WEEK FIVE- The Driving Question. Theatre as a Gesture of Enquiry by Chinonyerem Odimba
One of the first bewildering terms I heard when I started writing was ‘find your voice’. It took me a long time to understand this…
Hello and welcome to Week Seven!
This week we’re going to get under the hood of your idea and have a rummage around. By the end of it hopefully you’ll feel confident being honest with yourself and asking one of the trickiest questions there is, a question every writer avoids at some point in their process.
No, not ‘have I found the right story to tell?’ but ‘have I found the right way of telling it.’
To answer, we’ll need to start thinking about how the following three things relate to each other:
Content: what is your play ‘about’. What is the story? Or if there is not a ‘story’ in the traditional sense, what is being said, or done, or communicated.
Structure: If content refers to what’s being said, then structure, rather bluntly, can be defined as the order in which you say it. We’ll get onto the specifics a bit later, but essentially, when it comes to theatre: Structure is about controlling the progression of the audiences experience
Form: If content is what’s being said, and structure is what order you say it in, then form is about the way you say it. Are there ‘characters’? Stage directions? it a monologue? A series of instructions? Does it break the fourth wall? Is it divided into five acts? And so on..
The first section will look at finding the perfect form for what you want to say, how it relates to content, and why that’s crucial in letting your idea reach its full potential.
The second will look at structure and how it is crucial to keeping an audience engaged with your idea.
The third will look at rewriting structure and form and how useful it can be to consider the play as a whole when it comes to making it better.
Deep breath, there’s a lot to get through.
Here we go!
Finding the right form
Sometimes, as a writer, the form of your play will be clear to you from the moment the idea first pops into your head. It will feel like there is no other way you can express that idea, and to do so would be to betray the very core of the idea itself. These are great moments! Cherish them and write the thing, furiously, when they come along.
So far I have only had the feeling once, that I can remember. Which is very irritating.
With all my other plays I have found what I want to write about quite quickly, but then struggled for months, sometimes years, over the best way to write it, poking and prodding at the idea, reshaping, reorganising and getting distracted by the washing up.
Sometimes I will lie to myself just to break the deadlock and start writing, often finding myself two, three, ten drafts in still pretending everything’s fine. No matter how hard I try, however, the stupid thing just doesn’t feel right. Not in the way I know, in my gut, that it should.
This is usually because I’ve settled. I’ve written the play in a way that I’m comfortable with, rather than in the way that it should have been written. More often than not, I haven’t honestly answered one, or all, of the following questions:
These are all huge questions: ones that we, as theatre writers and makers, should always be thinking about, because, as we’ll see, none of the answers are inconsequential.
Remember: Everything is allowed…
We often talk about artists and writers who ‘like to play with form’ or are ‘formally innovative’.
What people really mean is that their work has strayed from the default idea of a ‘play’ that we all grow up with and first encounter at school: it has acts, and those acts are divided into scenes, and those scenes are comprised of characters talking to each other and stage directions for when they need walk upstage and throw a whisky glass against the wall.
And that is a great way to write a play. It really is. There is a reason why we’ve been going back to that well for thousands of years and will continue to go back to it. It makes sense, it helps create a natural basic structure, dictates some easy-to-follow rules for performing the piece and allows the reader to mentally direct a production in their mind without having to make too much of an imaginative leap.
But it’s also important to remember that it’s not the only way.
A good rule of thumb is to get your hands on as many playtexts/performance texts as possible, particularly those that are presented in forms and styles that are different from the way you usually write.
Do that and you’ll soon discover: there’s no right way to write a play, there’s only the right way to write the play you want to write. (Try saying that ten times.)
As a starter, here’s a handful of writers whose employment of unusual forms has inspired me in my writing over the last few years:
Caryl Churchill, Thornton Wilder, Samuel Beckett, Peter Handke, Martin Crimp, Sarah Kane, Rory Mullarkey, Young Jean Lee, Chris Goode, Chris Thorpe, Alice Birch, Ella Hickson, debbie tucker green, Duncan Macmillan, B.S. Johnson
….And everything counts
Here’s something I wish I’d learned much earlier than I did.
