Trustworthy Characters

I said in my previous blog there was some amazing books I find myself turning to again and again for character work. To be honest these books are the ones I find myself coming back to for most of my consultations. But there all have some particular highlights for character. The books are Into the Woods by John Yorke, Different Every Night by Mike Alfreds and The Actor and the Target by Declan Donnellan (go out now and buy all of them!).

Into the Woods is not specifically about theatre, but about the art of storytelling and takes in novels, TV and (in particularl) film and it is fantastic! I can highly recommend it for anyone working in storytelling, there are so many gems in this book and well worth the £8.99. ‘Act IV – The Road Back, Night’ is basically all about character and can be read in isolation for some really useful advice but I can strongly recommend the whole book! There’s some interesting stuff on the psychology of character, Jung and Freud and ego defence mechanisms. But a couple of quotes to whet your appetite:

Good dialogue, then, is a manifestation of behaviour, not an explanation of it. Great dialogue shows us who our characters are. Telling is showing – it reveals character.

P.150 Into the Woods John Yorke

and – he is in fact quoting Jed Mercurio, the creator of Cardiac Arrest, Bodies and Line of Duty in this next quote – but he does a lot of pointing you towards good work of others, something I value…

‘Dialogue is the least important element of my writing. A lot of writers spend an inordinate amount of time polishing dialogue to try to fix problems, when the problem is much more likely to lie in structure or character’

P.162 Into the Woods John York (quoting Jed Mercruio)

Mike Alfreds book Different Every Night is another staple, I’ve worked with lots of people who love his writings and his teaching and I use a lot of it in my work. This book is a handbook to his method and although I take inspiration from a lot of it I don’t use it religiously. It is also worth saying it is about directing theatre, not writing a play. However, this is something that actors will be doing when interrogating your work so your plays had better stand up to that rigour! He has some lists that he suggests all actors should do for their character before embarking on a part (and the director should do these for all the characters in the play!) they are:

To discover what information the play actually gives us about a character, make the following lists:

  1. Facts about the character
  2. What the character says about him- or herself
  3. What the character says about other people – including those mentioned but not seen in the play
  4. What other people say about the character
  5. Imagery used by the character or by others to describe the character (optional)

Work through the text separately for each list. (If nothing else, this ensures that an actor has read the whole play four times at least before the start of rehearsal.)

P. 206 Different Every Night Mike Alfreds

Now as you can tell, Mike Alfreds is pretty work intensive and he likes to ensure that there is a lot of brain work done when putting on a show. I’m not sure I would necessarily want my actors to sit down and study in this way – although I know lots of actors who find it very useful – however I think it can be revealing for writers to do this sort of work as it can highlight what you have actually written, not what you think you have.

The other lists that Mike Alfreds clarifies for me are Objectives. Now say what you want about these and I certainly don’t go as all in as Mike Alfreds in my work, however, this I find useful information:

RECAPITULATION OF OBJECTIVIES

The super-objective is the character’s overarching purpose in life; the through-line is the character’s purpose through the context of the play; the scene objective is the character’s purpose from situation to situation. Super-objectives motivate through-lines that motivate scene objectives. The counter-objective is a strong character drive in conflict with the super-objective.

P. 64 Different Every Night Mike Alfreds

Now I think there is a full discussion to be had about whether a character can have one super-objective or if that is decided by the actor/director/production’s interpretation, but regardless of that, I think the writer should have a very good idea of their interpretation. The counter-objectives and the conflicts these imply can also be very useful, particularly with the help of Declan Donnellan.

I love The Actor and the Target (by Declan Donnellan) it’s beautifully simple and very eloquently explained. It’s not about writing, it’s about acting but inevitably it highlights that good writing is required for good acting. There is one section in particular I would like to mention it’s about dualities.

The Split Reaction

If I always have something to win and something to lose, then presumably what I am doing must also split in two. For I must always be trying to bring about what I want to happen. And at the same time, I must always be trying to prevent what I don’t want to happen.

P.71

Thinking in doubles

[…]

It is not true that the actor cannot play two things at once. We are always playing two things at once. But these two things are highly specific and precisely opposed. We must play in doubles because there is always something to be lost and something to be won.

