I loved hearing about your favourite theatrical experiences on the previous post! Lots of us seem to cherish special moments of seeing our acting heroes. I restricted myself to one – otherwise I’d have had to include Judi Dench in Peter and Alice, Judi Dench again in All’s Well That Ends Well, Tamsin Greig in Much Ado About Nothing, Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles in The Rivals… etc. etc.
Well, all is revealed – the book, which I’ve realised I actually mentioned the other day, is The Crafty Art of Playmaking (2002) by Alan Ayckbourn. I actually bought it earlier in the year, and when I started I hadn’t even remembered that the play I was about to see, Relatively Speaking, was by Ayckbourn. It wasn’t until I turned to p.3 and saw the play mention (and, er, spoiled a bit) that I realised I should put the book to one side until I’d seen the play.
When I went back to it, I found The Crafty Art of Playmaking an invaluable companion to seeing Relatively Speaking, but it is a fascinating book for anybody interested in the theatre whether or not that have recently watched one of Ayckbourn’s plays. I’ve written before about my interest in the theatre, but usually (when I read theatrical books) is acting memoir from the twentieth century, or similar. Other than when actors take a step into the director’s chair (that metaphor fell apart) have I read much from that side of the fence, and I don’t think I’ve read anything particularly thorough about writing plays, although A.A. Milne’s autobiography has a brilliant section where he traces a few of his plays back to their roots.
That is where discussion of Relatively Speaking starts, but I don’t really want to say what he writes, in case it spoils it for you… well, look away now if you don’t want to know, ok?
Initial inspiration – that essential starting point – comes in all shapes and sizes. Years ago I had the tiniest idea for a situation wherein a young man would ask an older man whether he could marry his daughter. The twist was that the older man didn’t have a daughter.
And there you go! From there, Ayckbourn takes us through the various considerations which led to the play being set in two locations, and certain key plot points, and the like. He also talks about many of his other plays, of course, but (having just seen this one) it was the dissection of Relatively Speaking which I found fascinating.
Throughout the book, Ayckbourn highlights ‘Obvious Rules’, which number from 1 to 100. Some are not obvious, but it’s a nice conceit to structure the book, and tends to summarise what he has discussed, with examples, in the previous section. So, we have things like ‘Use the minimum number of characters that you need’ or ‘Don’t let them go off without reason’ – and thins which aren’t really quite rules, like ‘You can never know too much about your characters before you start’. It works well to keep the playwriting process grounded and achievable, while also showing that you can’t (or shouldn’t) sit down one afternoon thinking that, with a pithy epigram or two, a play will more or less form itself.
The second half of The Crafty Art of Playmaking (and the reason why it’s Playmaking rather than Playwriting) concerns directing. This was slightly less conceptual, because, instead of make-up characters and potentially infinite plots and dialogue, Ayckbourn is writing about lighting designers and wardrobe mistresses and the like. He does seem to lump entire professions into single characteristics (wardrobe mistresses – or was it costume designers? – are apparently prone to hysterics; assistant stage managers are universally level-headed; sound engineers are over-ambitious, etc. etc.) but is perhaps being a bit tongue-in-cheek. Hard to say.
Obviously there is a significant difference between a playwright and a director. Well, there are many. But a chief difference is that anybody can try being a playwright from the comfort of their own desk. They might be appalling, but all they need are pen and paper (or electronic equivalent). The director must have actually persuaded someone to let them have a job – and, while Ayckbourn does describe the various ways that might happen, it is with a tone of incredulity that it possibly could. And once it has, I suppose one is no longer an amateur.
Ayckbourn’s model of the director is very power-hungry and micromanaging, but perhaps that is a necessity. Almost every section seems to end with ‘but don’t let them make any decision without consulting you’, or something similar. A director in this mould, who trusts nobody to do their jobs properly, would be a nightmare. But for the first-time director, I suppose it is wise not to be ridden over roughshod.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this two-angle way of looking at playmaking is the contrast. Ayckbourn often wrote and directed (writes and directs?) his own plays, but it is intriguing to see how he treats the potential director in the first half of the book, and the hypothetical writer in the second half. All I can say is, he must be sometimes rather conflicted when he is doing one or the other! Incidentally, his plays are almost exclusively called the sort of unmemorable things one expects plays to be called. Six of One, As You Were, After A Fashion, A Matter of Fact… those are all made up by me (as far as I know!) but you understand the sort of thing. Bits of expressions, or everyday sayings, and entirely forgettable titles – curious for someone so inventive!
I found the director half of the book a bit harder to get my head around, as it is further from anything I have ever done or would ever want to do, and he is very coy about actual experiences in this area (very few names and dates, and lots of ‘an actress once said…’) but anybody thinking about going into directing would, I think, find it invaluable.
I don’t intend to be either a playwright or a director, but I found Ayckbourn’s book a fascinating glimpse behind these processes – and I think anybody interested in the theatre generally, let alone Ayckbourn specifically, would find a lot to like here.