When your best mate or your director or the Bruntwood Reader or whoever you have been brave enough to give your writing to picks it up for the first time, they will take meaning from everything in it, whether they know it or not. Story, theme, dialogue and structure, yes, but also font, layout, language, punctuation, pace and countless other ingredients up to and including whether they are reading on paper or electronically (I know, that’s not your call).
Some of the choices you have made about these things will be buried so deep in your subconscious that you’ll be unable to notice you making. For those that you do have control over, however, it’s in your interests to make sure as many of them are working for your idea as possible. You might as well use every tool in your arsenal to say what you gotta say, because that reader/director/actor/performer/person who picks up what you’ve written won’t be able to see inside your head: they’ll be reading it in a totally different context with a totally different consciousness.
Your deployment of form is what bridges the gap between you and them. It is what helps you reach out a hand and say to the reader ‘this thing is attempting to do this, feel free to run with it.’
So think carefully about every ingredient that makes up your play. They all count.
How does it feel in your hand? What does the cover make you think? What can you tell about the play from the way it is laid out? What can you tell about the language?
Keep note of everything you learn about it just from flicking through, everything you ascertain about its character, style and energy before you’re familiar with its contents. Now read the play.
How right were you in your preconceptions? What surprised you?
The relationship between content and form.
The thing to remember when settling on how to write your play is: the DNA of your idea is found in its form, not in its content.
The way you build and shape your play has a context: it comes with echoes, precedents, references, gestures. When you choose a certain form you are speaking to every writer that used that form before.
That’s why a piece of theatre’s personality and politics are most powerfully expressed not in what is written, but in the way it is written.
This is why:
The package is just as – if not more – important as what is contained within.
The story of my 2015 play ‘Ross & Rachel’ (about a middle-aged couple who may or may not be a version of two characters from Friends) is simple: Two people have been together a long time start feeling like their lives have become intertwined, one of them gets sick and they both start to dream of better – and markedly different – futures. Trouble ensues. We’ve seen it all before.
The play’s central conceit however, is best expressed through its form: a body of text containing two speaking characters that is designed to be performed by a single actor. On the page Ross & Rachel makes for quite a confusing read. There are no lines attributed to either character, sentences and thoughts run into each other, words and phrases are repeated. It often takes close reading of the text to discern who is speaking when, and even then there are several lines that could justifiably be being spoken by either character.
I chose to do this so that when a director or actor picks it up the text they are encouraged to engage the idea itself, rather than just the story: a textual reflection of what it might feel like when two identities merged into one. This feeling might then, hopefully, be reflected in the production, which in turn will affect the way an audience experiences the work.
Of course, it doesn’t matter if you choose a form that beautifully mirrors the content of your play, actively works against it or ignores it entirely. The vital thing is that you think about it, you make this choice an active part of your writing process, because it might be the most important decision you take.
Structuring and restructuring: the perfect number of rakes
How do you structure a play?
Well, often that depends on what your play is trying to do: where does it want to take its audience? What is its intention? Different modes of performance require different structures and rhythms.
The thing that unites all pieces of theatre, however, is time. There will always be a beginning, and there will always be an end. The structure, whatever shape it takes, is how you dictate what the audience experiences between those two points.
The reason we often go back to traditional storytelling structures is that (when they are done well) there is a built-in progression in the audience’s experience from start to finish. Just as they think they’ve ‘got it’, ‘it’ shifts in some way and becomes something new. I.e:
Act one: ‘Can they find Nemo?’
Act two: ‘Oh no, I don’t think they’ll find Nemo.’
Act three: ‘Hooray! They found Nemo!’
