“…what you are told is really threefold…”

September 5, 2011

Hello. It’s possible you’ve arrived here with no back-story, so here’s a précis.

12 young people at a university collaboratively devise (with me as facilitator/director) a verbatim theatre piece about ‘love,  adrenaline and transitions’ and perform it for their peers for academic assessment. One of the students compiles a script from the performance work. Draft 1 (15 pages). It’s agreed the piece is lovely and worth developing further. It has lots of entertaining sequences involving chairs – hence the title.

A Chair, yesterday.

A subset of the group conduct further interviews with themselves, and the facilitator transforms into ‘verbatim playwright’, editing and arranging the material into Draft 2 (29 pages). All of this is done with the permission of the originating group.

It turns out verbatim is tricky and rewarding in equal parts, and that the true nature of the work is still emerging. Instead of one ending, it has four possible endings.

Now Draft 2 has been put before a completely new cast, who are to interpret perform the new version, as their ‘end of first year production’.

feel free to read previous posts if you’d like to know where this project came from in more detail. This blog, updated regularly,  is about keeping the stakeholders informed about how it’s developing. It’s longer and more in-depth than you might expect a blog entry to be, but that’s just the way it’s turned out.

Wednesday Afternoons and Friends and Relations

On Wednesday afternoons the new cast meets with myself as writer/director, and two student assistant directors, who are conveniently both called Sam. One of these fellers was in the group who initially created the show, so he’ll have a unique perspective.

They’re a friendly, switched on group of first year drama students, sitting around a long table, munching on snacks. They may or may not have elected to be in this particular group (some may have chosen the project because of its convenient timeslot) They don’t know each other that well, and there’s only one male cast member,  which was the only condition the script demanded,  and ostensibly the only similarity between this cast and the last.

We discuss the origins of the piece. We talk about the verbatim form, and they research, and bring back to the room information about other verbatim shows. I’m surprised by some of these, and it’s great to have 15 minds on the work instead of just mine and a few members of the original devisers.  The students discover there are some interesting projects out there, including a work I’d not heard of before called ‘Cruising’,  which not only deals with ‘geriatric love and sex’ but also further problematises the verbatim form. (The actors relay the verbatim material which is supplied to them during the performance via headphones)

So this is interesting. We’re making something new, but it has friends and relations out there in theatre-land: including relatives we’d prefer not to spend time with. Seeing the kinds of  approaches you’d rather not take to a project can provide a kind of negative inspiration.  This play,  My First Time, takes a line on the material that looks like it might be fun, perhaps , but there’s a show-bizzy cynicism to the treatment of the (presumably web-based,  rather than verbatim) material that I plan to avoid with this project.

Responses to the second draft script

So, on the second Wednesday afternoon, the freshly photocopied Draft 2 Scripts are distributed, their staples glinting in the unfriendly neon of this sterile university classroom. The first years read the script. There aren’t any ‘characters’ per se. (apart  from MAN, who is mainly non-verbal)  They’re all called ‘WOMAN’ so the parts are simply passed from actor to actor in a clockwise direction. Which works fine.

There are smiles, laughs, and poignant silences. The verbatim dialogue flows. There aren’t too many typos.  There’s no cultural or linguistic ‘gap’ between the speakers of the words and these readers. Doubts I had about the chronological structure,  and what it might imply,  fade away. It works.

I sense with some relief that there’s unlikely to be a massive redraft focused on restructuring the material.

Though it’s all pretty tame, some of the stories are shocking, or intimate in that ‘I can’t believe they said that’ kind of way that only verbatim, with its roots outside any fictional context, can offer. We notice that young people say the word ‘like’ a lot. The script reads at 42 minutes, and the (anonymous, written) responses are positive*:

(* but what student in their right mind would be critical of a script being presented to them by a writer who’s involved in their academic assessment? Here, again, the inherent contradictions involved in artistic projects with educational imperatives are present in the subtext. These excerpts were used with permission.)

There’s a solidarity and recognition of the experiences related in the verbatim text:

“…you read about other peoples’ break-up stories and what the boy did and how you felt – you can always see similarities to that of your own break up.”

…there’s a sense that certain themes are shining through the verbatim text and the way it’s been edited and arranged:

“My favourite bit is scene 5 and 6 because they’re cute and the transition to maturity is quite apparent.”

…there’s enjoyment and perhaps anticipation of creative adventure in the proposals for interstitial music-driven, ensemble based set-pieces:

“The stage direction: ‘two chairs have sex’ makes me chuckle. Funny and blunt.”

 …there’s a recognition of the unique qualities of the verbatim form:

“Loved the blunt honesty of all the monologues and how the characters are trusting the audience with their story”

 An all-in discussion about the project was summarized with the idea that a “…major challenge is being true and respectful to the original story that was being told” which of course is true of any dramatic work, but has a particular importance for this project.


