Friday, 19 April 2013

Dramatic Alchemy

Audience.  Yes, that’s what you expected to hear about this week, wasn’t it.  Well . . . hm.  The creative mind always finds the tangled path, so chastise me if you must, but after a script-in-hand performance of my play, Cats in a Pipe, I’m contemplating the alchemy of transforming script into drama.  If you’re really peeved, I’ll send you a KitKat.  Better yet, if you live in the US, I’ll smuggle you a Kinder egg.  Naughtiness has taken over the Writing Closet.

One of the wonderful things about being a writer is the plunder of other lives.  Something grabs our interest, we collect information about it, sit down with a Double Caramel Magnum, stare into space and sift through what we’ve stolen. 

The end result isn’t to know completely what it is to be a doctor or chaplain or interpreter; the end result is to create stories about those people.  When a writer does this well, the reader believes the story, even with tiny inaccuracies.  When the writer doesn’t do it well, then the reader (or audience) gets hit in the imagination with an information dump.

Director, Lewis Gray
The director for Cats in a Pipe, Lewis Gray had a wonderful sense of what was dramatic, what was needless information.  He did an initial assessment of the script, then had me do a rewrite.  The first read-through highlighted other lines that looked good on paper but didn’t sound true on the voice.  Still, a skilful actor can make bad lines sound good.  So even at the read-though, the script was very much a piece of writing, not a dramatic work.  Enter the miracle of stage blocking.

In the Writing Closet, with a few taps on the keyboard, characters carve stone, perform surgery, break limbs, make love, try to hang themselves.  Actors aren’t that cooperative.  Try asking them to do something as simple as hunker down during a military attack then simultaneously take a radial pulse,  pass out sweets, dispense medication, make a phone call, keep hydrated, read from the Gita while singing a folk song, and see what type of fuss they kick up.  

You must be joking!
Full cast photo by
SiniHarakka Urban Photography
For writers to create any story, we have some sense of how the action is played out.  Blocking that action is more than regulating traffic flow.  When we hand things over to the actors, they coordinate the delivery of lines within the space on the stage, around other actors, using props while making all these movements look natural. 

That's pretty incredible, when you think about it, and it's up to the writer to keep her demands simple rather than writing like a puppeteer.  If we let our actors communicate dramatically, they can take the story beyond what the writer envisages, give it a reality in the three dimensional world, create collaborative drama.

Gary Goodyear, Simon Motie
Photo by
SiniHarakka Urban Photography
In Cats in a Pipe, the men share family stories, a conversation that is meant to  invest the audience in the characters and what happens to them later,  with the ultimate goal of eliciting an emotional reaction.  As he made a joke about the American surgeon, Simon Motie, who played the Afghan interpreter, leaned over to Gary Goodyear who played the Irish medical director.  Although in this shot to the right, Gary is still looking at his script, when he delivered the next line, he conspiratorially leaned towards Simon so that their shoulders touched.  What can't be seen in this photo is that Simon took Gary's hand.  The joke now has an intimacy that wasn't written into the script yet increases the audience connection with these two men.

As I noted last week, I had concerns for my American surgeon being seen as abrasive, his humour misunderstood.  To quote Lewis the director, the American can't resist putting the others on skewers.  Writing a character like this in a prose piece takes a huge risk of disengaging the reading from first, the character and subsequently the whole story.  In a play, however, the actor has the choice of demonstrating humanity in the role.  Below we can see John McMahon who played the American, using physical contact to add compassion to his character.

Simon Motie, John McMahon
Photo by
SiniHarakka Urban Photography

Actors are more than chess pieces moved around the board, however, and for me, this showed itself most clearly in the character of the military chaplain.  He's a young man from a sheltered and interpersonally deprived childhood who has accepted the beliefs and prejudices of parents old enough to be his grandparents. The theatre Reader who gave the script its first feedback felt that the chaplain had few redeeming qualities, would alienate the audience and perhaps should be scrapped or significantly changed.  I'd seen the chaplain as the quintessential cat in a pipe, thought he travelled the most significant dramatic arc of the entire cast and most importantly, was the civilian in the war zone, the person a civilian audience was meant to relate most closely with.  Somehow, his dialogue didn't convey this to the Reader.

Stan Hodgson, John McMahon
Photo by
SiniHarakka Urban Photography
Stan Hodgson played the chaplain in a naive, self-effacing way that elicited protectiveness in the older characters as seen in these two photos of Stan with first, John McMahon and then Gary Goodyear.  This reaction from the other cast enhanced the 'babe in the woods' nature of the chaplain's character.  Stan conveyed this not through blocking, but by an open and guileless interpretation of lines and events, expressing himself as someone in over his head.  While the doctors speak of the wounded with clinical detachment, Stan brought compassion and horror to those conversations.  In the Q&A session after the performance, the audience said they'd seen the chaplain as I imagined him.  A clear case of how the dialogue only came to life through the actor.

Gary Goodyear, Stan Hodgson
Photo by
SiniHarakka Urban Photography
I imagine for the cast and director that having an inexperience playwright was like a thoroughbred having a rider with too tight a hold on the reins.  Even so, they were immensely patient with me, but the first time they walked through the climax of the play, one of the actors stopped, looked helplessly at Lewis and asked for direction.  As everyone politely listened, I explained the metaphoric, spiritual, ritualistic, Jungian and Native American implications juxtaposed with references to music, cross cultural archetypes and body snatchers.

In other words, I'd written a climax worthy of a World Wide Wrestling match.  Lewis gave his direction, the actors played out a much toned down scene, I sat gobsmacked, my chest contracting over the depth of emotion in this simplified version.  The prose writer has only her words to bring the story to the reader.  The playwright has actors and a director.  Sometimes the action itself is so powerful, you don't have to tart it up.

There is a giddy freedom in handing over my story to the devices of other people.  I'm sure that my next draft, my next script and undoubtedly several more after that will all have shades of the puppet master in the writing.  My new mantra will be, Listen to your director.  Trust your actors.  Simplify.  Simplify.  Simplify.

Full cast
Photo by
SiniHarakka Urban Photography
Thanks, guys!

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