P.73 The Actor and the Target Declan Donnellan

I think all of the above can be vastly useful when thinking, or struggling with a character, they all combine together to really bring a character to life, with specific, precise consideration. This is when you get your Post-Its and big pieces of paper out and have a play, see how it affects the story if they have different objectives. See if they have objectives in certain scenes, because if not they’re dead and shouldn’t be in the scene in the first place!

This is very much a brief mention and reading the whole of these books will really change your approach (at least each of them did for me) not that any of it is rocket science, but reading these books often feel like a kind of magic to me.

Dodgy Characters

Like the Clappers was back in April – hosted kindly by The Arcola we had a great evening up in Dalston. The focus of the workshop was looking at Character – what this means and how to write better characters.

When working with character I think there are two ways in. One is to think about what that character wants, probably the most important thing about them, if they don’t have wants and desires they are dead weight. There is some really useful literature about this that I will post in my next blog. The other way in, that I will focus on in this blog is what seem like arbitrary provocations that somehow unpick what that character’s essence is. And the two ‘games’ below are ways I like to scratch deeper into what a character is about.

We began with a simple exercise, and one that you can do now. Choose your favourite song. Got it? Now pick three words to describe that song. According to some team builder I once did a training session with, and one that had nothing to do with theatre, these three words are a good description of you. I don’t necessarily believe it, but it’s a fun provocation and one that can be done with any character your writing. What would their favourite song be? How would they describe it? Incidentally the first time I did it my words were ‘Lively, Intense and A bit weird.’ So you make your own mind up how accurate it is. What I think it does prove is that I play fast and loose when given instructions and don’t quite understand the concept of one word descriptions.

For the next game I asked everyone to think about a character they are currently writing, possibly one they are struggling with. Then I asked a series of questions that the writers  answered about their chosen character. Again, this is a task you can easily do now if you have a character to interrogate. It’s important to say that the answers have to be what this person is, not what their favourite thing is, the questions I asked were as follows:

What time of year are they?
What musical instrument?
What colour?
What kitchen utensil?
What part of London?
What country?
What mode of transport/vehicle are they?
What drink?
What food?
What plant are they?
What animal?
What era are they?
What song?
What religion?
What item of clothing?
What feeling/emotion?

Once you’ve answered these questions – in reasonably quick succession. Then the next part of the exercise is to delete half of your answers, the ones that aren’t quite right, or aren’t as bob on as the others. This should leave you with 8 words that describe your character. You then have to delete half again, leaving yourself with the 4 most accurate. Finally, delete one last word, the one of the four that you are least happy with, ending with three things that your character is – and its surprising how revealing it can be to realise your character is a ‘blue, whisk, french horn’. But as with all of these things, the endeavour is just as important. Why are they a ‘whisk’ not a ‘soup spoon’? Why is that a better description than ‘Easter’?

The questions are reasonably arbitrary, the ones listed above are by no means the only ones you can use. But they’re not a bad starting point. Obviously you can add or remove them as you like – it’s useful to choose questions with lots of answers with quite evocative meanings. It can be useful to have a list set away somewhere to ask yourself when you want to find out a bit more about your character rather than making them up on the spot, particularly if you already have a character in mind. This is an exercise that I first did while assistant directing, and was nothing about writing the characters – it was to help the actors to understand these people better, but I think it can also be really useful to help writers understand their characters better too!

Specifici-tea

The last blog I wrote talked about what I do when I first read a draft of a play as a dramaturg (read my Dramaturgy Checklist here) but there was one area I didn’t mention. It’s a huge part of being a dramaturg and although is maybe not quite as sexy as telling someone to butcher their play it is still nevertheless an integral part of the process.

It’s basically making sure everything makes sense. This sounds simple and obvious but it’s crucial to get that outside eye to double check and make sure that things haven’t got confused in redrafts or had their meanings mangled. Below are some examples of specifics that need checking, they are by no means exhaustive but I think illustrate my point.

