The Wordplay Twenty Four Hour Panic
Part One – The Write
Prologue – The Challenge
So you know how it is. You set yourself a challenge. You try to carry it through to the best of your abilities. You enter these things with the assumption that you're either going to succeed or fail, when of course the reality is you'll probably hit the centre point and achieve neither extremity. An honourable attempt you'll tell yourself. Challenge met. Best of my abilities and all that. Next please!
So Wordplay, the Wexford-based writing and actors studio I attend every month ( or when possible ) came up with this theoretically pretty cool idea. The very definition of a challenge. It went a little something like this :
A group of writers will be given a list of actors and a set of random props on the evening of May 16th. From 20:14 pm that same night they will have twelve hours to write a ten minute play incorporating those actors and props. At the cut-off point, 8.14am the next morning, this play will be sent to the actors, and directors, all volunteers from the local community. They will then have until around 7pm to rehearse this play, because ready or not they will be putting it on from 20.14pm that night in front of a paying ( though discounted ) audience. Twenty four hours on from when the play was started. Booya!
Ouch. Talk about your hard asks! Why would anyone put themselves through this gruelling and entirely foolhardy four-course meal of panic? You'd have to be insane, right?
So obviously, like the spas/gluttons for punishment/good sports we all were, something like thirty like-minded people all put our hands up and volunteered to take part in what for some was going to be a full twenty four hours of electric theatric activity.
Writers, Directors, and Actors apply here
The subtextual idea behind this challenge was to allow a group of aspiring local writers, performers, and directors the opportunity for physical experience in putting on a piece of theatre for a live audience and, greater still, to have their own original voices heard at the same time.
I cannot stress how unusual this is.
Let's face it, the world of local drama in any small town isn't really designed for new or original voices. It's not the done thing, darling. Often this is down to a fear of the unknown, sometimes it's because local drama does not like to credit people outside their own circles with talent or ability as they fear it shows them and their own limitations up. More often than not, it's because local drama groups believe that only tested actors and published authors need apply to their precious inner circle. And like dwindling fossil reserves, this leaves a very finite set of plays to be done, over and over and over again in a country-wide circuit by the same sets of performers.
All credit then to “Wordplay” for flying in the face of the done thing, it's a brave and it has to be said, a beautiful thing to see and it's very, very rare. For this alone, they must be applauded, and offered a laurel, and hardy handshake.
So we had eight new writers writing eight new ten minute pieces, incoporating our props and actors – generally about three actors per piece – and doing so in an overnight binge of panic, sweat, frustration, horror, and ultimately despair.
Here's the question I've already been asked and I'll bet every single other writing participant of the night will ultimately encounter : okay it was an interesting idea. But did you really write your play in twelve hours? Really? Did you pre-prepare something and cheat a little? Did you just use something you'd written ages ago and pretend? Go on, you can be honest.
Here then is my honest answer, and having spoken to most of the other writers over the course of the day I can safely say I'm speaking for them too : we're all idiots. We all sat down that Friday night, after being dished out props and actors like they were commodities to trade, with no idea what they were going to say or do, without a beginning middle or end, and we all then spent our evening alternately tapping clicky keys, staring bug-eyed at the screen, or pouring stimulants down our necks either to keep us awake or dull the throbbing head and body and face and teeth pain.
Now. That was the nature of the challenge and the reason we all agreed to it. Was it a good idea? I'll get to my own thoughts about that in due course. Did I personally keep to the nature of the challenge? Yes. I wrote my play that night. Did I go in with an idea of things I might want to write? You're god damned right I did. I mentally prepared on and off for about three days before the exercise, swirling a few ideas around my head, a few what-if's and instances that, should I get stuck, I could fall back on. Was that cheating? I don't think so. I think that's just common sense. The challenge was to write a play in an evening, not dive headlong into a creative process that for good reason normally takes months or years to complete. I committed nothing to paper, practical or digital until the night itself. I just let these ideas float around until I sat down at my coffee-stained lap-top and started cursing myself for taking part, and the “U” key for only working when I donkey-punch it.
