Thursday, March 29, 2007

Anthony Neilson article from The Guardian

I agree with pretty much everything that Anthony Neilson has written in this article, so thought I'd post it here.

A message to young playwrights: don't be so boring

I was part of a theatrical movement once. As with most movements, no one who was a part of it noticed anything moving at the time. I still wouldn't know if a journalist hadn't told me. "In-Yer-Face", it was called, which offended the more famous of my fellow movementarians, but I was just glad someone had noticed I was alive. As far as I can tell, In-Yer-Face was all about being horrid and writing about shit and buggery. I thought I was writing love stories.
Fifteen years on, there doesn't seem to have been another movement, so I thought I'd try to start one. Unfortunately, despite being pretty sure the next movement will be absurdist in nature, I couldn't think of a snappy name for it so I gave up on that. Then I thought I'd write a provocative Dogme-style manifesto, but I only came up with four rules, and I've already broken two of them in my new show. Then I thought I'd write Ten Commandments for young writers but a) that's a little pompous, and b) there's only one commandment worth a damn, and it's this: THOU SHALT NOT BORE.
Boring an audience is the one true sin in theatre. We've been boring audiences for decades now, and they've responded by slowly withdrawing their patronage. I don't care that the recent production of The Seagull at the Royal Court was sold out. To 95% of the population, the theatre (musicals aside for now) is an irrelevance. Of that 95%, we have managed to lure in maybe 10% at some point in their lives, and we've so swiftly and thoroughly bored them that they've never returned. They're not the ones who broke the contract. They paid their money and expected entertainment; we sent them back into the night feeling bored, bullied and baffled. So what are we doing wrong?
The most depressing response I encounter when I'm chatting someone up and I ask them if they ever go to the theatre is this: "I should go but I don't." That emphatic "should" tells you all you need to know. Imagine it in other contexts: "I should play Grand Theft Auto"; "I should watch Strictly Come Dancing." That "should" tells you that people see theatre-going not as entertainment but as self-improvement, and the critical/ academic establishment have to take some blame for that.
Many critics still believe theatre has a quasi-educational/political role; that a play posits an argument that the playwright then proves or disproves. It is in a critic's interest to propagate this idea because it makes criticism easier; one can agree or disagree with what they perceive to be the author's conclusion. It is not that a play cannot be quasi-educational, or even overtly political - just that debate should organically arise out of narrative. But this reductive notion persists and has infected playwriting root and branch.
I can't tell you how often I've asked an aspiring writer what they're working on, and they reply with something like: "I'm writing a play about racism." On further investigation, you find that this play has no story and they've been stuck on page 10 for the past year; yet they're still hell-bent on writing it. You can be fairly sure the play, should it ever be finished, will conclude that racism is a bad thing. The writer is not interested in exploring the traces of racism that may lie dormant within their psyche, nor in making the case for selective racism (just to be "provocative"). This is the writer using the play to project their preferred image of themselves; the ego intruding on art; the kind of literary posing that is fed by the idea of debate-led theatre. And if you think that example sounds naive, substitute the word "racism" with "George Bush" or "Iraq" or "New Labour". Sound familiar?
Newspapers, or news programmes, are the places for debates, not the theatre. The general public don't think: "Should I go to the theatre Friday, or that socio-political theory class?" Further education is not the competition. The pub is the competition, the cinema, a night in with a curry and a DVD. We are entertainers. What we do is not as important to society as brain surgery, or even refuse collection. But when the brain surgeon and the refuse collector finish work, they come to us and it is our job to entertain them - not necessarily just to distract them, but to stimulate, to refresh, to engage them. That's our place in the scheme of things, and it's a responsibility we should take seriously. To let our egos intrude is like the brain surgeon writing "Jake Was Here" on your frontal lobe before he puts your scalp back.
The way to circumvent ego (and thus reduces the risk of boring) is to make story our god. Find a story that interests you and tell it. Don't ask yourself why a story interests you; we can no more choose this than who we fall in love with. You may not be what you think you are - not as kind, as liberal, as original as you ought to be - and yes, the story (if you are true to it) will find that out. But while your attention is taken up with its mechanics, some truth may seep out, and that is the lifeblood of good, exciting art.
I'm not saying we should all be Terence Rattigan. The story you tell can be about anything, told in whatever form is most effective. But that brings me to my next point: accessibility.
To this day, I still leave plays wondering what on earth they were about. I used to feel stupid for not "getting it", but not any more, because this I know: it's the artist's failure, not mine.
It's not necessary that every audience member gets every level on which a play works (several, if it's good), but it's important that they've understood it, from moment to moment, while watching it. Little Red Riding Hood is completely understandable to five-year olds and yet academics are still writing papers on its deeper meanings. This profound simplicity is what all playwrights should aspire to. Not only does it render a play accessible (on at least a narrative level) to an inexperienced theatregoer, it also encourages the widest possible scope for interpretation. Much as it depresses me, as a living writer, that the theatre business is still so in thrall to dead playwrights, this narrative clarity is key to the classics' longevity.
So tell your story as you wish - but for God's sake, if it plays best as a linear narrative, don't tart it up for the sake of feeling innovative. There's no shame in a good story, well told. Contrary to the popular maxim, do think about your audience. Ask yourself if your non-theatre-going friends or relatives would at least get the gist of it. If they wouldn't, your work is not yet done. (That said, never compromise on the grounds of what they may be offended by. Truth is not always comfortable but a dishonest play is usually dull.)
Two asides. One, dialogue: there's a lot of poetic dialogue around. Sometimes a play is narratively accessible but the dialogue is mannered to the point of incomprehensibility. Some people like it, but I'm suspicious. Poetic dialogue, done badly, leaves no room for subtext. A lack of subtext is fundamentally undramatic. And boring.
And two, duration: many plays are far too long. All writers should be made to visit the venue where their play is to be performed and sit in the seats with a stopwatch. When your arse and spine start to sing, check the watch. That's your running time. Exceed it at your peril.
Now - musicals. Much as the synopsis of We Will Rock You sounds abysmal, it's pulling in more punters a night than some "serious" shows attract in a week. There's a dangerously dismissive response to this uncomfortable truth among many of my fellow practitioners, but it's not hard to figure out why this might be. Musical theatre offers song and dance, of course; a certain unpretentiousness; a tangible sense of "liveness"; magic; and, most importantly, spectacle.
It is time the "serious" theatre learns this lesson. We have to give the audiences what they can't get anywhere else. Debate they can get in a newspaper. Reality - well, they can get that on TV. We can offer them "liveness", but few plays, or productions, take advantage of this. Too many screenplays masquerading as plays and an over-reliance on mixed media have imbued the theatre with a heaviness it's not best suited to. Some may argue that technology is the key to spectacle, but most theatres can't compete with the West End technologically. The spectacle we can offer is the spectacle of imagination in flight. I've heard audiences gasp at turns of plot, at a location conjured by actors, at the shock of a truth being spoken, at the audacity of a moment. There is nothing more magical and nothing - nothing - less boring.
Oh, and if you can get a song or two in there, all the better. My show has three.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Goodbye for a bit!

