A few thoughts about the week, below, but first a couple of excellent tip-offs:
Ben in my MA Conflict and the City class has reminded me about ‘Decade’, a site-specific response to the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. Theatre company Headlong and director Rupert Goold both have excellent form, and student tickets are still available until tomorrow, so check it out here: http://www.decadeheadlong.com/ Ben’s also drawn my attention back to a neat article from the guardian on how Charlie Kaufman wrote ‘Being John Malkovich’: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/oct/03/charlie-kaufman-how-to-write?INTCMP=SRCH And speaking of form-breaking narrative, Will in my first-year Writing the City class mentioned another film called, intriguingly, ‘John Dies at the End’: http://johndiesattheend.com/
Thursday also saw the beginning of the Creative Method module, which introduces students to many visiting writers over the course of two semesters. It kicked off with Francesca Beard, who’s going to be taking four sessions in which she explains her own writing practice. Having had the pleasure of hearing some of her amazing performance poetry piece ‘Chinese Whispers’ the other day, I’ve included a link to her website here: http://www.francescabeard.com/
One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had this week was at my own writers group. (We’ve been meeting almost every Tuesday for eight or nine years now, with a core consisting of Samantha Ellis, Ben Musgrave, Nick Harrop and Robin Booth – all brilliant writers to watch out for...). We were talking about some of the difficulties involved in developing ‘backstory’ in plays. Of course, it’s incredibly important for writers to research their characters fully (see Monica’s interesting comment about this under my last-but-one post), but I think it can be problematic to explain characters by reference to too many events in their past. Drama is fundamentally about the present: it happens before an audience as if for the first time. The actions, interactions, dilemmas and choices we see before us are the ones on which we build our understanding of character. And when something dramatic has happened before the story of the play, I think that event needs to be easily ‘read’ by the audience. Swallowed in a single gulp, as it were, and digested effortlessly. So, Hamlet’s father has recently died in unexplained circumstances. Nora (in ‘A Doll’s House’) has told a lie to her husband. Christian (in the film/play ‘Festen’) has been sexually abused by his father… It may be something of a paradox, but backstory which is too diffuse, even if psychologically ‘accurate’ often fails to convince. Perhaps that’s because we can only ever hear about it, and we tend to resist information that we can’t see and scrutinise for ourselves. This debate arose out of a discussion on comedy writing, and here more than anywhere complex backstory has the potential to muddy the waters. In the present-tense action, we intuit all sorts of things about particular characters. We can all imagine what David Brent’s childhood was like, but we don’t have to know about some devastating formative experience in order to fully understand him.
I was thinking about this again on Wednesday evening when I went to see ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ at The Old Vic. It’s a strange play - particularly in the second half when it develops from fairly broad comedy into something almost absurdist in register. The set-up, too, is disarming. A young man rocks up to pub on the west coast of Ireland claiming to have murdered his father, and becomes an instant celebrity. What’s extraordinary (and very funny) is that no-one seems to question his bravery and heroism. Even the older men in the pub, who may well be fathers themselves, completely accept it. There’s a lovely sense in which everything that is important in the play begins when it begins. We don’t need to know anything about the word of the story, except what the story shows us.