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?

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.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ha! Not 90 minutes after the post below and I have just had an excitable email from Poland about said show...

Honestly, this fucking business. It's enough to give you manic depression.
I'm not feeling especially bloggy at the moment.

It's partly that I'm still busy finishing a number of different writing and teaching jobs. It's partly that it's been a long year and I'm ready for a holiday. But I think it's also that I'm feeling a bit restricted in what I can and can't talk about.

I've seen a string of duff shows lately, ranging from mediocre to appalling. But I can't discuss them. After dipping my toe into these waters last time and getting a nasty nip, I got some sage advice from trusted quarters that those in the business of producing art shouldn't criticise it. It's not that we're incapable, or that morally we should avoid doing so, or that we have an unspoken oath of solidarity towards our colleagues (though there may be something in this). It's more that when deconstructing other's work and finding fault with it, there's no getting away from the awful unavoidable subtext that you are somehow saying: I can do this better than them, I don't make these mistakes.

Even when you're not.

So I have given up theatre criticism, at least until I see something good (recommendations welcome). And anyway, there are bloggers out there doing a far more intelligent job of assessing the nation's dramatic output than I could ever be bothered to.

I could blog about how, for a variety of diplomatically-sensitive reasons I again can't discuss, a certain well-known play of mine now looks exceedingly unlikely to make it to London. But a foot wrong in that minefield could finally finish off a career that's already been brought back from the brink once too often for my liking. (And that's a howl of frustration directed southwards rather than northwards, for anyone from the fine city of Sheffield reading).

I could blog about the whole depressing Olympics situation but (apart from the fact that this has been done to death in the blogosphere of late) after my initial burst of rage-fuelled letter-writing I've become rather defeatist about the whole thing. Apart from a dismissive email from my MP, and an incoherent statistic-strewn letter from one of Tessa Jowell's minions, the net result of my missives has been a resounding bugger all. David Lammy, Gordon Brown and Peter Hewitt have all ignored me, and I'm not really a joiner in the shouty protesty let's-have-an-arts- sports-day sense (though I wish them all the best.) The blogs and mailing lists and meetings all rail about how 'We must let them know they can't get away with this', but the depressing truth is that of course they can. They're the government. They can do what they like. If they can go to war with millions of people protesting against it they can sure as hell nick some cash from us and bulldoze half of east London for their pointless corporate javelin chuckathon.

So I might take a bit of a break from blogging for a while, and try and catch some sun. Chances are that now I've said this publicly, something extraordinarily dramatic will happen and I'll be back in 24 hours to eat my words and tell you all about it. Then again, it might not.

See you on the other side.