In the studio (2)

My friend writes to me.

‘So.. you’re working on a new show. What are you actually doing? Have you written a play, or some scenes, which the actors are trying out? Or are you scribing what the actors devise in order to shape into a script, later?’

The truth of the matter is, neither and both.

The Echo Chamber will be a collaboration, an equal co-creation between Ian Morgan, Phillip Zarrilli, Peader Kirk, and myself. We will each bring material and ideas and perspectives to the work. We may  come from different disciplines and have established our own distinct aesthetics and diverse trajectories, but we share common ground.

Some distinct roles exist – for example, I am a writer/dramaturg – but these roles are not rigid nor are they all-defining; rather, there is mutability and flow between us and the functions we may serve, so the director may think of text, the writer come up with movement, the performer suggest design.There is no pre-existing script, or prepared concept, or hidden agenda. Without hierarchy or pigeonholing, we will imagine the textures and surface and content, and work it into being.

I know from mentoring and teaching new and emerging playwrights, this notion of co-creation can be intimidating, bizarre, alarming, even. So much of our time is spent alone, dreaming the world of our play, peopling our imagination with these characters existing in printed words on a screen or on the page. It is easy to forget that performance is a collaborative act.

Like an architect, we are preparing a blueprint for others to realise, collaborators who will bring the force of their imagination and skills and expertise to the bones of the script and inject it with spirit, clothe it in flesh.

I know that many writers have not had the good fortune to be often, if ever, in a studio space with actors, directors, fellow writers, dramaturgs. I am frequently asked about rehearsal etiquette, or the process(es) a writer can or should use when in a rehearsal space with performers. My answer is always a disappointing ‘it depends’ – for it does, it depends on the context, on the company, on the aesthetic, on the project, on what purpose the being in a rehearsal space with actors is due to serve. I am hoping that over the next year some of these contexts and possibilities may be touched on as I progress through my productions diverse in style, content and context, in 2012.

My own work as a playwright began at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs when a graduate in the mid 1980’s, as one of the winners of their Young Writers Festival.  But I was also working early in my career as a devising actor and physical theatre performer – which is, I think, where things start getting interesting.

There is often a schism – an artificial one, I believe – between performance texts or performance work per se and playwriting – and practitioners usually do stay in one camp, seldom crossing.

I remember many years ago being at a CPR event (The Centre for Performance Research when Arnold Wesker unleashed what later became his essay On the Nature of interpretation, Act One, onto an unsuspecting community of pedagogues, performance makers, theatre practitioners and directors. As the audience remonstrated and howled, I marvelled at his bravery and what seemed an equal stupidity, this oppositional, segregating attitude amongst allies and collaborators. Whilst control and power and hierarchy and ownership are issues that need to be addressed and challenged in our industry – I’m not quite so naively optimistic as to believe they are not relevant and present in the majority of contexts – I also find Wesker’s comments stoke the old fires and may well be counter-productive rather than progressive.

Arnold Wesker writes:

            “- a madness is sweeping through world theatre, a madness that elevated the role and importance of the director above the role and importance of the playwright.  The stage has become shrill with the sounds of the director’s vanity; it has been cluttered with his or her tricks and visual effects.  No play is safe from their, often hysterical, manipulations.  The productions we are seeing claim attention to themselves rather than to the play. The playwright’s vision of the human condition has become  secondary to the director’s bombastic striving for personal impact; the playwright’s text, the playwright’s visual concepts, his rhythmic arrangement of scenes, her emotional tensions, his unfolding of narrative action, her perceptions of human behaviour, are distorted, re-arranged, cut, or ignored by the director and sometimes the actors….”

Such attitudes breed fear and suspicion of our collaborators; it polarises what is broad and multi-faceted into a binary of director’s theatre and playwright’s theatre. Whilst there is of course a larger truth in some of what Wesker writes, and I acknowledge there are indeed terrible stories of lack of agency and say in ‘collaborations’ -playwrights in effect stripped of artistic ownership of their own work – in my experience, at least, there has been no such wilful, destructive vanity. There can be moments of discord and disagreement, but that is part of the collaboration, the negotiation towards production. It all rests on the context and company. Which is why I say ‘it depends’, when I’m asked about rehearsal etiquette and processes – for shocking as it is, apparently there are still cases when playwrights are banned from the rehearsal room – but then there are also examples when they run the whole show, or collectively participate, as I do.

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