Writers: why don’t you get a job?

‘You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over.’

That’s a quote from Birdman, last year’s favourite film about how theatre can still be cool these days. One of its failings (alongside just getting a bit pleased with itself, and having highly-capable women running around after charismatically damaged men) is that it never really comes back to this point.

In a world where Janet Suzman can be a breathtaking plank in public, and then get indulged so much that (ably supported by Patricia Hodge and ‘thinking-man’s-impenetrable-intellectual-heat-haze’ Tom Stoppard) she gets to do it again, theatre has an uphill battle not looking like… well, theatre.

There’s loads of individual ways of addressing this on many levels. I wrote about one of them, and people have written far more insightfully on the subject as a whole than I could ever hope to.

But there’s still an aspect of inclusion that (understandably) doesn’t really get that much coverage – what if you want to do theatre alongside a ‘proper’ job?

Firstly let’s get some privilege out of the way: I’m fucking lucky to have a job at all, let alone angle for two. I’m even more fucking lucky to have a job that I enjoy in its own right. I’m also fortunate that I’ve got a writing style that can be adequately accommodated during evenings and weekends – not everyone has that, either.

And yet…

It bothers me increasingly that devoting yourself 100% to your craft as an artist is synonymous with legitimacy. I mean, yes, up to a point the amount of time you spend doing a thing will make you better at it. Then again, I could have devoted myself to football training since the age of 12, and I reckon I’d still be essentially far too shit at it to have a career. And art is even trickier than that, since it’s proportionately less a question of technique and more so one of imagination and empathy, which are much harder to measurably teach.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do arts degrees. If that’s what you want to do, it should be open and attainable for you. What I’m saying is that if you don’t, you’re still allowed to be an artist and nobody is allowed to make you feel otherwise, because…

1) You’ll get experience of ‘normal’ life. You know, the one that non-arts people have and the one that you want to engage your work with? Without this you end up being one of those horrific writers who focus on such vital human themes as ‘being independently well-off’ and, even worse, ‘writing plays’.

2) Your poor brain. If you spend all day running you’ll get a) really physically exhausted and b) sick of fucking running, before you become Mo Farah. Different bits of your brain work differently and it’s important to both work and rest ALL of them if you want to be in a condition to make good art. If a combination of spreadsheets, art and FIFA keeps you mentally sound, then all of them will benefit.

3) Your integrity. If you’re happy writing solely and straightforwardly in response to current events in order to satisfy theatre programmers with no functional imagination, then I’m not in a position to tell you not to. I am in a position, however, to tell you that you’re boring the shit out of everybody. Go away, think about how you write best, think about what you enjoy writing about, and stop worrying about being relevant.

4) Your back-up plan. Life’s chaotic. Just is. You might suddenly wake up one day needing long-term stability for either yourself or others – I know lots of people who manage to make this work, but that doesn’t mean you’re a failure if you don’t think it will work for you. You might fall out of love with the industry – I wouldn’t blame you, it can treat people very badly, and there’s loads of other cool stuff in the world to do. You might forget how to write altogether – in which case you probably need to focus on fixing that.

5) Your industry. A huge number of working artists had some sort of non-arts career before becoming successful. If you insist on looking upon them as being ‘rescued from normality’ then you’re missing the point in a big way. What they demonstrate is that ‘great artists’ and ‘normal people’ can be THE SAME THING. An industry full of people who can support themselves full-time whilst making art is not an interesting one. It might be held up as brave, and in many cases this is true, but using this as a stick to beat people with? Not cool.

Now, this is my take. It’s stuff I’ve found to work for me. No one’s saying this is better than the route anyone else takes. But what I’m saying is, if it’s your route, it’s your route. And that is okay.

On Pomona

BEWARE: SPOILERS ABOUND

First up – I’ve rarely been so happy that a show exists. It had the feeling of the first time I saw Philip Ridley and thought ‘aaahhahahhahha you brilliant idiot, in that you’re a bit of an idiot for thinking this should be done but you’ve pulled it off because you’re brilliant’.

This is ‘epic theatre’ as ‘epic theatre’ deserves to be enacted – vast, imperfect, and not inspired by so much theatre that it’s lost the concept of ‘what makes interesting art’ as a whole. The AD of a reputable new writing company once said to me that he couldn’t get his head around the idea of a play being sci-fi, which just shows you how limited some people’s idea of theatre is. If there’s some idiot somewhere shaking their head in disbelief at the idea of D&D being engagingly depicted onstage then I don’t think anyone can help you. Congratulations – you are the problem with theatre.

In fact, it’s almost like Pomona goes out of its way not to be theatrical. It references film, TV drama, roleplay, novels, almost anything but theatre, chewing them up and making its own creation out of them.

It doesn’t always work.

Much as Nadia Clifford is a tremendous Ollie (and her sister – or not – possibly…) her story feels like it’s just there to enable the rest of the action. I didn’t care about her by the end as much as I felt the story wanted me to. Was that intentional? Possibly. Maybe the circular ending (of which more later), was supposed to highlight that we care about the wrong things – apply our emotional effort to things that won’t ultimately make any difference. Certainly I cared more about Moe.

Oh god. Poor Moe.

The play seemed to want to lean us towards Charlie, but you know what, fuck Charlie. He was a bit ‘obvious central young disaffected person’. A bit contemporary. A bit hopeful. I’d rather have seen his backstory, and in a distracting way. Much as I enjoyed seeing D&D onstage, it felt… tacked on. The kernel of how the play began, maybe, only now the idea had outgrown it. The point of the oak tree is that it’s nothing like the acorn, or something. Other than being a wee bit manic pixie, I wasn’t sure what Keaton was doing there either, much as Sarah Middleton gave some very good other-worldly emptiness, the best I’ve seen since Jasmine Breaks in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ (which, translated from Whovian to Human, is ‘very high praise’). The overlap between her and Ollie’s actions was neater than it was satisfying. Is McDowell saying that we’re not in control of ourselves? That all we need is structure of some kind, however guided and impenetrable and manipulative?

