Reading enough into it

Last night I reread an Aaron Sorkin script for his comedy series Sports Night and it was the 220th screenplay I’ve read this year. I’ve been reading at least one script every day since late December 2017 and so “The Local Weather” was also my 1,469th in this run. And yet it wasn’t until during this one that I remembered.

I remembered what it was like the first time I read a script. I don’t mean when I read The Time Tunnel: The Last Patrol on December 23, 2017. I mean back in the day, back whenever it was. While I’ve not been so regular about it before, I’ve read scripts all my life but there must’ve been a first one.

I definitely can’t even remember what it was or even begin to guess. I mean I’ve just turned to my shelves and I’ve a couple of hundred books of TV, film, radio and theatre scripts. But there must’ve been a first and somehow, reading this one – more likely re-re-reading it – the sensation came back.

And that sensation is excitement.

You forget things so easily. But to have a show that made you laugh, that reached inside you, that changed you, and then to see its script. No actors, no music, just the bare words on the page and it is a thrill. From that writer’s mind to yours, a direct connection. A sense of enormous effort behind each casual line, before it even got to the screen.

Drama is collaboration and I’ll never think it is or should be anything else, but you can’t see drama direction without there being a script. (Well, maybe when it’s very bad.) You can’t see an actor’s performance without there being a script. Possibly only music can have two lives, existing in its own right as well as being part of the final mix.

I suddenly remember giving a friend a spare copy of the published Frasier scripts I’d got –– I’d bought one and then Channel 4’s press office sent over a copy to the newsroom –– and I can still see her face. They’re scripts, she said. I don’t know how to read scripts.

You see her point of course: all that formatting, all those page conventions like INT and EXT, it’s something you need to get used to. But I must’ve given her that book around the year 2000 and by then I was already so familiar with the form that it took me a beat to comprehend what she meant.

I must ask her if she’s ever read it.

UPDATE: I did. I sent her a message and –– she is such a good writer –– she sent a line straight back that instantly made you picture her shuffling her feet uncomfortably. “A bit,” she said. She read it a bit.

I was going to say that I can’t understand why that delights and tickles me so much but of course I can: she wrote the reply well. What I can’t understand is quite why scripts thrill me so much.

But we don’t need to understand or comprehend or label a thrill. I’m just going to get some tea, head out into our garden and – depending on how you count – enjoy reading script number 211 aka 1,470. It’s going to be the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and I can’t wait.

Motivation

Clearly, I am the first ever writer to act on stage. I hear rumours of some other person called William who’s done it, but no, it was me. And as such, I have advice that I can now bestow for all writerkind to learn from.

Don’t ignore flashing red lights.

I really did act last night, and it was the first time I’d performed someone else’s script, but I was also producing. And I wrote another of the pieces for the evening, which I performed. Get me. Part of the production job, though, was recording the night.

So I had two locked-off cameras shooting video and audio from left and right of the stage. I had one lapel mic which we used to audio record parts that had a solo performer on stage. And I had two separate audio recorders positioned on the set.

I set all this going just before we opened the doors and I can see me now, asking an actor whether “that red flashing light” is distracting. I’d never seen this particular audio recorder flash red quite so much, but in my defence, it did look like it was flashing in time to the music.

Since I usually use it for interviews and so once it’s running, I’m not looking at it, I figured I’d just not noticed the red flashing before.

And I can see me now, finding something in my gear bag to cover up the red lights.

For this particular audio recorder, you press Record once to, I don’t know, arm it. Then you press Record again to set it actually recording.

And it turns out that until you press it that second time, the whole unit flashes as many red lights at you as it can.

Consequently, while the other cameras and all the other recorders captured about 90 minutes of show, that last audio recorder has about 15 seconds of me swearing.

But I swore very well. I emoted. I conveyed with clarity the depth of my feelings at that moment.

I wasn’t acting.

I’m not certain that I was acting when I performed my own piece. It’s a one-man short play, and the thing of it is that you’re not supposed to quite realise when I go from introducing the piece to actually doing it. You’re not supposed to know that every word from when I get on stage to when I leave is actually the story.

While it’s effective and, most importantly, right for this particular story, it also means that for a lot of the time, I am presenting as if I were doing a workshop. That is a performance, and the fiction of this story requires me to get quite upset, but it’s closer to what I do all the time.

Plus, it was my script, so of course I know it. I’ve acted in my own pieces before – hardly often, but generally very successfully.

