|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|File size:||282 KB|
About the Author
Alan Ayckbourn is one of England's most prolific and widely performed living playwrights with over sixty plays in his catalogue. In 1997, he received a knighthood for his services to the theater. His plays include Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests trilogy, and House & Garden. He lives in England.
Read an Excerpt
The Crafty Art of Playmaking
By Alan Ayckbourn
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2002 Alan Ayckbourn
All rights reserved.
Comedy or drama?
This really isn't a choice I consciously make. I certainly don't decide when I sit down to write: today I'm going to write a comedy. Simply, I'm going to write a play. The degree of lightness or darkness is often initially dictated by the theme, but never to the extent that I would ever want the one totally to exclude the other.
There's an old acting maxim, 'When playing a miser, stress his generosity.' The same is true of writing a play, or indeed of directing one. The darker the subject, the more light you must try to shed on the matter. And vice versa.
A few years back, when I was again directing at the Royal National Theatre, we did a hugely successful revival of Arthur Miller's tragedy, A View from the Bridge. I think I've rarely laughed as much in a rehearsal room as I did during the early rehearsals, as we searched both for the light, the genuinely legitimate moments of laughter – we found lots – and for speed. Our version apparently ran about thirty minutes shorter than a recent New York production had done.
Conversely, when we came a few months later to my own 'comedy', A Small Family Business, the search was on for the darkness that lurked behind the cheery family exterior. (It's actually a comedy about greed, blackmail, adultery, prostitution, organised crime, sexual deviation, murder and teenage death through drug addiction – though we never billed it as that!)
No play worth its salt says nothing at all. It would actually be very difficult to achieve this (though I've read some in my time that do come very close). We often dismiss our light comedies and farces as trivia with nothing to say. With the successful ones, this is generally untrue.
I have a theory that to be genuinely respectable as a so-called comic writer, on a par with an equivalent 'serious' writer, you need to have been dead preferably for a century. By which time, of course, most of the comedy is incomprehensible and can only be laughed at by scholars. Never mind, rejoice in the fact that should you be fortunate enough to write comedy, you'll do very nicely during your own lifetime if you're lucky, and to hell with posterity. Though ironically, if you write a comedy truthfully and honestly, it is possible that the play might still survive because of its truth of observation, long after most of the surface jokes are dead.
But the prejudice exists. I was once asked by a journalist if I ever had ambitions to write a serious play. I think my face must have said more than I intended for she instantly dived back into her notebook and asked me whether I preferred cats to dogs.
From time to time I shall be introducing a few 'rules'. Blindingly obvious most of them but nonetheless worth restating even if there's only one in this entire book that hadn't occurred to you before.
Obvious Rule No. 1
Never look down on comedy or regard it as the poor cousin of drama.
Comedy is an essential part of any play. Without light how can we possibly create shadow? It's like a painter rejecting yellow. Yet we're an odd nation. Secretly I suspect we don't really believe we're seeing anything worthwhile unless we've had a really miserable time. One of my West End reviews once read, 'I laughed shamelessly.' Shamelessly? What the hell does that mean? 'Sorry, readers, I went and had a very good laugh in the theatre last night which you indirectly paid for'?
I think if I've contributed anything to the sum of modern playwriting it has been to encourage comedy and drama to exist together as they used to in days of old. Somehow they became separated. We began to describe our writers as 'comic dramatists' or 'serious dramatists'.
There was a time back in the late 1950s when I was in weekly rep, where the pattern was roughly to play a comedy then a drama on alternate weeks. One week it was Oh, Vicar and the next Dark Revenge (imaginary titles, don't look for them). The comedy would be lit as brightly as possible and performed loudly and broadly and very, very fast. 'Go! Go! Go! Gun for the curtain!' was an expression frequently favoured by one director I worked for.
Next week the drama would dictate that the stage lights be lowered to near pitch-black. The actors would speak softly and slowly and there would be much motionless pausing whilst the audience vainly scanned the darkness for any hint that there was anyone left on stage. It occurred to me then, as a mere humble assistant stage manager, that wouldn't it be nice if someone wrote a slow comedy where the actors spoke normally and the lights were low? And in which someone sometimes cried – or even died.
These elements used to coexist. I don't think anyone referred to Shakespeare very often as 'the well-known comic playwright', even though he wrote quite a number of them.
I remember on one of my rare directorial incursions into classic tragedy, in this case 'Tis Pity She's a Whore for the RNT, being amazed at the number of genuine comic moments littered throughout this darkest of texts. Moments, I suspect, that some modern directors find inappropriate and either cut or ignore.
