Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Piece about Script Reading Published in Independent on Sunday

Gulp. Nearly 30 of them, in that cupboard - longing to be unleashed. Read me! Read me! - they’re wailing. Some will be dreadful - nonsensical or laborious; other easy reading, but corny, clichéd, or just plain dull. Another tough month, slaving over plenty of rubbish. But there might be the odd peach, ripe for development or encouragement.

I’m a play-reader for the literary departments of three London theatres, one large and two fringe venues. More than a dozen London companies develop new plays, accepting unsolicited manuscripts by the sackful from hopeful writers. Each week they receive several hundred plays, and each needs to be read and adjudicated.

Sometimes it seems everyone’s a budding writer; submissions come from all kinds of people. They’ve heard about James Herriot, trapped in a steamy cowshed, one arm halfway up a heifer’s backside, dreaming up a best-selling series of books; and they they, too, should be putting autobiographical pen to paper.

True, we all have stories to tell, and often the best creative writing is not crammed with spectacular incident, but is a simple dissection of the minutiae of prosaic, but unexamined lives. But why should we all reckon we can write? Angela Lambert once observed that everyone seems to think they’ve got a book in them, but not everyone thinks they’ve got, say, a bridge in them. And the chance of many of us writing a compelling play or novel is about as likely as turning our hands to a successful engineering project. London’s Millennium Bridge is testament to the fact that even an expert bridge-builder can have trouble making a wobble-free river crossing. But still it surges on, this relentless dtide of unsolicited manuscripts, flooding into the script departments of London, about tot burst out of my cupboard and inundate an unwilling desk.

The Panel of Readers at each theatre meets monthly to discuss the plays submitted. After a meeting, I might take away as many as 10 plays to read; for each I have to write a synopsis and commentary. The fees are not princely: between £11 and £14 per script, plus travel expenses. Sometimes a complicated script will take hours to unravel.

I should have given up years ago, it’s dispiriting to read the first few pages of a bad script and be obliged to read the whole ting. Often I wonder why I’m wasting my time when I could be catching up on masterpieces I’ve missed: but the thrill of finding an exciting new voice, or a cracking new play keeps me in harness.

And the monthly meetings make it all worthwhile. One panel comprises a literary agent, a producer, a journalist, an editor, an actor (fluent in four languages) and a director and others from vared arts backgrounds; good, thoughtful, interesting people, all of whom have a passion for new writing. There’s a certain amount of gallows humour at the meetings: faced with the umpteenth submission from a deluded hobbyist, we can become slightly hysterical - but we never fail to get excited by an intriguing new playwright. Enthusiasm plus experience mean there’s little chance we’ll reject a potential star, like that misguided A&R man who bypassed the Beatles.

So, what makes a good play? One literary manager says a playwright can be taught structure, plot and all the devices that come with shaping a play, but can’t be taught to writer good dialogue; that’s an innate talent. Good dialogue leaps out as you read it - there’s something immediately engaging in the way a serious playwright can make characters interact. Good dialogue isn’t necessarily naturalistic - it can by stylized to the hilt; arch, mannered, idiosyncratic - but it still has to have that Quotient-X that makes it readable, and, more importantly, hearable in a theatre.

Good dialogue doesn’t have to replicate quotidian speech. David Hare says he has to listen to bad dialogue around him all the time in “real life”. What people say, word for word in everyday situations, just won’t translate onto paper. Natural speech is full of illogical omissions, repetitions and semantic blind alleys - that’s why, for example, it can be so frustrating to make transcripts of taped interviews. In the flesh people can seem eloquent, full of intellectual vigour, eminently quotable - but play back the tape, and, verbataim, their words can look vapid or inconsequential.

Theatrical dialogue is something else; it’s heightened speech that triggers something in an audience’s collective imagination. Bad drama won’t allow the audience to do its part of the contract - joining up the dramatic dots using what Shakespeare calls “imaginary puissance”. The finest plays in the language were written for theatres with little in the way of costume, sets of special effects; what they did possess was abundantly inventive wordplay, and a diverse audience of Elizabethan Londoners who knew how to use their imaginations.

I’ve just judged a London play-writing competition. The two clear winners stood out a mile. Both were dramatic pieces that needed to be played in the theatre: neither would have worked in any other medium. Both had the right mixture of spontanaiety and discipline, a balance that must be present in any work of art. The text of a play, unlike a novel, is not the play itself. The text is nothing but dyed paper. It can’t begin to ignite until actors are speaking the words.

But I must get on with my script-reading. My cupboard’s creaking again, there’s a panel meeting on Saturday - both the godawful and the (please God), good plays need a fair hearing. I shall just have to resist the demonic urge to hurl the scripts, unread, into the incinerator. O, for a Muse of Fire, indeed.


Blogger FR said...

Do you keep a small fire burning by your side, just in case? There's nothing more exicting than reading a new play or seeing it performed for the first time. PLEASE, bring me something wonderful to see. I have been really annoyed by plays recently. Where is the next Aaron Sorkin or Tom McCarthy??? Are they in hiding? Watching their pages burn?

Yes, these are the words of an actor and theatre-maker who is looking for that brilliant script to run around in. I shall return to drinking my tea now.

11:23 am  

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