What was different for me last night was that I performed someone else’s script.

And that is weird.

For the first time in my life, I have actually said the words “what’s my motivation?” during rehearsals. So much of what we write, or maybe just of what I write, is instinctual, and it’s when you have to see it from another direction that you become conscious of it.

It was all there in script, I just had to find it and in that digging, I was examining all the things about character that I usually just do unconsciously while writing.

Previously I’d have told you that I understand how actors do what they do, I mean I can comprehend the process even if I can’t do it. But now I can tell you that I don’t have a clue why they do it.

But it was pretty great getting to do a curtain call alongside proper actors.

The Plumb Pudding in Danger

Maybe as much as thirty years ago, I came across a political cartoon called “The Plumb Pudding in Danger” and I have wanted to use that as a title ever since.

Last Monday, I did.

It’s so long since I found that image that I can’t remember what I was doing or even much about it: I have to refer to my own script in order to tell you that it shows Napoleon and William Pitt the Younger carving up the world which is depicted as a plumb pudding.

James Gillray’s The Plumb Pudding in Danger (1805)

I had that image projected onto the wall at The Door theatre in the Birmingham Rep as part of Bad Choices, a night of plays by Cucumber Writers. Even if you’re as historically ill-informed as I am, you can see that cartoon is an ancient thing and I needed there to be no doubt that the play was present-day. So I had it as if it were on the wall of the office the play is set in – and next to it I had an image of Theresa May.

Or as the script says: “Theresa May or whoever is Prime Minister when we stage this.”

I wrote all this in the script and no doubt whoever directed the play would’ve had the images shown as described, but in this case that was me. I directed it.

It was my first time directing an evening of theatre so it was first proper time as a hyphenate. A writer-director.

Only, I also then ended up producing.

And as my Plumb Pudding script has a character who you only hear over speakers, I also acted the part offstage with a microphone.

Writer-director-producer-actor.

Just go back over those words, would you? How far through do you get before it stops sounding impressive and instead starts to seem a bit cheap?

It is fascinating, though, to briefly hold all these different perspectives in your head. I was sitting in the audience for most of the evening, more aware and more conscious, more in the moment than I can easily recall. Each beat of each play, examined. Each reaction from the audience.

It makes you oddly dispassionate, or at least it did me. So for instance, I think as a producer I fell short because I took my eye off the ball about promoting the evening enough. I concentrated on the material and making it happen. As a writer, I was good but there’s one character in my piece that I need to work on. As an actor, I was adequate on a microphone but if I’d actually shared the stage with my cast, I’d have been blown away.

And as a director, I was strong on the short plays and very clear about what I wanted, very able – I believe – to have everyone contributing. But we also had two poems in the mix and there I was out of my depth. I could direct some stagecraft, I could direct about pacing and where to aim or emphasise certain parts, but otherwise it was a poem. It rhymes, I thought. And that was my extent of expertise in it.

Those poems were by Rupi Lal. The other plays that I directed were by Louise Marshall and Emma Davis. There was one more play by Matthew Warburton that he brought in pre-directed so I could just relish watching that one.

He starred in his one with Kath Waters. My cast was Alan Wales, Deb McEwan and Dru Stephenson.

My co-producer was Angela Gallagher.

And if you want an night of theatre doing, these are the people you must get. I still and will always believe that it has to be on the page, but there were a hundred moments during rehearsals when I’d stop to just marvel at what the cast were doing with the material.

There were also a hundred thousand moments beforehand where I was sick to my stomach at the entire prospect of directing. But only you know that and as far as anyone else is concerned, when can I do it again?

Doing and not doing

Don’t laugh now, but journalists are meant to be unbiased and impartial. They’re definitely not meant to get involved and do things.

It’s different with the kinds of feature articles I usually write but if I’ve written a news story and you can tell it’s me, I’ve failed. News is news.

Except of course it isn’t and while total disconnected impartiality is the goal, you know that’s not possible. It’s not possible in part because the very act of choosing what to cover is coloured by your own opinion of what’s important.

I’ve always also believed that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applies to writing. That’s the quantum mechanics claim that you can’t measure something’s speed without affecting its direction and you can’t measure its direction without affecting its speed. Our act of looking at an event affects it.

It’s the old line: if you write about a terrorist attack, you are giving it the oxygen of publicity.

