On the way up to South London on the train recently, it was a school’s out day with bored children seeking entertainment from their parents who did not wish to comply. So they – the children – told each other stories. Silly ones that began “Once upon a time there was a green frog” and stopping just before the explanation as to the frog’s colour for the next in line to continue with”who lived in a fridge” and so on. I was entertained. The children were too to such an extent that the end was never reached as they were giggling too much at the ridiculous nature of their task. And yet, a green frog in a fridge seems perfectly acceptable as the urban scenes race by outside.
Their parents too were entertained but not for the same reason. They wanted to tell each other stories about the mundane daily life that they were living.The “Love your shoes” syndrome enabling the wearer to describe in detail where they were from, how much they cost and how the indecision of which is best made them buy both pairs. I preferred the frog story. Fantasy wins hands down.
My own frog story began a couple of months ago when I was invited to write a fifteen minute play for Chaskis Theatre who have created a golden opportunity: A New Writing Festival taking place Above the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street. The seven “shorts” will be rehearsed and read on stage on Sunday August 14th. A lucky number, Seven. I hope she will stay long enough to help us all through.
So far in this festival there have been new plays to witness, new writers to meet and much discussion on how to do it. Now I’m thinking (and I’m sure you are too) that 15 minutes is not long and should be easily achieved in a day or so. So what’s the problem?
I have written four plays in total and all of them have lasted for over an hour; one or two a little longer and I have been able to take my time, develop, strategize, think and imagine. But fifteen minutes leaves no time to make a precious and complete work. Completion of beginning , middle and end; structure that has meaning; a plot that engages, a protagonist that moves,entertains and an “about” that remains in the collective memory for longer than it takes to drink a glass of wine afterwards.
So to the rescue comes the writer Christine Evans who gave us a workshop on the art of writing plays. Several exercises later – they became easier as time went on – I was feeling empowered and creative all at once. Ideas followed thick and fast. Characters emerged and disappeared into the shadows. Images and tricks and surprises all tumbled about and at last I have an idea. It’s an idea that emulates Christine’s fine play “Slow Falling Birds” which I saw on Sunday evening. A myriad of characters; some quirky (a blue fish woman/ girl) some funny (Rick and his mate) some lost and hopeless (brother and sister) and one giving birth right there on the stage. And over the other side were two men or were they crows? Wearing mackintoshes and sunglasses and spying on the players as indeed were the audience. For that is what we were. Voyeurs/ viewers/ spies being let into the action of the scenes that flowed without comment. Observing only. The distance between us the spectators and them the actors was so vast for such an intimate space. Encompassed within this space was a desert, a hospital, a prison and more than one abstract space including a womb. And the intriguing hook which I shall attempt to write in my short play is this: How do we spy on each other? And why? How and why do we observe behaviour and then judge the behaviour, categorise it, mould it to our way of thinking, recognise the types that fit with our own experiences and then proceed to dig out the meaning, the story, the “what happens next” part of the drama.
And this is where Christine straightened us out a bit in the bare room in South London.Rather like a forgotten stage set itself, the room where we sat hunched over a notebook waited while we just scrawled. We shone a light on the quagmire of indecision and just wrote something down. Then we wrote more. Not to worry about the who and the why and the wherefore. Just write something and make sure that the audience will ask “What happens next?” before the interval. For it is that question that invites an audience to return. It is the dum dum dum beats in Eastenders that makes us tune in again the next night. Without that question being embedded in the story, theatre is on its last legs.
I have written some. It may change by next week. It should. But at present there are two crows sitting on a cage, spying on a mother daughter and there are two others (lovers? brother and sister? friends fallen out?) sitting in a car and one is eating an ice-cream.
But it’s what is happening in the cage that matters. And at the moment I have absolutely no idea.