To get a sense of what happens to a play after it has won the competition and been selected for production, we ask 2008 winner Vivienne Franzmann to start a correspondence with playwright Simon Stephens.
Vivienne’s play MOGADISHU premieres at the Royal Exchange in January 2011 and Simon Stephens’ plays PUNK ROCK, ON THE SHORE OF THE WIDE WORLD and PORT have all been produced at the Royal Exchange. As the show progresses, we will update their conversation.
From: Simon Stephens
To: Vivienne Franzmann
30th December 2010
You must be in rehearsal now.
Am I right?
How’s it going?
If not how’s casting?
Did you go to auditions?
How’s the design?
How are you coping with the spatial challenges of the Exchange and the specificity of the round and then bringing it to the Lyric in Hammersmith?
I hope you’re well.
It’s such an energising feeling to go into a new production at the start of a new year.
If there’s anything I can help you with just let me know.
From: Vivienne Franzmann
To: Simon Stephens
31st December 2010
Yes, rehearsals have begun – we’ve just finished the first week in London and it’s been great. We spent the first day reading through the play and the rest of the week going over it all in more detail with the cast asking me lots of tricky questions – some of which I could answer easily and some which squeezed my brain as I searched for answers/reasons for characters’ motivations. It’s quite a weird experience being asked something about a play that you’ve written that you can’t answer (and a bit scary), but the play has been two and half years in the making and is now on the sixth draft and in that process info/plot/characters/general stuff gets lost and found. The cast is brilliant! It’s great to hear the my words coming to life through them – the energy and va va voom of the younger cast members is hilarious so there’s been a lot of laughs. It’s amazing that you can hear a scene read three times in a row and find it funny each time. I’ve made some changes to the script throughout the week, because it becomes clear when you hear it read what works and what doesn’t, and the actors’ questions have made me question some aspects of my characters. So, it’s been an interesting first week with lots of developments and I feel really positive and excited about it all.
I went to most of the auditions and we saw a lot of actors. There are 12 characters in the play so we had a lot of decisions to make. It was fairly easy – Matthew, Jerry (the casting director) and I were pretty much in agreement throughout the process with the occasional quibble. Some actors felt right for the characters almost instantly and I think when that happened, it felt a little bit magical, particularly with the younger less experienced actors – it felt like a real discovery. When we were looking for a Becky in the play, Matthew saw Shannon in Spur of the Moment at the Royal Court and suggested I went to see her, because she was brilliant – and she was! So I was chuffed when I heard she was going to be our Becky. The older characters are being played by very experienced actors and this balances really nicely with the younger ones and has given the first week a really nice atmosphere.
The design looks great – Tom has created something very special . We were talked through the whole thing on Monday morning and both Tom and Matthew spoke very eloquently about it, which I won’t try to emulate – I’ll just say it involves a cage and there’s some revolving going on – I know that doesn’t really sell it, but trust me, it looks fantastic.
With regards to the contrasting space of the Exchange and the Lyric, I’m leaving that in Matthew’s capable hands.
And that’s it! Happy New Year one and all!
From: Simon Stephens
To: Vivienne Franzmann
5th January 2011
There is something alarming about being asked a question like “where was this character born?” or “what does this character do for a living?” by an actor who has to commit to playing that character for months out of their lives and simply not knowing the answer. I used to lie. I used to try and make things up. A writer I have great respect is prone to tell actors sometimes to “mind their own business” when it comes to questions like that. I think I prefer to think that sometimes we simply don’t know the answers. Because characters exist in the moments of behaviour. A character, I think isn’t formed by their back story, by what they’ve done in the past or by what they do off stage. characters are defined absolutely by their behaviour within a moment of a scene.
Also sometimes writing is intuitive isn’t it. Sometimes we write moments of behaviour or lines of dialogue without knowing rationally why they are there. And sometimes that subconscious irrationality is fundamental to how a play is made. There are definitely moments in PUNK ROCK and ON THE SHORE OF THE WIDE WORLD that I didn’t understand at the time of writing but which felt absolutely true and these moments are really worth fighting for. Plays are defined by their irrational identities as much as they are by their rational identities. And my favourite bits of my favourite plays are often messy bits. Slippages. Illogical collapses. I think.
Now I’ve done a few more rehearsals I’m more confident about simply telling an actor that I don’t know an answer. Sometimes actors can take solace in offstage work and research around a character as a means of avoiding work on an actual scene. I don’t blame them. Their job finally is afar more scary than ours. But the point, finally, should always been the present tense moment of behaviour within a scene.