Instead of deciding on an ending, and presenting one, I presented four options, including the original monologue from the sole male character (you can read about these in the last post). All of these were read, but across all responses,  it was important to this new cast that the MAN be allowed a voice in the piece – perhaps based in the original script, but combining some of the other options on offer:

“Can we have both please? It would be great to end from a male’s perspective but also finish the way we started. (with multiple female perspectives)”

“I reckon ‘MAN ‘ needs to speak and I also like the idea of the women packing up the chairs as if the chairs are symbolic of their ‘story’.”

So the ending is a work in progress – not unusual for a new play – and I’m comfortable with this as a writer. While the new cast won’t be writing any new material as ‘devisers’, discovering the ending could be a really useful way of exploring the themes and turning points of the piece,  so as an educator,  I’ll use this as a driver for some of our upcoming Wednesday afternoons.

One exercise I presented involved the cast ‘tracing’ certain ‘characters’ through the piece, based on verbal tics, or recurrent themes. They were able to locate five or six  so far,  but we need to trace around 12 ‘character lines’ through the piece to give everyone in the cast a decent burl at performing dialogue onstage. That’ll be an interesting process,  and as a writer I’m tempted to leave the characters ‘unprescribed’ in the final (post production) draft of the script simply because it engenders such authentic enquiry into how the thing ticks. That if the work is ever played again, it’ll be a genuine ‘way in’ for a completely new set of people, especially student actors.


I have generally cast by secret ballot in the past. That is, after a short period where  we get to know each other and the script) every member of the cast ‘casts’ the work,  including themselves, nominating ‘who plays who’,  and then it’s worked out on preferences. It’s vaguely democratic, mostly people get what they want, it cuts down on executive decisions by a director, and generally works out for the best. I sense the ‘casting’ of this play will be different, but I’m not sure how yet.

I asked for questions (also anonymous) about the emerging work – many of these focused on the ‘chair’ sequences which are only vaguely annotated,  because it’s way more fun to play on the rehearsal room floor with an open suggestion , rather than scripted action text. However, there was one inquiry that was hard to answer:

“…how do we research, inform our characters if they are all very similar?”

The academic context of this production-based ‘unit’ these students are doing has been usefully scaffolded with a selection of readings about the craft of acting; summaries of varying approaches to this mysterious practice. These are important to the student actor. You’d be mad not to at least consider how some key historical figures have developed and taught ‘acting’. But my instinct and past practice tell me these tools may be of limited use in bringing these characters to life.  David Mamet’s a bit of a party pooper in many ways, and not a fan of the method (and neither am I) but he’s got something to say about this business:

Emotional memory,” “Sense memory’ and the tenets of the Method back to and including Stanislavsky’s trilogy are a lot of hogwash. This “method” does not work; it cannot be practiced; it is, in theory, design, and supposed execution, supererogatory – it is as useless as teaching pilots to flap their arms while in the cockpit in order to increase the lift of the plane.”

(From True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor by David Mamet P12)

…for Mamet, the plane, we can presume, is the (fictional) story and the way it has been shaped by the playwright into narrative, and its myriad implications for action, character and relationships. Again, not all of these apply to ‘Please be Seated’,  but I generally try to encourage my students to work in a performative,  rather than theatrical paradigm.

They, as people, are already interesting. The conventions of the stage pique and focus the audience’s interest. The audience (mostly) already interested in what’s going on. That’s our starting point, an exchange which we must value as we move forward. Beyond making sure we can be heard and seen, and present the play with clarity, it’s a waste of energy to ‘act’ all over the material. We may employ all sorts of tools to work the verbatim material in the process, but these tools don’t belong in the product. Especially not in a verbatim project.

As a director of Please Be Seated, once we get up on the floor with the actors, with the script embodied by flesh and blood,  rather than black marks on paper, initially at least, I’m going to be less interested in what the stories are about than the intricacies and dynamics of what it’s like to tell a story. I sense that’s where the job of the actors is in this play. Where it links back to the standard paradox of ‘acting’ is that we have to rehearse it over and over and over again, and then pretend that it’s all spontaneous.

I know the play’s taking on its own life, because you see all sorts of things which seem to be (however coincidentally) related to the work you and your team are trying to create. I call this ‘getting your show goggles on’. Erica, an academic colleague,  dropped this quote on me today as we walked in the sun:

“Remember that what you are told is really threefold: shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man of the tale.” – Nabokov, Vladimir. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. 1941. Ed. John Lanchester. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995. 44.

Though it’s been busy for me, these weekly Wednesday group meetings precede the intensive rehearsal period, so it feels luxurious  – a spacious, leisurely enquiry before there’s much threat of us having to get up on the floor and make it happen.

I’m most excited by inviting the original cast, the originators of the verbatim material, to hear their work in a rehearsed reading. I’m intrigued to hear what they think and feel about the work. But that’s not for a few weeks yet. I think it will be to the work’s advantage to allow the new cast to truly connect with it before opening the process up to anyone.  There’s much to discover.


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