Coz that’s a lovely theme. I loved the bleakness, and it was *almost* the best kind of bleakness – avoidable, ridiculous, the sort of thing that shouldn’t be happening but lol it is anyway and your tragedy is that you’ll die refusing to believe it.

Yes, I said ‘almost’. For something as mythic and loopy as Pomona started off being, every reference to the unseen ‘others’, every grounding of the threat in a world that we recognise diminished it slightly. It squelched together ‘8mm’, ‘Get Carter’ and ‘The Wicker Man’, trying to get the best out of all of them, but it felt like the importance was being stacked – like we were being defied to deny how horrible this was. As an audience member, I naturally defy being defied. Maybe that means I’m the problem McDowell is talking about – ‘real world problems aren’t big enough for me, white, middle-class Western hetero man that I am, YOU MUST DO MORE TO MOVE ME’ – or maybe it means I’m just so pretentious (I just wrote ‘I naturally defy being defied’, for fuck’s sake) that I’ve lost sight of what’s my personality and what’s an affectation too far.

Anyway, my point is that in drama ‘stacking’ evil diminishes fear. This is probably best summed up in a quote from ‘Cube’, one of my favourite films ever:

Nobody is in charge. It’s a headless blunder operating under the illusion of a master plan.

That would’ve been scarier. That evil just sort-of occurs without even the concept of being evil. That’s why I loved Moe. He’d looked into nothing and nothing had looked back. Not ‘Nothing’ – nothing. Such that even the horror and the wickedness has no actual meaning, not even horror and wickedness. We like to think we’re Charlie, innocent on some naïve level, but really we’re Moe, and we know it. Maybe it’s just Sam Swann’s irrepressible charisma, but I felt ‘comfortable’ when Charlie was with us. It was a safe space, and I didn’t want one, it felt like the play constraining itself. The ending was the same – a closed loop, one that you can’t enter. It could have spewed outwards, endlessly, slowly, insanely and it didn’t. It lurked without ever making me truly afraid. I respect McDowell for making the sense of it that he did, holy crap he’s a good writer, and I think he’ll write or directly inspire the best plays of this generation, but he added structure to a world that was more horrific for its chaos, and thereby lessened the impact.

Pomona is a play I remember in shards: Moe and Fay sitting in her room, talking about violence, feeling the threat of absolutely none but the weight outside of a world of it, Sean Rigby and Rebecca Humphries being majestic in a scene that I suspect will outlive all of us, director Bennett and McDowell letting them breathe whilst sucking the air out of the room like backdraft; Guy Rhys almost incoherent in his frantic pretence of control; Grace Thurgood begging for her money to be burnt. What an ensemble, possibly the strongest I’ve ever seen.

Fuck it, everyone was great. Everyone was brave. Everybody committed – McDowell, the cast, Ned Bennett, Georgia Lowe, Elliot Griggs, Giles Thomas, Polly Bennett, Pam Donald, Paul Miller. Every motherfucker. Pomona doesn’t care about being the last word in something. It’s the beginning. Beginnings are uncertain. Beginnings are exciting.

I’ve never been this excited about theatre.

Crying and that

I’m not sure why, but I feel moved to respond to Lyn Gardner’s very good piece here, more in my capacity as a writer, than an audience member. Or something.

I’ve cried at one theatre show in my life (Matilda), and I can only remember crying at one film (2005’s Shooting Dogs) in the last decade. Neither occasion had anything to do with them being ‘the best thing I’ve ever seen’. You just have… buttons. You have buttons that are specific to your own experiences and if something lands on them and does so in a way that you (who shares that particular experience) recognises as ‘true’, crying is something you can’t help yourself doing. The same could probably be said of being sick. It’s just an induce-able thing you do, and it means relatively little outside of itself.

So basically, I’ve always felt that if you build your play around your pre-decided ‘big emotional moments’, you’re cheating. A bit. Because that’s not a story, it’s some set-pieces, and it doesn’t mean that what comes in between will OBVIOUSLY be crap, but it sets you down the road of doing so. Don’t think ‘ah-HA, now this is the scene where I make everyone cry’, because you’re focusing on what the *result* of the scene is going to be, not whether it actually makes any sense in the context of the others. It *ought* to achieve that without you having to try. If it doesn’t, then your play probably doesn’t work in the way that you want it to work, in which case I recommend stopping thinking about what you want your play to do, because your play is most likely about your opinion on an issue, and that is BORING. I don’t know why anyone would want to see a piece of art in which shit things are revealed to be shit. That’s not an emotional journey – it’s an emotional doorstep.

Obviously it can just as easily work the other way – my least-favourite theatre experience ever was a play that was perfectly well-put-together, but which treated its characters with such utter contempt that it was almost unwatchable. It had the soul of… I dunno, something horrible, like a uselessly thin tupperware takeaway box that you can’t use for anything else, or the Cordyceps fungus. The only thing more boring than earnestly telling everyone how much you care is smirking at imaginary people who make stupid decisions BECAUSE YOU TELL THEM TO.

Also, if you’re trying for an effect, it won’t work. Not for everyone. Just like there’s ‘someone for everyone’, for every dramatic effect you try to create there’s going to be someone to whom it means nothing, no matter how personal and painful it is to you. And because they haven’t shared that emotional experience you might not ever be able to make them see it that way. Ever. And that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a THING, so just try to make what you’re writing make sense. I’ve always felt emotion comes best out of proper character logic anyway. You might disagree.

3 reasons why new playwrights should see ‘The Mousetrap’

No, I did not see ‘the Mousetrap’ as part of my continuing mission to reject what the cool people are doing.

