TOOLKIT SERIES 3- Daniel York Loh ‘I have a character but are they dramatic and exciting for an actor?’
As well as now being a writer, I’ve been an actor for over 30 years now. As an actor, having been inside the process, where…
Theatre is a live and physical artform. Plays or musicals can be incredibly creative, containing events that challenge the practicalities of theatrecraft. In this blog post, I call such events unstageable happenings. Writers, particularly emerging playwrights, tend to think safe and avoid unstageable happenings. Unfortunately this can limit imagination — wandering down rabbit holes or treading into labyrinths — for fear of encountering the unstageable. Writers should trust that often the unstageable can be produced. They should avoid being safe and challenge themselves to be big, bold and brave in their choices in order to push the art of the possible. In this post, we’ll explore a few examples of staging the unstageable and work through an exercise that you can factor into your own writing.
Take BLASTED by Sarah Kane for example. I don’t think I’ve ever been so shaken by the manifestation of worlds on stage. Set in an expensive hotel in Leeds, the location has to transport an audience to a place of war, the past, present, future, a baby’s burial, and the outside world all within one play. Like most of Kane’s work, the stage directions and the dialogue create epic concepts. She didn’t shy away from thinking big from a staging perspective and some of her most shocking actions and events in her work occur on stage. They need to be staged and executed, like CLEANSED where the flowers grow from the ground or a hand is put in a shredder. It has to happen, in some way or another, to support the story and core themes of the play. She had the courage and confidence (even from her first play) to say; fuck it I’ll write what I want and think about staging the unstageable later. This mantra has ensured that, whenever her work is staged, these unstageable happenings receive rigorous and careful thinking. They also provide the director, designers, actors and production team the opportunity to maximise creativity and exploration — keeping her work fresh, abstract and alive.
I think it’s easy as an emerging playwright (counting myself in that crowd) to think safe and not challenge yourself too much. Afterall, as new playwrights the focus tends to be on writing something structurally sound, low-fi, contained, with minimal design and little cast just to get the thing on and produced. My first play was set in a local couriers in one room with loads of parcels and packaging cluttering up the space. Physically it didn’t deviate from that world but within the story it explored themes of PTSD and the impact of war; it also ventured back and forth to Iraq from 1982 to 2012. Looking back now it gave me a prime opportunity to experiment with staging new locations and worlds. To incorporate the shifting of time through my storytelling and with the stage directions. But, I was too scared to do it. Why? Because I thought I’d never get it on so I didn’t dare to dream bigger. What I will say, five plays into my writing journey, is that being scared, worrying about logistics and the end product (getting the thing on) strips you of creativity as a writer. Below are some examples of brave and notable playwrights who have dared to put unstageable happenings in their plays.
SEVEN METHODS OF KILLING KYLIE JENNER `
by Jasmine Lee-Jones. `
It was important that the IRL (in real life) and Twitter-sphere (social media) were a living breathing part of the storytelling.
WILD by Mike Bartlett includes the idea of optical illusions, parts of the set and props disappearing. At the very end there’s even a moment where one of the characters peels back the walls and packs up the set leaving it empty.
PITY by Rory Mullarkey has an inciting incident (an event that sets the main character or characters on a journey that will occupy them throughout the narrative) by placing a bomb going off five pages into the play.
THE NETHER by Jennifer Hayley controversially looks at the world of the dark web where paedophiles and groomers lurk. It was important that there was a unique separation of both worlds that felt visceral, realistic and taboo.
PARLIAMENT SQUARE by James Fritz (Bruntwood-winning playwright) includes a character who sets herself on fire twice as a repeated stage direction.
THREE BIRDS by Janice Okoh (Bruntwood-winning playwright) SPOILER ALERT – at the end, one of the characters comes on stage carrying her dead mother’s eyeballs.
I once attended a masterclass led by Mike Bartlett where he said that most plays are about the personal, the social, and the existential. The combination of worlds, events, actions and staging are infinite, which makes choice infinite. You need to trust that anything is possible if you write it on the page. Think of yourself as playing god if it helps. and maybe do this little exercise to get you thinking. What do you have in your toolbox already? Consider the following:
I am a Cardiff born writer who is based in London. I’ve also lived in Bath and Bristol. In reflecting on my work to date, everything I’ve written / want to write includes my Welsh heritage, my class and my identity as a South Walian woman.
Growing up in Wales I had the luxury of being on the edge of the city, but also being brought up in a remote-like village overshadowed by Gwaelod-Y-Garth Mountain. My first play utilised that landscape. A story of loss and confinement, set on that very mountain exposed to the elements. A family in grief trying to move on (metaphorically and physically trying to get off the mountain) to begin a new chapter free from the trauma and history that mountain represents. You can use your environments. You can use your hometown, your culture, your community and place it as part of the narrative and then you can reimagine it in whatever way you like. Think BIG, BOLD and BRILLIANT. Welsh playwright Ed Thomas always does this beautifully. All of his works have a magical otherworldly feeling, yet feel profoundly Welsh and rooted in that place.
