Radio playing

20160507-100850.jpg So. I went to Alphabetti Theatre to see Frank Sumatra by Mike Yeaman, which the publicity described as being performed in the style of a radio play. (As an aside – if I needed any encouragement for that – if you are in the North East of England go to Alphabetti. It’s a shoe-string operation which does great theatre in a basement.) It was a great evening with a funny, well-performed piece, which left me thinking about the radio play format.

In my teens I listened to a lot of radio drama: adaptations of Dorothy L Sayers detective stories, half-hour comedies, proper plays. I even tried writing them myself. (My early 70’s play about a plane hijacking – very topical then – used a hoover for the sound of an aeroplane taking off: that was before I got my first cassette recorder.) Despite all that listening I haven’t thought about them very much: so here goes.

The first and obvious thing about radio plays is that you can present any scenario you want, provided you can present a realistic soundscape. You can do things you can’t do on stage or in film without a massive budget. In Frank Sumatra, Frank was an orang-utang, four months old at the start at the play and fully grown by the end: eat your heart out Richard Linklater.

Beyond even Frank are the Goon Shows, which used the freedom of the format to create astonishing sound images: a rabid Christmas pudding terrorising people; a man travelling in a crate (Eccles: ‘Ah this is the life, being nailed up in a crate and carried across Africa’); a canvas tent with an upstairs.

Why does that work? My current idea is that radio draws on our experience of oral storytelling: it is a step beyond Charles Dickens giving readings from his work, but still on the same path. In the same way as our friend giving us the ‘he said, she said’ of their day, the radio play invites our engagement with a vocal story. We have to put ourselves in the path of the play.

The second thing I noticed was the treatment of time. The radio play, like the novel (and the TV advert) can make huge temporal jumps: ten seconds of a Frank Sinatra song and the characters in Frank Sumatra have conceived, carried and given birth to a child. Brilliant. And no need for a nine months later caption. The story-telling roots permit the leaps in time, which the more visual presentation of theatre and film balk at.

The more I think of it, the more interesting the format becomes, even without the additional layering of the live stage performance of Frank Sumatra (and, in its first incarnation Anomalisa). I might have to give it a shot myself.

Contra crepusculum

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Polychrome painting of a wolf in the Font-de-Gaume cave (drawing by Henri Breuil)

So. I find myself in a trap of my own making, caught between Angela Carter on one side and Stephanie Meyers on the other, because I have decided to write about wolves. More specifically about wolves and people with an indefinite and poorly defined line between them.

Currently, I have a short, ten-minute, play with one character who is a wolf and who is also, somehow, human (or, at least, appears to be). I managed to write that without leaping to the obvious conclusion that everyone reading this will reach in a few milli-seconds: I have written about a werewolf. Which is where Angela and Stephanie come in.

I have not read the Twilight Saga and do not intend to. I have not read Angela Carter’s wolf and werewolf short stories, but I have bought a copy of The Bloody Chamber, the collection in which they appear, and I will read them in the next few days. I am, though, wary, as they will inevitably change by thinking on the subject, and I will lose the knowing innocence that has served me so far.

My problem is that I don’t really want to write about werewolves, certainly not in the Meyeresque (hence the title of the post). I don’t want the huge, leapy, instantly-transforming things of team Jacob (even without reading/watching I know too much). I don’t even want the dorky New Zealand werewolves of What we do in the shadows (that good, but bloody vampire comedy).

I want to write about wolves and people. As yet, I don’t know how to do that, but I will find out in the only way I know how: by writing about it. And I’m starting to think I might want the wolf of Gubbio.

Viking funeral

IMG_0837So. Not everything works out the way you want it to. That’s hardly news. But what do we do when it doesn’t? When the grant application is turned down and the project shudders to a stop?

The temptation is to push on regardless, to take a ‘we’ll show the bastards’ approach. There’s so much time and effort invested in the work that stopping appears inconceiveable.

Except it isn’t.