The first is my favourite example. Helen offers Martin a cup of tea – milk, one sugar naturally. Helen leaves to make the brew, Martin opens a draw and Helen returns to catch him in the act. Drama ensues. My question is – how long does it take to make a cup of tea? Has the kettle just boiled? Do they have an urn in the kitchen? If Martin knows how long it’s going to take why does he go rooting around? The practicalities of tea-making should also be applied to making someone a sandwich, getting changed, reading a letter in silence, the examples are endless. Time is a real factor in each of these things and needs to be considered and they should not be simply a function to get someone out of the room!

Family trees are also great fun. Regardless of whether they appear in the play or not, I expect the writer to know how old the parents of each of the characters are (were), did they have siblings? Older/younger? Genders? What were their names? Where are they now? Actors (and directors) might make different decisions (and if they’re not mentioned in the play then they have every right to) but the playwright needs to know how all of this affected the characters they are writing.

Timelines also tie into family trees. The number of times I’ve read about two people who were at school together have a 15 year age gap, different accents and don’t know any of the same people. This is where diagrams and drawing out complicated timelines can be really useful, complete with the years and dates of all the events mentioned, or implied in the script. If you’re not rigorous, directors, actors and eventually audiences will find you out so do the work.

Respect and cultural greetings/traditions are also an interesting one. I don’t always think the dramaturg has to know the correct way a Roman solider from 4th century AD would greet another, but they should be aware there are rituals that follow everything and test the writer on their research. Religions and different peoples should be carefully researched otherwise why are you writing about them?

To finish us off with a happy ending – I will mention references. It is important to be aware of what linguistic, cultural and historical references you are making – and are they the ones you are intending to convey. If someone is being tortured, to use an example from a play I was working on recently, what does the method of torture say about the background and previous experiences of the torturer? Waterboarding brings with it the controversy of the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques scandal and being handcuffed to a radiator feels like a direct reference to John McCarthy. Both of these things are perfectly acceptable to reference but as a dramaturg it can be useful to highlight them to the writer as occasionally there is a reference that the writer had not intended and completely changes the intended meaning.

As I said at the top, these rarely take up large amounts of discussion time, unlike the order of scenes, or which character to cut, but this work is no less necessary. It is mainly about challenging the writer and making sure they have done the work that they have to have done before giving their play to a creative team and ultimately an audience. If they haven’t they will become unstuck and it’s amazing how much a great play (and writer) can be undermined by the younger sister being a different age in act 2.

Dramaturgy Checklist

I was talking to a friend the other day about what a dramaturg does. I know we’ve touched on this before, in fact we’ve run whole workshops on it. And although often people feel they know what it is, it’s not always that easy to put into words.

But it got me thinking what do I do? When I read a script through for the first time what are the things i think about? I find it useful to have a to do list to make sure I’m doing what I’m supposed to and below is an idea of that list.

Now it is by no means exhaustive and each section can (and does have) whole books written on them. But you can look into those once you have identified the areas as something to look at. I also reserve the right to extend, cut and edit this list at any time!

Narrative: What is the story? Can you say it in one sentence? And is this the story that’s being told?

The Point: What are you trying to achieve with this play? Is it provoking questions? Is it attempting answers? Is it achieving either of these?

The Premise: What is the premise of the story? Is it logical, rigorous and interesting enough to demand having a play written about it?

Form: What is the form of this piece? Is this the most successful form for achieving the above aims?

Structure: Is this the best/most exciting way of telling this story? Is it in the right order?

Character: Are these all real characters with real desires and attempts at achieving them? Or are they too functional?

Representation: What are the genders/ethnicities/locations/ages/social standings of the characters? What are the implications on the actors playing them? Is it a piece of theatre that should be being made today?

(And my personal favourite)

Cutting: How much can we lose?

The problems usually straddle more than one of these topics. And, in the fixing or attempting to fix, these then it can feel like the whole thing is tumbling down like a house of cards. However it can almost always be rebuilt, and your play will be stronger, tighter and all the better for it. If not, then maybe this play is not the one for now and you need some time away from it so you can attack it again with a clearer head later.

But no need to be disheartened usually plays just get shorter and more exciting because of it. And often the answers to the above questions are rigorous and complete enough just to highlight where (if anywhere) there may be room to improve.