I would suggest this approach to anyone taking on a challenge like this, even if you end up – as I know at least one participating writer did – having to alter any preconceived ideas entirely to suit a new scenario; in fact I would suggest this to anyone attempting any kind of writing project regardless of time or scale. Go in with at least three ideas, even if they're terrible. Like backing singers they'll help carry the bassline when you're working on the melody.
So I went to the initial meeting that friday night with a couple of very specific ideas floating in my head. I had no play, no characters, and no idea of what props I was going to receive. My actors were simply names on a list at this point.
In other words, I was entering a mexican stand-off with a banana.
So the writing night started with a massive meet between almost all of the participants of the challenge. I left my house for the fifteen minute walk to the meeting place, fifteen minutes before I should have, and arrived half an hour before I needed to. It took me ten minutes to get there. I had forgotten to charge my MP3 player so my earphones were there more as a defensive posture than a listening tool, I had no water, I ripped my jacket adjusting my bag on the way, and I think I can admit now that I was pretty fucking nervous about this whole thing.
For a start, I just don't like large gatherings of people. Some people are afraid of spiders ( me ), some people don't like public speaking ( me ) and some people have an irrational fear of balsa wood. I am relentlessly horrified by large gatherings of people, especially where – as it turned out here – most of them know each other and seem happy to be conversing amongst themselves, the reckless cocksure maniacs. Sure, I knew a few people there but I was already experiencing the mildest of panic attacks, had been from the moment I had arrived at the front door; there was no way I could make more than passing small talk about the weather with any faces that I recognised, and darting, jerky eye-contact with those I didn't.
See, large gatherings of people make my mouth dry up, my upper lip twitch, and my neck ache from constant and sudden naval gazing. There were maybe forty people in this small upstairs room. This constitutes a large group. I sat at the back, cold-sweating into mostly my left eye, hoping the meeting would begin and end sharply so I could run home to my apartment and laptop and start work, away from the jabbering sounds of happy people jibbering. What is with people having friends? Don't they know we all die in the end? What's the point?
The meeting kicked off pretty promptly with a couple of words from the over-all show director, and the producer and creative director of the piece, neither of whom seemed particularly at odds with the notions of public speaking, the shits. No quavering wobble-words, no dry-smacking lips. Just confident and efficient information giving.
Very quickly, we were given our instructions, our schedule, and group allocations, and almost immediately after that the directors, myself included, were handed over their cast from within the room.
I was given a cast of four, two of whom I vaguely knew from the Wordplay sessions. We introduced ourselves, and had a quick chat about what we were expecting to get from this challenge as we waited for the props to be allocated. I tried to sound like I knew what I was talking about above the sounds of my own dry mouth slapping together.
I had three fellas and one chick. They all seemed pleasant, genuine, and genuinely thrilled to be taking part in this challenge. The wheels were already turning as I spoke to them, and one of my possible ideas was beginning to take precedence over the others. I tried to cover my nerves with my usual pretentiously obnoxious brashness, joshing with the older of my three male actors ( as it transpired the following day, I lucked out with my cast : I had representations from three generations of men and to counter that, a sweet and sardonic lady with a lilting English/Irish accent ) about age while dying inside at the thought of my off-hand ageist slurs offending him. One of the actors, the middle-in-age shall we say, had turned up ( as requested in the brief ) “in-costume.”
It was perfect. He had arrived all in black, suited up and topped off with a ska-hat.
The wheels continued to turn. Somewhat foolishly, before I had received my props, I proffered the idea that had stopped jostling for attention in my head and was now roaring like a klaxon. The all black attire had turned the klaxon's volume up to eleven. It was now one louder.
My idea – a put-upon and angry stage director taking his young Hamlet through the works, never letting him get beyond the first four lines of his suicide speech. It just struck my funny bone.
As I talked and listened to my four cast members I was getting truly excited. Obviously not sexually excited, that would've been both weird, and obvious in my shorts. I had wanted for a long time to do some kind of post-modern take on “Hamlet,” partly inspired by Tom Stoppard's beautiful play ( and film version of ) “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” and partly inspired by a couple of personal, badly-acted cameo jaunts through the world of poorly-staged variously local drama Shakespeare; talking to these four funny and warm people I felt it jelling in my head. They began to get into the idea, immediately started discussing how we could do it. It could be a farce. We could mock am-dram. We could really go over the top. I was truly sparking off these people. I decided that the youngest actor had to take the ska-hat home and practice a few tricks. I didn't know why yet, it just seemed like an interesting thing to work with. He agreed and grabbed the opportunity then and there. Like I say, I really lucked out.