I'm off to star in my show, Company, so I won't be able to post any blog entries for about a week. Don't know what I'm going to do with myself actually - I'm going back to Earl Shilton for the run, so predict I'll be bored out of my mind during the day. If I'm feeling brave I might hit the streets and do a bit of first-hand research on the hoody-youths of today's Shilton, but I might just stay at home and re-read Harry Potter again!

Company is going well - had our first rehearsal on the stage on Wednesday and it's dress and tech tonight. I spend a lot of the time on this 8-foot balcony which wobbles when you step on it, so I've spent most of the rehearsals so far with stage-fright combined with vertigo. My costume is brown and I have a top the colour of cat sick. If anyone out there would like to come and watch, tickets vary from £7.50 - £9, depending on what day you come, and it's on from 19th - 24th March at the Concordia Theatre in Hinckley (just google it for the website). Tickets will probably be available on the door, especially for the first two nights.

Will be back soon!

Lucy :-)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Hoodies Play

Well, my first draft is completed! It's only 18 pages though, so I know it's going to need expanding. The Jase and Naomi scenes are a bit basic right now, and I think there is room for more dialogue between the whole group, but it's definitely taking shape now. Hooray!

It's weird, because I really know these characters, like what happens to them after the play, when they all met in the first place, stuff like that. I know all this intuitively, I didn't have to sit for hours doing character work or anything. I just hope that they seem real on stage (but theatrical too, if you see what I mean).

Once again, I'm struggling for a title, so any ideas are welcome. Think it should have the words 'Earl Shilton' or 'Shilton' in it, though. My other idea was 'Waiting for Whitby', but that a) draws parallells with another (much better) play and b) doesn't really set the piece for me. Feel free to leave comments as to what I should call it (nothing nasty please!).

So with my first draft written, everything is set for me now to gear up for Company, which starts on 19th March. Anyone out there who would like to come, please do! We've only got 42% capacity for Monday night! It's going to be a really good show, but the reason it hasn't sold well is there's loads of politics at the theatre, and because the director hand-picked his cast, those who weren't picked are apparently boycotting it. The director had permission to cast it like this, which is unlike a lot of the other directors there who pre-cast anyway but just don't tell you about it. So annoying, because it is really going to be brilliant. Well, that's amateur theatre I guess.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Put the champagne on ice...

...because I have almost finished my play - "The play formally known as Shilton Rec"! Last night I wrote from the middle to the end, and afterwards I couldn't get rid of my Earl Shilton accent! Nice. I'm going to write some more this lunchtime, as I need to go back to the beginning and re-arrange the order of events, I need to tweak how I've represented the dialect, and focus more on the Naomi and Jase scenes, and then I'll have completed my first draft! My current favourite character is Brick - she's insecure and violent, how can you not love that?!

So I'm completely overly-excited at the prospect of getting it completed - like bouncing-up-and-down excited, so it's a good job that noone is around, as I would really piss you all off with my enthusiasm! I don't even care about rehearsals and evil choreographers and all of that.

Now all I need to do is harness this energy to get my dance routine right tonight and jump start my novel and it'll be all systems go.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Dancing Hippos!

I wrote 3 pages of dialogue for my play last night on the train back from rehearsal. I keep forgetting how, when I'm writing, everything else around me sort of disappears, and I really like that feeling. I'm going to type up what I've got this lunchtime and hopefully be able to continue with it without having someone at work interrupt me to ask me about scholarships and the like.

Rehearsals for 'Company' are going well, but I'm convinced that the choreographer hates me - I am trying, honest, but I get so nervous sometimes before my number, especially as I'm still not as confident on the dance steps as the other two girls (well, I'm a bit of a fairy elephant to put it bluntly!). Not looking forward to the next two weeks - rehearsal every night bar Tuesday and possibly Saturday, and then the show itself starts on 19th March for a whole week (and I'm staying at home with the folks too). So enjoy me whilst you can, people, because I'm not going to be around much for the next couple of weeks. Really want to have my play written before next Monday, not sure if that is going to happen!