Expressions that are not to be used again to describe theatre: Urgent

Hi Urgency. How you doing? Been well? Yeah, I’m not going too bad, thanks…

Always be polite to your nemesis. Constant anger is knackering, unattractive and way less fun than an ongoing jokey acknowledgment that one day you will destroy each other. I try to be Jon Pertwee to Urgency’s Roger Delgado. Like the Pertwee, I don’t always necessarily come off best.

Urgency comes under many guises – a throwaway comment in a theatre blurb, an artistic statement, sometimes even from the very lips of a theatre groupie who’s gotten so carried away they’ve let their guard down. Sometimes it gets a long-form re-boot like ‘Why does this play have to be produced now?’, or ‘What does this play say about the world we live in?’, designed to sort the playwriting sheep from the goats ahead of longed-for meetings with a theatre’s literary department.

If you can answer these questions confidently, then you are an amazing liar will have written your play as an impassioned response to a glaring and perceived injustice, and part of the strength of the play is the raw and furious energy which you’ve deployed to rail against the government, the justice system, the resistible rise of the Saturn peach, etc.

[As a rule, this is a Good Thing. Don’t write about things and people you don’t care about – it shows. These kinds of plays can be technically proficient and fancily-written, but they have the soul of a fork.]

But how long will it take to get this play on? If relevance and urgency are key parts of how it came to exist, then surely the public need to see it before the moment passes, right?

Every instance of a play being created will have its own unique process and one sweeping statement isn’t going to encapsulate everything. Therefore I take full ownership of my thoroughly unscientific research which suggests that the length of time from commencement of writing a full-length play to opening night is, on average, 3.75 years.

 

Interlude – please use this time to cry, guffaw with derision, etc depending on your own experience.

 

Yes, 3.75 years. On average. For a great many plays it will be somewhere between ‘more’ and ‘never’, but let’s take 3.75 years as our stock figure for now. That’s nearly the length of the First World War. In some cases it would take less time for a law to be passed to rectify whatever it is you’re writing about. The only realistic chance you have of comfortably beating this is if you’re Alan Bennett (in the Year of Our Lord 2013, Alan Bennett uses this privilege to write plays savaging the National Trust).

Tied-down Urgency shows its age. It’s liable to make producers sigh and say ‘I wish we could put this script on right now’, and then never touch it again because the historical ‘moment’ has passed. Even if your play gets the go-ahead, you’ll probably still be deep within our 3.75 year window, waiting for the privilege of one day seeing your play presented as ‘bleeding edge’ a long time after the events that inspired it, by a producer/company/theatre that has a bit of an unhealthy obsession with the bleeding edge.

Urgency is a lie. 3.75 years is not an urgent response. Urgency only really works effectively for shorter, cathartic response pieces (a la Theatre Uncut, 503’s Rapid Write Response), where everyone knows what they’ll be about, and the point is the freshness rather than the longevity. It is possible to write and stage a play in a matter of months, but this format usually accentuates the flaws (and there will be flaws – the text is only a few months old) in a way that’ll ultimately do an injustice to what you’re trying to say. It also makes the play itself feel ‘disposable’ – if that’s your attitude to the play, why do you expect anyone to watch?

Plays focussing on a *very* specific issue or situation can also pull Urgency off, but only where the specificity allows you make general points about the culture within which they exist (see Glengarry Glen Ross, many better verbatim plays for examples). This again is better done over time.

I don’t know exactly at what stage Urgency pulled this immense trick of convincing the world that it needed to exist. One of the most depressing sentences I’ve read in a while is this:

Edgar is adamant that his work “isn’t a play that is going to be revived in five years’ time or even two or three” [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-news/10116754/A-weeks-a-long-time-in-political-drama.html]

I don’t really know what the point of creating art is, unless it could say something to anyone, anywhere at any time. This feels like a tacit admission that the important thing is to respond NOW, so that for the next couple of months or so it feels relevant, and not really care about whether it’ll really mean anything in the long term. Obviously David Edgar can write about whatever he wants, but I’d want my art to be timeless. I’d want regular revivals for years because different groups of people across the world relate to, engage with and find different meanings in my work (plus I’d get paid more). Writing naturalistically about the specific state of your own nation, right now, feels like an inward-looking, self-centred waste of time. It feels like easily-consumable art that audiences don’t have to try too hard to recognise – going back to disposability, why would you expect audiences at any point to care about this?

If you’re about to haemorrhage with rage, let me put this another way: what *really* great ‘state of the nation’ plays were set and written, naturalistically, in the same historical period they document, within, let’s say, 1-2 years either side? You probably know drama a lot better than I do, and I’d be very interested to be proved wrong, but I genuinely can’t think of many. To illustrate my point, would The Crucible have been as powerful if it had been entirely set within 50s McCarthy-era American politics, or does it attain its power because its themes, issues and the motivations of the characters are essentially timeless?

I can understand that theatre needs to feel that it’s still relevant. It’s a lot older than TV and film and like an aging athlete, it sometimes tries too hard to demonstrate that it can still beat the young’uns at their game. But when theatre does this, it’s an idiot. It’s refusing to recognise that its best work arises from just being itself. For me theatre has always been a timeless medium – I try to keep it so by using metaphor and shiz, as much as anything because it makes the process of writing more interesting. I like to think this consequently makes my writing more interesting. Sometimes I do Peter Beagrie-style backflips of joy (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMy_YdOvwnk) because someone tells me that it’s worked.

Urgency leads to plays about concepts rather than people. Concepts are abstract, they don’t go to the theatre. People like watching people. They see themselves. They see their attitudes and ideas. Sometimes they change. Urgency is a bag of crisps when theatre needs a full meal.

 

PS: Brilliant answers to the literary department questions posed above are as follows –

Q: Why does this play have to be produced now?

A: Because my play is awesome and it is ready.

Q: What does this play say about the world we live in?

A: Please read my play again and concentrate.

…at least they will be when I am Emperor.

 

PPS: I cannot *actually* do a Peter Beagrie-style backflip.

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