storytelling

Play Analysis: Caryl Churchill

This week I decided to take a deep dive into the work of Caryl Churchill, particularly looking at her work such as Love and Information and Seven Jewish Children where she makes use of unattributed dialogue in order to focus on an idea or concept rather than a character.

(Playwriting Tips: Caryl Churchill | The Dramaturgy of an Idea in Seven Jewish Children | https://youtu.be/zZQKecYla6w)

Play Analysis: Arthur Miller

Usually, at this point in the week, I report back on a piece of theatre that I’ve seen over on my YouTube Channel. Though I saw a couple of things last week, neither I felt particularly compelled to make a video about. Also, I’ve been on something of a role with my thesis writing over the past few days and so was keen to crack on with that.

So, I’ve done something slightly different this week and uploaded a video I made a little while ago but never put online. It’s an analysis of some of Arthur Miller’s work including Death of a Salesman and All My Sons which looks at how he uses past and present to dramatic effect. This, of course, being an inheritance from Ibsen who was a huge influence on Miller.

I may do some more videos of this type on weeks where I don’t necessarily see so much theatre as I think it’s interesting to see what I (and, hopefully, other playwrights) might be able to learn from analysing the work of some of the greatest playwrights.

Let me know if you enjoy it and I’ll think about doing some more of these.

(Playwriting Tips: Arthur Miller | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91m-l3B31Oc)

The Hunger Games is great Agit-Prop

Hands up – I’ve read the entire The Hunger Games trilogy.  I read them after the first film came out so I can’t lay any kind of hipster-esque claim to being an early-adopter to the franchise but I consumed the second two installments of the trilogy in pretty quick succession while on holiday in Prague (and during my short-lived Kindle phase).  And I have to say, taking into account every piece of theatre I’ve seen, book I’ve read and video game I’ve played – The Hunger Games is my favourite piece of political fiction I’ve read in a good few years.

Granted, book one has its flaws.  It has some pretty annoying teenage-love-triangle stuff and skates fairly close to being simply a westernised Battle Royale (many parodied it for this when the first film came out but I’d argue it differs a fair bit).  But in Catching Fire we begin to draw back and take a look at the wider society of Panam.  If anything it would have been weird if we didn’t – the entire concept of the annual Hunger Games makes you wonder about the society which could birth, and embrace, such a tradition.  It begins pretty light touch; we realise that President Snow is as much of a twat as we first assumed he might be and we get a tiny insight into some corruption and pretty standard near-future dystopia.  So far, so generic.  But Mockingjay, oh Mockingjay…

In a trilogy of books written for a young adult audience, we get such a beautiful, detailed and savage reflection of our own world.  I don’t know anything about the politics of Suzzanne Collins, in fact I know almost nothing about her at all, but what starts as a story set in an unrecognisable almost-sci-fi land ends up being very much about the state of humanity on earth in the early twenty first century.  And there is actual politics in there, at times pretty raw and exposed, not the made up politics of a future world but stuff which could be attributed to Paine, Marx or Tressel without anyone batting an eyelid.

Best of all, the films take much of this further.  There were times whilst watching Mockingjay Part One (the day it came out because yeah) where you could have removed ‘The’ from The Capitol and you’d have been listening to a diatribe on private ownership.

Obviously District Thirteen looks like Soviet Russia if the Berlin Wall had never been Jengaed (because someone’s still to inform Hollywood that it has) but, perhaps more interestingly, The Capitol is a pretty unflinching recreation of modern America.  It has an unrepresentative political class and a blindly supportive media with an obssesive culture on image and owning useless shit.

The best thing about all this though; unless you have the mindset of looking for the politics in everything you see (guilty as charged) then you might not even notice.  At least not at first.  The focus is never on making any kind of political or intellectual argument but on telling a pretty damn fine story populated by multi-layered, complex, conflicted characters.  The politics, by book three, becomes simply unavoidable and therefore come across more powerful as a result.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the trailer for Mockingjay Part Two…

“He turns the best of us against each other.  Tonight, turn your weapons to The Capitol.”

Try replacing one of the slides in The Battleship Potemkin with that and you’ll barely notice.

 

An Embargo on Boring

boredThis article has the danger of making me sound like a bit of an arse.  Although that’s probably a fairly good evaluation, I thought I’d preface with the disclaimer that this blog wasn’t inspired by anything in particular but by a general shift that I’ve sensed recently as much in my own work as anything I’ve seen (to the point of adding a sticky note to my computer monitor before the somewhat lacklustre adhesive let it fall to the floor).