I saw ‘The Mousetrap’ because it was a Father’s Day present for, well, my dad. He loved it, and I learnt this:

1) Agatha Christie is bloody amazing at structure

Now, you might not all like rigid structure. You might prefer a looser, character-led story, and that’s absolutely fine. However, if you were ever in the mood to learn anything about why structure might be important, I strongly recommend you watch a whodunnit *when you know who did it*. I watched ‘The Mousetrap’ knowing who the murderer was, but as a dramatist that was fantastic, because I was basically just watching the workings of the motor, and the motor is doing something REALLY unambiguously simple. There’s no capacity for unnecessary padding – that doesn’t help you work out who the murderer is. If it doesn’t help you work out who the murderer is, Agatha Christie already cut it decades ago. With that in mind, you can clearly discern not only the obvious dramatic purpose of each scene as presented, but also the purpose of each scene when you know who the murderer is and what their motivations are. Does it have the subtlety and depth of Pinter or Beckett? Well, no, but it never claims to, and that’s a good thing because…

2) It’s totally comfortable with what it is.

There are few things I dislike more in new writing than plays that fundamentally dislike themselves and/or their characters. You know the type – they give up on their internal logic half way through because it’s so flawed they stop respecting it. That’s the point at which Dramatic Things Start Happening because they’re appropriate, at least in a bizarre universe where this is in itself artistically valuable. This doesn’t happen in ‘The Mousetrap’. It knows perfectly well that it’s a closed-room murder mystery and it is DELIGHTED to be as such. The ‘qi‘ of the show, if such a thing can be said to exist without me sounding like a total dick, is entirely consistent throughout. It’s lovely watching a show that’s as unpretentious as ‘The Mousetrap’ is. It practically has ‘winks-to-camera’, for heaven’s sake, and it totally pulls them off by not being earnest about itself. You can see it in the cast too. You can tell a mile off when an ensemble are busting a gut to make a bad play work, but the cast of ‘The Mousetrap’ looked like they were having such fun, you could barely register the effort at all.

3) It’s actually got dramatic depth

In my head, once you’ve nailed down how you’re writing a thing and you’re comfortable with the internal logic and feel of the play, you suddenly develop an immense sense of freedom around what the actual content is. The backstory of ‘The Mousetrap’ is based on this really fucking upsetting 1945 child abuse case, which isn’t far off being a Royal Court Upstairs show in itself. There’s no Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to distract you with their-over-familiarity – all the characters are one-offs who arise organically from the situation and, more importantly, *act as if they do*. The criminal isn’t identified by a piece of smug deduction, or a reliance on overly-arch social conventions (e.g. how the game of bridge works), but by an incredibly simple piece of recognition. In fact, it’s got a lot more spiritually in common with Chekhov’s 1884 novel ‘The Shooting Party’, than it does with pretty much any other book Christie wrote, except for one which I won’t name because it’ll spoiler it horrifically.

The only real drawback is that the average ticket price is about £38. LOL West End.

Why I write the way I write (1)

It doesn’t do any harm every so often to reflect on yourself and why you work in the way that you work. Every therapist I’ve ever had has said I’m WELL GOOD at this, so therefore welcome to an occasional series in which I ponder this – who knows, it might (hopefully) be relevant to you as well.

 

I was a very solitary child. For various reasons, I’ve always felt a keen sense of outsider-dom. Did I embrace this by discovering, say, punk music or graphic novels? No, course not, I lived in Worcestershire, where such things were scarce, plus it was quite simply too cool.

 

I watched TV. I watched too much TV. I made my parents cross because I preferred watching TV to interacting with other kids. This made perfect sense at the time because real people were chaotic and real life was ‘hard work’ and, so I thought, gave me nothing back for how hard I tried to make people happy. When you feel like this it’s easier to engage with other people whose universes seem both more exciting and more comforting. These people don’t exist, of course. That’s the ultimate tragedy. You let yourself be thrilled by the adventures of people you can never meet, whilst at the same time making real life feel less and less like something you want to actually take part in.

 

And I was okay with this. And as an introvert who’s still fundamentally terrified about whether everyone secretly hates me, it actually did me a lot of good. In a world where I felt everyone was either secretly angry with me or trying to make me feel like shit, watching other ‘people’ being totally ambivalent was a serious relief. The context of ‘story’ simplified human interactions into something I could understand and digest, and the fact that many of them were also intensely fantastical and imaginative worlds made them even more appealing.

 

When I say ‘them’, I mean some of the best kid’s shows of the 80s and 90s. I’m talking:

 

Dungeons & Dragons

I cannot BELIEVE this hasn’t been made into a proper feature film yet, as much as anything because it would be an absolute piece of piss. Take, for example, ‘The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqjTsLR52gs, the first episode I ever saw and still one of the richest and deepest pieces of character-based drama that I’ve seen enacted from beginning to end in 20 minutes. Or ‘The Last Illusion’, where one of them spends most of the episode in screaming agony and his friends CANNOT HELP HIM. Or ‘The Dragon’s Graveyard’, which involves some teenagers overpowering their arch-enemy and having the power to kill him. This programme was criticised a lot at the time for being overly violent, but it isn’t really – it just shows you that even amazing fantasy adventures with your friends are sometimes really really fucking difficult and traumatic but that’s part of why they’re worthwhile, even if you don’t completely understand at the time. In other words, like real life.

 

Dangermouse

Speaking of ‘not understanding things at the time’, I move that it is not possible to fully understand Dangermouse when you’re a child. It’s so gleefully bloated with intricate gags and meta-textual references to the fact that it IS so ridiculous, that it’s clearly made for adults to want to watch with their children. My favourites were always the longer ones, like ‘Where There’s a Well, there’s a Way’, and ‘Dangermouse on the Orient Express’, which allowed the silliness to really breathe and conveyed the really very helpful message of ‘storytelling is really quite easy, you can even fuck about with it royally if you want, as long as you keep it fun’.