Then the hurricane hit Kansas. I had to go and choose my random props. I got : a pair of novelty squeaky dog toys in the shape of bones; a double pack of playing cards; a “Phantom” style half mask; and a riding hat. My heart sank with each new prop, past my stomach, through my shrinking balls, and finally into my quivering knees.
Props – why did it have to be props?
Now, if you're reading this and you were one of the seven other writers I'm sure you know what I'm describing, whether you went in with a set of ideas or a completely blank and open mind. When those props became reality, with each new object I dragged from the gaping black bag, I found the first swellings of true panic begin to rise; starting in my gut and spreading up and down in equal measure.
What the fuck? What the fuck am I going to do with these? With that? Okay, I had my Shakespeare idea and hell, the drama mask could maybe fit in there. But Dog toys? A fucking riding hat? How the hell was I supposed to write a play in twelve hours? Who's stupid idea was this? Why had I agreed to this? Not for the first or the last time in this challenge, I found myself quietly sweating, and gently shaking. The reality of what we had agreed to do was beginning to come home to roost.
I brought the props back to the cast, one of whom immediately voiced my inner-concern : well you might have to change your idea after all. He took the dog toy from me, squeaked it, and said “having said that, this could easily be a stress-relief toy couldn't it?”
My only actress piped up, holding the riding hat : “and this could be a skull.”
Like I say : I really lucked out.
The write stuff
I left the meeting carrying a plastic bag of props and a heavy sweaty head mulling over possibilities. I arrived home to home-made pizza courtesy of my partner, and a glass of well-chilled pink wine. This was a perfect excuse not to start writing. I thanked her for it and got to greedy work ignoring the challenge at hand.
On an overly full stomach and with a couple of glasses of fizzy pink wine dozing up my mind, at nine pm I sat down in front of the gaping jaw of my lap-top, opened up a blank word-processor page and typed the words “2 be or NOT 2 be”.
Then I stared at the title and thought “I'm fucking not Baz Luhrmann!” and deleted the title, tapping out the less hippity hoppity “To be or not to be,” figuring at least Kenneth Branagh would approve.
So, I had the basic idea of the piece in my head and from talking to the actors I had a very basic idea of how I wanted to present them. I definitely think it helps a writer to have at least some idea of who their characters are before starting any new piece, and a great shorthand way of doing this is basing them on people you know, or know of. In this instance, the opportunity to chat to my performers before starting the process of writing was a hugely beneficial one.
I had three men of increasing age, and this was my starting point. The lad in the suit struck me as intense enough to exploit comedically as the director, and open enough to understand this potential. The young lad had taken to the hat trick idea instantly, and it struck me that a perpetually upbeat Hamlet might be ripe not only for humour, but also as a foil to the director character. The oldest of the three was an open, easy to laugh fella who carried himself with earthy humour. He would sit perfectly between these guys and I reckoned any audience would take to him instantly, meaning if I played my cards right he would make me look better than I actually was.
And the actress was so unassuming yet quietly funny – I knew that she would bring the house down if I could find a way of getting her good-natured personality to say some very barbed things.
Starting off – 9pm til 11pm
It's easy to have an idea. We writers get ideas all the time, often during mundane moments such as sitting on the toilet or falling from a window. Not so easy, however to translate that into an actual piece of text. I suspect one of the hugest difficulties all eight writers came across was working their props into their texts. I made an executive decision as I started writing, to jettison the playing cards completely. They served a practical purpose but I couldn't think of a way of making them funny. That, to me, was the key – I needed to make fun of the props and their inclusion.
Along with the main idea, I had a few things I wanted to add, sub-textually to the piece if I could. I wanted this piece to be about modernising Hamlet, and the pitfalls of attempting same. I have always been a fan of mocking uppity local am-dram and their strangely grand ideas about themselves and their abilities, and as one of the actors had picked up on the possibilities of doing this very thing through Hamlet, it seemed like it was a necessary and timely theme.
