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In this post- originally written in March 2017- playwright Roy Williams considers the process of how rehearsals and audience can impact and change a play.
The conclusion of my play DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE, which was on at the RSC in 2007, hinged on a major revelation, the love Lenny has for his step daughter HANNAH who was the main character. Lenny never had any intention of Hannah ever finding out how he feels, but is forced to reveal this due to Hannah cracking up over the pressure of supporting her army boyfriend Jamie who is about to stand trial for abusing Iraqi war prisoners. Lenny’s thinking that if Hannah knew how much me loves her, that she is such a caring strong woman, it will help her. Hannah is initially disgusted but is able to understand her step dad’s feelings as well her own in regard to her boyfriend Jamie.
Come rehearsals however, not only were the actors playing Hannah and Lenny struggling with this, so was the director. They argued that once Lenny makes the huge reveal, all sympathy is lost for him, and there is no way Hannah would forgive, let alone understand him. But I felt this was the way to get Hannah to where I wanted her to be at the plays end.
I am a writer who likes to watch how an audience reacts to my work. When the play was on at Stratford, I had my eyes on my audience as the scene came up, and I could sense as well as see people were uncomfortable, they were shifting around in their seats. The most pivotal scene in the play, and I knew we were losing the audience. They just were not buying it. Despite that, the play was a critical success and the RSC decided to bring it back for a three week run the following year at the Tricycle Theatre.
The director Maria Aberg and myself discussed at length how to replace the Lenny and Hannah moment but nothing was landing. Where I wanted Hannah at the plays end was important to me, and whether people like it or not, Lenny expressing how he feels about her helped me to achieve that. So, I made myself think not literally but in metaphors. Hannah is on the edge of a cliff and wants to jump. She is looking around for any excuse to leap off that cliff. I held onto that image and let it run around in my head for a good while. I was in France on holiday, when the solution came as fast as a light bulb being switched on. All I had to do was flip it over! At first I toyed with Hannah professing her love for Lenny, but I went for something far more simpler and more effective, I took myself back to the cliff where Hannah is searching for an excuse to jump off; what better way for her to do that by making a drunken pass at her stepfather? Lenny continues to have feelings for her, but they are now paternal feelings not sexual. Lenny is disgusted by Hannah’s behaviour but just like before, he must save her and pull her away from that proverbial cliff. The remarkable thing about this was that, apart from a few lines and change of location, I did not lose anything, Hannah was still where I wanted her to be. The scene worked much better with the actors than it before and there was no more audience shuffling around in their seats, we had them and we held them. I suppose the biggest lesson to learn from this is that rewrites are OK if the writer holds onto where their characters are, and what they want at any point in their play and not to think too literally about it sometimes.