 

The Real Ghostbusters

In a late bid for ‘most controversial thing ever said on the internet’, I declare that I prefer these to the films. Why? Well, because the core cast is smaller but has so much more character development it’s UNREAL. Winston, for instance, is properly integrated into the action and given a similar scientific background to everyone else, and Janine is a considerable badass, who gets a number of episodes all to herself. It was much like D&D in teaching about dramatic group dynamics, only it was also my first cultural reference for grown-up sass. Special mention should be given to such episodes as ‘Egon’s Ghost’ and ‘Ragnarok’, which are astonishingly moving despite (or because of) seeming to ‘forget’ the real-world function they have (i.e. as diverting entertainment for children) and just go ‘fuck it, I’m a worthwhile piece of drama, I’m going to be the best I can’.

 

The Scooby Doo Show

To be distinguished from ‘Scooby Doo, Where Are You?’ and every other version of the same franchise, I sort-of have to include this because it taught me about rationalism – superstition is used by bad people to manipulate others for personal gain, but can be exposed by rigourous scientific enquiry and the perpetrators brought to justice: EVIDENCE WILL ALWAYS TRIUMPH. Or, to put it another way, some sort of logic can (and should) apply to every situation. Use it well, or you’re just running away screaming from stuff that is hard. Also, if you don’t think there’s much drama in this programme, just watch a few (any really), and count the occasions when the villain tries to ACTUALLY KILL one or more of the gang. It happens a LOT.

 

Knightmare

Once you have watched all the above, see real-life people making their own real-life stories with their real-life friends, in a context that is totally fantastical but has solid internal logic and is fun. It wasn’t all that long after this that I went out to youth theatre to do just the same thing. Coincidence…?

Yes, I’m calling the whole forthcoming series of Doctor Who, and I’m doing it like THIS…

The football has started. Doctor Who is starting. Yes, I am doing my ‘season predictions’, based on this teaser list: http://www.denofgeek.com/tv/doctor-who/31785/doctor-who-series-8-episode-synopses

  1. Deep Breath

There will be obligatory fucking-about whilst Clara decides whether she can trust the new Doc or not. This, like all other episodes of its type (Robot, Castrovalva, The Twin Dilemma, Time and the Rani) will be a bit shit in retrospect. It will be pretty because Ben Wheatley is directing, but we will wish that Ben Wheatley had also written it.

Key scene: In a moment of crisis, Clara chooses to trust the new Doc because where would her entire personality be otherwise?

  1. Into the Dalek

A reassuring ‘post-new-Doc’ episode where we go ‘back to basics’ – the basics in this case being: rip off an old episode you think no one will remember (1977’s The Invisible Enemy); a familiar foe about whom you ask the same question you always ask (I, for one, predict the Dalek will be a Dalek); references to relevant 90s films that you think people will appreciate (here Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! and Innerspace) and therefore forgive that you can’t think of a new plot really.

Key scene: The Dalek makes a pithy observation about the Doc being e.g. a genocidal loon, which nobody bothers to follow up.

  1. Robots of Sherwood

Mark Gatiss realises he is running low on ‘old-adventure-TV-references-beloved-by-everyone’ and panics, resulting in him thinking everyone both remembers AND gives the remotest shit about 80s TV oddity Robin of Sherwood. Unable to back out, he hits the whimsy bottle far too hard and makes an episode that tries so hard to be loveable that you end up wanting to vomit down its throat until it drowns.

Key scene: Maid Marian being appallingly characterised, even by the standards of female characters in the series as a whole.

  1. Listen

Moffat bingo. A collection of leftover scenes from every episode he’s written so far. This is the one cynically intended to scare the kids, so the parents out there should take the necessary precautions for how hyperactive they’ll be. We will think ‘gosh, he’s writing a LOT of them, isn’t he?’ and wonder whether that’s a tacit admission that he’s generally quite bad at picking writers.

Key scene: A children’s toy is scary.

  1. Time Heist

As the title would suggest, it’s probably very contrived and has virtually nothing to do with the series arc, which actually suggests it might be quite good. Phrases such as ‘the bank of Karabraxos’ indicate that Steven Moffatt’s contempt for people who like sci-fi has reached a new peak.

Key scene: The Doc goes either up or down some stairs, gesturing with both arms at some wondrous CGI. They then enter a modest studio set where there are some people in robes.

  1. The Caretaker

The producers attempt to (re-)convince us that Clara is a rounded character by showing her coping with various things like some kind of ‘modern woman’. She then encounters some peril and has to be saved, so that we remember how active and interesting she is.

Key scene: Lots of jump-cuts at the start where Clara is ‘busy’. A child asks her if she wants any children. There is a pause. We never return to this question.

  1. Kill the Moon

Because Doctor Who has ‘done’ all everyday objects, it decides to make the moon scary, like, moonlight turns your head inside out or something. Hopefully this will be the one that maintains its air of mystery in a non-annoying way, but they might throw too many FX at it.

Key scene: The promised dilemma is solved with relative ease because Time Lord.

  1. Mummy on the Orient Express

The one that is SO MUCH FUN it needs a baffling time-based plot device to keep the tension going. Also so much attention was paid to the blurb that the expression ‘most deadliest’ was allowed to be published.

Key scene: Something that references a Hammer horror movie. Yes, that could be a lot of scenes.

  1. Flatline

Backup Clara episode to be used in case of emergencies. This apparently is an emergency.

Key scene: Clara reaching out away from some vortex/time shit/etc

10. In the Forest of the Night

Concept-rich, drama-lite episode written by a Proper Screenwriter, possibly to follow up Richard Curtis’ well-received, but alarmingly cack, ‘Vincent and the Doctor’. Nasty feeling this might just be a cuddly version of The Silurians, only with trees.

