Friday, October 28, 2011

At this time of year, I am busy teaching on the Masters degree in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College. The following is a handout I put together for this year's students, elaborating on a theory I often muse about in class, and occasionally on this blog. It's the first time I've written it down though, so I though I'd share it with you here. As always, anonymous abuse can be left at your leisure in the comments box.

“Nuggets of Originality”
What they are and why good plays need them

A Theory: by Fin Kennedy

It is my belief that the best plays contain what I term “nuggets of originality”; that is, moments, ideas or even entire theses about aspects of human experience which contribute something new to the canon of thinking surrounding that subject. This is what gives great plays a ‘quality of mind’ that makes them stand out from the crowd and which, together with skilled theatricality, makes for the most satisfying experience for theatre audiences.

These ‘nuggets’ can take many forms. At their simplest, they might be a simple observation or witticism that one character makes to another, which encapsulates a truth about the subject in hand. Oscar Wilde is perhaps most famous for these:

“When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”
- An Ideal Husband, Act III

Sometimes, nuggets might lead writers to locate their plays in unusual places, and take their audience to a world normally hidden from public view, or previously unrepresented on stage. Consider the metaphorical thought that has gone into Shan Khan’s choice of location in Prayer Room (EIF/Birmingham Rep, 2005):

From the back cover of the play text:

There was a place where the Christians and the Muslims existed in relative peace. Everyone was more or less happy, except for the Jews – who were few and had to be thankful to their Christian overlords for the little space they were accorded. Then one day more Jews came, and it soon became apparent to them that they’d need their own space – but at the Muslims’ expense. The Muslims of course are fuming. The Jews feel they’re perfectly within their rights. And the Christians are trying to take a back seat and let the other two share the blame.

This place is a multi-faith prayer room in a British college.

However, nuggets might embed themselves even more deeply. They might be a theory which runs throughout a play, like a word through a stick of rock, and which in hindsight turns out to explain much of the play’s events, indeed perhaps even illuminating something about the human condition. Consider the closing speech of Lucy Prebble’s Enron (Headlong, 2009):

The huge crack along the wall of the building glows from behind and becomes the jagged line graph of the Dow Jones Index over the last century.

Skilling (to us) There’s your mirror. Every dip, every crash, every bubble that’s burst, that’s you. Your brilliant stupidity. This one gave us the railroads. This one the internet. This one the slave trade. And if you wanna do anything about saving the environment or getting to other worlds, you’ll need a bubble for that too … All humanity is here. There’s Greed, there’s Fear, Joy, Faith, Hope. And the greatest of these – is Money.

Nuggets of originality can also give birth to unusual character types, inhabiting contradictory or unexpected combinations of qualities, or representing on stage certain types of people for the first time. Consider Dr Diane Cassell, the climate change scientist in Richard Bean’s The Heretic (Royal Court, 2010), whose research leads her to question whether global warming is happening:

Diane I’m a scientist. I don’t ‘believe’ in anything.

Or Zain, the young, gay Muslim party animal from Alia Bano's Shades (Royal Court, 2009):

Zain Technically, the Qur’an says nothing about having a few Es.

Nuggets might go deeper, and influence the way in which an entire storyline plays itself out. Consider the idea in Mike Bartlett’s Artefacts (Bush, 2009), in which Iraqi father Ibrahim decides not to pay the ransom for his daughter being held hostage, to the horror of his wife and British daughter from a previous marriage, Kelly:

Kelly That’s what fathers do. Dad. That’s what they do. They look after their own.

Ibrahim Maybe your fathers do that. But important men, better men, look after everyone. They look after their country. They stick to what they believe.

In this way, an abstract political ideal manifests itself in the real world as a tangible action in the plot. In going against every natural parental instinct, it makes us question whether one’s country or one’s children are more important in the long run – and whether there are cultural differences here that inform the answer.

Fully embedded ‘nuggets’ such as these have evolved beyond mere nuggets, into fully formed theses. Sometimes, they even go so far as to break the laws of time, space and physical possibility to make their point. Consider the characters of Catalina and Joris in The TEAM’s Mission Drift (Traverse Theatre, 2011); two teenage Dutch settlers to America who do not age throughout the play’s entire 400 year span. Eventually, we come to understand that the couple are a living, breathing manifestation of the young, thrusting spirit of American capitalism itself:

Catalina (drunk, slamming the bar) How bout a round for all these poor souls?! May not look like it, but I own all this. THIS IS mine. This glass – the ice in this glass – the bartender who pours it, the bottle, the bar, who carved it, who painted it – I own you, these people, the money in their pockets their clothes their shoes how much they’re all worth – I decide.

What all this is really about is the playwright taking a view on the subject they are writing about, as an original thinker.

Where do these nuggets come from?
In a research-led process they can come from a writer’s reading, meetings and site visits around the subject they are investigating. Experts in a field or academic thinkers can often come up with uniquely original insights which might elude the lay person. These can be ‘harvested’ and woven into a play text to provide moments of lucidity, insight, revelation or plot twists.

More satisfying is for writers to use all this as inspiration, and rather than just harvesting magpie-style the glittering ideas from their research, to actually come up with their own original angle on the subject matter.

But their most sophisticated use involves not merely having characters regurgitate original thought dreamed up by oneself or by others. It is in fact when the playwright deploys her own creativity to use put such insights into the service of an artistic vision. At its best, theatre is a crucible of new ideas at the forefront of its society, and playwrights theatrical philosophers. Plays that achieve timelessness do so because they capture something fundamentally true about their society, or about the human heart, yet manage also to newly or freshly articulate that. They run that truth throughout the play like DNA through a body – informing character arcs, plots, subplots, locations - taking many forms but essentially echoing something fundamental.

