Next month Pastoral, my first play, will be produced at Soho theatre and Hightide Festival. Except it’s not my first play, it’s just the first play that I’ve written down in words on paper. Since 2006 I’ve been touring my own work with my company Dancing Brick. Work that I devised with Valentina Ceschi. Even though that work is “visual theatre”, relying on mime, movement and image as much as text, we still consider those shows to be a) plays and b) written. Though a scene may consist of two ice dancers trying to perform a routine on a wooden floor and may contain no dialogue, we still take a great deal of care placing, positioning, writing that scene into the play.
Everything that happens on stage is written. Whether it’s mimed, danced or improvised, the fact that it has been placed on stage renders it written. The person who placed it there is a writer. A writer just like Tom Stoppard or Carol Ann Duffy or Martin Amis. When Aurelien Bory places a 12ft robotic arm onstage and programs it to move, that action in itself is playwriting. In fact it is what we all aspire to be with our writing: arresting, poetic and profound with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of humour and flair. He is my favourite playwright working today.
This is not to say that British theatre only embraces a traditional view of “writing”. Devised work has been fully absorbed into the mainstream. Live art packs out huge houses across the country. Traditional “new writing theatres” like the Royal Court, the Traverse and the Soho programme work by artists like Will Adamsdale, Caroline Horton and Anthony Nielsen, all of whom, in different ways, are entirely unconventional “writers”.
And yet there is still a persistent, niggling view that unless a piece of work was “written” by a “writer” it is a) less worthy of intellectual interrogation, or b) its aims are non-narrative and therefore completely separate from the concerns of scripted theatre.
Furthermore, because these works go unpublished, they are somehow considered separate, other, than literature. Though there are many theatre studies courses which explore theatre holistically, and certainly live art has its own discourse surrounding and even intertwined within it, in the mainstream discussion of literature, theatre is still treated exclusively as scripted texts. When I studied English, maybe the odd Beckett play or Caryl Churchill stage direction would nod towards mime or visual writing, but by and large we studied theatre as a textual medium related more to poetry and novels than to dance or pantomime. This tradition informs, even dictates, how we view the writer today.
But what if we could make a script for these different types of writing too? During my residency at the Soho Theatre, I have been exploring ways in which you might design and publish a “script” of non-traditional work. What might a script of Briony Kimmings’ 7-Day Drunk look like? Or Translunar Paradise, or Sans Objet? If a script is a series of instructions for performance, how might we make a series of instructions for work that isn’t just dialogue, or where the dialogue is of secondary importance to the action? Would the publication of such a script make these artists “playwrights”?
This can also be a useful process for writers themselves. Last year mine and Valentina’s play 6.0: How Heap and Pebble Took on the World and Won was produced in Canada by another company, for which they used a transcript of a performance taken from the British Library sound archive. The creation of this transcript and the use of it in the new production forced us to ask ourselves questions about the nature of the work; what is essential (the “script”) and what is particular (the “production”)?
If we could do this with more work, if we could buy and read the “script” of, say, Watch Me Fall, by Action Hero in the National Theatre bookshop, if we could smuggle the work of Look Left Look Right, Clod Ensemble, Made in China, into the study of literature as a whole and not just as part of “performance”, it might widen what we think of as “writing” and then – who knows?
Perhaps experiments like the one I am involved in with the company Brave New Worlds – who begin their process not with a text or a story but with design and aesthetic – might become more accepted, so that a literary department might accept a costume, or a sculpture, or a comic book (as my last play Perle was written, or the one my friend Jenny Lee is developing) as a starting point for production.
Perhaps we will write scripts where instead of only describing action vaguely (The Baron stabs Anne-Marie) we will be writing dialogue vaguely too (The Baron and his wife discuss how to dispose of Anne-Marie’s body).
Perhaps we as playwrights will be forced to think more imaginatively, more freely, about what we put onstage.
Perhaps actors who workshop plays will begin to get writing credits or extra fees.
Perhaps Doctor Brown will be interviewed by the TLS.
Perhaps a GCSE English class will study a play by Dancing Brick and be inspired.
Perhaps Michael Billington or Quentin Letts will review something at BAC.
Whatever happens, it is crucial that we as playwrights continue to push the idea of what a writer can be. That we don’t get stuck in received patterns of what we think constitutes a written work. The expectations and requirements of the word “writer” – from institutions, from publishers, from the canon and from, perhaps most of all, ourselves – can be reductive and stifling.
Or perhaps this is just a personal warning: to remember that writing is visual and physical and sculptural as well as textual; that writing is acting and moving and talking and designing; that Pastoral started with an image – of a tree growing through the stage – and that I was writing from the moment I imagined that happening. And not just when I typed out a play on my computer.
Thomas Eccleshare is a writer and theatremaker and co-artistic director of Dancing Brick. Read more about his work here: www.thomaseccleshare.tumblr.com
Pastoral is running at the Hightide Festival 2nd-12th May then at Soho Theatre 15th May – 8th June. For more information and tickets, visit the Hightide Festival website.
Brave New World 1 is on at the Yard Theatre 2nd-6th July as part of ‘The Generation Game’ festival. For more information and tickets, visit the Yard Theatre website.
Photo: Alex Eisenberg (Perle, Soho Theatre and touring in October)