Playwright as Scientist.

Convener(s): Suzy Almond

Participants: Allen O’Leary; Ellis Kerkherven;Darren Boulton; Rebecca Gould; Jonathon Petherbridge; Dan Copeland; Liz Chen; Clare Fischer, Susie Ashfield.

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

What happens when the playwright is like a scientist – seeking to discover, rather than prove?

Sometimes issue plays, by closing down on answers too quickly, became about proving rather than discovering. (‘Drugs are bad; bankers are weak-minded; Racism is bad; Tories are bad.)

It could be useful to adopt the persona of ‘mad scientist.’ To explore wildly, to let go of the need to prove a point through a rigid schema. 

In this way a piece would be more open and less about the usual narrative signposts.   A space would open up for the audience, so that they felt less inevitability about the conclusion.  The audience would be more surprised, because the writer surprised themselves in the process, and this was liberating for everyone involved.

David Hare’s ‘The Power of Yes’ was used as an example of a writer/character exposing their own naivity about who ‘the bad guys’ are, and coming to the realization that all of us are involved and responsible – yes, even the liberals.

Macbeth was used as an example of how a playwright experiments, so that rather than one point being made about how power corrupts, many points are raised – including how self prophesy is self-fulfilling.

In Mick Gordon’s ‘On Emotion’ the writer/character is changed by his research as he tries to explain his work (similar to Hare), and we feel we go on a genuine voyage of discovery with the character.

Is there still a thirst for neat, elegant, linear plays?  To an extent, yes.  It is a human need to have these narrative signposts.

Ah, our Scientist.

Is she/he adult and controlled with their experiments or must there be chaos to release the magic?

A straight issue play may sometimes force the action and seem unspontaneous.  It doesn’t always allow the audience the space to make up their own mind.

What helped a playwright to be more of a mad scientist?  Not having deadlines meant there was more time to succumb to impulses.

One practitioner reported that 2nd plays by writers occasionally  lost the magic, because they had written the first in isolation, without being watched, and this produced a more chaotic approach, with more surprises.

Plays about racism like ‘Sing your Heart out for the Lads’ were discussed. So was Alf Garnett.  When a writer weights an issue so that the audience will not sympathize with a morally incorrect character this can sometimes backfire. 

Oleana was cited as an example of a play that challenged liberal assumptions about political correctness.

Someone reported their favourite theatrical experience as being a bewildering experience that took place in a shop.  The owner had a mental health problem and was re-arranging the shop (constantly destroying and re-building the changing room; playing three TV and radio stations at the same time. )  The effect of disorientation was so extreme, that when the teller of this story left the shop, their thought processes were disrupted to the point where they became receptive to new things, and forgot things they thought they knew.  They nearly needed a map to get home. Well, nearly.  Is this the effect that theatre can and should have?

This was compared to a story about the hypnotist Derren Brown speaking so much nonsense to a black cab driver, that the driver was disorientated enough to forget where the hell the London Eye was.  Even when he was sat in front of it, he couldn’t see it!

When we go to the theatre can we please be put in a trance state, so that a new space opens up in our minds?  Some of us agreed this might be quite nice really.

Could this be an ideal audience state?  Should this be the effect an experimental play can have?  So that the usual narrative signposts are usurped in favour of rugs being pulled.  So that our minds don’t comfortably drive down the usual rat runs and come to the usual conclusions.

Can the playwright as mad scientist, play with their test tubes and unknown substances and make this kind of mess?  And not close down on an outcome too quickly?  And then clean the mess up a litte bit so people can understand it?

Someone talked about their experiences working with Ken Campbell, and suggested reading ‘The Bourne Trilogy’(?)  He was adept at playing with audience expectations.

The science of bewilderment was discussed in more detail. Neurons and the brain needing to refer to previous memories as a reference point.

Improbable theatre sometimes experimented by putting plays on before they were ready, so that the audience would affect the way the play shaped itself for the rest of the run.

Stand up comedy was discussed.  There was an element of risk-taking, yet maybe the audience was in such a trance state (beer/I already have an expectation that you will make me laugh)