People have kindly asked how the play went, and the best analogy I can find is that it was like a holiday romance. It began with getting to know one another, continued with an unexpected night of passion followed by an inexplicable and devastating cold shoulder, which was succeeded by a desperate attempt to rekindle the romance and ended with an agreement to be friends.
Given that this was my first play, I was prepared for almost anything, but not the emotional roller-coaster of the production week. When working on a television series the intensity is spread – here it was so compressed that four days later I’m still waking up with the whole thing buzzing around in my head. If this blog is a bit of a brain dump, so be it.
My intention was to write something that would be entertaining, satisfying in terms of plot, and unusual in style, with a lot of short television-style scenes, two stories which become one story, and six actors, one constantly on stage, with five others playing two or three parts each. There was a sub-text of the central character finding relationships with women difficult and hints of romance, judicious references to social conditions in Manchester in 1888, some teasing of The Guardian, a bit of feminism, references to Dixon of Dock Green, Nick Ross and Crimewatch, and a homage to Columbo, who the hero resembled in not having a sidekick or confidant.
Props were minimal, the presence of a dead body was mimed, as were sandwiches, glasses of rum, and so forth. Different characters were suggested by adding or removing items to or from everyone’s basic costume. Some people didn’t warm to the miming, and some felt the approach to costume was too minimal.
In retrospect, this was rather over-ambitious for a first-time playwright – and possibly for one more experienced. Although blessed with a really imaginative director and a very committed and enthusiastic cast, the play really hinged on the audience buying the vision. When it did, the play flew, particularly on the night of passion. When it didn’t, on the following cold shoulder night, as the audience sat in silence, the experience was entirely hideous.
Unfortunately that was the night an apparently notoriously hard-to-please critic turned up, who ended his review with the thought that the play should never have been selected for the 24:7 Theatre Festival. That led me to apologise to the organisers for bringing their festival into disrepute, an over-reaction I know, but I hope understandable. They were kind and reassuring.
The following night, which I think of as the Red Bull show, we knocked five minutes off the running time purely by entering, exiting and acting faster. After that things calmed down and the final shows were fun.
Given that this blog is largely meant to be about practical stuff in the areas of writing and producing rather than an opportunity for autobiography, I have been thinking about the lessons I’m still taking from the experience, and whether any might be of more general interest.
One lesson, which unfortunately reflects advice that I have passed on to many people over the years and in this instance ignored, is that it’s necessary to master a medium before playing with it.
Another is that in a fast-moving piece, with quite complex plotting, for everyone in the audience who is up to speed there are bound to be some who aren’t. In an earlier draft there was a scene where the detective hero briefed his fellow policemen, but it felt too much like exposition at the time. Dropping it was probably a mistake, or at least not finding ways of neatly reminding the audience of what had been learned so far and where we were going next.
A third is that it’s too easy to be seduced by an audience which gets all the jokes. Laughter breeds laughter. On the bad night, it occurred to me that people need to be given permission to laugh. Though there is only one actual joke in the play there are many lines which are intended to be funny, and which might have brought a warmer response if they had been more clearly signposted. Or possibly not.
Fourth is that it’s really essential to have an early cast read, with enough time to rewrite, either fundamentally or at least to tweak. The nature of the production, a profit-share venture which relied on goodwill, meant that due to cast availability the first time I heard the piece in its entirety was when we ran it on the Sunday before the Thursday’s dress run and first performance. By that stage, I was concentrating more on detail than on fundamentals. It might still have turned out to be a Marmite play, but it might not if there had been rewriting time. Although I had brilliant notes from my dramaturg, looking at a script and hearing it are rather different.
The fifth lesson is that I am now determined to keep chipping away at the stage. Seeing my characters personified, hearing my funny lines appreciated, seeing people engaged in the plot and surprised by the twist, working with a director and actors who found things in the script that I hadn’t imagined, was an extraordinary experience and one that I really want to repeat. Despite the one dark day, the entire process, the way a bunch of people turned into a company, the intensity of it all, were like nothing I had really lived before. Hence, I owe a huge debt to 24:7 both for selecting the play for their festival, and for opening up possibilities I had never imagined.