Saturday, 4 August 2007

What to Show and What to Tell

Last year, I attended a brilliant workshop with Douglas Maxwell and Grid Iron at the Traverse, where Maxwell imparted some excellent advice to us hopeful practitioners. "What's the perfect amount of times to tell an audience something? Almost Once."
I've stuck quite rigidly to that - also keeping in mind my friend and semi-hero Ross Manson's advice about assuming your audience is smarter than they are. No audience likes to be condescended to. Though in this, my most recent project, a piece I'm divising with actor Kevin Millington (brilliant guy and wonderful to work with, just graduated from LAMDA so I've got him while he's still cheap) I've realized that there's a fine balance that must be struck between ambiguity and clarity. What our first draft of the piece I wrote had in ambiguity, it definitely lacked in Clarity - and in fact, last night, after showing the piece to a friend who enjoyed it but totally misunderstood it - Kevin and I decided to sit down and work on a draft of the show that would feed the premise to the audience. Making the real question of the performance not the "What?" of "What the heck is going on?" but the "How?" As in, "I know what's going on- but How the heck is it going to happen?"

It's been kind of an important development for me as a writer, especially in so far as liberating the work from being too vague. Paul Sirrett gave us equally good advice in a course I took with him just last month - "When you refer to something - refer to it very specifically. it really pays off."

Of course, there is some work that is incredibly ambiguous and still utterly brilliant. Daniel MacIvor's play "Never Swim Alone" was the reason I went into theatre professionally in the first place. My mother had been a patron of the Canadian Stage Company, so I'd seen more kitchen sink productions than you can comfortably shake a tree at growing up - all of which had felt a bit contrived, and none of which had particularly appealled to me. I just didn't want to be Arthur Miller. (for however brilliant he can be in his best moments.) But when I saw MacIvor's piece I realized that theatre can be confusing, a play can be a puzzle that only ends when the last piece has been placed. And only then can you comfortably say what the play was about.

Of course, story is an element like any other - And sure, if your story is not handed to the audience from the outset, perhaps your style should be, or your character may remain very strong, or your visuals could be excellent. Hasn't David Lynch made his career with beautiful, mysterious and frightening ambiguity. Holding something back - maintaining an air of mystery - it's a very powerful tool in theatre and in life. But you have to hand the final piece of that puzzle to the audience, if you don't be sure the puzzle looks beautiful enough without it that they will feel satisfied by the incomplete.

Anyway - come see our show. It's a work in progress, of course, so on the 24th, 25th and 26th at 3pm if you're in Edinburgh tell us how to tread the fine balance more finely. I'll try not to tell you more than almost once, if I can help it.

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