Exploitation for the (State of the) Nation (Play)

I’m concerned about exploitation.

Not of real-life people, whom I’m mildly concerned about and perhaps should be more so, no. If anything I want more exploitation, better exploitation –  of themes and characters.

Yeah, see what I did there?

I am pretty terrible at chucking stuff in that seems wooly and never gets fully examined, though to my credit I eventually see the flaw. Once it’s exposed and obvious to others. It’s what makes relatively cold script readings so crucial – it means you can’t hide behind the pitch perfect line delivery and the ghost of hidden meaning that powers a script in your head. Like the best actors, this can make even terrible scripts passible. You tear up to yourself as you silently talk through your character’s moving mid-point soliloquy. It means so much to you. But it doesn’t actually mean anything to an audience. Stupid audience.

It’s easy to forget that you’ve thought through every beat and every decision, whereas a viewer is experiencing it as it unfolds. They do not have the weight of backstory that you perhaps know, but have not necessarily written in. As such, though you think you’ve built the drama to the point where it earns the pay off and understand it all, it’s not there in the script and just makes everything seem muddled.

It’s like a man in standing up in a pub, telling only the punch lines of jokes, which he finds hilarious because the set up is in his head. He’s doubled over, having a great time. The rest of us are looking around at each other thinking “this used to be a nice part of town.”

So you have to exploit what you have fully and clearly. But what does that really mean?

This can be a tricky line to toe. Does it mean that if you use something, it needs to be startlingly obvious why it’s there? Especially when some themes/events/symbols can seem to demand more respect than others. When I went to watch The Faith Machine at the Royal Court last year, I was annoyed that 9/11 was evoked but not fully explored*. I felt it was a cheap ploy to add gravity without taking responsibility that distracted, rather than added – “Why didn’t they come back to that at all?!” I thought. Whilst I still don’t like that play, thinking on it more, I realised that in David Eldridge’s Under The Blue Sky, which I mostly do like, he does the exact same thing. That fucked me off slightly less because the event he referenced, the Docklands bombings, did not register on my consciousness or weigh on my existence the way September 11th did.

It doesn’t even need to be literally explosive events. For example, there are lots of ways that cancer gets used – and mostly it’s reverential, mournful but above all dominant. Even a film like 50/50, whilst not incredible was considered a fresh enough perspective and yet still ask someone what 50/50s about? They’ll say It’s A Movie About Cancer. That’s not a story though, and the disease has clearly dominated the tale here. Because of the reverence, the other end of the spectrum, utter blitheness is just outright strange – it seems like you can’t just drop cancer in. I mean really 50/50 is about how a young friendship shifts in the face of mortality, but it cannot use cancer without really going to town on it. It’s A Funny Movie About Cancer. I’ve got to the end of the paragraph before realising this is actually talking about story setups – so put that aside, I’ll come back to it in a later post.

Is it an issue of scale of the production? Is it that with smaller plays/movies – two character jobbies – there is a need for everything to be milked to the best extent that it can because there’s nowhere to hide and you need all the material you have to build your Drama Castle on. Is it the case that the more panoramic numbers, those grand state of the nation plays, can get away with broad (lazy?) strokes. I mean, carrying everything through would make the thing baggy as fuck, and scripts are not meant to be baggy.

Scripts are lean.

Scripts are efficient, even when life is not.

You are trained as a writer to create a simulation of existence plump with truth and shorn of the tangential, despite knowing my life is full of flippancy. So fuck you, writing, that tangential shit is staying in! But…I also feel that nothing should  be neglected and all should have equal weight in a script. Otherwise, no point of it being there. Solution? If it’s smaller part, make it hit harder. These guys love talking about burritos? HE MUST THEN CHOKE ON A BURRITO. THAT GIVES HIM CANCER. This is of course a ludicrous way to write, but it’s why I struggle with minors. Minor themes. Minor characters. I want them all to have their time in the Sun, though it’s impossible.

I can hear the disembodied voice of Tony Fisher, my old course leader, whispering a solution: “Ah, forget about the size, or the punch, it’s about how it reflects on what’s going on with the protagonist. What’s your story about, who’s tale is it? You can have a bit about a guy  who shows up once and who loves to keep rats…if it says something about your 40-year old butcher being trapped in the family business.” Or something. So maybe it’s not about size. Or efficiency. It’s about who or what  the minor character/themes are slaves to.

It’s not that the situations and tensions are exploited not necessarily fully, as in stage/screen time, but exploited as much as is best and necessary to your actual story. So you don’t need the storekeeper who shows up three times to have a profound revelation about her existence, and the audience doesn’t need her to either – they just need to understand, in terms of the story, why she keeps harping on about her hameorroids (because the main character is preoccupied with their body’s fragility – duh!)

To me, that also has a problem of interpretation from the audience, but I must leave it there for now and hey -it’s not your fault they audience is thick.

Repeat now and forever: Every Sentence You Write Must Drive The Story Or Reveal Character. Drive The Story Or Reveal Character. The Story or Character. The Story or Character. Back and to the left. Back and to the left…

I need to go for my run now.

*Note to self after some thought – it seems lazy because it’s an emotional short hand. The job of the dramatist is to make you understand why things are important for The Character in order to make You Feel. Something like September 11th lingers as a moment in everyone’s emotional memory (perhaps – at least more than one persons) so it is kinda cheating. But easier to connect with immediately. I am trying very, very hard to avoid this being the case with 7/7 in True Brits. One of the best critical slaps I ever got was from a BBC workshop. I handed in a pitch that I thought was profound and important and personal since it had some aspects of traumatic race relationships. The head of development just told me “but why should anyone else care?” I was a bit annoyed with him – you should care because he’s had troubles because of his race. Isn’t it clear that that SUCKS? Maybe not to that OLD WHITE DUDE! TYPICAL. WHAT A PRICK. But he was completely right. If that’s what I was relying on to generate feeling off the back of nothing – that the guy’s brown so he obviously Hurts Inside And Deserves Out Sympathy –  it was me being the prick and not doing my job. I complain about ethnic writers getting ghettoised, and there many reasons why that happens, but an attitude like that doesn’t help. The next two months I’ve dedicated to not just writing but to improving all my old script and pitches, keeping this in mind.

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