Theatre in Wales

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“When it happens it is the greatest thing in the world”

On Criticism & Critics

Letter to Jenni, An Aspiring Writer- Revisited , Theatre of Wales , January 16, 2019
On Criticism & Critics by Letter to Jenni, An Aspiring Writer- Revisited The reviews are done; the emptying of the critical cupboard remains.

A reviewer’s best service is attention. It is there in the article of 19th December with Kate Wasserberg citing Terry Hands: “Your job as a director is to pay attention and to respond to what you see. Not what you hoped to see, or expected to see, but what you actually see in front of you in that moment.”

For “director” it could just as well read “critic.”

On occasion, not often, my attention turned from the primary thing. “Letter to Jenni”, written 10th July 2011, was one of those occasions. At a time when the National Theatre Wales site was a forum, a school pupil named Jenni asked for advice on how to write for theatre. The responses were several; among them, mine differed greatly from the other contributors.

Re-visiting it eight years on I would change little by way of guidance for a young writer. I am less convinced now by the last paragraph. But, if anything, the challenge of paragraph 9 “Be a person who is more than a writer” is more pertinent than it was in 2011.

The media landscape has transformed. It is generally understood that we are now contained within information silos, their purpose to reinforce our own world-view. A consequence of this moving narrowly is that those outside become other than ourselves.

The bedrock of civil society is action, its base is empathy. The encouragement to live more broadly, and more directly, goes beyond an impetus for a more robust theatre. Its aspiration is ethical in nature.

“Letter to Jenni” in 2011 read:

“On June 21st Tim Price ignited the most interesting flood of commentary that the National Theatre Wales’ website has seen to date. The contributors, writers and directors, have productions to their name that, combined, run into three figures.

“On July 1st Jenni, a school leaver, who has been writing for three years, asked for advice. The answers ranged from software selection to attending a creative or drama degree course. That is half the story; this is some more.

“Join a theatre company. Any one will do. The local amateur group will show you how a production comes to life. Grab a speaking part. Even six or eight lines in a Christmas Show will teach you about the rhythm of speech for performance.

“Get in to see a professional production a week or two before it opens. A good director will be pleased to have someone there. Go to the show when it is open for a paying public and see what has happened in terms of pace, tightness, tautness.

“Beg or borrow the money, or bully Literature Wales for a bursary, for a week at Ty Newydd. It is a beautiful and inspiring place, and will fill you with hope.

“Remember that your generation has been made to carry the burden of debt and recession. The majority of universities and colleges carry their name with honour. But to some you are just a market. You will be of small interest as to whether their course will stretch you in insight, skills or employability.

“If you apply for a course, ask the leader to name six or eight alumni who have made their way in the world. If they cannot do so at the snap of a finger, walk away.

“If you see a course led by a writer scrutinise their CV with a magnifying glass. Writers are women and men who have had plays produced and books published by publishers. They will speak of the real thing, of agents and directors, of war stories and anecdotes.

“Be a person who is more than a writer. The best writers for theatre have been doctors, actors, architects, journalists, psychologists, tree surgeons, theatre producers. If you become an auditor, a games developer, an undertaker you will see in a matter of a few years enough of love, cruelty, greed, folly, ambition, moral compromise to sustain you for decades.

“Spend a winter on a sheep farm and you will learn more of death and loss, politics and money than any course will teach you. No writer has ever emerged from the life of a groupie around a theatre or an intern in a media company.

“Go to performances. But keep one eye on the audience. When theatre works it has an extraordinary curative effect on snuffles and coughs, wriggles and shuffling feet. See what works.

“Learn to love and respect actors. They are the vessel for your words. They may at times irk you. They may at times exasperate you. But more often than not they will astonish and astound you.

“Talk to a literary manager. They are much under-appreciated. The best are filled with a moral passion that performance matters.

“If a student writes in with a wish for your help in writing a dissertation on your work thank them but politely decline. The work is your work. If you become a performer on the lecture stage before the age of forty or fifty, your eyes will turn away from the audience. The fire that you have will die.

“If you get an offer of a script-in-hand reading be grateful. But nag and badger the organisers to the point, just short of the relationship being destroyed, to give you actors who have internalised your words and actions. Performance is not a literary event. It is action that moves in three dimensions.

“Three or four hours a day is sufficient to spend at a keyboard. Imagination is much over-rated. A couple of decades ago the boss at Toyota said that “a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” General Motors at the time was the biggest company in the world. In 2008 it went bankrupt.

“No one individual can ever know more than the tiniest fraction of what makes up our planet. Strive to make your own world as big as it can be. Get an invitation to a laboratory in Cathays Park. Talk to a molecular biologist and look down an electron microscope. Interview your local minister or vicar. They will see the world in a way that is sharply different, in a way that is not yours.

“Stay in a youth hostel. You will meet policemen, tax officials, polar disorder sufferers, MI5 operatives- I have met them all. They will give you the raw inside stories that you will never get second-hand from newspapers or the web.

“Keep a sense of perspective. If every theatre were burnt down overnight a few people at Christmas would miss the pantomime. For ninety-nine and a half percent of us it would have no effect on their lives of any kind. If your Christmas card list begins to fill with writers, actors, employees in media companies you will slowly begin to lose the voice that is yours and yours only.

“Cherish and remember whatever was that spark that led you to type out the word “Scene 1” for the first time.

“You may well hit age fifty twitchy and beleaguered and realise that not a penny has been put aside for a pension. But, if you want it, an audience may one day rise in acclaim at something that you alone have brought into the world. Those who write only for television and film will bank a hundred, a thousand times more. They will go to glitzier parties but they will never know what it is to hear their words and actions passing across real space into real, present ears and eyes. When it happens it is the greatest thing in the world.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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