I enjoy reading and re-reading plays round the table on the first week of rehearsal. It needs a good director to stop the cast wandering off into sometimes irrelevant anecdotes about their time at drama school being EXACTLY like the moments in the play. Or recounting horrifying stories of people they once knew who are unsettlingly more interesting than the characters in your play. But it can be revealing. I normally learn far more in those weeks than I think I reveal to the actors or director.
Yes. Re-drafting should always be to clarify I think. The re-drafting process for me is always about making something clearer and clearer and clearer. It kind of always fails in the end. All plays kind of fail in some way in the end. It’s a bit frustrating but also what makes theatre a bit more like life.
I’m rubbish on casting. Unlike somebody like David Eldridge who sometimes feels like a walking SPOTLIGHT to me, I have a very slight frame of reference for actors. Normally I just want my mates to do it. So a director with as much experience as Matthew or a casting director like Jerry is invaluable. They can draw from a much broader field than I ever could. There is something astonishing though about those moments when actor and character meet for the first time. I love auditions. I love hearing the same excerpts of scenes read over and over again. The identity of different actors is established with real precision by reading just the slightest amount of text and working it and working it. I always want to hug actors when they come in because even the best ones can get terribly nervous. Sometimes it’s excruciating watching that nervousness. More often though its rather moving and kind of humbling.
One thing which is true is that directors of new plays feel nervous at auditions too. They get, even very experienced directors, very nervous that the writer in the room is going to hear them give a note about the scene being read to the actor being met in front of the writer and the writer is going to be appalled by how wildly off key their note is.
Nobody ever thinks about directors getting nervous.
But even massively experienced directors on the first day of rehearsal are shitting themselves. I’ve normally relaxed by that stage. Because the play has at least been programmed so its probably not totally shit, which remains my main worry about all my plays. For me the terrifying moments are when the play is first read out loud and on the first previews when it is first judged by an audience.
There is a remarkable resonance though when you hear the right actor speak your words and that can often come in auditions. I remember David Hargreaves coming in for the On the Shore meeting and just thinking that he was somehow capturing the spirit of my Dad. When Tom Sturridge read William Carlisle at his first Punk Rock audition I was almost shaking with excitement at how he had caught something so brilliantly right.
It is certainly humbling having an actor commit to something we’ve imagined them speaking in rehearsal. Its like you have a bit of a dream at night and its strange and surreal and then a whole industry of frighteningly talented actors and directors and designers work immeasurably hard to somehow to make your dream become manifest.
Have you seen much work at the Exchange? It is the most beautiful theatre.
Are you still teaching Viv? Are you able to get time off work?
Are you in rehearsals in Week two?
Do keep me posted on how its going and do ask me anything if you ever have doubts or feel a bit anxious or jubilant or anything.
From: Vivienne Franzmann
To: Simon Stephens
12th January 2011
Thanks for your response/correspondence and sorry it’s taken me so long to get back.
Yes, I am still teaching, but now I’m in new school and work part time so I have two days off in the middle of the week to do my thing. Luckily the first week of rehearsals fell in the Christmas holidays so I was able to go to them all and since I’ve been back at work, I’ve been up to Manchester twice to answer more questions/queries/probes. Matthew really investigates the text in the first week or so (I don’t know if this is how all directors do it or not), there’s a lot of digging around in the words and making sense of it all. It’s been strange for me, because as a teacher I’m used to speaking and explaining stuff, and in rehearsals I had to get used to the rhythm of it all – knowing when to speak and not speak, letting actors come to their own conclusions without jumping in, understanding when Matthew wanted me to explain things and when he wanted the actors to investigate. I think I’m pretty good at saying ‘I don’t know’, I wish I was a bit better at saying ‘I do know’. In one of the readings, we did last year, after I had said that something was a bit crap that I’d written and that I’d change it, one of the actors leant over to me and said, ‘You don’t have to give it up so easily’ and later when I disagreed with something, he said, ‘You fucking tell him. Go girl’ . Because I’m new to all this and am around lots of experienced people, I sometimes feel the need to defer, and it takes quite a lot for me to disagree with something – I guess it’s about knowing when to accept other people’s opinions and knowing when to trust your own – I dunno, I’m still working it out. Are you swayed by other people’s opinions? Do you think you’ve changed throughout your career as a playwright? Do you trust yourself more or have you always been confident about your writing?
I know what you mean about sometimes not knowing why you’ve written something, but believing in it for whatever reason – it’s strange that you can feel so connected to a bit of writing without fully understanding it and even stranger still, I think, when you begin to understand it later.
I’m not surprised you were excited when you saw Tom Sturridge, I saw Punk Rock and he was completely right for William – brilliant.
