Theatre in Wales

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Summer Theatre Book (2)- Sense and Insight

Theatre Writer Book

Steve Gooch , A & C Black , September 2, 2013
Theatre Writer Book by Steve Gooch BBC2’s “Culture Show” on 28th August devoted its entirety to Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and its fiftieth birthday celebration. It brought together Jim Haynes and Richard Demarco in a reunion on the spot where they first met on the city’s Royal Mile. It followed the founders into the theatre’s numerous former homes, charted the steady growth, the move from censorship-proof theatre club to fully formed company.

Tim Price featured in rehearsal for the co-production with the Wales Millennium Centre along with a string of historic artistic directors. Rage, rancour and dispute, regulars in all human affairs, were absent from the programme. If it had a feel-good flavour the Traverse has plenty to feel good about. The moral that came over was get the software right before splurging out on the hardware. When the time came for the move to the posh home in Cambridge Street, the audience was already there, as was the band of pulsating writers unequalled elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

A twenty-five year old book found in a garage sale on a summer’s night in Ciliau Aeron ought by rights to have dated. Everything has changed in the last quarter-century in theatre. Scary shows with chain saws were undreamed of. Max Stafford-Clark, who featured in the Traverse film, has a track record of distinction in new writing and Out of Joint’s reward has been an Arts Council of England cut of a quarter.

Steve Gooch has many an interesting thing to say and unsurprisingly his 1988 book has had re-prints in 2001 and 2004. A track record in writing for performance is not a prerequisite for a commission in Wales, but “Writing a Play” in its crisp hundred and ten pages has regular points of value for the aspirant dramatist.

Gooch is good on the principles. The Dylan Thomas bio-film “the Edge of Love” shows again this week. Gooch knows that “simple disagreement does not constitute conflict.” Characters may reveal attitudes but that does not make for action. Gooch gives the dramatist a simple test as to whether it is stage action that is being written.

Every piece of theatre has its own unique start-point. A climax, says Gooch, is as good as any. He employs a musical metaphor to illustrate structure. “Just as striking middle C on a piano brings out the reverberation of all the other C’s on a keyboard, so your central climax will echo back and forward through the other events of the play, and vice versa.”

In terms of structuring the writing he points to the dramatists who get on with it fast. His examples take in “King Lear”, “the Mother” and “the Real Inspector Hound.” On drafting and re-drafting he is clear. Playwriting is play-rewriting. The challenge is to step back from that place of intense absorption in the manner a painter steps back to see the effect of line and tone. “You need to be a kind of foreman to yourself, standing over your own shoulder.” One method is to put the work away for a period. David Storey would shelve a play for a year.

Gooch's description of himself is “playwright, author, script doctor and translator.” The third role has given him experience of fresh scripts. He knows of dialogue that “it tends to flow of its own accord- sometimes too easily.” “A whole script can appear in dialogue form” he writes “and yet never be a play.” He knows all too well the writing where one character feeds another questions “What?” or “What do you mean?” “Weed all this out” he says “It’s the playwright’s equivalent to doodling.” A dramatist should look to Truman Capote: “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than the knife.”

Writing for theatre is craft and it is not the craft required for television. “Your script will be moving bodies around, bodies with their own stage reality.” At the time of his writing his view is that “the consequences of television writing on stage writing have been mainly disastrous.” He does not care for the focus on heightened naturalism that goes hand in hand with a snippety, bitty use of time and place. An early writer should learn the discipline. Constructing an action that requires a single set and elapses over no more than a few days is how to do it.

Gooch belongs to theatre rather than the creative writing movement. He has some sympathy with theatre companies, the slowness with which new scripts are read and addressed. If there is not a literary manager on the payroll it is one more task. “Script-reading is therefore fitted in around an already overloaded schedule.”

He knows that the playwright has a calling soaked in potential dismay. Even success can mislead. A first play in production and “the impression of having arrived can be illusory for a playwright.” Of the playwright flushed with hope who gives up the day job, only to find his next play rejected, Gooch observes simply “nothing is sadder.”

Even commissions can end up as tormenting deadlines and a reminder that “the happy combination of money and the freedom to write are short-lived.” But Gooch is good on where it all originates, “the quality of a dynamic pressure behind the words” and “the inner burning to write.” Everything has changed in the last quarter-century. But there are nuggets of truth a-plenty still in this book.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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