I’m working on a script which is a finalist in the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award. Being a finalist means a process of further development of the script submitted. After the first reading, I gathered the feedback and my own notes into a master document and used this to guide my work on the next draft of the script: a kind of solo creative development.
Details, additions and cuts based in my own discoveries during this period are the first thing I implement. Hearing the play for the first time sparked off quite a few ideas that I recorded while they were happening, and I translate these changes into the next draft. There’s one character in particular whose development I need to attend to, so I do that, ensuring she’s active in every scene.
I’m also responding to dramaturgical advice from Peter Matheson, based in our discussions, the reading, and his assessment, which forms a scene by scene list of things to do, something to anchor the process. As I’d written the first draft I’d been quite austere in trying to reduce scenes to single pages. For this draft I’m going to let it breathe out a bit, and see where that leads things.
I aim to track each character’s ‘journey’ in detail but find I’m relying more on instinct than analysis. I’m mindful too, that this next draft will be read by actors whose job is to do exactly this (that is, to follow a character’s arc) so I defer some of these details for the cooperation that I know will emerge from around the table once the team starts reading it again.
I did some more work on clarifying the world of the piece (staged & fictional) as sketches and diagrams and translated these into text, so there are lines of logic & design for me to follow while writing it and the same things are called the same things – so it’s less of a mystery, for example, what image is projected where. I’m doing this for two imaginary parties: the audience, who’ll hear a set design described to them in the reading, and a director/AV designer who’ll work on the show if it’s ever made.
This also involves distilling the symbolic order of the play – as a mixture of poetic naturalism and magic realism – there’s a lot of information to handle here, and it’s easy to over-do things, and favour image over action, so I need to make sure they’re clean, accessible and develop in each instance. The principle here is ‘Chekov’s gun’, (Not that I will ever write anything with a gun in it). He said that “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”*
There are a series of between-scene transitions in the work that accumulate in a recapitulation towards the end of the script. It’s quite a musical idea, and it’s also non-verbal. From a Composed Theatre perspective it’s very neat, but when the concept bumps up against the reality of where actors are likely to be standing, and the real life rhythms of performance, I can see the idea needs to work practically as well.
I also need to compress action text (or ‘stage directions’) in the knowledge that this script will be a playreading rather than performance; in order that they’re detailed enough to sound workable, but not deadly dull to listen to as text.
I re-think the nature and use of diegetic music in the piece, which involves listening to some lovely vintage jazz and Oz Rock (so that’s not much of a chore) but it can be a little distracting when there’s less interesting tasks to be performed on the script. Music’s always been a presence in my work, and I’d thought this would be a straighter play, but it’s asserting itself quite strongly again.
With the script significantly altered as a result of around a month’s work (around all my other jobs) I email the completed draft to the company at the end of April as agreed, and it’s distributed to the artists who will work on the next development.
In early May we gather round the script – a director (Bridget Boyle) Dramaturg (Peter Matheson) and three actors; Kerith, Jackson and Anthony. We have two days together to work on the piece. We read the whole play. You only read a script for the first time once. (Same as listening to the first mix of a piece of music). It’s interesting to see how it sits with the readers, and the first questions that arise are often the best. As we discuss it I’m collecting notes as well as responding what arises. My writing is quite messy, so I know I’m going to have some untangling to do once I start back writing.
Then we read and discuss it scene by scene, getting under the skin of the script, and working out how it ticks and how it might tock better. Bridget and I have worked out some key areas to focus on and she ensures these questions are asked each time. She handles a scene by scene matrix of aspects I wanted to examine in these two days, driving, seeking and recording ideas that might summarise the purpose and elements of each scene. This is slow and thorough work, which ably surfaces which scenes are working, and which scenes need more work. Some of these questions can seem a bit generic, but they’re as vital as ‘is this chair safe to sit on?’
At lunchtime I get my photo taken. I’m also doing media interviews about the QPDA which are organised by the company.
In a different process, we might stand up and workshop segments of the play but that’s not what the script needs right now – we’re looking at the parts in relation to the whole. As the protagonist of the piece is 12 years old, one particular highlight is the presence of a younger actor, Walt, who’s around this age, reading the part on the second day. For this reading I look up from the book, and take very few notes, just trying to enjoy and absorb it as a potential performance, rather than black marks on a page. Parts are funny. Parts are sad, sometimes at the same time. During the reading I also play a little music at points where the performance might use it, getting a sense of the sonic texture of the piece.
Around the table I can sense the investment rise as people bring themselves to the work. There’s no point in getting defensive if a script isn’t working as a bridge from a writer’s mind into another’s – it just needs fixing. Not everything needs to be talked about. It’s not always without emotion. I’m not so attached to it that I can’t change anything. I take down new ideas that arise and record inconsistencies in my own script, and before too long it’s again spidered with notes. These will need to be performed into the next draft, which will be rehearsed and read in public on June 30.
*From Gurlyand’s Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov, in Teatr i iskusstvo 1904, No. 28, 11 July, p. 521.