So next time you read a draft of a play, consider the above list as a starting point and see what questions unfold.

Holiday Turns

As you may have been able to tell from our Instagram (@liketheclappers) I have been on holiday this week. I’m not gonna wind everyone up by banging on about it, but I am gonna make my blog vaguely holiday based…

I have discovered something that is really fun and I want to share it. We all know the benefits of sun and sand and sea but this week I have found the benefits of (s)cycling!

I’ve always enjoyed riding my bike and have used it for getting about, but not really done much more than pootling about town. This week I’ve been doing a little bit longer and it’s been great!

It should be said I’ve been on a very flat island with very good cycle routes and decent weather – although the wind and rain made some journeys pretty painful. Also, being an island on the atlantic coast you could never quite be sure of what the weather would be like half an hour into your trip.

I think this week I have cycled 200km -and it hasn’t been that hard! I have been on holiday and some of that has been at a very leisurely pace. But I’ve really enjoyed the time to think things through, the feeling of having done some exercise and the sense of achievement. Did I mention I’ve done 200km?!

I’m sure it’s not for everyone and I’ve been in very favourable conditions with a bike I’ve really enjoyed riding. I will of course be forever indebted to my cushioned shorts and honestly, the embarrassment of feeling like you’ve got a full nappy disappears once you reap the rewards of the comfy seat!

I’m going to try to do some cycling back home and we’ll see how much I enjoy it there. It may be that I’m a fair weather cyclist who only rides on the best of cycle paths when there’s a beer and a terrace waiting for me, but there’s only one way to find out!

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Let The Story Continue…

I am so excited about the new theatre that is opening in Chester later this year. It is a rarity in the current climate for theatres to be opening, it is more common to hear about cuts and downsizing – but here in Chester they are bucking the trend.

As a proud Cestrian theatre-maker and once again a resident of Chester, this is particularly exciting times for me both professionally and personally. I grew up in Chester and as I was reaching my formative years, and deciding to pursue a career in this industry, the Gateway – Chester’s previous theatre – was closing. Now there is an opportunity to give Chester the new cultural space it has been craving.

Since the closure of the Gateway the theatre scene in Chester has far from stagnated. A number of companies have continued to create work in Chester and beyond. Most notably Theatre in The Quarter, who provide their own unique combination of professional new musicals and youth theatre projects, and Chester Performs – the company who established the Open Air Season in the Grosvenor Park and are building the new theatre.

Rebranded now as Storyhouse, Chester Performs opens the new theatre later this year. It is a combination of 800 seat main house, 150 seat studio, independent cinema, library and I assume bars and cafes too. Converting the old Odeon cinema into this exciting new venue it couldn’t have a better location – situated right at the heart of the town centre, a short walk from the new bus station and with parking just near by.

Storyhouse will be a combination of touring productions and 50% in house producing and will be watched very closely I’m sure by all North West theatre makers and companies. I look forward to the unveiling of the first seasons and can’t wait for Chester to have a building to put it back on the cultural map, but most importantly I can’t wait to have a theatre to go to in Chester.

I Feel Dirty

I have a confession to make. Last night I went to watch an NT Live screening of Hangmen by Martin McDonagh, I loved the play but I feel like I’ve cheated on my true love. I know it’s very common to to stream theatrical events live in cinemas or as ‘encore’ performances once the production has been and gone. But I don’t like it.

Obviously I want as many people as possible to be able to go and see the best quality theatre, regardless of whether they live in London, or can afford the top tier ticket prices. However, I don’t think cinemas are the solution. Mainly because this is not going to the theatre. There is no live performance for the audience to see, it’s just a recording, and it is just a trip to the cinema.

There is an argument that it widens opportunity by letting people far away see the show. I really wanted to see this play and missed it when I had opportunities in London but now that I am based in Chester, I am far away which means this was my opportunity to see this piece. That is, unless they were to mount a tour, and now I probably won’t go. If audiences have already seen the show at the pictures, why would they pay again to go to the tour?