I went up to Manchester yesterday to see how it was going and it looks in really good shape. I went up to the press office first thing and they showed me a video of the opening scene in the cage that they’ve built for the set and I was embarrassingly transfixed by it, because it was so good – I just stood staring open mouthed. Then I went into rehearsal where I was warmly greeted – it’s a bit like being the Fonz – and I sat and watched rehearsals all day. The actors really understand the characters because of all the initial prep Matthew did with them and the older actors whizz through the scenes. The younger ones need a bit more time, partly because there’s more of them on stage at once, as well as being less experienced. There was lots of giggling and raised eyebrows about an imminent kiss and I’d like to say that I was very mature at this point, but I wasn’t and found it as funny as the teenagers. At this stage, there are only minor changes taking place – a pause being taken out here and there and the odd word change, which is just as well as the final proof for publishing went off yesterday. I’m sure more changes will arise, but I don’t think it will be anything hugely significant at this point. Do you think there is ever a point when you feel like a play is finished or is there always more to be done?
I haven’t seen anything at the Exchange so my first experience of it will be my play – who’d have thought it! It’s an amazing structure, isn’t it? I haven’t been in it since the award ceremony in 2008 – I keep meaning to go and have another look, but I get sucked into rehearsals and don’t want to miss anything. I’m up again next week for two days so hopefully I’ll get to have another look then.
I’d be interested to know what you thought about the contrasting spaces of the Lyric and the Exchange and the impact on Punk Rock (sounds like a badly worded A’ level question – you have one hour to answer it).
Anyway, hope you are well – are you leading the panel of the Bruntwood this year? I’m not sure where I got that information – I might have made it up.
From: Simon Stephens
To: Vivienne Franzmann
17th January 2011
It’s a complicated thing isn’t it, that line between arrogance and humility. I think they key to it lies in that very difficult area of trusting what you see and what you hear. Keeping your eyes open. Listening attentively. I think I enjoy listening to other peoples opinions. I think, finally, this is why I work in theatre rather than any other medium. When the collaboration at the heart of making theatre works as well as it can you’re in a remarkable position in which the whole of a piece of a work somehow is more than the sum of its individual constituent parts. I always find asking questions is more creative than offering answers in any rehearsal room. People learn more from a precise clear question than they do from an opinion I think. I don’t know how I’ve changed over the past ten years although I’m sure I have. I think my sense that an overly interventionist note can kill a performance remains acute. I think I’ve developed a faith in allowing a director to own a rehearsal room and refined my sense that in rehearsal I work for them, not vice versa.
I think what happens in rehearsal sometimes is that patterns are repeated. The third week is often difficult. The final run through in a rehearsal room often somehow more joyful than the first dress rehearsal. The second preview often feels a lot worse for the actors than the first preview and somehow always feels worse than it actually is. Patterns recur. I think perhaps I’ve come to expect these recurrences so I’m less freaked out by them.
I also think that the longer rehearsals go on the less use I am. I think I’m good in the first week and then by the end of the run I’m just normally slightly gob smacked by the whole thing.
For me the same notes crop up again and again. Actors need to play the action. The last word in a sentence is often the most important one. When actors have the confidence to attack a space, if the theatre’s any good then it yields.
Don’t be embarrassed by finding your own plays transfixing. It is like a dream being made manifest. It’s humbling and odd and thrilling at once.
When you get your first book, that will also be incredible. That ISBN number renders you immortal you know?!? Wherever there’s a copyright library you will be found.
Finally, I don’t think plays ever are finished, really. They’re always flawed. But it’s the flaws that give them their character. Sometimes there can be a proclivity to perfect plays on behalf of people working in theatres. The best of those people know it’s futile. The best plays have big old cracks running right down the middle of them. The point of re-writing, I think, is just to clarify. To try to and allow your play to say as clearly as you can possibly make it say what you want it to say.
In terms of the difference between the Exchange and the Lyric, well it’s interesting. they’re kind of the inverse of one another in an odd way. The Lyric is a 19th Century room in a 1970s building and the Exchange is a 1970s room in a 19th Century Building. The Proscenium at the Lyric frames action elegantly. The round, at the Exchange, charges behaviour beautifully. The Exchange is more intimate despite being bigger but the Lyric really supports an actor.
And the thing is Viv, you’ll find all this out.
This will be my last email until after your opening.
I wish you so much luck.
Stay focused. Stay calm. Keep buying Matthew drinks and making everybody cups of tea and never stop enjoying the thrill of the fact that all those people are working to make real something you once imagined as a possibility.
And your play is brilliant and it’s important and it will be served with grace. The press night, by the way is not a test. It’s not even really a night for the press. It’s a celebration of all the work you and Matthew and his team have put into allowing your actors to do as good work as they possibly can do. That’s why there’s always a fucking good party.
You’ve done something remarkable mate.
I’ll see you on the other side.