Keeping Busy

It’s been quiet around here the last while as I’ve been busy with a couple of projects. Firstly, I changed roles within the Abbey at the beginning of June and am now the Literary Reader. I’m really enjoying my new work; it’s much more closely focused on reading and assessing plays, which is what I like to do. There are also some other exciting developments in the works, but more on those later.

I’ve just finished up a Wednesday evening workshop course with Big Smoke Writing Factory, which I’m already missing. This was a course for slightly more advanced playwrights who have a draft of a play that they want to knock into shape. I had a lovely group with interesting voices and incredibly varied interests and preoccupations. It’s wonderful being in the middle of that creative dynamic. The structure of the course was as follows: each week I’d circulate an extract from some successful contemporary plays from Ireland, the UK or the USA and we’d begin the session by discussing them. In this way I hoped to give mini-masterclasses on current trends in theatre while also demonstrating certain playwrights’ skills for characterisation, dialogue, structure etc. After this, we would workshop an individual scene from two or three of the participants’ plays. None of us purported to be brilliant actors or readers, but hearing the scene read aloud and receiving the group’s critique is an invaluable part of the process which can be difficult to simulate at your writing desk on your own. A combination of complementary reading and workshopping seems to be a winning formula when it comes to developing work and the group all left very happy, some of them with plays that will be produced in the near future. I do miss them, though – it was a lovely way to spend my Wednesday evenings. I’m hoping to run a similar course at the beginning of 2014.

Dublin’s independent writing school

Over the past months I’ve also been working as dramaturg with Chalk Talk Theatre Company, helping the wonderful Máirín O’Grady and Louise Melinn develop their play for the Fringe Festival. Working with director Aoife Spillane-Hinks has also been fantastic and after a couple of months of hard graft, the script is ready to be subjected to the rigours of the rehearsal process. Both playwrights were always open and receptive to feedback and demonstrated a real passion and dedication to their work. Even over the past few weeks, when both knew they were on the home stretch (and were exhausted) they kept plugging away at the script, smoothing out any final inconsistencies or hang-overs from previous drafts. It’s so refreshing to see that winning mixture of energy and discipline in young playwrights. It was a real pleasure to work with them and I’m looking forward to seeing the play, which is a smart and funny – a surreally allegorical take on the Irish emigrant experience. Oh, and Aoife, Louise, Máirín and producer Aisling O’Brien have assembled a brilliant cast and creative team as well. Watch this space for more updates on the show and put it at the top of your Fringe must-see list.

From left to right: Margaret McAuliffe, Barry John O’Connor, Jill Harding, Charlie Bonner, Rebecca Grimes

Who Likes Short Shorts?

Last night I was at the launch of a new collection of Irish short plays at the Peacock bar. We managed to catch Mark O’Rowe on his way to the gala opening of his new film Broken and he gave an insightful, encouraging and funny speech about the plays. It was lovely to see the plays published, as I’d worked on most of them when they were presented as public readings on the Peacock stage over the past few years. Each year the Abbey Theatre commissions a group of emerging playwrights to write twenty minute two-handers for us and we present them on the Peacock stage. It’s always a good night; you can’t beat the sense of excitement that accompanies the presentation of new work by new voices. The selection of plays published in Irish Shorts is taken from the 20 Love series of short play readings from 2008 and the Fairer Sex series in 2009. We’re hoping that if there’s a positive enough response to the book, Nick Hern Books will publish a follow up including plays from Something Borrowed in 2010 and Into the Woods in 2011.

Buy this book and make a young writer happy!

Sam Shepard’s Typewriter

My new header is a photo of a typewriter in the Abbey Theatre Literary Department. We got it for Sam Shepard during one of his trips to Dublin a couple of years ago so he could write in his hotel room (he doesn’t do computers!) I had the job of sourcing it, which proved near impossible – our props department have a beautiful array of bashed vintage types, but it’s almost impossible to find ribbons for them. In the end, I found this online and nabbed it. It’s still sitting in the Literary Department with a post-it reading ‘Sam Shepard’s typewriter – Jessica to collect’ in case Sam ever feels inspired on a future trip to Dublin.

Thinking about the Premise

In preparation for my playwriting course this September with Big Smoke Writing Factory, I’ve been reading a few books on playwriting to help crystalise my ideas. One interesting notion that I’ve come across is the idea that every play must have a premise. Seems self-evident, doesn’t it?

However, on further thought the notion of what ‘a premise’ actually means becomes a little nebulous. What is a premise? Is it a starting point? When I put it into a number of sentences, that’s my first conclusion: The premise for the argument, the premise of the novel etc. However, this doesn’t really explain it. Webster’s dictionary defines ‘premise’ as:

a: a proposition antecedently supposed or proved as a basis of argument or inference; specifically: either of the first two propositions of a syllogism from which the conclusion is drawn b: something assumed or taken for granted : presupposition

While this definition seems headache-inducingly complex, I think the important emphasis is that a premise is something antecedently supposed or proved. So, a premise isn’t necessarily a starting point – it’s a conclusion that can be extrapolated from an argument or narrative after the fact.

