Think about stage plays you have seen recently. In particular, think about the ‘before’ and the ‘after’, with ‘before’ being the moment the lights go up, and ‘after’ being when you are applauding ecstatically.
What’s the difference? Yes, yes, I know the characters have developed, the protagonist’s super-objective has become clear, and you now have cramp in your leg, but what else?
Chances are, if it was a good play, the answer is ‘mess’.
For this is my new theory: the best stage plays or dramatic experiences are the ones that make a mess. As in, the stage is full of debris, tatter and detritus, and you pity the people who have to put it all right before they go home that night.
Don’t believe me? Think again.
Take a recent staging of The Bee, by Birkbeck’s very own Colin Teevan, at Soho Theatre. Bits of chopstick, police cordon and clothing all over the place. Then, again at Soho Theatre, Ella Hickson’s Boys, in which the stage ended up strewn with bits of old newspaper and garbage (following an equally messy premiere at the HighTide Festival in Halesworth). Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is another case in point – sardines and newspapers all over the shop by the end. And although Waiting for Godot may be held up as the epitome of spare and clear, think of the stickiness underfoot generated by Vladimir’s particular complaint. And the leaf mulch from that tree.
Still not convinced? Bit more of a purist? Then think what that mess represents. Human endeavour. Chaos of existence. The protagonist’s crisis. The development of characters manifested physically. The results or deposits of the action. These fallen crisp packets or pieces of mud or food or discarded clothes are not just bits of stuff strewn on a stage, they are reminders that something has happened here. Something that has mattered enough to leave its mark. Even as you are applauding, and the actors are no longer in character, the ‘messy’ stage around them is evidence of what has been.
So if you buy into this, what does it mean for us writers?
Well, if you want to create a vision from a page, want a director to really know what you are thinking, then you need to bring your own mess. Soon to be known in all literary circles as BYOM.
I don’t mean turn up to the first rehearsal with your wheely bin, or write a load of rubbish. No, what I mean is, make it clear from the text that the mess (or series of objects, or whatever it is) is an integral part of the plot, or a thematic symbol, that comes from the characters themselves. As with any motion or item that is important to the progression of your play, put it in the speech, not the stage directions. That way, you can be sure that a diligent producer or director will present the mess to the audience and it won’t just be about a ‘good staging’ or ‘high production values.’ Instead, it will be a full realisation of your text, and you will be sharing with the audience the physicality of the piece you have created. The above-named plays are strong examples of what happens when it goes right.
I’m directing my own show in November, and whilst I maintain the piece would work for radio, I’m thinking about how to achieve the desired final messiness on the stage, other than just not looking what I tread in on the street. With a ‘bag lady’ as one of the two characters, and clear object motifs, it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. But don’t worry—even if I have to sweep it away myself, any mess won’t last after the show. Apart from hopefully in the minds of the audience.
[Heart of Time, written and directed by Amy Bird, will be at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, N1 from 8 – 10 November.]