Need A Stage Coach?

Today I want to share a series of articles about playwriting that I have recently stumbled across. They are published under creative commons on the website The Conversationwhich sources its writing from the academic and research communities in the US, Australia and the UK, and is a real find in itself.

Across a number of articles, collectively called On Playwriting Julian Meyrick, Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University, writes about the history of the play, what makes a play ‘work’ and how playwriting has evolved. Meyrick is writing for the Australian edition of The Conversation so the articles have an antipodean leaning, but are relevent where ever you are reading this. I am sharing the first one here with links to the subsequent ones at the end.  Definitely worth a read.

Need a stage coach? Why some plays work and others don’t

We all know whether a given play, film or TV drama “works” or not, but it’s often difficult to pinpoint why. This is the first of four articles in which I will try and cast playwriting in a broader light than is usually the case.

Ordinarily playwriting is a matter for “tips” or for critical review – best-practice advice from the producers’ perspective or final judgement from the consumers’.

This kind of talk is useful. But it rarely penetrates to the core of the subject or articulates the significant values it embodies. It often lacks a historical dimension and/ or is insufficient in its technical grasp.

Playwriting is a technology. Just as electric lighting or computer projection are technologies, so is the use of the written word as a means of shaping dramatic “moments”.

In the first millennium BCE the ancient Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, Levantine linear, itself taken from Iron Age Proto-Canaanite. They introduced vowel signs and reversed the flow of inscription, running their sentences – like the one you’re reading now – from left to right.

This reformed approach became the basis for all subsequent European alphabets. The term for the act of writing – γραμμός(in Latin scribio) – expanded to refer to its correlate products. The word “script” retains shades of this complex history, even in the digital era. As if letters had a mysterious agency, like the inventors of runes believed, containing within them the charge of our disruptive imaginations.

Sydney, April 17, 2002. (lt-rt) Amanda Muggleton and William Zappa in a scene from the new David Williamson play 'Soulmates' at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House. 'Soulmates' takes a swipe at the entire literary foundation. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins) NO ARCHIVING

David Williamson’s play ‘Soulmates’ which takes a swipe at the entire literary foundation

Socrates thought γραμμός dangerous and argued for its suppression. But by the 5th century BCE writing was a ubiquitous part of Mediterranean life, handy for all sorts of religious, commercial and philosophical purposes (we know Socrates’ opinions because his pupil, Plato, wrote them down).

In Athens it was used to record the work of victors in annual play competitions, that their achievements might be remembered and there would be no dispute about who had won.

Play it again

At what point did the Greeks realise what had been performed once could be performed again? That the technology of playwriting allowed the past to return in sensory immediacy? No doubt there was some sort of proto-drama before this but writing supercharged the art-form with the force of an emergent literary expertise.

Has this innovation ever been surpassed?

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Louis Bouwmeester as Oedipus in a Dutch production of Oedipus the King c. 1896.

When we pick up a copy of Medea or Oedipus The King we engage in an act of a time travel that shoots us back to thoughts and feelings first faced 2,500 years ago. Many things about ancient Greece are unknown to us or unintelligible. But when an actor cries out αἰαῖ αἰαῖ, δύστανος ἐγώ (“woe, woe is me, whither am I born?”) history collapses in an ardent transmigration of souls.

The introduction of written language into live performance was more than an addition to its existing skillset of dance, music and the choral ode. It was a radical escalation of its presence and power, forging a new representation of human experience. Theatre became dramatic, even as the written word took on viral life, via the acting conventions that sprang up around the technology of playwriting.

This was not really a shift from an oral to a written culture, since the spoken word was still the focus of the poet’s craft. It was a new balance between elements such that language could be harnessed as a capital resource.

Every time a drama is presented we engage in the same miraculous inter-temporal act.

What was dead lives again, and will continue to live long after we are dead. Every play contains an infinity of response, freed simply by the desire of artists and audiences to engage with it.

The basics

In all developed countries today drama is a major mode of expression. On stage and screen, it irradiates our lives with its tropes and techniques. The Greeks infused playwriting with basic parameters. These may not be universal but they are certainly robust.

Not every drama has “a story” in the way Aristotle insisted was needed. All display qualities of narrative tension. Not every drama has “characters” in the classical sense or “dialogue” in a conventional one. All contain points of emotional accrual and communicate using language-like means, be this visual image, acoustic vibration or choreographic gesture.

The technology of playwriting changes not only the formal possibilities of theatre but also its social function.

Theatre goes from “being something”, a social ritual, to “saying something”, a creative act. It becomes an intervention, a source of critical knowledge.

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Kill The Messenger

It also becomes a threat. After Euripides wrote The Trojan Women, with its implied criticism of Athenian warmongering, he was exiled to Salamis.