Nonetheless, the aim is detachment, the goal is impartiality, and I believe to this minute that this is right, that this is how it should be.

Except for three things that happened this week. One was simply that I listened to an interesting interview with a guy who has spent his entire career as a journalist covering a particular subject. The man is entertaining, he’s informative, but I came away feeling a little sorry for him. That’s all he’s ever done. Write about other people’s work.

Then I was recently asked to join Cucumber Writers, a producing writing group in the West Midlands and I’ve been talking with them this week about their future plans. But look what I did there: the first word describing this writing group was not writing, it was producing. This is a bunch of writers who have the same ambition of being produced that we all do, but they went ahead and produced themselves.

I swear they don’t see how great and rare that is. But it’s remarkable. I’ve shaken at writers who have huge dreams but won’t take small steps. And here’s this group that’s been producing new writing for five years now.

Strictly speaking, all of Cucumber Writers and this fella I heard interviewed spend their days writing. They’re observing events or human nature and communicating it to audiences through various forms of writing.

Yet it feels to me like Cucumber is actually doing something. It’s not a passive recitation of other people’s work, it is an act of creation.

Work that is created is surely work that is worth being described: I’m not going to knock the idea of coverage, of journalistic examination of a piece of work. I think about this far too much as I must’ve written 20,000 or more reviews of various things yet also my favourite films tend to be ones where I went in cold. Where I went in to the cinema having not read reviews.

I’ve also been reviewed a fair few times and that’s fascinating: you also learn how rare it is for a review to be worth reading, regardless of whether it’s a good or a bad one. The lack of meat, the lack of point in the majority of reviews is depressing. The – what’s the opposite of lack? Abundance? Thanks. The abundance of times a reviewer has said what I should’ve done with a piece is educational. Not because they’re right, but because regularly they don’t care about being wrong: they’re not examining a piece, they’re often advertising how much better they would’ve been. Yet they don’t go do anything, they just carry on advertising.

I believe that making is better than describing, though. I believe that it’s better to be crew than passenger. And in my most optimistic moments I believe that being both a writer and a journalist makes me better at both.

Mind you, the third thing that happened this week was that I read a quote saying “It’s better to walk ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books”. And I just thought, bollocks.

It’s called children’s theatre, yet…

I want you to flashback with me to when I was at a famous Birmingham Rep schools’ Christmas play. It’s a very long way: I want you to flashback three whole days.

I don’t remember whether my own school took us to plays when I was there but then I didn’t like my school and my school didn’t like me so we just made a pact not to bother each other much. Whereas I think from the uniform colours that on Wednesday the majority of two primary schools were taken to the Rep.

Angela and I inadvertently went with them all to see The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, adapted from Dodie Smith’s novel by Debbie Isitt and directed by Tessa Walker. We went because we wanted to see it, we went on Wednesday afternoon because we wanted to see it on Angela’s birthday and there was no evening performance that day.

One school took up all the seats toward the front of the auditorium and the other took all of them toward the back. The Rep put us in the single line between the schools, like it was a neutral zone.

Look, the short version of this is that I urge you to go see this play and the only ever so slightly longer version is that I demand you see it with several hundred schoolchildren. Plus a dozen or so battle-worn schoolteachers.

I did feel for those. Outside the theatre, those hundreds of individual kids were one single, continuous roar. It was spooky: any one child you looked at was probably not saying anything but the noise was one single unbroken wall of sound.

Until the play started. The One Hundred and One Dalmatians runs for something like two hours with an interval and the show had those kids from the very start to the very end. Total command of their attention.

I’ve worked with kids of this age and I know that getting their attention and keeping it is damn hard. So I was admiring the play for that until I forgot because it totally commanded my attention too.

I’ve often seen theatre that’s meant for children, sometimes for work, sometimes just because it was the Christmas show, and every time I’ve thought the same thing. I have thought how glorious it must be to be a child experiencing this. Theatre is genuinely magical when you are exactly the right age to be swept away and to have these moments that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

It just turns out that the exact right age is 52.

 

The play has the Birmingham Rep’s typically brilliant set but it also bursts out with characters appearing way up in the auditorium. And I tell you, when Cruella De Ville appeared at the end of our row, I was actually scared.

Isn’t this just fantastic? Hang on, let me check something. Right, The One Hundred and One Dalmatians is on at the Birmingham Rep until Saturday 13 January. Go book at least one performance right now.