Hamlet meant something else to me too. I had, in recent weeks, come under fire for daring to angrily question a local group for using hysterical and inaccurate rhetoric to sell a play about a very serious subject. An insidious – though short – witch hunt occurred, led by a couple of adults who should have known better, as they swung their burning torches and all too willing followers in my direction rather than answer the very real question I had asked : why are you exploiting inaccurate figures to sell your overpriced and dangerously themed show in such a scaremongering and hysterical manner?
Their response : A full blown, hysterical, unmasking Facebook attack on me which completely ignored my point in favour of implying a darker ( though deliberately un-named ) agenda on my behalf.
Though I did not want to address this now-over situation unfairly with a group of actors I had only just met, I figured there had to be at least a couple of people in the audience who might recognise my name from this earlier Facebook debacle. And I'll be quite honest, I wanted to flip them the bird.
So I wrote the following lines on page one of my piece as a quiet protestation to the kind of adults who would ignorantly produce and exploit such a theme under the pretence that they were opening up a discussion on issues, as opposed to admit that what they were actually doing - cynically exploiting an audience's emotive response to something controversial for the sake of controversy alone : “With emotion. There's suicide at work here. Suicide is terrible. Have you ever contemplated suicide?” I then had the young actor playing Hamlet sneer out a “no.”
A tiny piece of satire that fit quite snugly into the larger picture, might seem a little sharp so early on but felt massively important to slot in. Ask me next time you see me why this was so important to me.
So I had my themes, my subtexts, my actors and my props. Now, the remit had stated that ten pages of dialogue equals ten minutes of show. This isn't strictly as true of stage plays as it is of screenplays. Plays generally have a different format, and because they're in real-time we clearly can't adopt cuts and edits to speed up time. We need to be aware that when we read dialogue it's over in seconds; when an actor reads it out loud, it goes at their pace. Equally, a movement on page is instant. A movement on stage takes time.
So in reality, around seven pages of script in theatre terms equals around ten minutes on stage. I wonder how many writers struggled that night because they were desperately trying to fill ten pages.
From nine until eleven, I think I did pretty okay. I had decided that those few glasses of gentle fizzy wine at dinner were enough of a stimulant to keep me going. My partner sat on the sofa behind me, footering around on Facebook with the telly on. I got some good headway in the first run-through draft, got about four pages written, mostly snappy repetative dialogue based around the line “To be or not to be.” It was a little lifeless, certainly wasn't what I had been enthusiastically burning around my mind since leaving the meeting, but it was a start. I think it's easier to edit and re-write a piece than to start it, so to me it was important to get a first draft, no matter how disorderly, splashed out as quickly as possible. At this stage, I wasn't even thinking about the props.
The Benefits and Curses of Experience
I've had experience over the years of poorly written plays staged well, and well-written plays staged poorly. I've been in some of them, I'm written some of them, I've also directed some of them. I think it helped me as a writer, given the time I had available to me, to have had this first hand experience. We had been told to keep our dialogue to a minimum, and intersperse it with action. And this is good advice in theory. In reality, most playwrites will fall back on our dialogue to tell the story over action. This is just a natural thing to do when writing theatre. Poetry over pacing. We come up with our characters and we wonder what they're going to say when they open their mouths. Once we get into it, it's like we're there with them, talking and listening to them. More importantly, they are listening to us.
This is why we do what we do. Our characters operate as voices and ears for us as people, as writers with voices. We write, because we want to be heard and the first people who hear us are our characters. So we talk. A lot. And I suspect this is where most of us truly struggled in the process that night; asking a playrite not to write too much dialogue is like asking Michael Bay to stop being a sexist, racist boar.
But it's still good advice that I think, like Bay, most of us ignored.
Now, I have probably had more physical experience of putting on my own plays than most of the other writers involved. Sure, my ruggedly youthful good looks and scruffy facial hair often confuse people as to my age ( count the rings on my ever expanding gut, you'll soon get there ) but I've been doing this for twenty years and have more or less staged a self-penned show a year, for the last ten. I have learned across those years how I personally like to work, and what works best for me personally on and off stage. I have the benefit of having acted, too – it has helped me understand as a director what I don't like in other directors, and why.