Key scene: The Doc presses his face against a tree and they have a humanitarian chat and reach an understanding and everything goes back to normal. Or maybe ‘only Clara can do it’ for some reason.

11. Dark Water / 12. Death in Heaven

Moffat end-of-series bingo. About ten minutes of actual plot and and a fuckton of vague doom-yness, with the occasional old-school rush of ‘oooh look, it’s a Zarbi!’. A plot device from an earlier episode turns up to fix everything. No, not Clara… although actually yeah, maybe Clara. Perhaps even River Song comes back again, in a misguided attempt to demonstrate Moffat’s feminist credentials.

Key scene: The 10-second recap of ‘Dark Water’ at the start of ‘Death in Heaven’ which makes more narrative sense than ‘Dark Water’ itself.

15 reasons why ‘live’ theatre screenings are better than going to the theatre

1) It’s cheaper

2) It’s easier to get tickets

3) Less worry about sightlines/being able to hear things/uncomfy seats

4) You don’t need to fret so much about making noise/accidentally making people ‘tut’ you

5) There isn’t a ‘theatre crowd’ that you can feel uncomfortable about not being in

6) It is more unique and special than a film because it only happens a few times

7) Ltd number of camera angles + ltd soundtrack means you actually listen to the dialogue a lot more than if it were a film

8) It feels like the theatre have bothered to make it possible for Mrs Knees of Inverness to see a play she might like and not just said ‘come to London or wait for the tour, if we can be bothered to do one.’

9) You can hear the audience in the room, and therefore retain the sense of having compromised for a less intimate experience, i.e. one that might induce you to go to the theatre in the future so you can actually share it.

10) The quality and ‘level’ of broadcasts is actually very good – extremely sympathetically and intelligently filmed (see number 6) and at NT/RC level it has genuinely sustainable appeal. FFS though can we stop EXPLAINING it to people in douche-y intros?!
11) These are also more likely to be ‘big stage’/orthodox 4th wall shows that again fit the broadcast format. For many less orthodox and/or fringe shows (‘The Author’, say) it just won’t work and that’s FINE, although even ‘…Bradley Manning’ worked very well and that’s not exactly ‘classically’ staged…. On a purely financial note, these are less likely to appeal to the ‘casual’ theatregoer anyway, but that’s fine because it’s probably true of theatre screenings that…

12) THEY’RE FOR *CASUAL* THEATREGOERS. If you hate the idea, consider for a moment ‘am I by some definition a theatre professional?’ and ‘do I therefore set far more stall by ‘the live event’ than most people [i.e. who are not theatre professionals] do?’. Doesn’t mean you wrong, it just means they’re not AIMED at you. Maybe live broadcasts should be more fully embraced as an aspect of Outreach – in my head that’s kinda the point of them and I bet they do an equivalent job to schools tours/workshops/etc in terms of ££ and also just getting people through the damn door.. Do we want people to see more theatre or not?! How can potential audience possibly make any sort of useful judgement about the form if we insist on keeping it from being more accessible to them?!

13) If you say you’re going to the theatre, people go ‘ooo-OOO-ooo’, like you’ve become a Lord or something. Theatre is (or is generally perceived as) part of the class system and we haven’t fixed this yet. Going to the cinema to see a screening of a play is like being allowed into that ‘world’ (see numbers 4 and 5) in a safe way, where you can enjoy it on your own terms. As an industry, our refusal to acknowledge that theatre feels weird for most people is why new people never come. This is a good way of fixing this.

14) If you hate the show, it’s not so bad because it’s happening in another room somewhere else

15) If you love the show, you want to get closer next time (see number 9)

10 important dramatic lessons we learn from football

It’s a World Cup year, so loads of people suddenly start to develop at least a scholarly interest in football as a broader socio-cultural event, rather than the bloatedly obscene waste of emotional energy that English football basically is. These newcomers say things like ‘football’s quite exciting, isn’t it?’, to which followers of football smile knowingly, with a keen internalised sense of ‘OH CHRIST, IF ONLY YOU KNEW…’

Inspired by this reaction to one of the best World Cups in most people’s living memory, I present some vital lessons football teaches us about good drama, and which might explain why a relatively large number of dramatists choose to torture themselves in this specific way. If you’re snooty enough to wonder how the two can usefully be compared, consider this: football is played by multi-millionaires whom everyone still believes are working-class heroes; theatre, by contrast, is made by people working for very little money whom everyone assumes to be incredibly rich. THAT is a serious PR job, right there

[NB: This list wasn’t actually composed during the World Cup. It was actually drafted some time ago, just after the amuse-bouche of the 2014 Championship Playoff Final between Derby County and my dearly-withstood Queen’s Park Rangers, who scored the only goal of the game in the final minute of normal time. I’ve attempted to update it as far as possible with matches you’re more likely to remember and/or care about]

 

1. The antagonist doesn’t know they’re the antagonist

Drama is conflict, and the beauty of sport in general is that what each ‘character’ wants will ALWAYS directly conflict with what the opposition wants. You can EASILY grow to hate anyone who wants to thwart you, even if it’s actually nothing remotely personal, and in any other given situation they might well want you to win. Even Luis Suarez isn’t a pantomime villain out to make you hate him – he’s totally ambivalent about what you think and is just doing what he thinks is right. Similarly, if you throw a character into a drama that exists for no reason other than to be knowingly evil, you’re doing a disservice to yourself, your audience, and humanity in general.

 

2. Goalless subtext can be just as much fun as high-scoring thrillers

Brazil-Chile was one of the most engrossing games of this World Cup. It was also a 1-1 draw, decided on penalties. Sure, we’re all thrilled by the lunatic thrills of Spain-Netherlands or Germany-Portugal, but some times it also points to a lack of proper content/ability. Switzerland-France had even more goals, but was it actually memorable? Was even Spain-Netherlands genuinely thrilling by the time the 4th and 5th goals flew in? You don’t have to over-stuff drama with incident. It can make you look like Casillas.