Structuring every type of performance, whether it’s a comedy monologue or an impenetrable post-dramatic text, works in the same way. The audience are living through the moment: it’s up to you to give them an engaging experience to live through.
In part that is about controlling the flow of information – what does the audience know at each point, what do they see, what do they hear. But it’s also about controlling (or at least, aiming for the impossible and attempting to control) the flow of the experience: what is the audience feeling and when. Where is the build in emotion? Where is the text at its most intense, its most tender, its funniest?
This isn’t about constantly throwing new and exciting things at your audience, but about being alive to what they need and when. Try and be alert to where you should scream in their face and where you should sing them a lullaby.
As an example, I’d like you to watch this clip from The Simpsons episode of Cape Feare. (Yes, it’s Sideshow Bob stepping on the rakes):
The moment is surreal and repetitive, but still has an incredible structure. A beginning, middle and end that is in complete control of the audience’s experience.
It is, as has often been noted, funny at first (ha!) then boring (yeah, I’ve seen this), then confusing (it’s still going on?) and then hysterically funny again (HAH!). The exact same moment, repeated over and over without being changed, but the rhythm of the repetition holds our hand and pushes our experience as audience members forward until we get where the writer/director wants us to go. It’s the goldilocks theory: it gives us just enough. If it had stopped after three rakes, it would have failed to be funny. If it had gone on to fifty rakes, a hundred rakes, it would have ended up meaning something completely different.
During one of my plays I was struck night after night by the overwhelming sense that, at the same moment every night, the people around me suddenly weren’t engaged. They were watching, but their minds had wandered.
It was a failure of my text – I’d underestimated the audience’s response to the material. I’d hit the same note too many times in a row because I thought that’s what they needed, but through the slowly deflating energy in the room I could almost hear their thoughts: ‘Yeah, we get it. What’s next?’
Audiences are incredibly smart. They understand performance and storytelling instinctively.
It doesn’t matter how ‘traditional’ or ‘experimental’, how ‘naturalistic’ or ‘surreal’ the piece of work is, they can always tell when there isn’t the right number of rakes.
When thinking about structuring and restructuring your piece of work, in whatever form it takes, go through it and keep asking yourself the following question:
Does this moment move the audience’s experience forward in a useful way?
This question can be used through the planning process, the writing process, the rehearsal process, the previewing process. You can substitute the word ‘moment’ for ‘scene’, ‘line’, ‘beat’, ‘song’, ‘image’, whatever suits, but the principle is the same.
Rewriting the big things
When we talk about rewriting, we often think of cutting lines, trimming speeches, rethinking jokes, moving plot points around, changing what happens. Editing content, essentially.
Often, however – especially early on in the writing process – this can be a little like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Focusing on the little things and ignoring the big.
We shouldn’t be afraid as writers to rethink the structure and form of our plays. To reprogram the DNA of what we’re making – at any stage – to better achieve our aims.
As an example, let’s pretend I’m a poet and I’ve just written a limerick, because limericks are the form of poetry I’m most comfortable writing:
There once was a man from Peru
Who dreamed he was eating his shoe
He woke in the night
With a terrible fright
And found it was terribly true
Lovely stuff. (I nicked it off the internet).
I’m submitting this poem to a big poetry competition, but I’m not happy with it. Something feels off, but I’m not sure what, so break it down, briefly, into its component parts:
The content: a story about a man from Peru whose dream turns out to be reality.
The form: a limerick!
The structure: We learn about the dream, we learn that he woke up and was shocked, we find out why.
I’m happy with my content: I’m really into this Peruvian man’s story. But something about the limerick form is detracting from the way I want my poem to feel to the reader. It comes with too much baggage: it’s too jaunty, too sing-song, making light of the whole situation. It’s making my reader go ‘hah!’ when I want them to go ‘huh…’
So I sit down and I start again, this time using a different poetic form, one that that my reader will hopefully recognise and will change the way they respond to the information: a haiku.
