Tuesday, 23 October 2012

My writing Debt To Theatre

In a strange way, theatre probably fired me into picking up my own pen (as the technology then was!) But only out of irritation with what I had seen up on stage.

Late 1970, early 80s Britain, new plays were dominated by a fistful of Marxist and Left-Wing dramatists such as David Hare, Howard Brenton, David Edgar, Trevor Griffiths. The politics tended to come first, the characters lagging behind a poor second, as each one represented a 'position'. It was Hare's "A Map Of The World" which so provoked my ire as to make me credit I could do better at the tender age of 19.

Playwriting seemed like a decent career to try and get into, since in the late 1970s drama was flourishing and vital, both in the theatre and on television where Dennis Potter and Stephen Poliakoff were writing challenging stuff and bringing it into people's living rooms and new writers were getting exposure on BBC's "Play For Today" slot. Plays were contributing to the political debate of the time, Potter's "Brimstone And Treacle" provoking fevered national debate as to both its taste and its actual meaning.

But while I was at University from 1983 onwards and availing myself of student thespians and free stage spaces trying to learn my craft, something happened to British theatre. The Left-Wing playwrights tried to do battle with the prevailing Conservative politics of Mrs Thatcher's government and lost; both artistically where they never managed to successfully counter her ideas and economically as Mrs Thatcher had the last laugh by demanding that the Arts had to be financially self-sufficient and severely cut the funding across the board of theatres. The BBC stopped producing "Play For Today" as the mass appeal of the soap opera began to dominate TV drama output. Playwrights didn't hang around the theatres very long, partly because it no longer offered decent rewards. Any playwright with a minor hit under their belt, soon jumped ship to TV or film screenplay writing where the money was.

I wrote stage plays for ten years after college. Not with any commercial success I have to say. Mainly produced in pub fringe theatres. But what I learned in doing so has been formative in my novel writing today. Firstly and least surprisingly, you learn how to write dialogue. Since that's pretty much all you have to play with as a playwright, Directors not liking their hands tied by too much suggested stage direction from the writer. But playwriting also asks the writer to think visually, with a limited tableau of stage scenery and props, so that you develop an ability to conjure images through the interplay of the spoken word and what has gone before. A key word that becomes motif, such as Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard" or the Christmas tree in "The Doll's House".

Actors too shape the space they move and work in with their bodies and gestural language. I was privileged to attend all the rehearsals of my work and see actors doing just this. Shaping an empty space gives the writer a real insight into making images out of thin air, the relationship of a physical body in space to the emotions and the words the actor utters. This can only help a writer literally conjure images out of thin air, by thinking about the interplay of these four elements. I also got to see the creative powers of directors and set designers at work.

But watching actors rehearse, particularly in the early part of the process, opens your eyes up to another key element, that of relationship. Unless the play is a monologue, it is full of relationships being portrayed on stage. Relationships that have to be established in rehearsals; between actors who may never have met one another until they first step into the rehearsal space; relationships to their own character as they try and 'find' that character, as written by the author and to be interpreted by them and then further rolled out to find the relationships between the character and to realise them from the page of the script. There is nothing quite as fascinating as seeing these processes at work. And key to relationship in acting and I think to writing them in prose, is to think about power and status. A common acting exercise is to ask a pair of actors improvise a simple given scenario and then throughout to change their relative statuses to one another by barking out a number, where 10 is the highest status and 1 the lowest. Watch how the same scenario takes on countless different forms just by changing the power balance between the two characters. I find this an invaluable tool for when I'm writing a prose scene with two or more characters. Which character can't hold the gaze of the other, or which is flexing their fingers subconsciously... the possibilities are endless.

So theatre writing armed me with several tools for prose writing, because you always had to consider the characters on stage at any and every moment. You were forced to write fully rounded characters and how they related to one another. You were also made to think about how to construct layered images and motifs. All things at the core of writing prose.

My new novel "Time After Time" actually begun life as a stage play I'd written. The same man, the same woman, the same opening chat-up line and a myriad of different outcomes from this scenario. Tiny fluctuations in body language, a word heard in one version, but not in the next, each can contribute to a different outcome of the seduction scenario. Not dissimilar I suppose from the status impro games actors use to find their characters. But I wanted to use such a mechanism to look at how emotions can produce different responses to the same set of events and circumstances.

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