 

3. The result is more fun when it’s not obvious

No one remembers predictable results. Nobody even really likes them, even when they’re on the winning side. Everyone loves Costa Rica because they shouldn’t have qualified, but they still did. If you’ve written a passage of drama with an obvious conclusion, ask yourself if you’d actually enjoy watching it. My only quibble with Jerusalem is the third act, which basically just plays out everything that’s already been suggested in the previous two without any particular surprises. That’s like watching Cameroon-Brazil. Your audience switches off relatively early because it’s happening just like they expect. Yes, Greek theatre has a great tradition of this, but personally I’ve always found this more cathartic then interesting, suggesting as it does such unhelpful ideas as ‘destiny actually exists’.

 

4. Gratuitous illogicality ruins everything

If you make a dramatic event happen for no reason other than to be dramatic, everyone with a brain will revolt at the idea because it’s jarring and stupid. Similarly, if you are Brazil-Croatia referee Yuichi Nishimura, and award spurious penalties for bafflingly contrived reasons, everyone will hate you. However…

 

5. Set up the context sufficiently well, and any crap decision can pay off

Gary O’Neil is a QPR midfielder who was sent off in the playoff final for fouling Derby’s Will Hughes when he was through on goal. This initially seemed an appalling decision on his part, as it meant the mighty Hoops had to play the final third of the game with only 10 men against an energetic Derby team galvanised by the apparent advantage. However, it COMPLETELY worked out because Derby did not score, and QPR did. It was therefore, in retrospect, an amazingly heroic act by Gary O’Neil, which teaches us that characters can do incredibly shitty things for very good reasons. One of the reasons I love Breaking Bad so much is because irrational character decisions can be completely logical in context.

 

6. No obstacle to what a character wants should be greater than the character themselves

As per point 3, nobody likes insurmountable foes. The best character-drivers are those which they are capable of overcoming by examining themselves. Luis Suarez, for instance, is a multi-millionaire who could easily access information about the kinds of treatment he can get for constantly biting people whilst at work. He is not a seriously-disabled person on income support. Yes, he needs help, but he needs help FOR THE PURPOSES OF FIXING HIMSELF – no amount of help will be effective without his desire to examine himself and grow as a person. He simply is not interested in doing this, and that is why he is not dramatically interesting, and why we shouldn’t feel sorry for him.

 

7. The stage will not always suit the most able players at any given moment

The beautiful thing about humans is that they might rise to any given occasion or might not. Derby County’s Jake Buxton was possibly the player of the game against QPR, but he was nutmegged at a crucial moment by Rangers’ largely anonymous winger Junior Hoilett to set up the winning goal. Any little moment might be dealt with badly and change the outcome, speaking of which…

 

8. Don’t feel the need to be kind

When the cross came into the box, it came straight to Derby defender Richard Keogh. All he had to do was smash it away. He misjudged the cross and it bounced off his leg to QPR striker Bobby Zamora. This happened:

Image

A couple of minutes later the game ended, and this was the shell of poor Richard Keogh:

Image

Similarly, here is Chile’s Gonzalo Jara after missing the final shootout penalty against Brazil:

Image

Life is cruel. You can be as kind to your characters as you like, but this reinforces all kinds of unhelpful ideas such as karma, natural justice and an interventionist, benevolent God, which ultimately keep characters from changing their circumstances themselves. Embrace the pain and hope that Keogh and Jara emerge stronger some day.

 

9. It might not make sense until it’s finished

In the build-up to QPR’s goal, I said aloud ‘Is this ACTUALLY how it’s going to be?!’ Football matches are retrospectively-constructed narratives. You can make TOTAL sense of any game once it’s over, largely because humans naturally look for narratives just like they look for human-type faces in things. This is the logical universe, so, looking back, why wouldn’t this play out like a coherent story?

 

10. WOULD. YOU. BE. LIEVE. IT?!                NO!

This is BBC London commentator Phil Parry being unable to process how everything worked out for QPR: http://deadspin.com/bbc-announcer-goes-bonkers-as-qpr-scores-90th-minute-wi-1581083245

Has your audience seen this story before? What can you do that will make them feel like this? If it doesn’t occur to you to do this, then… well… remind me why you’re doing this?

 

6 amazing one-shot classic Doctor Who characters who need their own spin-offs

HEY GUYS.

Welcome to the first in an occasional series of list-based blogs inspire by the fact that I’ve read Cracked.com too much. Hurray! And sorry…

If you’re a relative Doctor Who newbie, you’re frankly a little spoilt for spin-offs, offshoots and other means to really flesh out a franchise – see Torchwood, the resurrected Sarah-Jane Adventures and Vastra/Jenny/Strax for examples. However, you may not know about a whole raft of characters from the original series who made fleeting, yet memorable, appearances and earned every right to their own parades. Here, in transmission order, are just a few – feel free to leave a comment on any that you think I’ve missed out.

1. Anne Travers (Tina Packer) The Web of Fear (1968)

You can't handle this, The Sixties.
You can’t handle this, The Sixties.

Daughter of recurring Yeti-botherer Professor Travers, Anne was the only woman in a bunker full of blokes whilst big furry robots and colossal cobwebs invade London – and she was a total badass.

Her character arc is basically this: be head-fuckingly cool with everything from smarmy reporters to boorish soldiers, effortlessly nail long-term companion Victoria Waterfield for the whiny, spoilt idiot she truly was, and be instrumental in inventing the gadget with which the Doctor saves the day. Oh yes, and have one of the most empoweringly feminist tech lines in the history of television:

Soldier: What’s a girl like you doing in a job like this?

Anne: Well, when I was a little girl, I thought I’d like to be a scientist – so I became a scientist.