The history of playwriting is punctuated with repression, punishment and overt control by political authorities looking at it with baleful eyes. It is good to remember that stage censorship in Australia stopped only in the 1970s and the laws pertaining to it have never been officially revoked.

In my next article I will look at Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), an American play. After this, I will examine Duncan Graham’s Cut, an Australian play written in 2011. An old play and a new one.

My perspective will be dramaturgical rather than literary. I will look at what makes these plays “work”; or under what circumstances they will “work”.

In my final article, I will take the insights of this comparative exercise into a historical overview of Australian stage drama.

Why do this?

First, because it is always interesting to know how things tick, and plays are more like car engines than one might imagine.

It’s a craft. You learn it. You do it. You learn it some more. Given talent and application, eventually you do it well. But writing drama is a hard road. Even the best playwrights have produced very few masterpieces.

Second, because Australia is a country that has under-achieved in this art form.

Given our wealth, diversity and level of education, we have not produced the substantial body of dramatic work one might expect. Our film industry is sporadic. Our television drama is forever collapsing into soap. Our memorable stage plays are few.

In 1968, the editor of Oz Magazine, Richard Walsh wrote:

If, as we are continually being told, the Muses are currently undergoing a Renaissance in Australia, Drama appears at this stage to be the last of the famous nontuplets to be delivered and with the lowest birthweight.

Despite the achievements of Australian film, television and theatre since the 1960s, Walsh’s words still ring uncomfortably true.

As a dramaturge and director I have been working with playwrights for more than 30 years. I have commissioned and developed drama for both small companies and large, have advised agencies on their support for new plays, and worked with writers of very different stylistic hue.

I add to this a knowledge of past Australian drama drawn from my job as a theatre historian, from examining the plays others artists have chosen to stage.

John McCallum in his wonderful book Belonging: Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century says plays are “the bones and stones of our theatre”. Whether as historical trace, repertoire choice, adaptation object, or aspirational project, the written play is a major component in stage, screen and television drama. I call it “the device that turns information into experience”.

Contemporary Australia needs a better grasp of playwriting so that playwriting can better represent contemporary Australia. Over the next few weeks I hope to show both how this can be done, and why it is so important.

Here you can read Part 2, We can’t get those two hours back – drama works as time unfoldsPart 3,  Playwriting doesn’t get better or worse – but it does evolve and Part 4,  Australian plays: how to persuade a nation to question its own soul? 

Theatre In A Box

jp-one-popupAs someone who (happily) tends to experience visits to the theatre with anything between 30 and 140 others in tow, the subject of today’s post has a certain appeal. Currently in-situ in Times Square, New York, the Theatre For One is open for business. Brainchild of set designer Christine Jones, Theatre For One is a mobile space, big enough for just one performer and one audience member. The website says:

Theatre for One commissions new work created specifically for this venue’s one-to-one relationship. Embracing serendipity and spontaneity, Theatre for One is presented in public spaces in which audience members are invited to engage in an intimate theatrical exchange and enter the theatre space not knowing what to expect. Actor and audience member encounter each other as strangers in this suspended space and through the course of the performance allow the divisions and distinctions that separate us to dissolve.

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Now all of that appears a little pretentious, but a couple of articles and reviews, one from The New York Times and another from Exeunt, do make Theatre For One sound like something worth experiencing. In a programme for NPR, Neva Grant explores the growing trend for Intimate Theatre around the world:

I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about some of that. The taxi ride in Melbourne appeals though, as does the idea of a performance that lasts just 3 minutes.

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Literary Redundancy – Not A Chance

athol-fugard-2012I came across a programme this week on NPR, which celebrates one of my favourite playwrights Athol Fugard. At the age 82, the legendary South African is still actively writing and directing new plays.  Born in 1932, he grew up under white rule and for decades, Fugard worked tirelessly, both in South Africa and in exile, to illuminate the injustices of apartheid in his plays. Following the elections in 1994, which saw Nelson Mandela becoming president, Fugard says:

I sincerely believed that I was going to be South Africa’s first literary redundancy, but as it is, South Africa caught me by surprise again and just said, ‘No, you’ve got to keep writing, man. There are still stories to tell.’ And, possibly, at this moment in our history, the stories that need telling are more urgent than any of the stories that needed telling during the apartheid years.”

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Classed as one of the most important playwrights of the 20th Century, he has been prolific in his output and I have written about him here before in the post Mandela, Apartheid And The Theatre Of The Fight. The reason for the NPR broadcast (embedded below) is the off Broadway opening of his new play The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek which is, in part, based on the story of farm labourer Nukain Mabuza, who had spent about 15 years, in the late 1960s and ’70s, painting vivid, highly patterned designs on the boulders and stones in arid terrain of the eastern South Africa.