Having acted and directed previously meant I was perhaps at an advantage in this challenge. I had an idea that too much dialogue would be impossible for the actors to learn, and I understood that too little dialogue would result in a very dull movement piece. The actors and the audience would not benefit from this and nor would I as a director.
I knew therefore to spread the dialogue as equally as I could across my four performers, each of whom had already been very open about what they thought might be their limitations earlier in the night. I already knew that two of them were worried about learning lines. I knew that the young lad was open, and willing to try anything I threw at him ( shit, he'd taken a hat home to learn tricks after a five minute conversation ) and I already knew who I was going to cast as the director and why : he was enthused, serious, and dryly funny. He also had the most experience out of the actors in learning lines, so I knew that I could focus much of the dialogue on him and work the humour around that. I also became convinced that having him angrily squeak the dog-toys in frustration would be as funny as anything I could possibly write, and put at least one squeak in per page.
While repetitive dialogue would minimise the need to learn a lot of lines, overly repetitive dialogue would throw the actors, especially in relation to where they were in the play. I needed to create a sequence of landmarks so that – as would most certainly happen given the turnaround time involved – if they forgot their lines, they would at least have an idea where they were in the piece. I was not entirely successful, in retrospect, with this element – more on that in part two.
What this meant was this : I needed a beginning, a middle, and an end, and I needed at least three set-pieces to mark those out. And I needed to have all the actors onstage for much of the piece.
Voices – innies and outies
So between nine and eleven I tapped out a five page turkey, wrapped around “To be or not be.” It had no ending, was mostly middle, and had not yet worked in the props.
I had my partner read the piece aloud with me, each of us taking two of the four characters. If I can offer any advice to any aspiring playrites like me who are reading this ( apart from, if you're going to write an article make it half as long as this one, and top load it with advice instead of expecting people to read this far to get to it ) it would be : get your script read out loud, even if it's not finished to your satisfaction. It doesn't have be a massive gathering, it doesn't have to be a bunch of actors. Just grab the nearest person, split the roles as equally as you can, and read that shit out. You'll hear it as it's meant to be heard and it'll help you decide what works, and what doesn't. If they're anything like my partner, it'll be the latter that your reader will point out. That might sound like a bitter criticism ( it is ) but it's not. That is what you need at this stage. It's the only way to figure out what works.
She voiced what I was thinking – there was nothing to it. It was flat. The humour was there, based around that repetition of “To be or not be” but that couldn't be the only thing to make the audience laugh. She suspected I was being too clever-clever with the piece, trying to fit in too much subtext and not enough actual text. An audience weren't going to pick up on any of that in the ten minutes allotted. Not even the suicide stuff? I asked. Who's going to pick up on any of that? She retorted. It's on the first page. No one will even remember you said that. That's the point, I replied. I open it up with this attack, I give them the finger, and then make the victims of this act of punkish defiance sit through the rest of it with the audience. Fine, she snorted. But you'd be better off making them laugh throughout the rest of it while they're there. Wouldn't that annoy them more? If they found you funny despite themselves?
Fuck. So in two hours I had rustled up a stir-fry of subtext and empty, sometimes funny, more often flat dialogue. Where four people repeated “to be or not to be” every second page.
And that is when I started to feel the sweat crawl down my back, the armpits of my teeshirt suddenly constricting with armpit moisture, and my first craving to open the bottle of red sitting in the cupboard. I imagine this happened to every writer taking part. I wonder when that cold slap first truly hit them. Maybe it was from the moment they sat down to start. Maybe it was when they realised it was five in the morning and they only had four pages written. Of ten.
For me, it was two hours into the project that the reality of what I was doing truly sank in. The reality being that I would have to have a finished piece, polished enough to be rehearsed and performed in a day, in front of a paying audience of patrons. Some of whom were hopefully going to be enraged by my bird-flipping suicide antics! It was occurring to me very rapidly that I had taken on far too much. I instinctively wanted to clear the page and delete the file, then crack open the red, look up some weird porn and get pissed. Some of this I did, but I'll leave it up to discretion for you to decide which.