It is at times like this when theatre burns brightest, and when it becomes indispensable to our species - because it advances our understanding of the world, and of ourselves.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Amateur Theatre in the Age of Austerity

I've been rather busy lately, hence the absence. I'll do a proper update with news some other time, but here is something to keep you occupied in the meantime. Over the summer, I did an interview with Stage Talk TV, the cable channel aimed at the Amateur Theatre sector. My publisher Nick Hern Books arranged it, because it turns out my play How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found is in their Top Ten most licensed plays for amateur performance, which is great. A bit surprising, but great.

Those of you who are sick of hearing about How To Disappear might want to stop reading at this point. To be honest, I'm a little bit sick of it myself. But it sort of won't leave me alone. I'm called on to talk about it in various guises, because it continues to have the most extraordinary afterlife. Its popularity with student and amateur groups is just the latest.

Anyway, I had intended to do a longer blog about what I think the enduring appeal of the play is, including some interviews with some of the amateur companies who continue to stage it. I will do that at some point, but I don't have time at the moment (with apologies to those of you who were kind enough to answer my questions - perhaps I will do something for the play's five year anniversary next year.)

Instead, here is a piece Stage Talk asked me to write, a message to the Stage Talk community. They asked me to write something to accompany the episode. I sent it to them and then I don't think they put it up. Or if they did I can't find it. Maybe it was a bit too long. Or too political. Or maybe they just thought it was rubbish. You can be the judge of that, and leave some anonymous abuse in the comments section if you like.

You can also watch the episode of Stage Talk in which they interview me here (scroll down to Episode 5). It is an hour long though, and I only feature for 8 minutes of it. But I found it interesting to see what else is going on in the amateur theatre sector, which is apparently bucking the recession and as lively as ever. That's great news for writers. (In fact, one of my other projects seeks to capitalise on that, of which more news another time.)

Of course, if you're too busy to watch an hour-long missive from the UK's amateur sector, then Nick Hern Books helpfully cut and pasted my section into their YouTube channel, and you can watch that here. It would be very naughty to do that though. You really should watch the whole thing.

Anyway, here is my mysteriously unpublished statement to the Stage Talk community. I hope some of them find it and read it here.

A note for the Stage Talk community from Fin Kennedy

Thanks to everyone in the Stage Talk community who has staged my plays or is thinking of doing so. It’s really heartening to see the work having such an active life after its professional premieres. It’s a strange feeling seeing worlds, characters and ideas that once existed only in your head go out there and take on a life of their own in the wider world. There is a line in my most well-known play, How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found, about the lead character Charlie, and what will happen to his old identity once he has cast it off and become someone else. A mentor figure, Mike, says to him: “Charlie will always be out there somewhere. Wandering the world. Alone.” The idea is that ‘Charlie’ as an identity will somehow cut the moorings to the physical body he was once attached to, and floats off into the ether, like a ghost.

I think about that sometimes when I get emails from groups producing this play, sending links to images of different Charlies in all his various incarnations. Charlie certainly isn’t alone any more, in fact there seems to be a whole army of him. The idea of ‘Charlie’ – and indeed the whole play he is a part of – has taken on a life of its own, beyond the writer who first invented him. That character, that play, and all the ideas within it, are in the theatrical ‘bloodstream’ now, completely independently of me.

It’s a surreal phenomenon, and one that I think is unique to writing plays for the stage. Novels, films and poems of course have their own afterlives, but not in the same living, breathing way as plays. In that sense, professional productions are just the tip of the iceberg. It is the amateur and student communities that judge whether a play makes it into the nation’s consciousness, and lives on. The amazing thing is that this process happens completely organically, like a natural democracy, operating by some sort of silent impulse towards a consensus, its mechanism unseen and unknown.

At a time when state investment in the arts has never been under such fierce attack, I take heart from this. It proves to me that theatre and creativity are in our DNA, as a species. Like other things that we strive for and are prepared to invest in collectively – good health, quality education, transport to connect us – access to culture also speaks to something deep within us, without which we are less complete. Human beings seem to hunger for stories – to hear, to tell, to re-enact. Theatre allows us to do this together. In doing so, we strengthen our communities, the bonds between us, and also our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

It is hard to make the case for continued investment in these things in an age of austerity. But as any well-structured play will show you, it’s when times get tough that characters come into their own. Sometimes they triumph, sometimes they fail. But by going on that journey with them, we all end up better equipped to take on the challenges in our own lives.

We may not have the same urgent claim on the public purse as schools or hospitals. But at its best, theatre provides the next level up – a reason to get educated and stay healthy. In the darkest days of the Second World War, Winston Churchill, when confronted with a proposal to cut culture to aid the war effort, famously asked: “Then what are we fighting for?”

Make no mistake, the arts in the UK are under attack from this government. But it is communities like Stage Talk that they will listen to – ordinary taxpayers, voters, and families across the country who love and value stories and culture. You probably already use your local theatre or arts centre. Please continue to do so – and to encourage others. If cuts are proposed, write to the council to see if there isn’t some way to lessen the blow. Lobby your MP about cuts to the Arts Council. Ask them to prove their commitment to the arts by asking them what will happen after this current austerity ends. Indeed, invite your local MP and councillors to your productions. Show them how your lives are enriched by the stories generated by state investment in the arts. It’s you they will listen to.

Keep up the good work.