2012 - 2013 NPP Blog

Our Playwrights on our 2012 -2013 New Playwrights Programme Share their Insights

Walking in Footsteps

Nick Lee
28 August, 2012

I have discovered that for me writing a play is like the child’s game Grandmothers footsteps.
You have to be aware of the presence behind you. You have to catch it while it’s moving. But if you stare at it for too long it doesn’t move and if you turn your back on it for too long you’ve lost the game.

The first thing I wrote that I liked was a short story which later became the basis for my first play.

Luca and the Sunshine appeared very quickly sometime around the summer of 2005 or 2006. It was hot, really hot. And everyone was complaining about the heat. And I love the heat.
And I wanted to write something. I needed to create something – an urge took hold of me. The story stirred behind me – I looked around sharply, glimpsed the motion. And bang.
That and I liked the name Luca.

The first proper play I wrote burst out of me on several tube journeys across London at a particularly transitional time. When I was uncertain about where I was going or maybe where I’d come from. Clouds formed in my peripheral vision. Turning quickly, I caught their colour, the texture. Ten tube journey’s later a dark odyssey emerged, written on an iPhone, mostly. I had to justify its purchase somehow…

Right now I’m the grandmother.
I’m watching the players.
Nobody is moving. Everyone is still.
I can’t catch them out.
I’m about to turn away. Something will stir. Something. But will I glimpse it?

When should stories begin?

Darren Murphy
5 September, 2012

When should stories begin? This question always taxes me when I start a new play, because everything affects this choice, and everything is affected by this choice. The season affect the telling, as does the time of day, as does the day itself. The same story, from a different perspective, is a different story. The timing of the telling makes an enormous difference to how an audience receives that story, and indeed, what story the audience is actually being
told.

If we just take stories that are chronologically linear and ostensibly have a traditional beginning, middle and end, and in that order, then the decision about what point you introduce an audience to your story is crucial. And what then do we we choose to leave out? Which actions occour off-stage because their impact is more acutely felt that way? Watching Tom Murphy’s The House was an object lesson in how withholding information from an audience can be a tremendously powerful dramatic tool. As can the pause, the ellipsis, the blackout, the silence. Just as a rest in music is both a continuation and fracture of that music, then a silence, or an absence of information beneath the noise of dialogue, can be part of the drama.

The sequence of dramatic events that unfold in Oedipus, and the orchestration of that information, intensifies both the surprise and the sense of inevitability of its actions. Of course, we think, he killed his father and slept with his mother; given what has happened, how could he do otherwise? He was praised as a saviour of the city, elevated to kingship, and betrothed a beautiful queen. He was an unknowing perpetrator. Our pity and terror are aroused not by the fact that Oedipus has done these things, they are aroused when we helplessly watch as he discovers that he has done them. His acquisition of self knowledge is equal to our impotent pity and a symbiosis is achieved between the character and its
audience. Sophocles, with spooky clairvoyance, structures the drama so we find out information just a couple of lines ahead of Oedipus himself, in the detective story in which he is both first officer on the scene and chief prosecutor. The precision with which Sophocles orchestrates the revelations in Oedipus wrecks my head.

But, and here’s the thing, Sophocles starts the action midway through the drama; the hefty backstory he has to unfold is not unpacked in one go at the beginning. We find it out almost at the same time as Oedipus. Timing is everything.
Raging Bull is a film about one man’s quest to throw off his sin and achieve a state of grace and some sort of redemption, that just so happens to be about a boxer. It’s a great film, infused with guilt, emotional violence, estrangement from the world, and the brutal demands of a monastic sport. It begins with Jake LaMotta’s bid for the middleweight crown and the machinations and compromises he is forced to make with the mafia, who then controlled the sport, to achieve his shot at the title. At the start we are plunged straight into Jake’s bleak world of pain, punishment, and savage retribution. There is no context for the pain, just the
direct experience of that pain. It is stunning, and humbling.

