A weird but inescapable fact— making theatre is to cause a huge group of artists with a huge variety of skills and creative drives to come together to produce a single, comprehensive, cohesive piece of art. It’s a miracle that not more blood is spilt over it.
My last script, Here We All Are. Assembled produced by JUTE in October 2017, had 15 upfront theatre-makers doing hands-on theatre-making creative tasks. That was just at the pointy end of things. Behind the scenes, the show engaged the services of perhaps 30 other adjunct movers and shakers including promoter, tour manager, marketers, administrators and brow-moppers. That’s pretty cool to realise words you wrote created paid employment for 45 people. But I digress…
So when was the last time you saw 15+ practising artists agree to amicably (and even excitedly) create a single piece of art and all share the credit/blame for it? Don’t often see sculptors or novelists rallying for that gig. A piece of theatre involves multiple disciples, multiple perspectives and a megaton of artistic egos.
I mean, what could go wrong?
For the record, my experience with JUTE’s Here We All Are. Assembled production was amazing. It was one of those extraordinary shows when you cannot find a weak link. Everyone did their job and did it with such force and passion that audiences were breathless with the impact.
The show witnessed so much creative harnessing—not kidding, it was a technical/creative/logistical matrix all moving along agreed protocols.
It’s precisely because there are so many people involved in theatre-making that protocols exist. What we lovingly call “theatre traditions” often just spring from the need to avoid fisticuffs and pistols at dawn. All very civilised. Mostly.
You’ll find a few different schools of thought about the writer’s creative position in all this.
- The writer is king.
- The writer is irrelevant.
- The writer should be integral.
- The writer should back off.
- The work should be honoured.
- The work should be interrogated.
- The writer has the true vision.
- The director has the truer vision.
And I think it does roughly boil down to how neatly your vision and the director’s vision intersect. As a writer, your relationship with your director is going to affect everything. His or her attitude to you as a writer will colour the process. Get prepared for there to be some disagreements.
For myself, I’ve never truly had any issues with the way my work has been interpreted on stage. But very often, when I see my work performed, I have questions about the artistic decisions being made. That doesn’t make me want to direct my own work or haul the director over the coals for what he or she is doing to my work or skulk out of the rehearsal room in a huffy. They are only questions, and they are part of a larger artistic process that can be brutal or it can be surprising or it can be catastrophic.
Welcome to risk.
I recently read a short treatise on the pitfalls of being too nice in theatre, written by director Arthur Penn in 2009 (I know, I am late to this table) which basically exhorts theatre artists to be “difficult”. It praises the type of theatre maker who constantly questions and challenges the normal processes of making theatre.
All great work comes to us through various forms of friction. I like this friction; I thrive on it. I keep hearing that Kim Stanley was difficult. Yes, she was: in the best sense of the word. She questioned everything; nailed everything down; got answers; motivated everyone to work at her demonically high standard. Everyone improved, as did the project on which she was working, whether it was a scene in class, a TV project, a film, or a play. Is that difficult? Bring more of them on.
That pain-in-the-arse actor who asks fifty questions before they agree to an idea that is being suggested.
Go on, you know one.
That argumentative, sullen, ‘sensitive artist’ set designer who cannot abide the idea of using plastic or the colour green.
God forbid the colour green.
That financially vampiric director who resists the urge to do what is most logical (and inexpensive) in favour of what is unreasonable (and hellish expensive).
Oh yes, the article asks theatre artists to be particular, not nice. It begs them to abandon protocols, niceties and convivial yes-ism. Because, the theory goes, Good Art like most things in life comes from struggle and conflict and rigour. And in that kind of atmosphere of constant challenging, good things start to rise to the top. Of course, that sort of atmosphere breeds ego, bullying and contempt as much as Good Art. It also makes producers think twice about hiring you again.
In a world full of expensive mediochre theatre, which I see time and time again, you have to ask how unpleasant does one need to be to get good theatre made? If asking questions and resisting the first answer makes for better theatre then I’m all for it, friction or no friction. And I do think part of the issue is that theatre itself is meant to be difficult, it’s meant to be hard to get it right, it’s meant to keep people like writers and directors and actors and audience members awake at night with questions.
Oftentimes theatre just doesn’t work. That’s why making it work is such fun. Like a soccer match – such a low scoring game but hell, when that ball hits the back of the net, it’s a beautiful thing. That’s called Playing Well With Others.
And I can’t believe I just compared theatre to soccer.
- The photograph accompanying this post features actors Barbara Lowing and Natalie Taylor, in the JUTE production of Here We All Are. Assembled, 2017. The photograph was taken by JUTE.