For the last eighteen months or so I have been working with a handful of other theatre-makers (Tuesday’s Childe) on Hero in a coma, our first full length play. We workshopped and devised, wrote and re-wrote, had a rehearsed reading and took it to scratch nights. Then we applied for funding for two weeks of rehearsals to get it on its feet and towards full production.

We didn’t get the funding and then one of us got a job which clashed with the planned rehearsal period. We were left baffled and gloomy (but still all very pleased about the job).

We had a big, very honest debate about where we stood with the project. We decided that it is not time to press on regardless. It is time to create an event which will reflect and honour the piece and our work so far.

So on Wednesday 14th October we will (big metaphor warning) lay it out in the long boat, and pile its treasures around it. We will set fire to the boat and push it out to sea. As the flames spring skyward we will celebrate and remember. We will allow ourselves to feel sad as the fire dies and the boat sinks is a gush of steam.

Then. Ah, then, we will start work on something else, using all the skills and experience we have gained from this one. And this new work will be glorious.

The final performance of Hero in a coma will be in The Bewick Hall, Newcastle City Library, Wednesday 14th October at 6:30 pm. Free admission, but it would be helpful to book via the library on Eventbrite.

What has it got in its pocketses?

So. Still thinking about adaptations and the inner life of a book. Inevitably, I turn to the recent Hobbit films, with a pained look on my face. (I have to admit at this point that I have not seen Ep III Everybody fighting Everybody, but there is enough material in the first two to make my point.) What is the problem with the Hobbit films? They have been given the inner spirit of The Lord of the Rings. That’s all there is to it.

I had this roiling round my head as I was out on the bike this morning, and began to think how I would go about adapting the Hobbit for the stage. (What follows is probably very obvious, but, hey, I worked it out for myself.) The heart of the Hobbit is a told story. It is a fireside tale – in the best sense – masquerading in a book. A good adaptation would have to capture and convey that toldness. Preferably with a cast of seven, maybe eight.

But how do we get thirteen dwarves on stage with only seven actors? Hats I tell you. There are only two dwarf characters, Thorin and Balin (Bombur is not a character, merely a burden). Why clutter up the stage with unnecessary dwarves? No, hats will do nicely. No need for special effects, or grotesque make-up. We want a fire, a storyteller and a group of listeners who become part of the story as they listen.

That, I would go and see (and I wouldn’t mind a chance to write it).

The inner life of a book

TheManWhoWasThursdaySo. For the last two days I have been in a writing workshop run by Northumberland Theatre Company in the labyrinth of Alnwick Playhouse. The first day, with Ann Coburn was about structure, layering, subtext and dialogue, the second, with Stewart Howson was all about adaptation.

The primary point of the morning was the importance of being true to the inner life of the original in the new medium. That is much more important than slavishly following the original structure and order of narrative (I have ranted about this sort of thing previously, but Stewart got the point across much more strongly).

We then did an exercise (of course). We each had to chose a book, identify the inner life and then, using newspaper and string, express that inner life in an installation. We also had to produce a one line pitch, a sentence summary and paragraph summary of the book. The process of taking the inner life from the medium of words to the sculptural-conceptual newpaper was weird, but strangely fulfilling: just what was at the heart of the book, and how could that be expressed in paper and string?

When every one was finished, we went round look at each installation in turn, trying to guess the book from just the newspaper. If we didn’t get that (which was the usual result) we got the one line pitch, then the sentence summary and finally the paragraph. We got a few quite quickly (Henry James, Portrait of a Lady), others were obscure books no one other than the adaptor had read.

Now you can join in the fun. The picture at the top of this post is my installation (ignore the rectangular white lines: those are just markings on the floor). So: can you identify the book?

If not, here’s the pitch:

It’s not paranoia if they are watching you

Got to it yet? If not, then here’s the longer phrase:

When your enemies turn out to be your friends, who is the last enemy?

Still not got it? OK. Here’s the paragraph:

At the end of the nineteenth century the forces of anarchy and law are warring over the body and soul of humanity. On man embarks on a suicidal mission to uncover the heart of disorder, only to find himself anointed as the messenger of chaos. Unable to avoid the task, he struggles to identify his friends and his enemies.