In the video, Fugard talks about his inspirations for the play that has received decent reviews, with Variety saying that it is thoughtful and poignant and that it places the powerful symbol of man’s dignity in a modern day context. There is also an excellent article in The New York Times by Roslyn Sulcas, Athol Fugard Tells of a Great Outsider Artist.

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Fugard’s work fascinates me because he manages to tell universal tales through an African context.  His work is always being staged and as I write, there are productions of My Children! My Africa on in London and Los Angeles,  People are Living There is being performed on his own turf in South Africa and in the US, as well as The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, there is a production of The Island on in Virginia. He writes beautifully, more often than not for small casts, and if you don’t know his work, I highly recommend at least reading some and definitely seeing some when you get the opportunity.

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All In A Day’s Work

Building2The National Theatre in the UK has come up with another little gem of a series, Careers at The National, which they have just begun posting on YouTube.  It looks like they are exploring the less obvious roles that make up the team behind the scenes. Theatre doesn’t begin and end with the rise and fall of the curtain but I often think people fail to realise the multiplicity of roles that really do exist backstage. So far they have published three, with no doubt many more to come, and I have shared the Scenic Artist one here:

The American Theatre Wing also have two occasional series, How it Works and The Work which cover a myriad of other behind the scenes roles. They are somewhat more in depth than the ones from the National and I have shared two of them here – the first is about the job of Prop Master and the second, Projection Design.

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Have a look through the rest of their videos, they are wide-ranging and some are really fascinating.

The meaning of life is that it stops

META-articleLargeMany writers find their work adapted for the stage, but perhaps one of the most recreated and reimagined is Franz Kafka. Similarly, there are few writers who have had their name turned into an adjective and, with the coining of kafkaesque, he is one of them. Born in the Czech Republic, but writing in german, Kafka is arguably one of the most intriguing and revered writers of the 20th Century.

Kafka on line, a one stop shop for all things Kafka, says the writer

…….is renowned for his visionary and profoundly enigmatic stories that often present a grotesque vision of the world in which individuals burdened with guilt, isolation, and anxiety make a futile search for personal salvation.

I think it is these universal themes that draw theatre makers and audiences alike. Metamorphosis, especially, has been adapted for the stage many times, perhaps most famously by Steven Berkoff, who also staged The Trial  and his lesser known work, The Penal Colony.

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Currently there is a series of programmes on BBC radio, In the Shadow of Kafkawhich explore his life, works and on-going influence. Amongst these is an adaptation of The Trial, by playwright Mark Ravenhill, called The Process (also embedded below) and well worth a listen.

Along with Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis, Josef K from The Trial is probably one of the most famous literary (and theatrical) characters of the last century, and both warrant their own programmes as part of the BBC series. The former is also being read by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch over 4 episodes.

The most stunning adaptation of Metamorphosis I have had the pleasure of seeing is by VesturPort Theatre Company from Iceland, performed here in Hong Kong a couple of years ago and which has toured world-wide to critical acclaim. A fabulous piece of physical theatre and stunningly designed.

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For me as a theatre maker, Kafka require risks to be taken both in staging and in interpretation and VesturPort do just this.

Finally, I should say that the title of this post is a quote from the man himself rather than a Sunday afternoon existential reflection of my own.

The Korean Way

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Courtesy of my friend Paul Mór who teaches at Branksome Hall School in Jeju, South Korea,  is my second quick share for today. Theatre in Korea is a publication from the Korean Arts Management Service which explores recent theatre history as well as contemporary playwrights and directors from the country. An unusual find in English, it is a great resource for any world theatre student. Korea has a rich performance history and has really embraced, integrated, made its own and adapted western theatre traditions to create a very distinct theatre landscape. Click the link above for a PDF download of Theatre in Korea. Enjoy.

Carry On Screaming

Antonin_Artaud_jeune_b_SD-1I have a couple of things to share this weekend, both of which are little gems. Firstly, courtesy of Open Culture, a recording of a never-aired radio play, written and performed Antonin Artuad To Have Done With The Judgment of God.  As any good student of theatre knows, when it comes to Artaud and his theories, tangibility is an issue, so to have this recording of his work is a rarity to be savoured. Generally speaking, his ideas about theatre were more popular than his actual productions. Perhaps his most famous play, Les Cenci, was staged in 1935 and tells the story of a father who rapes his daughter and then gets brutally killed by his daughter’s hired thugs. The play was a flop, running for only 17 performances and was generally considered not to be very good. Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de dieu (to give the To Have Done With The Judgment of God its original french title) proved to be equally unpopular. Commissioned by Ferdinand Pouey, head of the dramatic and literary broadcasts for French Radio in 1947, the work was written by Artaud after he spent the better part of WWII interned in an asylum where he endured the worst of his treatment.