Fuck the challenge I was thinking, and fuck Wordplay for ever starting this shit. Fuck Hamlet, fuck Shakespeare, fuck everything everywhere, always. Fuck the world. Man, I thought somewhat hysterically, I know just how Hamlet felt when he was alive!
I had a mini inner tantrum. And then I started at the start and worked my way slowly through. I methodically went through each page as though it was a stand-alone piece, adding something funny where I could, and trying to create a three-act structure to what was essentially a skit. I was mouthing the lines as I wrote, sometimes whispering them. My partner thought it was weird but then that's her problem, she's the one that's going out with me.
Sculpting with shite
Slowly, very very slowly, the piece began to take some kind of shape. I was working with the knowledge that I was directing it so, in a sense I was aware that we could make the piece better through workshopping and rehearsals. Not necessarily the best way to write a piece, but it was both soothing and helpful to know this all the same.
By midnight, I had what I considered a pretty strong second draft. The opening followed the same format, introducing the director and the happy-go-lucky Hamlet-with-a-hat, the Hamlet aspect, and the throwaway satire of the piece. The thought of introducing an understudy Hamlet at the completely opposite age scale to the main actor made me laugh, so this was how I worked him in. Even funnier to me was an understudy to an understudy, so this was how I worked my actress into the piece. Funnier still was the idea of the straight-laced director's aghast reaction to her being a female, when Hamlet clearly wasn't.
I wanted to add in a couple of references to the actual text, so I played around with the character's inability to distinguish the “To be or not to be” speech from the “alas poor Yorick” scene. That allowed me to bring in the mask and the riding helmet, with the two older performers each clearly assuming Hamlet had a skull in this scene but preferring to liven it up a little with their own props.
My own personal second block and full-on meltdown occurred at midnight. My partner had headed on to bed, muttering about people who talk to themselves checking their palms for extra hair, while I muttered to her about trite and completely inaccurate assumptions about mentally ill people.
I did not know how to end my piece. I had the beginning, all of two pages. I had my middle, the body of the piece surrounding the characters supposed ignorance of the text and the director's growing impatience. I had what on paper and in my head was the funniest set-piece of the play, that of the three performers trying to out-do each other on the speech but not being able to get past the first few lines. It was written but I knew we could make it funnier on the day itself.
But I had no ending. It just sort of petered out with the characters still onstage looking at me, and I had no fucking idea how to change that. Before I knew it, there was an open bottle of wine and a me, drinking large glasses from it. I started watching miserably awful Youtube clips of amature drama versions of Hamlet for inspiration. This made me feel like an arsehole – who was I to make any kind of negative comments about other groups attempts to put on what is a truly difficult play to perform and stage? I was being a tool and a snob and I was being completely unfair. What made me any better than them? I was exhibiting the very attitude I was trying to satirise!
As I drank wine and watched these ( unsuccessful for the most part ) variations on a theme, I found myself becoming sympatico with these groups, enjoying their variations, trying to understand the choices they had made and the circumstances under which they had made them – budget, cast-size, stage restrictions etc. Yes, there was some terrible terrible performances but honestly, can you say you could do any better? Having performed in Hamlet as Laertes a few years ago I can truly, honestly tell you that I can't.
By half twelve I was kind of getting really drunk and had to stop myself from looking up sad scenes in movies to cry to. It's kind of my drunken thing to do. The Primo Nocta scene in “Braveheart” is a floodgate opener for me. Every damn time. ( “By GOD you will not!!!” )
I read through the piece again and realised that I wasn't going to be able to do much more to it now. I had half achieved what I had set out to but no matter how much longer I sat in front of the computer, the other half was going to escape me. I wanted to work in a deeper set of subtextual references to Hamlet's father-issues and I couldn't do it.
I'm old, I needed sleep, I was pissed, and I wanted my bed. I had a long day ahead of me and I figured I could probably sort it out in rehearsals. This attitude was irritating the piss out of me despite my desire for a pillow. I wanted to have a finished, relatively polished play to present to my actors. It would be far easier to rehearse a finished piece in the short time we had then turn up with a half-arsed effort and expect them to finish it for me.
I read it again, and just for the hell of it, again. I suggest to any writers suffering block that they do this as often as they can. It makes you feel as though you're doing something, yet keeps you contentedly away from actually writing.
