Play in Focus: The Red Balloon

DSCF3351Prejudice is a terrible thing. It makes you ignore any evidence to the contrary, for one thing. I’m sure my own prejudices are many, but the one that causes me most difficulties is my prejudice about Modern Theatre.

I’m sure there’s an actual definition of that term, but in my own mind I use the term to cover non-representational theatre, or plays that are a little more…challenging than “Blithe Spirit” or “Dial M for Murder”.

It sounds a bit wrong, I know. And let me say, just because I don’t enjoy these types of plays, doesn’t mean I think they are rubbish, or they shouldn’t be written or performed. Hell no, go ahead! Give ’em awards, hand out prizes. Just don’t ask me to go and see one.

My feeling is that theatre is, first and foremost, entertainment. Like all entertainment, that covers a broad spectrum, and there’s room for flat-out fun, for tugging at the heartstrings, for thought-provoking pieces and , yes, for experimentation. But my preference is to come out of the theatre thinking about the performance I’ve just seen, not wondering what the hell it was all about. I’ve never subscribed to the “It’s whatever you take away from it.” school of Art. The Artist should have an intention, if not a message, and the aim should be to communicate that intention to others.

When I began writing plays, I didn’t have a message, as such. I wrote about writing, and I wrote about interesting characters, grouping them together and seeing what happened. But the more I wrote, the more I found I was tempted to push things further, to write something bizarre and avant garde. Exactly why, I’m not sure. I could see how it would go, the nonsensical monologue by a lone character on a bare stage, clutching an unlikely prop. This seemed a promising beginning, so I wrote it down. The Girl was holding a red balloon, and declaiming a rapturous speech about it.

But I didn’t know where to go with this, and the reason I didn’t know was because this was the kind of play I would hate to watch. So I put myself into the audience, and gave a character the guts to stand up and say the very things I would be thinking at such a performance. So it was that The Man takes to the stage to decry the Girl’s ludicrous speech, and she hits back at him by saying this is her big break and she knows it’s all twaddle, but it’s HER twaddle, thank you very much.

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From there it was easy enough to have the three characters (The Man’s wife comes along with him) discuss what’s wrong with the Girl’s balloon speech, and demonstrate the kind of performance they were hoping for. At this point I was asking the questions of myself – what kind of play did I actually WANT to write? Was I really just looking for a simple story, and if so, why not watch TV? What did I think theatre gave people that they couldn’t get elsewhere?

It was a fun thing to experiment with, and I was pleased to discover that the Man and Woman delivered a decent play in the time they had onstage. Then the Woman gets the bit between her teeth and begins to push the process further, further than the Man and Girl want to go. I had known once the process began that I wanted to bring the play full circle, but I thought I was being too ambitious. Once I had finished the first draft I asked my wife to read it through and she made some excellent suggestions that smoothed the path for the play to return to the start point.

That was probably my biggest challenge with this play: I had never had to re-write anything I had done before. My plays were short and produced almost entirely as I wrote them. This time I had to take the suggestions and go back into the script and change things. It was harder than I thought, but very much worthwhile.

This play has proved popular in the time it has been available – many groups have chosen it for the simplicity. There are only three roles, whose ages are not defined, and there is no set. Despite the title, there’s more to the props than the one balloon – at one point the three construct a play scene set in a wartime kitchen that requires at least a table, two chairs and two cups. It’s been performed again and again, in classrooms, colleges, theatres, village halls and at competitions. I’ve been lucky enough to attend a performance, and was delighted with the presentation. I’m willing to apologise for my prejudices, but I’m glad they lead me to produce this play.

Read the full play HERE

The images used in this post were from a production of The Red Balloon by the Mexico Area Community Theatre. Here‘s their Facebook page.

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