Write: righting

To be clear, I made this chart for myself…

WHY IS YOUR PLAY BORING?

(Click image for full-size readability fun.)

I’ve been getting back into the frame of mind where I’m writing theatre for other people to produce.

And I kept having to ask: why am I returning to these old structures / methods / mistakes?

So I made this, to help me not.

Write: different

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A bunch of barely connected thoughts on writing for different media. Warning: broad terms.

When I write for screen, I use Final Draft. When I write for the stage or performance, I write in Word. Why do I do that?

When I write for the screen, I write for a frame. When I write for the stage, I write for an amount of time.

Time is different on screen, different in live performance.

In writing of any kind there’s one rule, just one: don’t be boring (sometimes you even stumble upon a good reason to break that rule.)

I write in linear narrative order for screen, beginning to end. I write a ‘play’ the same way.

I write a piece of performance in whatever way necessary. Cut and paste / too much of it / too little / poetic / technical / the end of it first, the middle of it first / anything.

A feature film is an album. A 30 minute TV show is an EP. A short film is a song.

Stage or screen, image drives both. Not words. Dialogue is an illumination.

For radio, I hear the sound image first, before the words.

Interactive = unfinished. I finish the writing itself but I don’t finish what it contains – because the audience choose whether or not to do that.

Sometimes theatre is unfinished.

It’s more difficult to make the screen unfinished, to make its aims unfinished. It’s a frame, wherever it appears.

Music is always unfinished.

When I write music, there’s always a story. And it’s always unfinished.

Radio drama: a peculiar type of finished music.

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Grammar is important to me, especially in an unfamiliar language.

How do you tell someone the sentence you’ve begun isn’t going to end? What’s the best way? Is it even possible?

Many pop songs used to fade out at the end. Not as often now.

When I write, I hope to be transported.

When I’m in an audience, I need to be transported.

I used to write as a promise. Now I write as an invitation.

An announcement isn’t an invitation.

Sometimes when I play a musical instrument, I do so knowing that later, a digital plug-in or process will make it sound older or further away or angrier, etc. It’s the same feeling when writing for stage or screen.

The text for a stage play, especially, is like a set of stems for remixers.

In a process, there’s the seeds of the visible result. So I never expect producers to treat my writing with ‘respect’ by default. Because ‘respectful’ is just one possible result.

Audiences, especially, have no obligation to be respectful of the writer’s intentions. That’s academic.

Every new show or film or experience is an invitation to an audience, to pick up and play a new kind of instrument. Sometimes slightly unfamiliar. Sometimes completely alien.

What can you do with this instrument? What tunes can it play? The writer’s, the readers’, the makers’, the audiences’.

Give an audience a fish. Etc.

Increasingly I have to write in the world. I’m falling out of love with romantic writerly seclusion. Why isolate yourself? Pull focus.

If you’re writing for unfinished, maybe you have to write it in an unfinished place.

Cities are good for unfinished.

Journeys are good for unfinished.

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Pictures:

1. Scripts on set during performance of The Morpeth Carol, December 2011. By Paul Blakemore. 2. Index cards from the depths of time. Can't remember what most of them were for. 3. Lyrics to a song by angeltech. Written on a train.

Press: play

The Morpeth Carol

Sleepdogs (my inter-wotsit and cross-thingummy collaboration with Tanuja Amarasuriya) are showing our sound play The Morpeth Carol at a Bristol Old Vic near you, this December.

Developed through the really quite wonderful Ferment programme, it’s a funny and scary show where we tell the audience a bedtime tale in the near-dark, complete with a blanket of cinematic sound effects. And OK, whilst it’s not exactly the most visually spectacular piece, it’s still visceral and vivid in that way Sleepdogs have made our own… mostly because of how intimate and direct the show is. The idea is to strip the live experience down to its bare essentials*: if you want, you can just close your eyes and drift into the world we create; but if not, then never fear, because the cast are – for the most part – a right bunch of lookers.

*We did, at one point, speculate about performing the show nude. You know… for the publicity and that… maybe just to wind up the Bristol Evening Post. But this was quickly – and loudly – vetoed.