What the film leaves out is what happened to Jake when he was a boy, and what forces shaped the man he was to become. I read somewhere recently that the first drafts of the screenplay included much of this boyhood material, in particular a night during which an incident occurred which by itself is astonishing. It ‘explains’, in a neat, violent, almost too perfect vignette, why Jake is the way he is. However, the screenwriters chose to leave it out of later drafts and it never made the final cut. The incident concerns an attempted robbery of a jewellery store that LaMotta committed when he was 14 or 15. Adrenalised by the high octane struggle the jeweller puts up, and already a veteran of hundreds of neighbourhood
fights, he beats the man so severely that he runs off, convinced he has killed him. He carried this guilt with him for years, and in rage and confusion, punishes himself remorselessly in the
ring. He gets a reputation for being able to absorb an enormous amount of punches. His ability to absorb pain becomes his USP as a boxer. In an act of bizarre alchemy, he transforms his guilt and shame into badges of honour and absolution. Then, unexpectedly, the presumed dead jeweller surfaces one day in LaMotta’s dressing room to wish him luck on his upcoming fight. The man had survived after all, but now also fails to recognise his teenage assailant. In the film, in the absence of this information, we never find out why Jake is the way he is.

My first reaction when I read this was disbelief. How could they leave it out? This was storytelling gold, and yet the filmmakers let it sift through their fingers. I think though, watching the film again, that the reason the screenwriters decided to excise this cataclysmic incident from the final film is because it explains too much, and in so doing limits the deeper resonance of the story. Including it would make it exclusively the story of Jake LaMotta, a brutal and deeply troubled Italian-American fighter from New York in the forties, rather than what it now is; a profound meditation on a man seeking redemption through his savage trade.

Sure, it would still be a compelling narrative, but the fuller version in some ways it lets us, the audience, off the hook. Ah, we would say, now I understand, his actions having been explained away to us by this handy revelation, he behaves this way as a result of his terrible childhood. When we are forced to examine Jake’s actions without this context of rationale we are denied the comforting salve of a character whose behaviour is purely causal. To explain is not to dramatise. Much more dramatically compelling is the decision to show elements of the causal provenance of these actions as something which is ultimately unfathomable, but endlessly fascinating; human behaviour. We don’t always know why we do what we do, and,
counter intuitively, we allow an audience’s experience more scope, we show an audience more respect, by demanding they do more of the work. They are not doing the work for us, they are doing it with us. It is this impulse that separates a great film from a mere biopic.

I always consider these two examples when I have a hefty backstory I want to introduce that I think essential to the telling of a character’s story. How much does the audience need to know to create a compelling, dramatic narrative? Just because it doesn’t appear on the final draft doesn’t mean that we don’t still have to still do the heavy digging, work out our backstory, character, structure, conflict, find out who these phantoms are that people our
imaginations. The work is just more hidden, buried, stratified, spring-loaded. The story begins absolutely when it has to; not a moment before, and not a moment after. Sometimes it just takes a while to figure out when that point is. Timing is everything.

Time The Avenger

Darren Murphy
10 September, 2012

When I was a kid I got knocked down by a car. Looking for a place to cross a main road, I ran out between two parked vans without doing the the old Green Cross Code caper of looking left and right, into the path of a Datsun Sunny. I remember having time to think, blindside by the van to my left, that the Datsun which was to hit me had entered my peripheral vision but had not yet passed in front of me, as I stepped from the kerb. This information was no
useful to me, however, as I couldn’t change my course with the momentum pushing me onwards. Watching the Datsun hit me in slow motion, I thought how absurd it was I couldn’t move fast enough to get out of the way of it. It clipped me with it’s corner bumper and sent me tumbling into a wall. Cut and grazed, but not badly hurt, the whole thing was over in
about eight seconds.