So aside from my unexpected inability to be incredibly pretentious, what was the problem? I had my characters, I had my satire and silly humour, I had my props worked in, I just didn't have a way of getting my actors back off the stage. They just sort of lingered there. What was missing was a point to all this. WHY was all this happening? I'd like to say that inspiration struck, that I suddenly cleared my glassy eyes long enough to figure it all out, but in truth I decided that I would just poke fun at - and therefore make it easy for - myself. I decided that the director was me, trying to create a straight version of Hamlet in a 2014 that was unaccustomed to that. A 2014 that demanded every Shakespeare play be modernised or different somehow. And as trying to complete this piece was doing for me, it was destroying him.
I rushed through the play one more time, seeking places where I could slot that theme in. I found none. I was getting proper drunk, and I was far too tired. In the end I banged out a couple of too-long speeches for the director at the conclusion, stating this theme candidly. It was hammer-home but I didn't care. I decided against reading it out loud; I was becoming paranoid about the possibility of hair growing on my palms.
The one thing I'm proud of in all of this was my last piece of panicky writing. I was all for giving up, going to bed, and just not turning up the next day. It was past half-midnight. I had decided to end the play on the director reciting Hamlet's speech himself, the cast all clapping, and it descending back into the three of them trying to outdo each other again with the director stropping offstage. I'd let them ad-lib their way offstage the next day in rehearsals.
I just wasn't happy with this, I didn't want the actor playing the director to have to learn this speech on top of all the rest of the dialogue. So it occurred to me to be what my partner had already called – derogatorily - “clever-clever.” I decided to modernise the speech, giving it context within the director's difficulties with a modernised text, and allowing him and us a meta-textual moment in the process. Railing against a modernised Hamlet, he was delivering a speech modelled on “To be or not to be.”
I wikipedia'd the speech and I slapped the new one together, half-smug at my own amazingness, and half-pissed off that I hadn't written the piece about fathers and sons I'd wanted to write.
Then I thought – fuck it. I want to go to bed. I saved it, and without really considering it, I emailed it to the creative director of “20:14.”
It was one am when I recieved the confirmation of receipt and I reckon had I not consumed nearly three quarters of a bottle of wine in forty minutes, I would have sat there cursing my rash stupidity. Instead I had a sandwich and I went to bed.
I didn't sleep. Not really. In hindsight, I may as well have sat up for a few more hours perfecting the piece. I ran it around and around in my head for several painful hours, trying not to move for fear of waking up my partner, and suffering mini panic attack after mini panic attack.
When I finally dozed off at around six in the morning I dreamt that a man was trying to smash in my door with an axe.
I believe I woke up squeaking, because in my dream, I couldn't form a scream.
Conclusion to part one
SO! What did I learn from the writing element of this challenge? Was it a good idea? How could it have been changed? What worked about it?
Well, for what it's worth despite the self-loathing and the weight I lost in sweat and gained in booze, I think it's an excellent challenge for a writer to attempt. I think there are things that could have been improved about this particular version, which I'll try to quickly delve into.
As far as writing challenges go, this one is incredibly fraught and difficult. As such, I'm not convinced it's a good one for first time or relatively inexperienced writers, ( or for that matter performers ) especially ones who have never had their work performed before. There's just a hell of a lot of pressure to endure. Talking to the other writers during the following day, the same things came up time and time again – they didn't know what to write about, compounded by the inclusion of the props, and were in continual paranoia about an audience viewing it the following night. I suspect that most of the writers entered the challenge with a willfully blank mind, as per their notion of what the challenge actually was.
But like the Ghostbusters trying to keep their minds clear to stave off Gozer, what the writers conjured up was the equivilent of a Giant Stay Puft Marshmallow man attacking them. They couldn't stop thinking about the challenge itself, but had kept their minds free of ideas until they sat down with only twelve hours in which to write a performable piece of theatre.
My feeling is, and the practice I followed was, just because you're writing a play from scratch doesn't mean you can't have an idea of what you're writing in advance. I'm sure this constitutes a mode of cheating in some people's minds, but the creative process needs practice, rehearsal, and back-up. You can't just sit down to a blank page and – just because you've been given props and actors – write a polished or interesting play, especially with that amount of pressure behind you. That's a fucking hard thing to do and though I think every single writer achieved a strong variant on the challenge, I think every one of us would agree that in truth, we were not entirely happy with the text we produced in the time allotted.