Sleepdogs have just completed a commission for Forest Fringe’s Travelling Sounds Library, too, a headphone piece with the unwieldy title of The Bells Of Vysehrad Church Explode And Become As A Cloud Over Prague. We’re also touring our 1-man-and-a-dictaphone space odyssey Astronaut, and our next project for Bristol Ferment in 2012 is The Bullet And The Bass Trombone, the story of a symphony orchestra trapped in a city during a coup d’etat.

So yeah — music and sound are integral to our work, and these elements are often conceived or designed in detail alongside the text itself, well in advance of any ideas as to how the story might be physically staged. Sometimes, as with The Morpeth Carol, the sound takes over completely.

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Collaborate: or die

Herewith, a blogburp about collaboration, and being cross-disciplinary an’ that. In the last year or so I’ve been involved in screenwriting, making music, theatre, audio drama, film and pervasive media. So this is a wander around all of those, and the alleyways in between.

If you’re enough of a glutton for punishment to read the whole thing, I suggest you make a cup of tea first.

Angel Tech Bedminster

Probably the longest and most involved collaboration of my creative life has been with the band Angel Tech. We formed in 1995, influenced by Warp Records, The Cure, Bjork, New Order, Seefeel, Talk Talk and Stina Nordenstam. We played gigs, recorded an (unreleased) first album in Germany, composed film soundtracks, got signed to a major label, recorded another (unreleased) first album at Real World studios, toured relentlessly, got unsigned to a major label, made performances with a theatre company, formed our own indie label and self-released a debut album some 10 years after we first got together. We’ve toured all over the world, won awards, hung out with the stars and played gigs with every kind of band from Sparklehorse to Right Said Fred (long story, promoter in Austin TX, “British Bands” theme night.) I once met an A-level art student in Germany who told me that, as a final-year project, she’d painted the lyrics to our song Freiburg in massive seven-foot high letters across the facade of her school.

Anyway, you won’t have heard of us.

Or at least, no, maybe that’s not fair – I’m always very surprised when people actually have heard of us. Let’s put it this way: we’ve always made music we believe to be accessible, yet at the same time we’ve only ever followed our curiosity, our instinct, our desire to hear something different. If I think back on all my creative collaborations over the years I reckon the ones that worked best were with people who, given the option, would rather be confused for 10 minutes than bored for 10 seconds. At any rate, that’s certainly true of my bandmates Neil and Doug.

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Magdalene: wires

Some pictures from rehearsals for The Freelance Magdalene, my contribution to Bristol Old Vic’s Short Fuses programme last month…

Freelance Magdalene rehearsals 1

Short Fuses was performed in the round (with yours truly surrounded ON ALL SIDES by an audience hungry for TASTY STORY and FINE THEATRE.) I haven’t done a show in that configuration for a while, and never as a solo performer. Lessons? Even though it’s just you, sole focus of attention, alone on stage, you don’t necessarily need to turn constantly, like a pig on a spit. Freelance Magdalene is performed in conversational mode, acknowledging the spectators rather than shoving an imaginary fourth wall (or, indeed, a fifth wall in this case) up between stage and audience. The resulting instinct for the actor is to try and make ‘contact’ with as many people as possible, all the time, and you just ain’t gonna do it.

I imagine if I were an owl, able to rotate my neck 360 degrees at whim, then director Tanuja Amarasuriya and I wouldn’t have had to carefully choreograph every step I took whilst telling my weirdy tale. But, let’s face facts – I’m not an owl. So we had to. And we did.

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2010: Move ‘em out

Curtis Eller at the Cube

I’ve loved Curtis Eller since I heard his lament for old-school Hollywood, “Buster Keaton,” at the sadly missed Seymour’s Family Club, way back in the day. So it’s tip-top-notch to be supporting the mustachioed one come mid-March. I might even try to dredge up a new song of my own. An album by The Heath Robinson is hopefully not too far off; I’ve certainly got the songs, but I’ve also got a madman’s dream of recording particular tunes on particular pianos that “suit them”… which, in some cases, requires travelling to stupid places like Bishop Middleham in County Durham. Or being really nice to bearded troubadour Stanton Delaplane and asking to make use of his beautiful Knight upright piano for an afternoon. Am I boring you by talking about pianos? Really? Oh, right. I hate you. Go away.

