The first in our brand new blog series offering insights in to our working practice focuses on the relationship between the director and the playwright.
Using their experience collaborating on ARTEFACTS (2008) and LOVE, LOVE, LOVE (2010-12) as context, our Joint Artistic Director James Grieve (JG) and Associate Playwright Mike Bartlett (MB) offer their top tips to making this unique relationship as artistically fulfilling as possible – for both parties, the play and the production.
What follows are highlighted quotes from a’ Q and A’ workshop run by James and Mike at the Young Vic on Tuesday 22nd January 2013.
– For me the form and content arrive at the same time. [MB]
– One of the main qualities of a writer is to pick what to write about. [MB]
– One of the best ways to meet a writer or director is to find an opportunity to say to them ‘I really love what you do.’ [JG]
– As a writer, it’s not so much about your manner, social skills, or presentation – ultimately all you have to do is write something good. [MB]
– If a director doesn’t have a relationship with your work they’re just your friend. [MB]
– Invest in your peers as much as you invest in your heroes. Then you learn things together and from each other. [MB]
SHORT PLAY NIGHTS
– The explosion of ‘shorts’ nights in 2005 was like a two year speed dating process. A chance to flirt before you commit. MB
– Short play nights are like a production process in miniature – a chance to experience redrafting, rehearsing, presenting etc. [MB]
– Quoting Duncan Macmillan on our short play night:
‘We didn’t invite industry.
They were not works in progress.
We were simply practicing.’ [MB]
THE VALUE OF PRACTICING
– Collaboration is difficult. It Involves a set of skills no one teaches you. You need to have a chance to get it wrong.
You need to learn the answers to your questions by making mistakes:
‘How much do I speak in the room?
Do I talk to the actors?
When do I talk to the designer?’ [MB]
– Most directors have directed plays that they’re quite pleased no one ever saw before their ‘big break’. [JG]
THE COMMISSIONING PROCESS
– ARTEFACTS began with a little bit of money and a lot of faith. What matters at the beginning of the commissioning process is that you agree a shared understanding of what you both want from the process. Then you can start talking about the play itself. [JG]
– It was important for my commissioning director (i.e. James) to say “we are going to do this and it is going to be brilliant”. It’s not dissimilar to the way self-help books talk about visualization. A writer can feel the director’s desire to make it work. [MB]
– I want a director to read my first draft overnight. That’s the stuff that keeps you writing and excited. [MB]
– On one hand, you’ve entirely messed it up and you’ve ended your career or on the other, it’s the best play of the 21st century. When I hand my first draft in I literally have no idea where it stands between these two points . [MB]
– Harold Pinter called Peter Hall (then Artistic Director of the National Theatre) and said he’d written a new play.
Hall told Pinter to get in a cab.
They read the play aloud together over a bottle offer wine.
The next morning Hall told Pinter it was the best thing he’d written and that he was going to put it on (at the National).
The trust and Immediacy at the heart of that story is what writers want. [MB]
– As a director I feel a huge amount of pressure to respond in 24 hours to a writer. But given how long the writer will have spent with that work, in one read over 24 hours I can’t possibly have anything useful to offer them. So I say:
‘I’ve read your play.
I love it.
I couldn’t possibly say anything helpful after such a short period of time.
But let’s meet up on Friday by which time ill have read it another four times.’ [JG]
– I want to hear ‘You are a brilliant writer – that’s not in doubt. I love this idea. So irrespective, we’ll get to the place we want to be at.’ MB
– Don’t give notes unless you’ve been asked to by the writer, or you have made some kind of commitment to produce the play. [MB]
KEEPING FAITH IN THE PLAY
– ARTEFACTS was rejected by every theatre in London. in my heart of hearts i knew it was a brilliant play but there was a thought at the back of my mind that this might not go on as there’s no where else to try. Then a change in Artistic Director changed everything. [JG]
– Is this a bad play or a great play that no one wants? It’s easier to keep faith in a play when two of you have faith in the play. Otherwise on your own you might give up. [MB]
– “It’s about tenacity.” Chris Thorpe. [MB]
THE WRITER/DIRECTOR RELATIONSHIP
– There’s no overall hierarchy between writers and directors. [MB]
– Ideally you use a bespoke process for each writer and for each writer’s play. [MB]
– Dramaturgy is a word to whose meaning nobody can exactly agree, but to me it’s giving notes. [JG]
– Your job as a director is to deliver the writer’s vision of the play. You will never spend as much time on this play in your head as the writer will. The leading expert on this play will always be the writer. [JG]
– A way in to a conversation with a writer about their play:
‘Why have you called the characters these names?’