But a useful tip, I've found, is that the darker the drama the more you need to search for the comedy. If you don't let the audience off the hook occasionally to laugh when you want them to, you'll find them roaring with laughter during moments you didn't intend. One of the endearing features of the human race is that we can't generally keep serious for long. Be thankful for it. If we could we'd probably have become extinct long ago.
The initial idea
This concerns what many refer to as inspiration. The idea, the spark, the moment of ignition. Without which nothing catches fire.
Surprisingly, considering this is an element that can never be taught, the question I am continually asked is, where do you get your ideas from? As if somewhere there is a pile of Extremely Good Ideas which I keep locked away in a cupboard ready for immediate use.
The fact is that like every other fiction writer that's ever been born, I am continually haunted by the fear of the well drying up. Ideas are never produced to order, they cannot be summoned on demand. They simply arrive and present themselves. Or they don't.
The knack is to recognise them when they do occur, for very often, they don't come ready formed – behold, here I am, a full-length play complete with first-act curtain. On the contrary, they come as scruffy disjointed fragments, their potential barely visible. Nonetheless, you would do well to welcome them, for they are too precious to ignore, even the most unpromising of them. Examine an idea, any idea or theme with respect and diligence. Maybe in the end it is not for you but for someone else to write. But be careful what you discard. Store it away. It may be that later this unpromising duckling will represent itself as a thing of swan-like beauty.
Obvious Rule No. 2
Never start a play without an idea.
This sounds very obvious but you'll be amazed at the number of would-be writers I've come across who try. They assume, I think, that if they start the journey, maybe an idea will occur on the way. Perhaps a map of where they're going will blow in through the car window. In my experience this never happens. You set off and after several miles finish back where you started at your own front door on page one.
There is no point in launching into a scene between two characters, however sparkling their dialogue might be, if you have no idea at all what might happen next. Interesting as an exercise, possibly, but useless in terms of ever hoping to construct a full-length play.
Before I arrived as the Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford, I had invited playwrights of any age or experience to submit work, either still in progress or recently completed. From the forty or fifty entries I received, I selected about a dozen writers whom I felt showed some sort of promise. I had an idea in my head that during the year I would coax them and their work to fruition and, using the funds available to me, direct two or three of the best of them using professional actors. In the end, apart from one, no one seemed to write anything further of any significance during the entire year. The exception was a student who wrote, apparently in the space of a few days, a fifty-minute play of considerable promise which I did produce at the Old Fire Station Theatre. Well, perhaps a one-in-ten success rate wasn't so bad, I reassured myself. But the day after my sole triumph opened its young author broke it to me that he wasn't at all interested in writing anything further and saw his future in television as a researcher. Ah, well.
Obvious Rule No. 3
If you don't have the initial inspiration, put down the pen, put the pencil back in the jar, switch off the computer and go and dig the garden instead.
Amongst the group was a young American student who had written three quarters of a very promising first scene of what she intended eventually to be a full-length play. Indeed it was on the strength of these pages that I had invited her to join us. Every two or three weeks I would meet members of the group in a series of one-to-one tutorials where they would report on progress and discuss the general direction their current work was taking. Early on I discovered, to my alarm, that this particular student had no idea where her play – the characters, the story, the theme, anything – was heading. At first I tried to suggest possible directions. Over the year I came up with dozens. I invited her to come up with ideas. Should she introduce a third, fourth, even a fifth character? Should the two she already had on stage strip off and make love then and there? Maybe that would spark something. Should she have them shoot each other? Anything!
In the end, inevitably, there was no resolution. Despite my pleadings, she refused to start again on a new project, convinced that somewhere there lay a solution to her self-inflicted creative deadlock. I suspect that even now, nearly ten years later, her two characters are still in their imaginary New York apartment, trembling on the brink of the most meaningful adventure of their frozen lives. The Greatest Story Never Told.
On the other hand, as I say, don't reject an idea because it seems at first glance too slight. All ideas are precious, and who are we to be picky? Often a tiny idea can merely be waiting for other embryonic ideas to join it and then suddenly, lo and behold, there they are standing on each other's shoulders, making one big idea.
A common mistake in beginners, on the other hand, is to be so obsessed with content that they are in danger of creating something that is too heavy to move anywhere. In other words you can have too many ideas in one play. The result can be a play in which, although it nobly tackles all the ills of the world – the evils of global capitalism, the brutality of some police states, global warming, third-world exploitation, the dangers of racism, sexism, homophobia – a lot is discussed and nothing much actually happens: it takes several hours to go nowhere and depress everyone.