Anne represents the tantalising direction the show’s female companions could have gone in had the producers not wanted them to show up the leading man – see Caroline John’s magnificent Liz Shaw (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liz_Shaw#Casting_and_characterisation) for more on how intelligent female characters got shat on during this general era.

2. Miss Hawthorne (Damaris Hayman) The Daemons (1971)

Don't even get her started on CS Lewis...
Don’t even get her started on CS Lewis…

Parachuting into the occult-tinged Pertwee classic like someone who accidentally missed their cameo in a Hammer movie, Miss Hawthorne’s main function was to warn of the inevitable shitstorm caused by the Devil’s End barrow being opened (spoiler alert: Devil gets out). It might have ended there but for several key contributions throughout the rest of the story:

– she banishes an angry wind spirit using an incantation, i.e. with what we assume must be ACTUAL magic, as this implication is never challenged.
– she calmly lays out an violent Morris dancer (no, really), using a crystal ball in her handbag and follows up with the James Bond-level quip “on these occasions the outcome’s a certainty”.
– her ongoing enthusiasm for jumping the bones of UNIT stalwart Sergeant Benton.

Imagine a sexed-up Miss Marple battling crime using white witchcraft. If you don’t like the sound of that, then I don’t like you.

[PS. In case you think I’m being wildly fanciful with all this, in October 2014 THIS SHIT WILL APPARENTLY GO DOWN: https://www.galaxy4.co.uk/product.thtml?id=3556]

3. Rogin (Richardson Morgan) The Ark in Space (1974)

'I know we technically have to re-invent the concept of currency, but let's say your subs are £12 per month.'
‘I know we technically have to re-invent the concept of currency, but let’s say your subs are £12 per month.’

He’s brought out of cryogenic suspension three episodes into a four-part story. Pretty much his first line is ‘I said five thousand years ago, “There’ll be a snitch-up!”‘. He unfussily gets on with his job as insectoid aliens menace the last of humanity. However, nothing becomes his life like the leaving of it…

Needing to manually launch a rocket to despatch the deadly Wirrn swarm into deep space, the Doctor is punched out by Rogin, who insists:

‘You don’t want trouble with the Space Technician’s Union, Doctor – that’s my job!’

He’s the only declared union member in the history of the show, and sacrifices himself BECAUSE of that. Give this comrade a prequel.

4. Bettan (Harriet Philpin) Genesis of the Daleks (1975)

'When I'm the last leader of my race, I will totally... Oh.'
‘When I’m the last leader of my race, I will totally…
Oh.’

From the harrowing, apocalyptic ashes of the Daleks’ origin story rose not only their status as a Nazi archetype, but also the last vestiges of their eternal enemies, the Thals.

With a certain poetic justice, they’re led not by one of the plentiful old white dudes that magically ended up running EVERY ALIEN RACE THAT WAS EVEN REMOTELY HUMAN, but by an infinitely capable, emotionally literate and (above all) practical young woman who leads the survivors of her race in sealing the Daleks into their bunker and giving them enough breathing space to re-establish civilisation on the planet.

That, friends, is a story that deserves to be heard, not least because (as indeed with Anne Travers) the writers resist giving Bettan a drippy ‘for the ladies’ romantic subplot of any kind – and, more troublingly, because she appears to be the only woman left on Skaro…

5. Mags – Jessica Martin The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988)

On camera, this looks more like the Eighties then The Eighties does.
On camera, this looks more like the Eighties then The Eighties does.

Mags starts as a put-upon companion to a booby-ish explorer, bonds wonderfully with Ace (AKA the companion without whom Rose Tyler simply wouldn’t have existed), and then only goes and does this:

'I'M SORRY, WERE YOU SAYING SOMETHING HILARIOUS ABOUT THE EIGHTIES?!?!?!'
‘I’M SORRY, WERE YOU SAYING SOMETHING HILARIOUS ABOUT THE EIGHTIES?!?!?!’

…because also she’s a werewolf.

Mags winds up playing a pretty sizeable part in defeating a bunch of bored chaotic gods, sticks one to the patriarchy in fine style by killing her ‘handler’ (who by this point has gone to the dark side in a properly twattish way), and predates both ‘Buffy’ and ‘Being Human’ by having a good old subtextual young adult fret about how to manage her burgeoning power.

The fact that TV never got around to making a show about a spunky young lady werewolf who runs an intergalactic circus is one of the reasons I get so famously, celebrity-baitingly annoyed at what’s on TV.

6. Control (Sharon Duce), Redvers Fenn-Cooper (Michael Cochrane) & Nimrod (Carl Forgione) Ghost Light (1989)

Seen here first, third and fifth from left - I COULDN'T FIND A BETTER PHOTO OF ALL OF THEM, OKAY?!
Seen here first, third and fifth from left – sorry, this was the best picture of all of them I could find. Sylvester McCoy’s amazed I even found this one.

If you claim to enjoy the new stories whilst never having seen the high-Gothic, delightfully bonkers and infamously confusing Ghost Light, then what are you doing reading this stupid blog? GO AND WATCH IT BECAUSE IT’S AMAZING.

I can’t adequately sum up the story, except it revolves around evolution (in both character and nature in general) and responsibility for one’s scientific and/or emotional creations. Along the way we encounter a wonderfully tally-ho Victorian adventurer (Cochrane), an understatedly eloquent Neanderthal butler (Forgione) and a fabulously abrasive human test subject (Duce), who is trying to learn what civilised society even IS. Long story short, they end up flying off in a space ship to have adventures together.

Don’t question this – just accept that it’s the best idea anyone’s ever had, and that it hasn’t been written because the human has not yet been invented that could do it justice.