The piece is as raw and emotionally naked as you might expect –an anguished rant against society. A raving screed filled with scatological imagery, screams, nonsense words, anti-American invectives and anti-Catholic pronouncements.

Give it a listen and you will what I mean:

The piece was programmed to go on air on January 2, 1948 but the station director Vladimir Porché pulled it at the last moment. It was said, apparently, that he wasn’t terribly fond of the copious references to poop and semen or the anti-American vitriol. Parisian intellectuals including Jean Cocteau protested the decision, with Pouey resigning from his job in protest, but to no avail. It never aired. Artaud, who reportedly took the rejection very personally, died a month later. You can listen to the broadcast above. And, in case your French isn’t up to it, you can still appreciate its theatrical elements,  while reading an English translation of the radio script here.  It is a fascinating (albeit difficult) listen and really does give you a sense of what Artuad was getting at with the Theatre of Cruelty. There is an english audio version on Youtube, but it doesn’t touch the original recording. There is also a somewhat dated recording of a staged version of the piece, performed by Billy Barnum and John Voigt:

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The website that has the english translation of To Have Done With The Judgment of God is a good little find too. Surrealism-Plays is a mine of information about surrealism and avant-garde theatre.

Thanks must go to my good friends and colleges, Sherri Sutton (International School of Geneva) and Kerry Rochester (WIS, Hong Kong) for bringing the Open Culture post to my attention. Drama teachers of the world unite!

The Overcoat

For one month only. A superb offering from theatre company Gecko who have put on-line, for the month of May, the full recording of their acclaimed production The Overcoat. Loosely based on the short story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol and described as an exceptional and spellbinding work of art on its first outing 6 years ago at the Edinburgh Festival, it has played across the world.

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In addition to the production video, Gecko have also released a 20 minute video of extracts from the performance with a commentary from the company and show director Amit Lahav.

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This release of this material is a gift for anyone interested in collaborative theatre practice, but especially so for IB Theatre Arts students and the Collaborative Project. As a company Gecko willingly share their creative processes and there is an outline of their working practice here in their Student Resource Pack. In addition there are a further series of useful short interviews with Lahav about various aspects of the company’s work on their YouTube Channel.

By way of a post script, Gecko’s latest show Missing was in residence at the Battersea Arts Centre in London when it was badly damaged by fire in early March, destroying the whole show – props, sets, lights, costume – totally. Undeterred, they launched a Kickstarter campaign, together with a performance of an ‘unplugged’ version of the show to raise funds to replace all that was lost. Gecko’s popularity is such that their fund-raising target was reached in a matter of days and the show will shortly be off on tour around the world including dates in Mexico, Brazil and Hong Kong later in the year.

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Heads Up

photo-exhibition01-1A couple of puppet based things to share today. Over the Easter vacation I spent a few days in Taiwan and while I was there I paid a visit to the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum, which is an absolute gem and I thoroughly recommend a visit if you find yourself in Taipei. Spread over four stories of an old colonial merchant’s house, the museum houses a 100 seat puppet theatre and puppet workshop where puppet carver Lai Shi-an plies his craft in front of visitors. However, the exhibit itself is what makes the museum really worth a visit. Beautifully curated from a collection of 10,000 artefacts drawn from right across Asia, it traces the rich history of puppet theatre in the region.

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I also want to share an interesting interview with puppeteer Max Humphries, whose work is largely inspired by Japanese Bunraku. In an article. No strings Attached by Max Dorey 4429097for Exuent, Dorey talks about the anatomy of the puppet, the puppet as actor and the joys of working with no strings attached.

I believe in trying to achieve the best possible mechanisms for a puppets movement and manipulation; finding the line between the needs of the puppet, the puppeteer, the maker and the performance. My ideal would be a theatrical landscape in which the puppet is viewed as actor, without preconceptions

Fascinating, I recommend a read.

Exchanges On Acting

Untitled_FotorOne of things that I enjoy about keeping Theatre Room is the fact that I am constantly surprised by what I stumble upon in my research. There are always things out there that I haven’t seen before and today I want to share a recent find. The Oslo International Acting Festival took place in 2012 and 2013, organised by The Academy of Theatre, Oslo National Academy of The Arts and The Norwegian Actors’ Center, with a view to exploring the nature and future of the art of acting globally. As I write I can’t find any information about whether the festival will continue in the future but the videos (posted on a YouTube channel) from the two festivals so far are a goldmine for theatre students. At the 2012 festival the theme was techniques and methods and explored the work of Constantin Stanislavski, Stanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg, Michael Chekov and Bertolt Brecht amongst others. I’ve posted the discussion about Brechtian technique below:

The 2013 festival had audience as it’s focus, with talks and discussions including one led by The Wooster Group’s Richard Schechner and another by Gisella Mendoza, a South American practitioner of Theatre of The Oppressed, posted below:

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A great and interesting resource.