Of course, it’s G K Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday.

I don’t really want to say much more about the book – spoilers – but a key theme is about unfolding knowledge, hence the spiral of gradually unfolding pieces of paper.

Now, that was just an exercise, but I continued to think about the book as we did the next section on holding frames or framing devices. By the end of the afternoon I knew exactly how I would adapt the book for the stage. So, if anyone wants an adaptation of The Man who was Thursday for a small touring company, get in touch, I’m ready to write it.

Soup of the day

So. Having given Hero in a Coma a first public reading we (Tuesday’s Childe) are working out what to do with it next: how can we get it up to a full performance. As part of that we are reviewing the audience feedback and thinking what needs cutting, changing or developing. Now, behind our play lurks The Odyssey, which means one of our questions is ‘how closely are we following The Odyssey?’

That is a difficult question, as some members of the group would say ‘not very’ and others would say ‘quite closely’. I’m looking at it like this: imagine you’re making soup (that’s not too hard for me as I do that most weeks). You have a rough recipe, so you chop and fry and stir, switching a few ingredients around (why are there no green lentils in the house this week?) and pour in the stock you made last week. But on the back of your stove is a stock pot which has been bubbling away for close on three thousand years. It’s been added to and drawn on for all that time. The stock is thick, highly flavoured and something of a familiar taste. You add a ladleful from that ancient stock to your new soup.

As your soup bubbles away the flavours of that old stock work their way round and through your new ingredients. When you serve it, the diners catch a waft of that old, familiar flavour as the steam rises from their bowls. When they eat it they get your soup, but an undertone of that ancient stock. Some of them will recognise it and smile to themselves because they do. Others may never have come across it before, but they’ll enjoy the soup as soup.

That’s what I’m aiming for: a good soup.

Hero in a coma

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So. Tuesday’s Childe held the first public reading of our new play Hero in a coma at the Bridge Hotel. It’s an intriguing piece (I know, I of all people, shouldn’t really say that: it’s just true) which covers an awful lot of ground – and a fair bit of sea. As we described it:

Hounded by his investors, Oliver Decius sets sail across the Atlantic in a bid to save his boatyard. We travel with him as he runs into a storm of mythic proportions which threatens to cost him not only his business but his life.

‘Hero in a Coma’ examines our conflicting desires to sail away from the struggles of life or to stand and fight the monsters around us.

We’d gathered our cast, adjusted the script for a reading rather than a full performance, rehearsed, and now, at half-past seven we were ready to go.

I was nervous. Partly about the acting – I’m not primarily an actor and unlike the rest of the cast I’m not trained – but mainly because this was the first time anyone outside the group was going to see the whole piece. I had a lot of time to listen to the audience and in my mind every creak of a chair was someone disliking the piece and shifting their position in disgust. Were they enjoying it? Why were there so many words for the cast to get through? Surely no one could bear to listen to all this talking?

Then we got to the end of the first half. The audience clapped. They clapped even more at the end of the second half and gave us positive, usefully-critical feedback. Of course, being a nervy writer I usually only hear the words after the ‘but’. Yet there were people there who would like to see a full production.

Now that feels good.

The borrowers

So. To the Edinburgh Fringe. At least, for an afternoon. I saw one show: Fearnot Wood staged by UCLU Runaground. This is not a review (there is no point reviewing it a month on), but  an observation on one part of the play.

As it proceeded it turned out one of the sub-plots was based on the film In Bruges. Very closely based. In fact, too closely. It is conceivable that this was sold to the director, by the author, as a witty tribute to the film, which would make the audience chuckle knowingly. Unfortunately, the two parts of the audience I was with groaned.

“But hang on,” the writer might say, “William Shakespeare borrowed all the time.”

He did. But as he borrowed he transformed. And that I think was the problem with this borrowing: there wasn’t a transformation, more of a cutting a jigsaw piece out of the film and dropping it into the play. And for me, it just didn’t work. Sorry.