Sometimes this doesn’t reveal anything but sometimes story emerges and then you’re in to a conversation. [JG]
– Advice for speaking to writers about their play: keep things open.
You say: “Why is this character so mean?”
The writer says: “It’s based on my mum.”
Where do you go from there? [JG]
– In dramaturging the play don’t solve the problem of the play. [MB]
– Dramaturgy can sometimes tend a play towards the average which might not be what you want to do. [MB]
– The hard bit isn’t finding the problems it’s finding the solutions. [MB]
– Directors want writers to care as much as the director does that they get the right design team who will build the right world for the play. [JG]
– So writers need to know designers they like and why. [MB]
– It’s important that writers feel that ‘Everything you see on stage I’ve signed off on’. If the design isn’t right that’s as much my responsibility as the director or designers. But that doesn’t come for free so you need to make sure you collaborate in those conversations. [MB]
– Casting conversations with the writer can be hugely revealing of the play for the director. [JG]
– As a writer, casting is secretly a chance to workshop the play. [MB]
– A questions to ask a writer before rehearsals:
‘What were you reading, listening to, watching, or visiting when you were writing this?’ [JG]
– Before rehearsals:
The writer and I read a page at a time and talk about every line, one at a time, exploring every stupid question the director (i.e. me) might have.
That way I’ve done everything I can to understand the play up until the beginning of rehearsals. [JG]
– Before rehearsals begin, agree with the writer what your strategy is when you go in to the room – what will you say when the actor asks ‘why does that character do that?’ JG]
– At a wedding the father of the bride said to the groom:
‘The greatest thing you can do for your children is love your wife.’
So – the greatest thing you can do as a writer, for your play, is to publicly empower your director. [MB]
– In the room the writer is looking for things that aren’t working. I use a red/yellow card system to avoid making rash and incorrect decisions. A yellow card means I’ll look at it again in a few weeks time before deciding to give it a red card and cut or change it. [MB]
– In the rehearsal room I’m watching and I’m broadcasting what the play is:
‘This is what it is,’
‘This is why I wrote it.’ [MB]
– Depending on their availability you want the writer to be in rehearsals as often as possible. You don’t want to take a wrong turn. [JG]
– And the writer wants to be proportionately careful as to how they give the director notes after a three/five day absence. [MB]
-The first run through in the rehearsal room is the director’s first draft. It’s exposing to have the writer there when you’re thinking ‘wow that’s shit and we’ve only got 8 days til we open’. [JG]
– After the first rehearsal room run the best thing the writer can do is beam at the actors and tell them how wonderful it is. [JG]
– As a writer you learn a lot from being in tech. [MB]
– A playwrights’ job once in to production is to broadcast ‘this is the play’, ‘this isn’t the play’ on decisions. [MB]
– A confident production with a few wrong turns is infinitely better than a stilted, restricted and under confident show. [MB]
– As a writer, giving notes on the production apply the same rules as the director giving notes on the drafts of the play. [MB]
– Previews is when you need to support each other. There are going to be good ones and bad ones.
Enter it as a team and come out of it as a team. [JG]
– Have a clear system to giving notes during previews. [JG]
– Get tech notes in early – ring them in your notebook so you can give them straight away. [MB]
– The actors go through something extraordinary – A study showed an actors heart rate when they go on for first preview is the same as someone post car crash. [JG]
-I only go in to the actors’ dressing room after the first preview. Otherwise I think it’s their world, their character. They need to know I’m not going to be coming back there giving them notes. [MB]
– At the end of press night all you need to be able to do is look each other in the eye and say we have done everything we can to make this the piece of work that we wanted to. [JG]
– You remind yourself:
This is not a democracy.
This is not a popularity contest. [MB]
– The only time I struggle with press night is when there is a technical problem as then you’re not showing the critics what you’ve practiced. [MB]
– Make sure the writers have as much access to tickets and cheap ticket deals as actors do, as often they don’t. [MB]
– Keep your faith in the production – even if there are bits you’re not sure about, an audience might be enjoying it. I hate it when bands say their own second album is terrible, when actually I really liked it. [MB]