There are even now websites where you can download classic productions to watch at your leisure. The RSC sell a DVD of their production of Richard II staring David Tennant. Now I’m sure these are a good money spinner, but if audiences know they can catch it in the pictures, on DVD or online later might this not stop them attending theatre in the first place?

Also I fear that it encourages the idea of a definitive cast and production. Not only that but a definitive performance. Surely the joy of theatre is that the same story and characters can be told by different people in different ways from production to production and night to night. If there is also the knowledge that this performance will live on and be accessible, is there not the fear that people will perform for the cameras. Even cast to improve the DVD sales later, would there become a temptation to create a production that is camera friendly and not for the audience who are present.

I know that most productions are filmed anyway for archives, and that these are accessible if required. But that’s how I think it should be, they are there if needed for reference and as a record, but not to peruse at your leisure.

There is of course a natural instinct to want to be able to live and relive enjoyable moments. But theatre’s ephemerality is one of its great strengths. It lives, then flickers and dies. It receives a rebirth each time someone decides to tell that story again – in a different way to a different audience. This is theatre’s other great strength – it speaks immediately to groups of people who are present, in time and vicinity. When watching a theatre stream in a cinema, or anywhere else, you lose these two critical things that make theatre unique and beautiful.

To reiterate what I think is the main point, if you’re going to a cinema you are not going to a theatre. I understand the temptation, and have caved in myself but next time I’m thinking about seeing a stream, I’m going to see what’s on at the theatre and go there instead and drag my friends along too.

Sorry No Entry

Earlier this year I put a show on at a fringe theatre and I was very proud of a lot of what we achieved. But I’m embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until I started sending out the invites that I realised not everyone I was inviting could come. Like most fringe theatres the theatre we were performing in did not have level access, there was no hearing loop, we did not have the facility to do a captioned or audio described performance. I appreciate that at a fringe theatre there are many restrictions that you have to work with. But I was appalled to realise I was restricting the audience of who was allowed to enjoy my play, or at least see it!

In Like the Clappers we are committed to being openly and freely accessible and it is something that is very important to us. We are making efforts as best we can to ensure that our events are accessible, and we have sometimes failed, but we are working hard to make sure in the future this doesn’t happen. And embarrassingly again, it wasn’t until I was looking for venues to hold events for Like the Clappers that I realised how few theatres are accessible. Some of the big theatres are, or at least have specific accessible seats, but are the rehearsal rooms? And I’m hard pressed to find a fringe theatre that is accessible other than The Ovalhouse. Just think about all the fringe theatres you go to, how many of them are upstairs? (I don’t want to sound ungrateful and thankfully there are some theatres kind enough to put us up including The Young Vic – whom always seem to be leading the way in British theatre practice)

This industry is hard enough, but how it would be possible to be forging a career if most of the output was unavailable to watch is beyond me. In some venues it would be possible to work but then not see or be in the final performances, a lot of places you simply wouldn’t be able to work or see their work. I don’t know what the solution is, but I know I am more likely to support theatres that make work that is accessible. And I know that I never want to put on a show again that has barriers that stop people seeing it.

Dramatic Form: How do we build a play?

If you were hoping to join us for our latest Like the Clappers meeting on dramatic form, you’re too late. The curtain is down, we’ve finished that act, we’re in the bar afterwards discussing the acting and how comfortable the seating was. But just in case you couldn’t join us here’s a bit about what we did.

On Monday last week we came together in a pub in Clapham to discuss how we put stories together. What is their shape, structure and form? Are there any commonalities between good stories and if so, what are they? What is the secret ingredient to great storytelling?

I’m happy to say we’ve solved it and got the perfect formula for the perfect play, story, film whatever. Well sort of, we all kind of agreed on certain things we all find ourselves tending towards. We all knew about the elusive quality we were all talking about, but thankfully some of the magic remained frustratingly close – but just out of reach. So what did we mean?

We began by discussing STRUCTURE and FORM their similarities, their differences and when they overlap. We compared it to design and architecture – there was an analogy based around buildings and scaffolding and we decided that form was the overall shape of things whereas structure could be seen as the building blocks. Now, we are not saying that this is the definitive definition of these things, just that in this discussion this was the way we found it useful to define and understand these. And it was the endeavour not the definition that was most useful here I feel.

