Playwriting and intellectual snobbery

A couple of articles turned up in my social media streams this week that related to writing plays. The first was this one,  a letter from a playwright to the actors that perform his plays. The article had been reposted with a series of victorious comments underneath, of the order of “Yeah! That’s the way! You tell ’em!” and so on.

I read the article and felt a little discomfited. From a certain point of view (as Mrs Dim helped me see) the author isn’t saying anything outrageous. He’s saying that, in writing the play, he believes he has included all the information the actor needs to perform the piece as intended, that there’s no need for interpreting or improvising, and certainly no need to add or remove lines. The actor should enjoy the process of discovering the character through the clues in the text.

I get that.

But the comments below the piece were a little more….virulent. One in particular lambasted actors for taking liberties with his work, and announced that this was the reason he simply HAD to direct every first production of a new piece.

A year or two ago, I went to a reading of one of my plays. It was new, it was untried, and I wanted to hear it read aloud. The actors were people who had performed my stuff before, and they were NICE. It was a cold read, but it went well. At one point, the dialogue prompted some giggling , until one actor pointed out it read a lot like a Harlequin romance (Mills and Boon, for the UK readers). I smiled but felt a little sick. That wasn’t supposed to be over-the-top dialogue, it was supposed to be deep and affecting.

A Little Bit of Holiday Magic

(I didn’t write this one..)

My point is that there’s only so much that you can put into your script as the playwright. The episode above showed that my dialogue might have needed a modifier (“Read this as though it’s serious!”) but more likely it just needed re-writing. You can take the Pinter route and put in every pause and beat the actor must take, you can underline the parts that need emphasis and you can dictate the colour and size of the props. But what does that leave for the actors and directors? Are they simply a vehicle for your words? I don’t think so.

I get ideas for stories, and some of them are plays. I write a script that is my best attempt to communicate the story that I see in my head. It’s never going to be exact, because, as the professor who lives down the road never ceases saying, we’re using language developed so monkeys can tell each other where the best fruit grows. I put my ideas, my visions, on to the page, and the director and actors bring to life THEIR version of that vision. There’s going to be a huge amount of overlap, but the two will never be exactly the same.

Two different productions of "A Time for Farewells". Different, but similar...

Two different productions of “A Time for Farewells”. Different, but similar…

I’ve directed my own plays before. It was a lot of fun, and very scary, and I discovered that I couldn’t get things to be exactly as I imagined them even when I took the actor’s place and declaimed the line for them, so they could hear the intonation.

In “On Writing” Stephen King likens writing to telepathy. He asks the reader to imagine a table with a red tablecloth, on which is positioned a small cage. He points out that, despite him writing the book possibly years previously and thousands of miles from where the reader sits, they are thinking of  the same image as he is, although there will be small differences. The shade of red, the size of the cage, the design of the table…all small differences, but fundamentally the same image.

This is how I view my plays. I sit at my keyboard and imagine a scene. Years and miles later, that scene is brought to life with minor differences, remaining fundamentally the same.

Screenwriters like to complain about the recent fad for crediting the Director with the whole film, pointing out that it hasn’t always been this way, and why should it be a “An Alan Smithee Film” if all he did was tell the actors where to stand when they recited their lines? Well, I think it’s just as unfair for the playwright to expect to gather all the praise for a production, or wield all the power. The script is vital, yes. It should be as complete as possible in terms of communicating what the playwright sees, but it isn’t and shouldn’t be a binding document. It’s the place where the story begins.

(She’s the one in the middle…)

The other article that came to my attention this week was headed “Now Amanda Peet thinks she’s a playwright”. It was just as juvenile as it sounds, a person sounding off at Amanda Peet for daring to write and perform in a play when everyone knows she’s a screen actress. The comments here were much more balanced, with many people taking the same view I did – if she wrote a play and got it published or produced, then she’s a playwright, what’s the big deal? Others were obsessed with the unfairness of someone with acting and theatre connections shortcutting the “proper” route of misery and rejection to get straight to having her work onstage in a big theatre.

The truth is, if any of us struggling writers had an “in” to our favoured arena, we’d take it. Uncle in the film business? Here’s my screenplay. Dad works in publishing? Here’s my novel. Cousin runs a theatre? Here’s my latest play. Brother-in-Law was on reality TV show? Here’s my sympathy.

It’s not wrong to use connections. It may not seem fair, in that it’s not something everyone can do. But JK Rowling didn’t have any connections, just a good idea. EL James didn’t have any connections, just the right idea at the right time. Yes, this means that some people have more success than others who have more talent or ability. That’s sad, but it doesn’t always follow that someone who uses their connections to reach the audience has nothing worth saying. I’d like to see Amanda Peet’s play. I know the ones I read and review tend to be better when the author has had some experience onstage themselves, so I’m sure hers would be interesting. I’d love the chance to talk to her about it. And, you know, while we were talking about stage plays, perhaps she wouldn’t mind looking over this new script I’m working on…?

In fact, the latest script I’m working on turns out to be a sequel to the moderately successful “The Kitchen Skirmishes“. All being well, this new play (as yet untitled) will be published in the new year. Unless Amanda Peet can fit me in somewhere earlier, of course…

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