or less says that Joe Orton deserved his death for daring to tell an alternative story. Booker rails for hundreds of pages against modernism and seems almost pathologically adverse to ambiguity and irresolution, when actually they are all we have. Any story in anything like a realist mode (and I use the term very loosely) which did not leave at least some ambiguity at the end would certainly be a very BAD story...

The worst thing is, Booker doesn't seem to have closely read, let alone understood, most of the books and plays he references. He misrepresents nearly every work he talks about, trying to chop and condense and reduce it to the bare bones of its plot. He attributes quotes to the wrong people, when he even bothers to attribute anything at all.

I am not saying Booker is totally wrong - Blake read stories in a comparable way but with an entirely different emphasis. Crucially, Blake didn't peddle the kind of pop-psychology that is at the basis of Booker's take on things. Booker seems to be suggesting that it is entirely within the power of individuals to create a balance in their lives, and that stories should illustrate the inner process of them coming to this balance (or show them being punished for not achieving it). This is an extraordinarily naive take on life, which is a complex matrix of the external and the internal, and in which there are no pure, good, balanced people who, if they could exist, would be in any case insufferably boring and lacking in energy & creativity.

Booker is ultimately relying on a very poor Jungian model of human life which - far from affirming the ability of writers of stories to tell us the truth about our situation, actually limits it. Booker, it should be noted, is not a creative writer at all. I wish he would publish some fiction or play based on his theories - it would inevitably be as piss-poor as those US formula screenplays which take the bare bones of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey and churn out monument after monument to consumerist conformity.

In the end, all human lives are concerned with desire - so goals and the quest for them - with balancing individual with social life, with finding that some people are for you and some against you, that some things you want are healthy for you and some are now. All stories are, of course, concerned with this...

Fin said...

Hi JMC. Yes I'm aware of the books flaws and read several reviews online pointing them out. I'm not enough of an expert in 'the canon' to pull him up on his representation of many of the stories and quotes, but the second half of the book is better i think, where he gets onto why the urge to tell stories evolved in our species, which is a valid question. I accept that his is a limited world view, and I did start the book with some trepidation - after all, if i really did believe there were only 7 basic plots in the world i'd probably give up doing what i do. But its an interesting theory to consider, even if only to kick against. For example, I've found his analysis of the 5 act structure in Tragedy particularly helpful in storylining my modern Jacobean play which I've been working on recently. This wasn't because i followed it as a map - indeed I recently went on a BBC training scheme where they banged on about 5 acts for so long it totally stultified and stymied all my creative instincts and took the life out of the story. (I agree there's also an issue about the hegemonic morality inherent in such a structure). But i found it a useful exercise to follow the 'map' for 3 acts and then try and de-rail and subvert it in the final two - indeed the original Jacobeans do this all the time as nothing is ever resolved, the world usually collapses around everyone's ears at the end, and the good end up fucked and the bad retain power.

And i know Jung's outdated too but i can't help but recognise the Ego (or whatever you want to call it) as an essential and endlessly fascinating human quirk (or curse) - at the same time the source of our immense ingenuity but also of our own destruction (see technology v climate change). I certainly recognise having struggled with it within my own life and see the same happening in some of the more troubled young people i teach. I read a brillaint academic paper recently by Tim Prentki at Winchester University talking about the character of The Trickster in mythology, as a mischevious monkey-like intelligence that in some contexts appears as an innocent child and in others as Satan. So there's certainly something there in linking storytelling and psychology.

Anyway, I'm running late for a meeting now you bastard.

Sal said...

Fin, I'd love to see "We Are Shadows" - any chance of it coming north? Are you in touch with Pilot Theatre Company at all? They do lots of "youth" stuff and are Yorkshire based, they might be interested. I'm sure there would be other companies based up here that would be interested too - if you want someone to do a bit of northern legwork for you, let me know!

Fin said...

Hi Sal,

No northern plans for this tour I'm afraid, it's more low key than last year. For it to head anywhere else at this late stage a large-ish venue would have to grease Half Moon's palm as it would have to financially viable for them to extend the tour and pay everyone involved - not insignificant costs, plus there's venue programming/marketing issues and the actors' availability... Months of planning are usually needed.

I've heard of Pilot but I'm not in touch with them personally. My impression is though that companies like this would rather develop their own work than buy in another company's.

But if you'd like to see the script email me privately and i can send it to you.