Anyway, it is my belief that although theatre can touch on themes such as these, call our attention to such issues – even, at best, cause us to empathise, to experience for a second or two what so-and-so must be like – the experience is generally emotional, rarely truly objective. Theatre is filled with people, for God's sake, and whether they're hidden behind masks or buried up to the neck in sand, they refuse to be inanimate. We the audience, with our personal prejudices and irrational preferences, are by our very nature biased, invariably more concerned with how they're saying it than with what it is they're actually saying. We search for identifying characteristics, for clues which relate us to the performers. Even puppets we imbue with a sort of humanity. For unvarnished, untarnished facts, please read the book.
At its most successful, theatre views things from a human standpoint. It is after all the most human in scale of all the performance media. My feeling is that that's also a good place for a dramatist to start, at the human level. As a playwright it may be your intention to build a vehicle to take us to the stars. But do make sure you have people aboard.
Initial inspiration – that essential starting point – comes in all shapes and sizes. Years ago I had the tiniest idea for a situation wherein a young man would ask an older man whether he could marry his daughter. The twist was that the older man didn't have a daughter.
Not much to go on, really, but something. Later, I developed the idea slightly. What if the daughter who wasn't a daughter was in fact the older man's mistress? Now we were beginning to have the makings of a rather promising situation.
Continuing on, what if the older man has a wife who knows nothing of this and what if the younger man were to meet the wife first and start talking about her nonexistent daughter? And what if the daughter, appalled that the younger man was there at all, had to embrace the lie that the older man was her father, for fear that if she didn't she would lose the younger man? And the wife had no idea what was going on.
A plot was gradually falling together. A quite promising situation comedy of confused identity.
On the other hand, some years later, a rather heavier theme presented itself. It addressed the question I'd often asked myself over the years: what makes certain people in our society conclude that they are fit to govern? Why are some born with the conviction that they are natural leaders, whilst for others the idea never enters their head? And furthermore, although there are a few leaders who are called and deserve to lead, many – politicians, town councillors, captains of industry, theatre directors – are completely unsuited to leadership. Where did they get the idea that they were fit to lead in the first place?
Conversely, it's probably true to say that some of the people most suited to leading us are precisely the ones who have settled for the quiet life and refuse to stand up and be counted. Which explains to some extent why ruthless dictators and bigots and megalomaniacs often seize the reins: because the majority of us – those silent, nonvoting, passive observers – take no steps to oppose them. Once you allow a political vacuum to occur through apathy, you invite extremism. Seeking a quiet, selfish life, many are content to follow anyone who purports to know what they're doing and where we should all be going. Witness the last few decades of British politics.
Theatre for me has always been, in a way, a reflection of life writ somewhat smaller. I have seen actors, trusting souls, follow confident-seeming directors who claimed to hold the secret of life itself, over cliffs of incompetence where the performers' self-confidence and sometimes even their professional reputations were all but wrecked. It was just that the director 'looked as if he knew'.
One actor told me of a group of experienced performers, rehearsing with a new young enfant terrible, who arrived in the rehearsal room one morning to find that the stage management had brought in a large shallow wooden box filled with sharp gravel. The actors were instructed by the maestro to remove their shoes and to stand silently as a group, barefoot in the box, for as long as they could endure the pain. They stood obediently for some minutes with just the occasional muffled groan. All that could be heard was the sound of the director's (fully clad) footsteps as he paced the room.
Eventually, the leading actress whispered to her co-star, 'This is agony. This man is an idiot. Why the hell are we doing this?' To which, after a pause, her fellow actor replied, 'Yes, but what if he's right?'
Yet how to translate this nature-of-leadership idea into theatrical terms? Two people dressed in black, seated at lecterns either side of the stage, discussing the problem? I think not. A brief history of the twentieth century in thirty-five scenes with a cast of forty doubling as Vietnam protesters and Russian Cold War leaders? Unless you have a hotline to the National Theatre and are pre-commissioned and guaranteed production, this is not a wise path to go down, either. As for subsequent productions in the commercial or these days even in the subsidised theatre, dream on.
Better to consider the problem of how to reduce this sweeping, generalised idea to a smaller, more human scale. One that would incidentally also make the play far more theatrical, immediate and engrossing than the presentation of a series of world events covering hundreds of years by a cast of doubling dozens could ever hope to be. Besides, movies tend to do that sort of thing better.
As you see, I had here the makings of two very different plays: one based on a rather big theme about the nature of leadership; the other a purely domestic, essentially lightweight idea concerning a mistaken father-daughter relationship. Both still very much at the embryonic stage.
Excerpted from The Crafty Art of Playmaking by Alan Ayckbourn. Copyright © 2002 Alan Ayckbourn. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A brief history,
Comedy or drama?,
The initial idea,
The director's role,
A sort of history,
The lighting designer,
The sound designer,
Before the first rehearsal,
The rehearsal period,
The first day,
As you proceed,
Chronology of plays,