So how does this relate to playwriting? Lajos Egri, in his book The Art of Dramatic Writing says that the play’s premise is the answer to the question posed by the play. For example, Romeo and Juliet poses the question: What happens when the children of two warring families fall in love? Shakespeare gives us an answer: they pursue that love through any obstacle placed in their way, even death. So the premise that Shakespeare offers us is: True love defies even death.

I find this an interesting, if rather knotty concept. I spend a lot of time asking my students to concentrate on the story that their play tells; the plot should be a concrete, tangible, driving force in the play and not a meandering compound of thoughts and ideas. I would always advise a playwright to have strong and focused ideas about how their plot progresses before they begin to write. But are plot and premise the same thing? It seems not. ­­­­­­­­­Egri seems to view the play as an argument, a dialectic process (here I agree), but he also states that the playwright should know which side of the argument he’s going to come down on. For example, if Shakespeare had been posed the question: ‘What happens when the children of two warring families fall in love?’ and had answered: ‘Ummmmm, well maybe they just decide it’s too difficult and then they meet other people and at the end of the day decide they were too young to commit anyway’, Romeo and Juliet would have been a very different play. In reality, Shakespeare has thought about the question of feuding families and true love, plotted the progression of this story to a certain point, and made the decision that in his version of events, the play must end in tragedy. He has extrapolated his premise by thinking deeply about his plot and he sticks to it. Wonderful play written, job done.

Best ever version of Romeo and Juliet, as seen in Hot Fuzz

But can it always be this straightforward? Do we all have the time and certainty to enter into this rather circular process? Do we have to have all of our ideas nailed down at the play’s end? And where does this leave ambiguous plays that tease and tantalise an audience by offering them mystery instead of a didactic lesson? I’m thinking of JP Shanley’s Doubt, where the fact that the truth is never known makes for a powerful, affecting ending. And isn’t there a risk that if you set out to write a play with a premise along the lines of True love defies death, or Greed leads to self-destruction or Lies lead to isolation, that your play will simply become a didactic rant, with all the characters endlessly spouting your tired agenda? Egri says that the character should never state the premise – that it should be implicit rather than explicit – but I still wonder at the level of confidence a writer must have to juggle these various imperatives when writing a play. An interesting concept, but possibly not one I’ll be using to frighten my students.

Define a new play…

I’ve just got my hands on a copy of this year’s Absolut Fringe Festival programme and have also been browsing the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival brochure online. Initially, I’m really excited, indulging in a lot of ‘oh so that’s what that three day developmental workshop/ public reading halfway through last year has turned into’ smugness, allowing myself to feel like I had both programmes predicted ages in advance (which of course I hadn’t – I’d just heard the rumours.)

This year’s Fringe Brochure…a mysterious tome full of colourful pictures

As the initial excitement and desire to go and see everything dissipates, I’m noticing a real dearth of anything that I could instantly identify as new writing in either festival. It’s always a little more difficult to discern with the Fringe brochure, which is always packed to the gills with devised/ experiential/ immersive/ promenade/ multimedia/ mutli-disciplinary shows. But generally a little scratching of the surface will reveal the playwright, lurking in the back of the publicity shot looking pale and underfed. Some of the most interesting new Irish playwrights have found their feet in the Fringe Festival over the past 18 years. Even if they go on to create more conventional work, it’s generally a great experience for them to broaden their horizons by working in such a collaborative way. And, actually, it’s a good experience for the audience to challenge their preconceptions of what new writing is and should be.

In general, I’m a fan of a well-made, literary play. This is a totally subjective term that I use to describe something written by one playwright, directed by one director and acted by a bunch of actors. It’s more traditional than devised work, but I shy away from the term ‘traditional’ as I think it can be used in a pejorative sense. There’s a tendency to see this kind of work as yesterday’s news. I think this is unfair; yes, the literary play has been around for millennia, but devised/ improvised/ confessional/ non-linear-narrative theatre has been around for a long time too. Remember structuralism? Post-structuralism? Post-modernism? None of these are new ideas, and neither is the idea of applying them to the arts. This is not a rant against experimental theatre – some of the best work I’ve seen over the past few years has played with form (Anu’s Worlds End Lane, Corn Exchange’s Freefall). But one of these plays had a writer very much at the helm (Freefall) and the other was strongly informed by historical narratives.

In this year’s Theatre Festival, there are a number of interesting writer-driven works, but relatively little of what I would specifically consider new writing. There are a couple of plays, but there are also adaptations, dramatisations and deconstructions which can be considered new work – but are they new writing? What role do they allow the playwright? The theatre world seems to be in the process of re-evaluating the role of the writer, kicking them out of their garret rooms and into the theatre collective. It’s an interesting process and makes a case for theatre as one of the most dynamic of literary art-forms, constantly evolving in order to offer an experience which can still be argued to be the equal of, if not superior to, other media forms. My question is, is new ground being broken here? Is the avant garde still, well, avant? Or will people tire of abstraction and the lack of narrative and begin to crave a good, solid story again? I’d like to see the two traditions overlap a little more to allow for both the universal appeal of a good strong plot and the immediacy of devised or verbatim work. Maybe that’s where the future lies…or maybe it’s been done already…