Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On Over-Writing

This is a foreword to a recent booklet published for the Adopt-A-Playwright award. I sit on the panel for this award and for the last two years I have mentored and dramaturged the winner. Regular events are held throughout the year for the scheme's Angels, in which they get sneak previews of the play as it progresses, and get to hang out with the writer, cast, other Angels and, for their sins, me. There's more on the scheme, and this year's winner, Satinder Chohan, here.

Over-writing is something of a curse that can affect all writers, myself included. It is like knotweed at the heart of a play, running its tendrils over the delicate, elegant thoughts contained within it, choking theatricality to death with words, words and more words.
It is a little-noticed phenomenon, because usually it is something which takes place behind the scenes, in the early stages of a play's first or second draft. By the time the play reaches an audience, it ought to have been sorted out - though even in professional productions you can still sometimes spot the odd moment.
Over-writing can take the form of an over-stuffed plot with too many unlikely or confusing twists and turns, though I would suggest this version tends to affect screenwriting more than playwriting, particularly in TV. In theatre, over-writing is most often characterised by using too many words in a character's dialogue. The give-away is typographical - at a glance you can spot several big chunks of text on a single page. People rarely speak like this in real life; real speech is messy, quickfire and overlapping. While there is a case to be made that theatre is not real life, and can of course be a stylised presentation of reality to make an artistic or philosophical point, writing in big, verbose speeches is rarely a stylistic choice (a notable exception might be the work of Howard Barker, who uses it to send up pomposity, power structures and egotism).
Over-writing has several causes. One is a misunderstanding about what the wrighters job is, and I use that spelling advisedly. The etymology of the 'wright' part of 'playwright' is from the verb 'to wring', as in wrought iron. A shipwright wrings a ship from steel, a wheelwright wrings a wheel from wood, and a playwright wrings a play from life - or more specifically, from character actions, which make up the events in most people's lives. Productions are what we wright, not texts - the text is merely a blueprint for that production, like an architect's plans for a house, or like sheet music for a recital.
In that sense, the playwright's craft is three-dimensional. We do not write words, like a novelist or a poet. In fact, there is a school of thought that plays are not a branch of literature at all, despite how they might be presented in school. We are wrighting events in time and space, not words on a page. Our craft is theatrical, not literary. But it is easy to forget this when the over-writing imps take control.
Another cause is simply lack of experience of the rehearsal room, and what good actors and a smart director can bring to an audience's understanding of the play. Body language, actor positioning, subtext and silence are crucial to our craft. The playwright must consider tempo and pauses as critically as the composer must. In a good actor, a raised eyebrow or a well-timed pause can speak volumes, and more eloquently, comically or heartbreakingly than a speech ever could, however well-written. Cutting away the excessive words gives these moments room to breathe. Playwright David Hare has a saying: "The play is in the air". It's absolutely true. It's the key factor behind Harold Pinter's famous pauses, for example.
A third cause is a writer's lack of experience of audiences, and not trusting them to keep up. But audiences are smart - never more so than in the theatre, where they tend to be as highly attuned to the language of drama as regular concert-goers are to the grammar of orchestras. And not only that, but audiences actually like it when information is withheld from them. It makes them sit up, try to work out what is going on, and actually makes them active participants in the drama rather than passive recipients of information. I've already mentioned Harold Pinter, but many of our other most successful playwrights have understood the power of an enigma to entrance - from Caryl Churchill to Martin Crimp, Mark Ravenhill to Dawn King.
In literature, Ernest Hemingway famously proved that you could tell a story with six words: "For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." I'd say the same is true with plays, and there's an exercise I've developed called Six Word Plays. Here are a couple:

                        A          When?                         A          Leaving.                     
                        B          Soon.                            B          Good.
                        A          Really?                         A          Going.
                        B          Yes.                               B          Go.
                        A          God.                              A          Right.
                        B          Mmm.                          B          Stay.
They are arranged into couplets so that each has a beginning, middle and end. They are deliberately sparsely written to give actors and audience an active involvement. I use the exercise as a tool for writers-in-training, from teenagers to postgraduate students. (The joy is that you can write several in a few minutes. Have a go yourself if you like.)
Bodies in a space. Active objectives. Beginning, middle, end. You get the idea. I know Satinder won't mind me saying that I'm telling you all this because her own tendency to over-write has been something we have worked hard on between the first and second drafts of Mother India (though the problem is by no means unique to her, or to this play). But we have spent some time cutting away the knotweed, to leave the one essential thought or action at the heart of every moment.  In his fascinating and highly readable book The Crafty Art of Playmaking, playwright Alan Ayckbourn says that with every play he writes, he asks himself how 'elegant' he can make it - in the sense of having no extraneous parts. How economically can the story be told?
It's a critical lesson for any dramatist, and Satinder is rising well to the challenge, and picking up skills which I know will transfer to her other work - and which will also allow her to go back to previous plays armed with a new set of tools. The extract you will see tonight is the product of that process, and I hope will contain room for the play itself to breathe, and give an illustration of that golden rule in drama, 'less is more'. 

And on that note, I am going to stop here.

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