Theatre in Wales

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Winter Theatre Book-Comprehensive, Rigorous and Practical Study

Theatre Director Book

Mike Alfreds , Nick Hern Books , January 22, 2014
Theatre Director Book by Mike Alfreds “Then What Happens?” is a heavyweight book, four hundred and thirty-two pages, from a heavyweight author. Mike Alfreds has two hundred productions to his name, with thirteen years as founder of Shared Experience. His book divides in two; the first third is called “Thoughtshops for Storytelling”, the larger second part “Workshops for Storytelling.” His first part contains cross-references to the appropriate workshops. The second part for practitioners is structured, for simplicity of reference, into fifteen Sets containing sixty sections.

Shared Experience has had few rivals in its particular strand of theatre, Cheek by Jowl probably its nearest equal. The workshop part of “Then What Happens” is a rigorous, testing set of principles and practices that any young director should find useful and illuminating.

Alfreds gives an example, from “Bleak House”, of a detailed method for transcription from source prose to stage action. The process may tend toward transformation. James Elroy’s “the Black Dahlia” has a complex back-story that is wholly re-shaped in adaptation. “Demons and Dybbuks” is built upon a cluster of Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories.

The workshops begin with a single actor telling a story. The process is then subject to nineteen analytical questions. Five pages are devoted to the use of props and the hazard of their too early introduction. Eight pages are devoted to hands. An exercise on pitch is comprised of eight parts.

“Then What Happens?” is underpinned unsurprisingly by a powerfully individual aesthetic. “The purest space from which to tell a story is an empty one.” On design Alfreds is clear that “any technology or design that is decided upon should only occur after rigorous questioning proves its necessity.” The importance of interaction is stressed, albeit in a manner where it is an extension of the actor’s art and responsibility. Alfreds writes a page on the subject of “audience autonomy”, essential reading for any theatre-makers minded to treat their audience as a plaything. Alfreds’ audience is there for a most basic of reasons, enjoyment- “ the deeper their sense of fulfilment, the fuller by far their pleasure.”

Adaptation, as evidenced by “Bring Up the Bodies” currently, is big in theatre. Alfreds does not make mention of this, but like eighty or more percent of new products it comes with an advantage of being heavily pre-branded. “Then What Happens?” leaves a genuine and impassioned impression that it is theatre taking on the acme of narrative art. Shared Experience favoured stories over rather than plays for an unusual reason. “I felt that plays might trap us in existing patterns of work. With their structures- strictures- plays can be something of a straitjacket.” Besides theatre is manifold and “survives by a magpie existence, helping itself from other arts, crafts and disciplines to whatever seems useful to its purposes.”

Certainly the book exudes reverence towards the masters of stories and their depth and inventiveness of language. He cites Dickens’ use of antithesis and Faulkner’s compressed use of sensual imagery. Alfreds’ range of reference takes in “the Nibelungenlied” and “the Bridge of San Luis Rey”, Robert Altman’s “Nashville” and “On Chesil Beach”.

This last is cited as an example of narratorial power but it also highlights the gulf between the art of prose and its realisation on stage. Ian McEwan artfully creates a counterpoint, the view ricocheting between the perspectives of his two new-weds. Stage writing is about what is happening between characters, with the omitted having as much value as the overt. Alfreds devotes some space and characteristic rigour to the role of the third-person narrator from outside the action. This can be the most misunderstood and dulling of stage presences when misused. Alfreds typically gives it a typically lucid and full treatment. Workshop eighteen is titled “Justifying Narrative Interruptions During a Scene.”

“Then What Happens?” never deviates from its focus, the creating of stage action that moves in both senses. He is rightly harsh on the use of symbols that clump heavily. He looks at the language of film and the way that fadeouts and dissolves work their effect.

Narration is in a constant state of re-invention. The eighty-year old novelist E L Doctorow has delivered a firecracker of a radical novel this month. Alfreds addresses the fact that “a lot of contemporary art has removed itself from narrative and linear logic.” The argument is that it is reflector of life’s uncertainty itself. But human cognition is elementally a sense-making mechanism, which will make conclusion with or without evidence. The Alfred-ian view is clear. “But without the form created by plot, theatre and storytelling merely echo our confusions and uncertainties rather than searching for a sense to them.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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