Dream It (Part 1)
Choose one of the below stimuli and familiarise yourself with it.
For one minute, free-write a stream of consciousness (list of words) that you think or feel from looking at, listening to, or reading the stimuli.
From your list of words, highlight three of the most obscure words then proceed to ‘Part Two’.
LOOK at this image.
LISTEN to The Shrine / An Argument by Fleet Foxes.
(listen from 6 minutes in to the end of the track)
READ this extract.
Flora I just wanted to know the truth you know?
Rain begins to fall in the small room HATTIE and FLORA catch it on their faces. It continues to build rapidly.
Another world appears and…
Manifest It (Part 2)
Consider your chosen stimuli and three highlighted words, use them to formulate something (like an event or action) that is completely and ludicrously unstageable. If you are stuck for ideas, use Mullarkey’s idea of ‘a bomb going off’.
Think about the following:
Then, jot down a couple of sentences for each bullet point.
Communicate It (Part 3)
Considering your own work (whether it’s a piece you’re currently writing, redrafting or getting prepped for production) and ask yourself the following questions:
Perhaps even think about theatre you’ve seen that included unstageable happenings and consider how that was executed. You’ll probably find that it was simply down to the writer being brave enough in their vision to write it down in the first place and push for it to be realised in production.
To conclude this blog post, I’d like to remind you about our job as Dramatists. We lock into the worlds we create and build them solidly enough to be authentic, so that an audience can witness and join us on the journey. We have the power to change the world in our plays. So why not venture as far as you can from the pen and paper into the world of possibility? You should never think of anything as impossible as a writer. Your primary job is to dream stories. Realising and telling stories are actions that follow on.
“To be a writer you just need the capacity to stand in wonderment at the world”. Raymond Carver
PLAYS THAT EXPERIMENT WITH THE UNSTAGEABLE
Mountaintop, Katori Hall https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/mountaintop-9781472587718/
Pity, Rory Mullarkey https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/pity-9781350093898/
Wild, Mike Bartlett https://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/wild
Blasted, Sarah Kane https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/blasted-9780413766205/
The Nether, Jennifer Hayley https://www.faber.co.uk/product/9780571315802-the-nether/
You for Me For You, Mia Chung https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/you-for-me-for-you-9781474276764/
Museum In Baghdad, Hannah Khalil https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/museum-in-baghdad-9781350150805/ad
Wolfie, Ross Willis https://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/wolfie
The Trick, Eve Leigh https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/trick-9781786827326/
Far Away, Caryl Churchill https://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/faraway
The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/546/54676/the-winter-s-tale
Seven Methods Of Killing Kylie Jenner, Jasmine Lee-Jones https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/seven-methods-of-killing-kylie-jenner-9781350277496/
Parliament Square, James Fritz
Three Birds, Janice Okoh
OTHER HANDY WRITING RESOURCES
The Blunt Playwright, Clem Martini https://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/the-blunt-playwright
Playwriting, Stephen Jeffreys https://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/playwriting
Secret Life Of Plays, Steve Waters https://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/the-secret-life-of-plays
How Plays Work, David Edgar https://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/how-plays-work
Into The Woods, John Yorke https://www.amazon.co.uk/Into-Woods-Stories-Work-Tell
Traverse Theatre Podcast https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/traverse-theatre/id460345357
Nick Herne Books Podcast https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-nhb-playgroup-q-a-podcast/id1515768292
WELSH BRUNTWOOD-WINNING PLAYWRIGHTS
Rebecca Jade Hammond is a Welsh female Writer, Dramaturg, Actor and Artistic Director of Chippy Lane Productions. She is a lecturer at several UK Universities and Drama Schools, Literary Reader for Hampstead Theatre, and is published by Methuen Drama. Rebecca was recently short-listed for the PAPATANGO WRITING PRIZE, placed in the top 10% for both the BBC Writers Room and the Verity Bargate Award, and long-listed for Theatre Uncut and the Traverse Theatre. She is currently working with National Theatre Wales and Lagos Theatre Festival on a writers exchange, developing a drama for television, and working on her fIfth play. In 2019 Rebecca set up the Welsh Female Writers Group to provide a platform and supportive community for Welsh women who want to write. She is currently studying for an MA in Dramaturgy and Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths University. Academically Rebecca lectures in Theatre History amongst other subjects and is a fellow of the Higher Educational Academy. Rebecca is represented by The Haworth Agency and published by Methuen.