Speaking of El Orchestro Dos Hombres Beardo, here’s me assisting Stanton with some serious “Old Men In Pub Singing” action at St George’s in Bristol, mid-January:

Stanton Delaplane at St Georges

You can see I’m barely using the mic. That’s because St George’s has an acoustic you could practically ride out of the room and down the hill on. I’ve never played there before, but once up on stage I understood in seconds why musi-people drone on and on about the gorgeous reflections and tones you get in the place. Am I boring you, talking about acoustics? Yeah? Yeah, well. Shut up. Shut up, wake up and SMELL THE RESONANCE.

So, if we’re not going to talk about lovely pianos, or acoustics, what ARE we going to discuss, you and I? I dunno. What do you like? Do you like sitting in the dark and looking at things? You DO? Oh, marvellous. So do I. We have so much in common.
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Buzzard: wake

Call for Buzzard

Here’s a thing. You know what the collective noun for buzzards is? A wake. Yep. That’s right. A wake of buzzards. Appropriate, don’t you think?

Beats the crap out of owls, at any rate. A “parliament”? Oooh, get you. Laa dee dah. Yeeeaahh, let’s get together and form a “parliament”! Typical bloody owls. Admittedly, ravens and crows have got pretty awesome-sounding congregational nouns (“unkindness” and “murder”, respectively, it’s like an episode of Prime Suspect up in that gaff) but “wake” is the coolest, no? A wake of Buzzards. Trumps it for me. Who else comes close? A bevy of quail? A tidings of magpies? Come on. Useless. And what about rooks? A “building”? A BUILDING? A “building of rooks?” Fuck off, that’s just silly.

Enough of this avian gainsaying.

So. Now that BUZZARD has finished its first run, and the snarling beaky head is temporarily at rest, hung up on a claw-like coat peg somewhere deep in the recesses of Bristol Old Vic, the questions remain: what just happened? Was it any good? Where next? What have I learned? What have I, alternatively, not? And if not, why not? All this and more shall be mulled over unsatisfactorily in the following post.

A few observational snippets first:

1. Number of people who have said “You know, that costume isn’t what I’d call a buzzard, it’s more like a vulture”: 5 million.

2. This production’s preferred song for vocal warm-up, appearing, as usual, from out of nowhere: You Still Believe In Me by The Beach Boys.

3. Stars out of 5 granted Buzzard by The Guardian in their lovely review: 3. Not bad for a rookie solo show. (Remarkably, I agree with almmmmmooooost everything that the Grauniad’s reviewer wrote, and even intend to act upon a cooooouuuple of the points she raises. Proper truth. So, you see, criticism works. Thanks, Elisabeth!)

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Buzzard: backstage

Buzzard fitting

You might be interested to know that the first ever rehearsal room was designed by an obscure character named Tarquin The Rotational in approximately 420 BC. Sure, the ancient Greeks had developed something resembling a rehearsal space (including basic coffee making facilities and a bad piano) but it was open air, and not nearly dirty enough. So ultimately it was the Romans – and specifically Tarquin – who landed upon the idea of putting random right-angled markings all over the floor in electrical tape of different colours, and installing low-hanging piping upon which taller actors could repeatedly smash their foreheads.

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Buzzard: yak yak yak

Boring picture of script

Luckily, summer has been awful so far. I say that because even if the isobars had smiled upon the South West, bringing sunshine, picnics and gambols in the hay, I’d have spent the entire time stuck indoors with a laptop, channelling an incorrigible curmudgeon of a protagonist whilst the birds sang and the rest of the world stuffed its fat face with ice-cream and cider. Bollocks to that. Let it rain whilst I draft.

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Buzzard: out and about

So I’m 15 years old and drawing a birthday card for my best friend. I decide it will feature a grumpy cartoon Buzzard, berating the recipient for his advanced years (16 of them in all. Just imagine.) My friend is called Chung.

“Where does the time go, eh, Chung?” asks the frowning bird, at the end of a long, bitter tirade jammed into a page-long speech bubble, “Where does it go? Eh Chung? Eh? EH CHUNG? You old bastard.”

Twenty years later and I’m walking down the street in a Birthday Buzzard outfit.

Buzzard Crossing

Some yuppy on a mobile says: “A big chicken just walked past me.”

Ornithology FAIL.

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