Creative Writing

Dramaturgy Satisfying Your Audience

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  SATISFYING YOUR AUDIENCE?This talk is about drama, what it is to me and what it has come to be seen as by our society. Drama is now referred to as “a product” and that product, like all others, is sold to “consumers”. Consumers now consume a lot of drama. Our TV screens are full of it, our multiplexes, our theatres. There is a great deal of competition for consumer interest, and therefore the whole idea of consumer satisfaction comes into play. I have seen audiences given questionnaires to gather their thoughts and feelings about their “viewing experience” – in which the experience of the drama itself is lumped together with their experiences at the box office and the ice cream stand. This has reached nightmarish proportions in America (a country where everything comes in nightmarish proportions, from its consumption of the world's resources to its prejudice and social injustice). Cinema audiences in the US are shown previews of films which then get re-cut or even rewritten to be more congenial to the public’s so-called “taste”. I want to explore some of the implications of this for the individual writer, and talk about some of the ways in which I have responded to it. But first I want to clarify my terminology a little – what certain words mean to me. From my mid to late adolescence, I recognised that drama was a way in which human beings communicated directly with each other. The first writer to truly communicate with me was Joe Orton, whose play  Loot   a group of us performed as a school production.  Loot   spoke to me about my life in a way which I recognised as profoundly different from anything in what might be called “the mainstream” - the soaps, news programmes and quizzes which were my family’s TV diet. I never for a moment, even as a small child, took something like Crossroads , my mother’s favourite, seriously. It did not speaking to me, was not even tangentially related to my life. It was merely something which one sat through. Looking back, I quite soon developed a curious resistance to the idea that one’s time should be merely  passed   whilst watching something. From the moment I could think for myself, I didn’t trust the idea of mere entertainment. This is worth dwelling on for a moment. I don’t want my rejection of the word “entertainment” to be mistaken for a belief that one should not be engaged by what one is watching. One should not be bored. Actually, it is the 1  things which are merely “entertainment” which are the things which most bore me. I have always felt that my skull was being crushed by episodes of, say,  Emmerdale . So, suddenly there were these people – Joe Orton, then Edward Bond, Howard Barker, as well as some filmmakers – Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Bunuel – & some songwriters – Strummer/Jones of The Clash, Bob Dylan – who were speaking directly to me about my life, helping me make sense of it and shaking any sense of complacency which I might have had. Pretty soon, I was dipping my toes in the water of writing my own plays. I brought the principal that I was communicating directly with other human beings into my own work. I was attempting to comprehend my life, comprehend my society and the ways in which people acted within it. I was doing this publicly by writing plays which were going to be performed before an audience. I recognised that it was my job to be in dialogue with my audience. I am attracted to the idea that any creative artist is a kind of shaman, going through a process of discovery on behalf of his community. I now had a relationship with other people who I had never met – I had an audience. As soon as I was writing plays, I went about putting them on. Over pubs and in community centres, with friends as actors. To my surprise, people came to see these plays. What was I up to in the dark with these strangers? A little digression which might explain a few things. I was what was known as a punk in my late teens. I harkened to John Lydon’s great cry of “Get off your arses!” I heard the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen and I wholeheartedly agreed. Our society is a con, full of injustice and imbalance. Most of us have very little real power over their lives; we are kept out of the decision-making process – either by force or distraction; there is a lack of truly human values at the heart of our way of life. Later I became intrigued by the tendency of people to collaborate in the process of their own disenfranchisement. This is what you might call a “donnée” underlying all of my work, “a datum; a basic fact, an assumption, etc” is the OED  definition of “donnée”. Perhaps I am communicating something which some people might not want to hear.  But   they are paying to see my work. They are Paul Simon’s famous customer who has to be kept satisfied. They are consumers – they want something for their money. What is the deal here? 2  Perhaps, in the case of audience members who don’t go easily along with what I have to say, I have to break the rule of a consumer society and deliberately not satisfy them. If they want “a good night out” which entails a break from having to “think about things” for a while – escapist entertainment – then I have to refuse them it. Which is not to say that I intend to bore them, god forbid (boring people, I often think, is that unforgivable sin to which Christ cryptically refers in the Bible) but I do have to deny them the satisfaction of sitting through something which pleasures them in the same way as a visit to a massage parlour. I think we all know the word for someone who does that, and although I agree to a certain extent with the old punk phrase “we are all prostitutes”, some of us still feel that we have to draw the line somewhere! As I mentioned earlier, there is a plethora of what passes itself off as drama nowadays, and the subject matter is often what one might call “dark” or “controversial” or “shocking”. This only makes it more challenging if you wish people to really think about and feel these things. People have been encouraged to get into the habit of congratulating themselves for having sat though “a hard-hitting drama”. In the first play of mine which I really consider to be written in my own voice, I hit on a novel way of dealing with this particular problem. The World and his Wife  is about disintegrating relationships, psycho-sexual violence and what it is to be a victim. How do I put these subjects seriously before an audience which is used to seeing them nightly in their soap operas, blockbuster films and TV series? How do I stop these things becoming merely “plot-points” and encourage the audience to actually consider   what they’re seeing? The solution I came up with was to make them not the subjects of earnest drama, the watching of which earns both writer and audience brownie points, but rather these serious “issues” I made the basis for rip-roaring but still painful comedy. One of the sub-plots of the play was the presence of a serial killer in the neighbourhood. This was around the time of The Silence of the Lambs  and other pieces of Hollywood exploitation nonsense. Murder has been used to titillate for years. Sometimes this is excused under the pretence that some such bunkum as “the psychology of evil” is being “explored”. In The World and his Wife , a detective describes and enacts a graphic series of sex-murders on a timid housewife. It is played as a Punch & Judy comedy routine, albeit one in which the character’s 3  suffering is very real. The atmosphere in the theatre becomes dangerous. Some individuals wanted to laugh, but were appalled that they did. Occasionally someone guffawed despite them self. This got them into trouble with other members of the audience, who obviously wondered how anyone could find these things funny. Everyone was put into the position of questioning their own viewing experience. There could be no  passive viewing . The satisfaction of switching off for a couple of hours, of a routine, knee-jerk or complacent reaction, was denied. The audience became discomforted. They lost the satisfaction  of comfort. The offer and withdrawal of a laugh is an important element of my aesthetic. In my recent play  I Really Must be Getting Off  , a guest at a country house called Will questions a Eastern European manservant called Arben about his work and background. There is a couple of pages of comedy of misunderstanding – funny foreigner misunderstanding floundering Englishman. Then things turn… ARBEN: Which do you want to know? WILL: Where are you from? (Slight pause.) ARBEN: I am from Kosova. WILL: Isn’t it Kosovo? ARBEN: That is which Serbs call it. WILL: I see. Where abouts in... Kosova? ARBEN: It is where used to be Yugoslavia. WILL: I meant which part. Of Kosova. Do you come from? ARBEN: You know Kosova? WILL: (shrugs) A little bit. ARBEN: I come from my village near Peca. A short while from Montenegro. WILL: Oh right. ARBEN: You heard of Peca? WILL: No. ARBEN: I believed you might have. It was reported in your news of Peca few years back. And my village. WILL: Why was that? ARBEN: My village was burned. 4
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