I’m worried plays are becoming more boring. Or rather, I’m worried that playwrights aren’t taking enough care to avoid the one thing that can be fatal to a play. And it is certainly ‘plays’ (by which I mean here shows written by a writer and then staged by a creative team) that seem to be more prevelant on the diagnosis list than work made through other creative processes. When an ensemble or companies create work on their feet, anything ‘boring’ rarely makes it to the end of the day, but for the playwright sat solitary at a desk, it’s easier to let our greatest foe creep his way in to our writing.

We’re consuming narrative from increasing sources.  TV, film, books, video games, theatre etc etc.  Each medium has a particular area where it shines and Theatre seems to have identified BIG ISSUES as the thing which it’s going to hold close to its chest and run with.  This is something I am totally okay with and perhaps the work that, as an audience member, I seek out most.  For where better to discuss the large stuff than in a communal space among others?  Yet this comes with its dangers.

The Economy on its own isn’t a barrel of laughs and Voting Reform doesn’t come out of the packet as a fun evening out.  Now, I’m under no illusion that to say that they have the potential to be is in any way prophetic, but its somewhat harder to find the warmth, humour and character in Society’s Relationship with Religion as it is in a man walking into a pet shop with a dead parrot in his hand.  I don’t think anyone sets out to write a dry play about any of these topics but when starting from a theme more at home on BBC Parliament than BBC Two (or Three…), one has to tread carefully.  When I think through my favourite plays, which
aren’t exactly a controversial collection, they all combine the BIG ISSUES with plenty of chuckles.  Often I spent the majority of my time in the auditorium giggling and it isn’t until I have time to think it through later that I have time to find the life-changing observations of the nature of life.

So I’ve made a bit of a pledge to myself.  Perhaps something I already thought I was doing but something which I’m now going to keep firmly in my conscious when writing (with or without the help of Post-It’s finest).  I am introducing a programme of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions on Boring in my work.  Even as a massive politics nerd, I would rather see a night full of nob-gags than a show which discusses something incredible but communicates it through a thick sludge of technical language or linguistic deconstructions of opposing arguments.  Often, the line between playwright and polemicist becomes blurred, mainly because we’re a pretty angry bunch.  But there’s a clear distinction – where polemicists turn people into arguments, we turn arguments into people.  And people make nob-gags.

Comic Books are the Perfect Balance to Netflix Binge-Storytelling

TV is undoubtedly currently delivering us some of the best storytelling.  With more new work than film (which, as ever, loves a franchise) and a larger reach than literature or theatre.  Although some would say human attention spans are dwindling towards barely being able to get through 140 characters before scrolling on, I’d argue that actually we’re beginning to respond better to longer, more involved storylines.  My favourite piece of storytelling from any medium last year was The Last of Us which took me around 30 hours to play from beginning to end.

Yet, ever since it became possible to store huge amounts of data on DVD’s, we’ve drifted toward a culture of consuming whole series in one big gulp. The habit of devouring a whole box set of Lost or 24 in one weekend soon became the watching of an entire new release when it’s unceremoniously dumped on to Netflix like a gauntlet being thrown down in front of us.

Traditional TV outlets have tried to combat this by creating ‘event TV’, the phrase used to describe the latest series of Broadchurch, which was delivered to viewers in the what now seems turtle-like, episode-a-week manner. But there was an odd feeling to this when stellar series such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt were given to us as a whole set.

Over the last six months, I’ve gradually become a more avid comic book fan. Largely because I work in very dialogue-driven storytelling, I’ve found this visuals-first medium really exciting (and, with the right artist, often beautiful). But the thing that’s struck me most about following stories through comic books is the waiting. After reading an instalment of Hawkeye, The WalkingDead or Rasputin, I find myself waiting a month for the continuation.

Partly this is because comic books take a long time to make and, where a TV show can change artistic team between episodes, it would be much more jarring should the artist change mid-story arc in a comic series (Ultimate Spiderman did this for a couple of issues and it made me downright livid).

But I’ve grown to love this. Where the binge-watching of House of Cards does mean it’s easier to recognise call-backs to previous episodes, I find myself able to absorb a decent comic over the intervening month, mull over what has happened and predict what might follow.

None of this is really an issue in theatre as we tend to lock our audiences in a dark room and, at most, make them wait twenty minutes while they have a drink and a wee wee. But, in episodic storytelling, I think it would be a shame if we lost the joy, anguish and anticipation of waiting.