Dreaming of eating a shoe.
Oh horror. It’s real.
The content is the same, the story progression is the same, but the shift in form has changed the tone of the piece. It is somehow more melancholic, more surreal, more surprising.
However, something still doesn’t feel quite right with the structure. The progression of the reader’s experience feels off: I want to front-load the sense of dread and confusion, for the mystery not to be how the man is feeling but why he is feeling that way. I also realise, belatedly, that now I’m no longer writing a limerick I’m not wedded to the formal convention of naming where the man is from. Since I don’t want to imply that his shoe eating is in any way linked to him being Peruvian, I cut it.
What I’m left with is:
Oh horror. It’s real.
The taste of shoe in his mouth
It wasn’t a dream.
A totally different poem, crafted from the clay of the first draft.
This is a silly example, of course (particularly because poetry and playwriting have, of course, very different aims) but it demonstrates the importance of engaging with the major things as well as the minor whenever we rewrite. I could have changed my man from Peruvian to Bolivian and his shoe to his hat, but as long as it remained a limerick it would still have felt the same to the reader. The way to change the energy of the thing, to realise its full potential, was to do a rewrite of form and structure, rather than content.
I have been through a process like this with almost all of my plays at some point in their development process. It can seem daunting, but don’t be afraid: it’s easier than you think and the rewards are great.
Take the thing you’re writing (or thinking about writing). Spend a minute imagining each of the following scenarios. Really try and picture what the change in form would do to your idea and the way people receive it.
Try and imagine what would change and what would remain the same if:
The structure was reversed back to front.
The whole thing was written in capitals.
The length stayed the same but the wordcount halved.
A moment of your choosing was repeated five times
A different moment of your choosing was repeated twenty times.
It was a one person show that you’re performing to one person. That you know.
It was a West End musical with unlimited budget.
It was a piece of stand-up comedy
It was a sculpture
It was a painting
It was a song by your favourite artist.
It was a tree
It was a bus.
It was a sausage.
Write down anything useful that comes up. Anything new you learn about your play. Anything you have had confirmed. Anything that excites you. And then go back to the beginning and seriously, honestly ask yourself the question:
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY FOR ME TO EXPRESS THIS IDEA TO THE AUDIENCE?
What we say. How we say it. What order we say it in. All this stuff means something, in life as well as the theatre.
You have a duty to interrogate each of these decisions and make sure it’s the right one for you and your idea.
What you’re creating is a starting point for performance, not a literary document. It is designed to be re-interpreted again and again in countless different ways. That gives you licence to push yourself, to create something on the page that feels right for you and your idea, a blueprint for collaborators present and future that best articulates what you’re trying to say about the world.
We all have our influences and instincts about what makes ‘good theatre’. Sometimes following those instincts can make for great work. But other times it can put the handbrake on, holding us back from truly expressing what’s inside us.
So keep exploring. Open yourself up to different forms.
Your idea is wonderful.
Don’t straitjacket it. Let it try on different coats until the right one fits.
Have a read of this fascinating write up of Chris Thorpe’s workshop on form and the audience: https://www.writeaplay.co.uk/chris-thorpe-on-form-and-the-audience/
If you have time, check out some of Chris’ plays, as well as ‘The Author’, the Tim Crouch play he references in the discussion.
James Fritz is a multi-award-winning writer from South London, whose plays for stage and radio include Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, Parliament Square, Ross & Rachel, Start Swimming, The Fall, Comment Is Free, Death of A Cosmonaut and Lava. He has won the Critics Circle Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright, a Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting and the Imison and Tinniswood BBC Audio Drama Awards, the first time a writer has won both in the same year. He has also been nominated for an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre, a BBC Radio Award for Best Single Drama, and was named runner-up in the 2013 Verity Bargate Award. He is a graduate of both the Channel Four Screenwriting Program and the BBC TV Drama Writers Program and has a number of original television series in development.