When I was a bit older I boxed for a few years as an amateur. I remember my first two fights in particular. In my first bout I was jangling with nerves but oddly disconnected. From the first bell I was intensely aware of every sound in the hall, of every twitch and convulsion of the crowd. I could pick out individual voices. My opponent hit me very hard with the first right hand he threw. I was very inexperienced, not having sparred much beforehand, and it seemed to go on forever. In the second bout I was extremely focused and was aware of nothing outside of the ring. I remember the vibrant blueness of the canvas, which was the same shade as Superman’s costume. My senses were heightened again, but my mind was sealed off. It went by in a blink. I couldn’t believe both fights lasted six minutes.

In film we are used to filmmakers using a galaxy of devices to bend, distort, reverse or stop time. The use of timelapse photography, stop motion animation, timesplicing, reversed motion, slow motion, accelerated motion, and the freeze frame to convey the elastic properties of time are so commonplace we barely notice them now. In theatre we can show.The season changing and time passing, but the distortion of time, if it is not to seem too
tricksy, is harder to pull off. Chekov shows us the passing of time between acts acts with the changing seasons in The Seagull, and I saw an early Dennis Kelly play called Blackout where the protagonist was an alcoholic who kept blacking out after binge drinking. The action progressed through a sequence of abrupt jump cuts that landed the character into the middle of a scene where something has just happened that he has no memory of. The audience finds out what has happened as he does. It unravels like a mystery. It didn’t quite work, but the concept was strong. Tom Murphy in Conversations On A Homecoming compresses an afternoon and a long evening into one uninterrupted act of about two hours. Conor MacPherson repeats this effect in The Weir.

Both plays take place in the pub, and the wild and discursive storytelling that takes place in both echoes the intoxicating time distortion that drink visits on us. The pub, they seem to suggest, is a liminal space where such magical transformation is possible. Mike Barlett compresses time in a different way in his first play My Child. In just over 50 minutes various characters act out a present tense traumatic event, the wrangling between a estranged couple about the ‘ownership’ of their child, whilst other related characters, who remain onstage throughout, call out to them from their past, their present, and their future.

This cross generational feedback shows the past exploding into the present whilst simultaneously undermining the future. There are no flashbacks, as each character is addressed in the present tense, much the same way as Willy Loman talks to his long lost brother in real time whilst no one else sees him, except here it almost feels the entire point of the play. The effect is incredibly unsettling.

These plays do more than use time as a device, I think. They embed the passage of time into the very fabric of these plays. They demonstrate the alchemy of stage time. I think the achievement of this is one of the hardest things a dramatist can pull off, as it requires both an absolute fidelity to the present tense action, which has to be grounded and concrete and ‘real’, and an investment in the fractured shifts in consciousness simultaneously happening onstage.
The effect of this I associate with a technique in film known as the Hitchcock zoom, or reverse tracking shot. Hitchcock first used it in Vertigo, and there’s a famous example in Jaws. It’s a complex effect which shows the character staying the same size in the frame whilst the background seems to be crashing in on them. It’s very disorientating and reveals a vertiginous shift in a character’s perception. It’s achieved by a camera tracking out whilst simultaneously zooming in at the same speed, and also keeping the subject in focus throughout. Looking at this effect it seems to effect space more than it does time, but our perceptions happen in time, so I think of it as the same thing. Now, film has the technology to create these effects, whereas I think the dramatist is tasked with addressing the way in which we represent time with much blunter tools. I think we achieve it through language and the silence and the way characters occupy and move through space.

The workshops have provoked these challenges and has made me think about how these effects might be achieved, and in such a way that they are more than just stage illusion. They’ve also made me realise that these plays which meditate on time passing show that it is not just an adjunct to the drama, sometimes it is the drama. As Chance Wayne urgently buttonholes us at the end of Sweet Bird Of Youth, it is us he addresses directly, not another character in the scene: ‘I don’t ask for your sympathy, just for your understanding. No, not even that. Just for your recognition of you, in me, and the enemy, time, in us all.’

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