Honourable mention:

Henry Gordon Jago & Professor Litefoot (The Talons of Weng Chiang)

Everyone wanted their favourite theatrical impresario and proto-Holmes to have their own franchise – so Big Finish, erm, gave them a franchise which is currently in its TENTH GODDAMN SERIES: http://bigfinish.com/ranges/v/jago-litefoot

Is the ‘Right to Fail’ flawed?

I’m writing this today for two reasons. Firstly it’s a lovely day for someone with ancestral vampire skin to find an excuse to stay indoors and over-think. Secondly a culmination of events have led this to being a bit of a ‘black dog’ weekend, except in my case instead of a black dog, I have a pelican:

It's distracting, unmanageable and utterly ridiculous, yet still screams 'HERE I AM BITCH, DEAL WITH'. Birds are great metaphors.
It’s distracting, unmanageable and utterly ridiculous, yet still screams ‘HERE I AM BITCH, DEAL WITH’. Birds are great metaphors.

So yeah, I was thinking about the ‘right to fail’ today. It’s an expression that gets thrown around a lot, especially at people like me who make a point of talking loudly in theatre bars about why I’m the ONLY person who doesn’t suck.

But seriously folks, I used to do proper theatre reviews under an ingenious Clark Kent/Keyser Soze/El Kabong-style pseudonym. Contrary to what media practice seems to currently be dictating, it’s a very rewarding and insightful experience, which doesn’t change even if you fully intend on analysing art ‘at-source’ rather than after it’s finished. I stopped ages ago, mainly because I was getting increasingly close to reviewing people I’d consider my peers, and I felt like a twat about that.

'Take THAT my close personal friends!'
‘Take THAT my close personal friends!’

One idea I’d kept coming back to when I was reviewing was ‘why is this show even HERE?’ On the one hand that might have been God’s way of making me stop, but as a piece of ruthless standalone philosophy I’ve since found it very helpful.

It’s meant that ever since then I’ve asked myself:

1) Is this thing I’m writing saying something different that I have not heard said before?

2) If not, is it saying so in a manner that I have not seen before?

And I think if the answer to both these questions is ‘no’, then… why? Why will the world be worse off if this piece of art is never made? Why therefore is it worth your time, oh labouring writer, when it’s most likely a version of something you’re seen and really like and want to emulate?

Don’t get me wrong, we’re all allowed to be the product of our influences. I myself spent a good couple of years trying to be Tom Stoppard, before realising how much I needed to fuck off with that, and then spent another 3 years trying to be Joss Whedon. Nuance happens when you realise people and techniques you want to emulate might not actually work brilliantly for you, and you devise your own ways of working with your particular skills. Thus you eventually develop the whole ‘unique voice’ thing that we hear so much about.

'I'm a white dude in the arts industry, could my voice BE more unique?!'
‘BOO YEAH! I’m a well-off white dude in the arts industry, could my voice BE more unique?!’

Taking this back to the ‘right to fail’, this is how I really see it applying in art, and I think it’s also what William Zinsser was talking about . It’s about one’s personal journey being a necessary series of troughs and peaks, all of which should be treated as learning experiences, and how there is no ‘ideal way’. It’s genuinely good and inspiring reading for anyone with any self-doubt about where they’re heading. I say that even though it references Holden Caulfield, a front-runner in my list of ‘notable literary characters I would happily leave critically injured without summoning medical assistance’ (other contenders include Cathy Earnshaw and the bloke from David Nicholls’ One Day).

But the thing is, right, I don’t think it’s fair to take that very individual principle and apply it to organisations. Organisations have multi-layered oversight and appoint on merit. Organisations are organisations FOR THIS VERY REASON. I can see how a person might accidentally produce some art that doesn’t work if they’re making it by themselves, but if they’re producing various drafts over time for an organisation that can afford a literary department, dramaturgs, etc. then there’s a lot more accountability going on. And let’s not even get started on if they happen to be subsidised…

So should this usher in an era of X-Treme artistic safety? No, of course not. I’ve said as much before:

The-Genre-Question-Exeunt-Magazine 2014-05-18 13-32-13

…although some people bafflingly pretend that I didn’t:

Postcards-from-the-Gods-Genre-ecology-and-economy 2014-05-18 13-33-11

See, I don’t think a lot of people even know what they mean by ‘fail’. That might even include me. I used to think of it as the double-team of ‘artistically nonsense’ and ‘lost even more money than would normally be considered acceptable’, but that’s probably wrong. Reading Zinsser again it seems to be about having the bravery to try new and interesting things and being reflective enough to learn from them and see them as part of a ‘bigger picture’. Again, wonderful advice for the aspiring artist.

But for an organisation with more resources and oversight, isn’t a ‘failure’ the inability do the things they’ve evolved and exist to do, i.e. the bravery, the interestingness, the reflection?

And perhaps the greatest of these is reflection. The others can take years to attain and are subjective as heck, but I can’t see how you propose to get to either without reflection. I constantly reflect on past work because it’s the main mechanism the world has by which to judge me. It’s a constantly open invitation to adapt, improve and accept yourself at any given stage of your career. I’ve somehow managed to eventually do this without giving myself a hard time, and I am the acknowledged Eternal Galactic Champion of giving-myself-a-hard-time-for-shitty-reasons.

What I’m basically saying is that for all we talk about the right to fail, we never talk about the corresponding responsibility that’s inherent with any right that’s any use at all. In this case I suppose it’s the responsibility to reflect. Fail, yes, fail in grandiose, overarching ways – and then show what you’ve learned. I always find it refreshing when I hear individual artists talking publically or privately about aspects of their career that didn’t work. It makes it okay, and the fact that they can talk about it means that they see it as part of a bigger picture.

When did you last hear an organisation, artistic director, producer, or arguably anyone with substantial power in the industry do that? Even if you have, is it more or less than the number of ‘right to reply’ columns you’ve seen written in response to poor critical receptions?

Anyone who talks about rights without addressing their own responsibilities doesn’t like responsibility. You should not listen to such people.