We touched on dramatic time, how chronology and order of events affects things. We discussed our own approaches to writing, dramaturgy and directing, whether we had formulas or approaches to writing scenes or stories based on these ideas. One piece of advice was to begin with a joke, advice that I think should always be taken on board.

We looked at the seven story types. Although more specifically we looked at the size of the book that I have on the seven story types which is more like a breeze block than a book and decided we had got all we wanted from the front cover (I will one day read this book I’m sure of it). We also talked about the three act structure. Now this is where we all really seemed to agree. And despite our best efforts and our desires against it, it seems to be the thing that keeps drawing us back.

The three act structure explained

The three act structure explained

It should be said we weren’t all slaves to it, and by no means go out looking for it. But often find that the more we refine and redraft our work the more it seems to resemble this shape. Some members have been experimenting with being more formal in their approach to writing and have been really enjoying it. Setting out with free writing and afterwards structuring and shaping it into a conventional story shape.

We also discussed plays and stories that play with this, change it and pull it around. Plays that make us think they’re going to use this and then send us in different directions. Plays that we think are not going to be the Three Act Structure and end up being. We also discussed the idea of the prologue and how, actually, sometimes we really like knowing exactly what’s going to happen and just want to see how it’ll all pan out.

We also began a discussion on what freedom a director has in the process and how much they’re allowed to interoperate and move things. However before long this became a discussion about stage directions and my right to ignore them. A discussion that is ongoing and I feel will continue for some time…

Finally we had a reading from Joseph Skelton’s radio play The Druid’s Horse, we didn’t quite get the full effect of this due to what seemed like the world table tennis finals going on not far away. But what we heard we liked and it is currently being recorded and will be available online soon. When it’s uploaded we’ll send the link.

I’ll leave you with my favourite quote from the evening and what I think we should all be aiming for when telling stories. Finding that elusive moment that one of our members had when getting to the climatic moment in a brilliant play. She didn’t know whether to ‘cry, laugh or be sick’. If we can twist our audiences into that predicament I think we’re well on the way!

Mike

The Forgotten Medium

I know that it’s 2015, I know the Internet is everywhere and it’s all about Twitter and Facebook and blogs(!) and all that. But I’ve just got to say it. I bloody love the radio!

I listening to the wireless all the time, much more than I watch TV and miles more than going the cinema. And the king of all radio, in my eyes, is BBC Radio 4. Now I’m aware that by saying that it puts me in an audience demographic that my bank account and accent cannot back up – but please do give it a try! Granted there’s some dross, but steer away from The Archers and you’ll have a great time.

A highlight of my day, every day,  is listening to Front Row. It’s half an hour of theatre, art, books, music and all things cultural and it’s bloody fantastic. It could maybe be a bit wider reaching in terms of its coverage, but it includes work from across the whole country and does include some fringe theatres. I learn about things that I would have no idea about otherwise and am consistently inspired to make my own work because of quotes from the show. One of my favorouite recently was something a critic (and filmmaker) had been told once, that ‘you were very idealistic ever expecting films to change people’s opinion, all they did was reconfirm their prejudices’, I mean discuss…

They have daily, and Saturday drama’s which are radio plays often adapted from stage, or from literary works. The authors range from Agatha Christie to Iris Murdoch and the theatre is wide ranging, I recently listened to Tamasha’s My Name is… Which I missed when it was last performed.

The comedy is also well worth a listen. Many people had their first big break on Radio 4 including The Mighty Boosh and Chris Morris. And many people are still continuing their very successful careers on it. There is generally a more equal gender balence than on TV panel shows and the satire and synacisim of Jeremy Hardy is worth your license fee alone.
Now I should say I really listen live, I pick and choose what to watch and usually listen via iplayer or podcasts. But this is the future after all. I urge you all to give it a go. If you listen online and don’t like something it’s the easiest thing in the world to turn it off and find something new.

I get so much joy, entertainment and cultural provacation from listening to the radio I want to share it. So next time you’ve got some time, or you’re making dinner or whatever, leave the tele off, open the radio iplayer app and give Front Row a try.

Mike