The question then is why do this in the first place, and I think that goes back to the first time writing aspect. This challenge strikes me as muscle-flexing exercise, one that should really be attempted by writers who have had experience in a less fraught writing circumstance, who have perhaps had a couple of plays produced – amature or pro, I really don't think there's much difference – or have had practice at writing over a number of years and are actively looking for a new challenge. The twenty four hour challenge is one to show off, not show case, and I ultimately think it sells the less experienced participants short. It doesn't matter how many times you tell an audience the nature of the challenge, they will judge the experience only on what is presented to them.
If I were to offer any thoughts on improving this challenge, I would perhaps suggest dedicating a number of workshops to the process of writing, the do's and don'ts of creating pieces in a limited time span with a limited set of circumstances, before the event. We all pretty much went in blind, and for a show that was being put up in front of a paying audience, I think we could have all done with a lot more practice and experience. Several of the writers had never had their work presented to an audience before, and it can be a shattering experience if it doesn't achieve what you want it to achieve. A learning curve for sure, but a difficult one to endure after a possibly sleepless night of fevered writing.
In this regard, although I think it's a good challenge and a worthwhile one, I'm not convinced it suits a group of first-time writers and volunteer performers. It merits practice, time, and proper consideration and I think a longer lead-in to the evening itself would have helped. I think this is something that should have been attempted when the group had put on straighter and perhaps more rehearsed showcases of their work first, and given them the experience of presenting their work in different ways. I think we tried to run before we'd walked in this instance, and although I think we all made a good fist of jogging, we didn't quite get up to full speed.
The props themselves were an interesting addition. Personally, I found them to be a massively frustrating inclusion to what was already a terribly difficult challenge. What I ultimately did with them was include them in the piece once I'd written it, rather than attempt to write around them. This is where my experience helped me. I was aware that I could do this, and I wonder how many other writers sat down and stared at their props, desperately working their script around them.
Although I think the props were a good idea as an extra kickstarter, the truth is the audience did not know what props we had been given, or had taken, to write around. This meant that in all honesty they were a slightly redundant addition. As a rule, props are used in this manner for writing exercises, in workshops designed to kickstart a piece or create inspiration.
The style in which we incorporated the props seems more relevant to improvisational theatre, where the audience is aware of the inclusion of the props and more importantly what the props are, adding to the humour, tension, or drama of an improvised scene. The props in and of themselves added little to the pieces ultimately presented to the audience, or to the audience themselves.
I don't mean to discount them as a writing tool – but I think props are more at home as a director's and actor's tool, and perhaps part of the challenge could have been for the director of the piece to incorporate a set of props into the piece as written. A drawback to this of course would possibly be adding unwanted humour to a dramatic scene.
It's hard to find fault with the inclusion of physical objects in a dramatic exercise but I wonder if they actually added anything to the finished pieces, or challenged the writers in a befitting manner ( given the challenge that was already to hand. ) Props, in reality, are there to serve the play. The play should never be there to serve the props.
I would suggest, if trying this challenge again ( and despite what seems like a massive negativity on my behalf, I do think it would be worth attempting again, just with a little more consideration ) that writing a play in twelve hours for a set amount of actors is already challenge enough.
However, if anyone attempting this challenge wants a suggestion as a kickstarter the writers can take away them, try this one : give each writer an opening line, a closing line, and a word they must include within the body of text. The same lines for everyone.
Not only is this a more organic approach to writing, it gives the audience something to own, and to interact with. Inform them beforehand what the lines are, and then allow them the extra level of enjoyment of interacting with the pieces as they wait for each line to pop up. They become part of an in-joke, and have a more vested interest in what they're watching.
Personally, I am glad to have participated at this level of the challenge. I enjoyed it, I felt pressurised and went a little bit stir-fry crazy towards the end, but as a microcosm of the creative process I truly got a kick out it.
I had the benefit however of knowing I was also directing my piece. I can't imagine the terror those writers who weren't doing the same felt!
Onwards and outwards we go...