Who’s writing this anyway?

Feature in Issue 14-1 | Spring 2002

Forget Pop Idol and the hall of fame – join theatre-maker John Wright in his quest for anonymity.

‘There is an old story of how the Cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground. Thousands of people came from all points of the compass like a giant procession of ants and together they rebuilt the cathedral on its old site. All sorts of people apparently: master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests and burghers. But they all remained anonymous and to this day no one knows who built the cathedral of Chartres.’ – Ingmar Bergman

Suckers! How many of you were bribed and coerced into humping those stones about with promises of good fortune and a happy afterlife? But for all the unsavouriness of medieval Christianity, art lost a vital creative drive when it was separated from worship. Its umbilical cord was cut, giving art its independence and leaving it free to generate and reinvent itself, as well as to disappear up its own arse.

The Cathedral of Chartres is as much a monument to communal enterprise as it is to spiritual servitude and there's much to admire here. Today we can call anything art and none of us knows what's beautiful any more, but whatever we do in the name of art we all want our name on it. Fame and recognition have become more important than art itself.

I can't imagine anyone tolerating anonymity on the scale of the Cathedral of Chartres today, but on a far smaller scale and in an entirely secular context, all the profound moments of theatre-making that I've been involved with have been anonymous or at least embedded in the collaborative efforts of the group. In other words it's been very difficult to remember precisely who inspired what.

Invariably it turns out to be some irrelevant off-the-cuff remark that sparked another idea for somebody else and yet another from somebody else; and by the time we've put something on the floor everybody in the room seems to own it.

I'm addicted to this feeling. Time and again it's brought me back to some sweaty rehearsal room trying to make something from next to nothing. It's the collective imagination of a group who knows how to work together that I find so compelling. It might not be the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Chartres but it's in the same spirit – only without the promise of eternal life.

Devising is so difficult because it's something that you can't do on your own. It requires collaborative authorship, and to do it effectively makes you feel as if you have to fight against everything you've ever been taught.

Most of the work in our drama schools is dedicated to skills of interpretation. It's primarily concerned with language and literary concepts like 'character' and 'genre'. Oh, the word 'performance’ is used quite a lot but that's singing and dancing and making people laugh. Where's the content in that? And the notion of play? Well that's just pretentious, isn't it?

We can deconstruct ourselves till the cows come home but the received wisdom makes no distinction between theatre and literature. The writer is the controlling intellect and the controlling imagination. Remove a keystone like that and the whole structure's going to come tumbling down. Well, perhaps it will, but we can always build it up again – and what do we mean by writing in the first place?

The real debate in theatre-making is not whether you have a writer or not, or whether you start from a script or not, but where you put meaning

Collaborative writing demands skills of creation rather than interpretation. The problem in devising is not that you don't have a writer but that everyone involved is multitasking. In fact you might have too many writers. There could be three or four of them. Their ‘proper jobs' might be actors, musicians, directors, designers or dancers, so their different contributions will have a particular spin – but they'll all be preoccupied with dramatic structure, content, imagery and language.

You can't get away from language – whether it be visual, musical or spoken – and you can't escape from dealing with a text. As soon as you try to repeat something, you're trying to remember a text, whether it was written down or not. Describe John Cage's maddest Happening and you're speaking a text. Dig deep into any impro and you'll find some game, some little impulse that sets the ball rolling and that's also a sort of text.

The real debate in theatre-making is not whether you have a writer or not, or whether you start from a script or not, but where you put meaning. Our innate preoccupation with language and meaning leads us to invest far more in what we say than in what we do or what we look like while we're doing it. The more we invest in the controlling creative intelligence of the writer, the more we put meaning at the beginning of the creative process rather than at the end. With meaning at the beginning we all know what we're doing right from the start and we can all progress rationally towards the final interpretation of the original idea.

Of course this is a simplification but it's not a facetious simplification and it's infinitely preferable to being vague, lost and confused – but if you put meaning at the end of the process then you've got everything to find. I'd far rather discover that the play I'm making is a comedy or tragedy for myself rather than be told from the very beginning what sort of play it is, what it's really about and how everybody should feel at the end. Predetermined readings of any text are a trap. Of course it's comforting to have a controlling rationale and it's much easier to manage a rehearsal but the most exciting explorers are those who work from maps that are incomplete or even wrong.

‘The work of rehearsal,' says Peter Brook, 'is to find meaning and make it meaningful.’ In other words to do something first and find the reason why you've done it later.

Having a text at the beginning of rehearsal is a terrific luxury – let's be clear about this. It's easier at every level to start with a text than without one. With a text, you always have another imagination and another authority in the room to defer to. You have a ready-made structure and a whole raft of decisions already set out for you.

When you devise, you have none of these things. You have to find everything for yourself. You have to find a text first, then find out what it means much later. The only tangible reality is the collective personality of the group you're working with; and that group will make or break the entire enterprise.

To anyone who has spent most of their time making theatre from scratch, ‘finding meaning’ is second nature. A text might have the potential to give you everything you need to start with, but in the adrenaline-soaked world of starting from nothing you learn very quickly that meaning can come from anywhere; so you train yourself to look everywhere to find it. You know that any text only appears to give you everything. No matter how rounded the story, how eloquent the dialogue, how impressive the musical score or how plangent the melody – the text is never the whole story.

In making theatre we need to differentiate between the written text and the performance text. The written text contains everything that's transferable – in other words, everything that can be written down to enable you to follow the author's ideas and intentions. This generally means the structure of events and the language to be spoken and some indication of how the material is to be staged. The performance text is everything that is unique to the people involved in the playing of that text – their physique, their personalities, their skills and their imaginations. The written text is everything we can read – but the performance text is everything we can see, hear, experience...

The raw materials of the performance text are space, movement and the objects and materials we have around us. The raw materials of the written text are language, structure and ideas. ‘Seeing is believing’ with the performance text, and in the theatre we see everything

The more we concentrate on the performance text the closer we get to making theatre rather than illustrating literature. Theatrical meaning as opposed to literary meaning is found when the written text impacts with the performance text. They start off as two separate entities and in rehearsal they clash and collude with the continuing potential of making something unique and fresh. Meaning clings to language like salt to chips, and like salt it gets everywhere. Written language is our most respected form of communication and we tend to think that meaning expressed in this form is something finite, concrete and unassailable, but it's not.

In the non-literary world of live theatre, language becomes as malleable as plasticine; and in the mad anarchic world of a playful group of actors, meanings are as ephemeral as ripples on a pond. An actor can say the same line in a myriad of different ways and is capable of doing whatever action he or she wants to do. Here Shakespeare is a god one minute and a tedious old fart the next. The sacred and the profane, the stupid and the profound sit side by side in the clear understanding that the one will always inform the other when the time is right.

This is a shifting and mercurial world where anything is possible and everything has yet to be found. This means that as a director or facilitator you've got to find strategies that are likely to make something happen rather than strategies for getting people to analyse what they think they might do. We need all sorts of people to make theatre – 'master builders, artists and clowns' – but they all need to cultivate a taste for anonymity in order to share a collective vision.

John Wright is an artistic director of Told By An Idiot, whose latest show I Can't Wake Up is currently touring. School for Devisers courses coming up include: 'Places where it hurts' (a course in devising comedy) and ‘Places beyond pain' (devising tragedy). For more information see: www.thewrightschool.com

Referenced Artists

This article in the magazine

Issue 14-1
p. 6 - 8