Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Devils and details

Have a look at this, would you? It's one line from my play that we rehearsed yesterday. The characters are Graham and Samantha, I'm not fussed about their ages but they're probably mid-forties.

GRAHAM: It’s just, well, I know who you are, obviously I know who you are, and it’s an occasion.

Nothing unusual there. And when the actor read it for the first time about 10am on Monday, he read it just the same way I imagine you did and precisely the way I heard it in my head when I wrote the line in the first place. When he read it for the last time that day, I don't know, 5pm or something, he read it... in 100% the same way.

But between those two readings was everything.

Graham is an incredibly successful engineer, so successful that he's being interviewed by Sam, until very recently an incredibly successful actress. (Think Nicole Kidman, though maybe not quite so talented.) It's a star interviewer, a star interviewee. Only, while they talk there is a party going on in another room: was that the occasion or did I mean this star actress coming to the house? The answer was the actress.

And then the truth is that Graham and Sam worked together twenty years ago: is that what he means when he says he knows her or is it just because she's so famous an actress now? And, handily, the answer is Yes.

You get the idea, I'm sure: there were actually a fair few more iterations around that one line because there's a lot going on in this play and while as an audience you're supposed to be bounced through it, the cast need to know where they are in the story: what they're going to reveal later, so they know what they're hiding now, all that.

This was how Monday's rehearsal's went. On the great, great side, it was glorious to hear my dialogue fly. And nothing short of tremendous that we would strip a line down and then build it back up again, the director Caroline Jester would add emphasis, would ask for the actors to be thinking of this or that when saying the other - and the final result was in practically every case precisely what I wanted. More, it was precisely what I'd heard in my noggin' as I was writing.

And I expect we did all of this work directly on this one line in about 40 seconds: I remember the practical business about the occasion was instant, but equally the issues of where people are affected the lines before and the scenes afterwards so they were constantly referred to throughout the day. So that's 40 seconds on the specific line, eight hours on the issues.

A lot has been cut from the play, almost every bit of which I'm happy about, all of which I can wear. They're primarily cuts because of the staging: this is strictly speaking a rehearsed reading. Have you seen these before? I've only ever been to one, a chokingly-good rehearsed reading of Alan Plater's Sweet Sorrow at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It was a star cast - I want to say Barbara Flynn was in it, but maybe she was just in the audience - but anyway, you get the idea, this wasn't messin' about, and the way that one worked was that half a dozen cast sat on stools in a row on the stage.

That's not what's happening with mine. It won't be a full-dress piece, it will be a script-in-hand performance and there'll be plenty of sitting in a row, but also it booms out into the audience and my cast will roam the theatre. Still, there are limitations and two of them meant cuts were necessary: I don't have enough cast to do all the parts and I've got no props at all. Consequently even a reference to getting a drink has to be cut and as much as I'm quite happy about that kind of business, I loved it when one actor stopped later on in a scene to say he felt he really needed to be doing this or standing there or something. And that's what he would've been doing, that's where he would have been standing if we hadn't cut the lines.

I sound like I feel vindicated over objecting to cuts but no, seriously, 98% of the cuts are absolutely fine and I even made many of them myself. But what I feel great about is my stagecraft: writing on my little PowerBook, locked away in my office, I got the staging right - I mean, the staging physically and also emotionally, where people must go and what they must do in order to get across the point.

The staging and the dialogue. That's not too bad, is it?

You're wondering what is bad, aren't you? And that 2% is niggling at you. Okay, there's a moment toward the end of the play where rather than another line of dialogue (I have a habit of writing ping-pong dialogue, unceasingly back-and-forth and I try to throw that rhythm out when I can) I've written a gesture instead. Caroline simply doesn't like it. I've let it be cut, and also asked for the next couple of lines to go as well so that they don't seem nonsensical, but they're not going far. Many, many cuts and trims I agreed with or even suggested to cope with the lack of props or cast are ones that I'm going to keep for future versions of the play but this one is on an elastic band.

More seriously, there is a thing that lets me be a typical writer: I'm ecstatic about how well the rehearsals went, I know this is the best thing I've ever written, I know it is a joyous and clever piece, I know I've actually hit some things that are surprisingly profound, and I also cannot bear a word of the play. When I did a Crossroads script I was an amateur and I felt it in every nerve I own; with this, I was totally in command of my material yet unable to convey one key issue and at times I felt amateur again.

It's this. The characters were both actors once and I've got them being actors again; their most pompous speeches get interrupted by the "director", they each lose their lines at times, and they are heckled most enthusiastically from the audience.

The point of all these is to really strongly emphasise that most of the play is set right now, right this very second while you're watching it. It's this business that theatre is live and you shouldn't know what's coming next, so I make sure you don't and when I've set up something I hope you do expect, I cut it off at the knees.

It all reads fine, the actors are playing it well, but when you're doing that kind of analysis I said about the "occasion" line, you hit huge problems. Who are these people? The engineer and ex-actress of the future, the actor and actress of today? And then both characters are lying merrily away so there's a further layer to untangle. And the final moments of the play tell you something moderately unpleasant about one of the characters and why he or she is even here. So that's a, what, fourth level? You count, I can't.

You should be able to explain your play to your cast and your director, I should be able to explain my play to them. For this one element, I couldn't convey it. Part of it is the surprise (to me) that I write very instinctively and I can post-rationalise almost everything, but not everything.

Sometimes yesterday I wanted to strip back these elements, make it all simpler. And when I think that, I really don't like the idea that I can't: I can't change anything now for the Thursday performance.

Fortunately, most of the time I don't want to strip them back. I don't think it's any more complex than any other play about time and though I'm disappointed in my lack of eloquence with the cast, I'm not disappointed with these elements in the play.

But just as I said I'm a writer, I can hold these conflictingly arrogant and self-deprecating points equally dearly, I can also fully know that the purpose of this showcase is to teach me and yet be disappointed that I need more teaching. The play's not clear enough to the cast, though they're so good I swear they're selling it precisely correctly, and that means it isn't clear to my director either. So she's being very nice to me and I'm being very nice back, but I still feel some of that same old Crossroads amatuerishness.

Mind you, there's no question I was bad on Crossroads and, I think, quite equally no question that I'm much better here: my play's one of those pieces that just has life in it.

Stagecraft, dialogue, life, how can I be mithered about this?

Oh! One last thing. Usually rehearsed readings have someone reading out the stage directions. I've managed to make this unnecessary except for at the very, very start. And my cast read out that initial stage description really well. Even my stage directions are good, shouldn't I be the most smug man in the world?


No comments: