Tag Archives: characters

Name a thing and it is. Titles and character names…

I recently befuddled a friend with the title I’ve given my next play, ‘Cosy’. ‘But it’s about growing up, and ageing, and rubbish families and death!’ she exclaimed, ‘That’s hardly cosy material!’   ‘Exactly,’ I said.

This conversation made me reflect on the names we give things and the relationship we may have with titles. With plays, I either struggle and need suggestions and prompting, or I know straight away. I like titles of plays that hint at what I might experience if I attended a production – what’s been called ‘the promise’ is often there in the name. I like contradictions, or irony, or something that makes me pause and wonder about the content in an almost metaphysical sense. Beckett’s ‘All That Fall’ or ‘Rockaby’ lingered long after experiencing the text and production.

This then brought me back to a post I’d written about naming characters in our fiction or plays, and why they are important:

Shakespeare may have claimed a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but think of the added information that seeps through from knowing the character is called StJohn or Jerzey; Jonah or Jezebel; Shiraz or Shona, Sankaran or Steve. A sense of cultural heritage, class, social aspiration and period can be assumed through personal monikers.

Names are signifiers and they carry significance; more often than not they are a tip to the audience. It is not by chance that Ben Johnson’s protagonist in his Jacobean satire of lust and greed is called Volpone – Italian for ‘sly fox’.

Names can allude to character and disposition in an efficient, almost effortless way. Traditionally protagonists or heroes have big, heroic-sounding names – Lysander and Titania, Hermione and Ulysses. There is an underlying assumption of what a tragic or inspirational protagonist should be called – an assumption subverted to comedy effect by Monty Python in The Life of Brian.

Giving a character a name can be a significant moment for the writer in the process of making. It is perhaps when the fragmented flitting thoughts start finding shape in human form. When I’ve worked with writers on emerging scripts, some arrive with a name of a character as a starting point, and work outwards from there, guided by a sense of the individual’s personal traits, politics, guiding principles, almost as if they exist in reality and the writer personally knows them. Others, like me, may not have a name until well into the process. I sometimes have letters or numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4 – chosen simply by the order in which these emerging figures arrived on the page. When I find these numeric names limiting and annoying, snagging on my eye each time I read over the page, I know I have moved onto the next phase of development.

Naming characters always come swiftly. If I stumble between options, or dither, going eeny-meeny-miney-mo, I realise I don’t know enough yet about the character, or s/he is not yet sufficiently drawn to merit a title.

I can truthfully say I have never regretted a name I’ve given to a character, but that act of choosing has a galvanising effect on the way I engage with the character on the page, impacting on the words I put in her mouth, or the actions I give him.

I’m not sentimental about my work, so I never see them as my creatures or (god forbid) some kind of golem offspring – they are vehicles for my thoughts, or ideas I want to explore – but calling something brings it forth into being.

Name it, and it is.

Female playwrights, Female parts and casting into deep waters

photo-36

I’ve spent the past two days holed up at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, holding auditions for my Unlimited Commission ‘Cosy’. Joined by stalwart companion director Phillip Zarrilli, our most consistent subject of conversation has been the wealth of talent parading in through the door: Women actors, female performers, actresses, whatever it is they may prefer to be called, the diverse array of skill, facility and emotional intelligence has been glittering and humbling, leaving us with the impossible next task of selecting the cast for the r&d process.

‘Cosy’ is a dark comedy with six characters, all women, disabled and non-disabled, playing ages 16 to 76 years. This fact alone elicited a few cheers and several full body hugs, female actors embracing the female playwright who for many years has made a commitment to writing roles right across the age range. This was a decision I made in my early twenties, when as a jobbing actor I started writing my own audition pieces as I was fed-up of the limited fayre. The theatrical landscape before me looked thin and uninspiring. It seemed after being the ingenue and playing Juliet, there might be Lady M in the Scottish play (I’m Irish, I’m superstitious, I can’t help it), and then the oasis of nothingness until sexless old haughty Lady Bracknell. I decided then to write meaty parts for women of all ages, and ‘Cosy’ is the latest manifestation of this commitment.

I think this is a serious subject – the representation of gender (and impairment) in plays and also the corresponding dearth of women playwrights being produced. We are still underrepresented – still considered either domestic or ‘risky’ (see this article about Hytner and The National Theatre in London and why women playwrights are still marginalised). This is another reason why I celebrate Unlimited and the funding bodies, venues, and organisations supporting this initiative. If women actors have a limited spread of roles and opportunities (hence the penchant for all female Shakespeare productions recently), and female playwrights still are marginalised (see this Guardian  blog about gender inequality in the theatre) what hope then for disabled or Deaf playwrights, makers, dancers, choreographers, and practitioners?

I’m sure this is a subject I will return to.

In a previous post, Casting Haiku on my parallel http://www.cosytheplay.co.uk blog, I wrote of the process of creating pithy character descriptions for agents and performers to get a glimmer of the role they were being considered for. Little did I know in that innocence of a few days ago how my interpretation of these characters would be changed – and for the better.

As a playwright, I have lived with the voices of my characters in my head for quite some time. These voices all speak with different syntax, rhythm, vocabulary and world views from each other, but the ‘acting’ is one and the same – my own inner ‘voice’. Imagine then the delight, the absolute GIFT of sitting as a steady stream of engaged, passionate, talented actors passed through, revealing a spectrum of surprising and different interpretations of these characters I thought I knew so well… These talented women showed me perspectives and possibilities I had never imagined and  I am extremely thankful to all who brought those characters off the page, out of my head, and into life.

Phillip and I now have the slow and difficult deliberation of making a credible ‘family’ cast  from the actors we saw…. Mother, siblings, niece/grand-daughter, plus the matriarch’s quirky friend. There are so many different permeations – all could work – they just lead to very different styles and takes on the script. We are currently locked in this delicious but frustrating wrestle. We may be some time.

Writers on writing. 1. Playwright Tom Murphy.

.

I think that when one declares oneself a playwright, one hopes that the words being written are going to be spoken aloud. But in the digging process, it’s not just the subject and the writer—the play comes into it too. And only recently I’ve begun to wonder if the play’s coming into it, if that is rewarding the writer for the time he or she has put into the work. It’s perhaps known as inspiration. Or it could be characters. That I try—well, subconsciously—I try to get to a stage where I know what the characters are feeling. And therefore, the characters can only speak one way. In the way that they want to speak. Because the better you know someone, the more limited the words in which you know they will express themselves become.

From an interview with Tom Murphy, The Paris Review, 2012.     http://www.theparisreview.org

Paul Abbot On Character….

“Engaging characters are at the heart of all good drama, no matter how mainstream or unusual your idea may be. Your characters should be believable, even if they are in an incredible situation. We should be able to empathise and engage with the main characters, even if we don’t necessarily like them. It’s hard to care about a character that plays a passive role in their own story, so make your central characters as active as possible. There should be all kinds of conflicts and difficulties for your characters to deal with – scripts are rarely interesting if the writer is too easy on or too nice to the characters.”  Paul Abbot. Screenwriter.

Some thoughts on character from screenwriter Paul Abbot (‘Shameless’) whilst I skip off for holiday for a while… Further notes on screenwriting by Paul Abbot can be found on the BBC website and writersroom.

LeanerFasterStronger: Auditions

.

.

.

.

.

The Sheffield Crucible and Lyceum theatres at dusk,  16/3/12. Photo: Kaite O’Reilly

I have always admired actors, but after this past week sitting the other side of a desk to them as they audition for LeanerFasterStronger, my admiration has massively increased.

The talent out there is humbling, and we could cast the production many times over, each new combination bringing different strengths and interpretations  to the fore.  I don’t envy Andrew Loretto, who will direct the production in May and so the person who has to make these final, impossible decisions.

LeanerFasterStronger is more a performance text than a ‘play’ – it will require doubling of parts, physical scores, and therefore great flexibility and speed from the performers in making these transitions. Owing to this, Andrew is bringing together an ensemble company, so the casting decisions relies ultimately on that mix. I think in many ways this is harder than more conventional casting, where the actor may be ‘up’ for one role – the part of Ophelia, say.  It has been my delight and honour to meet so many talented performers – not every playwright gets access to this process of auditioning – but from the start Andrew and co-producer Susan Burns of Chol wanted my involvement throughout.

Some weeks ago  I selected some excerpts from the script to be given in advance to the actors invited to audition, so the readings weren’t ‘cold’. What has been most impressive is the array of interpretations of the characters these actors prepared – each relevant, credible, and illuminating aspects of the characters I had never anticipated. This is why theatre is a collaborative art: performance writers may write the script, but the flesh is provided by the creative engagement of the rest of the company – primarily the actors and director, but also the scenographer, the sound and lighting designers…

It was extraordinary to sit and hear so many different approaches to words I had written – some words which, prior to this,  had only been ‘voiced’ inside my head. Speeches I had written and which we had deliberately taken out of context to the whole (not identifying gender, or background, or situation) suddenly belonged to bodies and were given emotions and psychologies and ‘back-stories’. I saw how performers can create a whole world out of a short monologue in order to give it a logic and meaning – I saw how inventive and thorough and extraordinary they are. My appreciation of performers’ skills and imaginations grew and grew.

Now the auditions are over and Andrew is making his final decisions and negotiations. After many days and several cities, I sat this week in a bar opposite Sheffield Theatres with Susan and reflected on an extraordinary process. I took the photograph gracing the top of this post and invited Susan to guest-blog here, giving her perspective of the process. That post will appear shortly, as will the announcement of our cast. The preparation is almost over. Soon we will be deep into rehearsals and another very different process…

(c) Kaite O’Reilly 17/3/12   Happy St Patrick’s Day, all.