Features Published 2 April 2020

A Virtual Theatre Book Group

Exeunt writers talk about the theatre-related books that they’ve been turning to for comfort, inspiration and new ideas.

Exeunt Staff

A lockdown survival strategy

Between livestreams, Zoom meetings and newsfeeds, lockdown is a time where you can rack up horrifying screentime stats without even noticing. Give your eyes a rest with some of these theatre-related books. Exeunt writers have scoured their shelves to dig out the hefty volumes that they’ve finally got time to tackle – or the papery old friends that they’re returning to for comfort and inspiration.

Tastes of Honey: The Making of Shelagh Delaney and A Cultural Revolution
by Selina Todd

I admit I both purchased and read this before the author became the subject of the recent no-platforming controversy (which may affect your both your enthusiasm for giving her money and / or enjoyment of the book one way or another, depending on your views). But coming at it with no knowledge of the writer and little more of its subject (I legit thought Shelagh Delaney had written 1 hit play and died young), this was a fascinating insight into the woman and her work. It takes an in-depth look at Delaney’s output (which included not just her famous debut play, but also the screenplay for the film Dance With a Stranger and a shitload of TV shows, including Z Cars) but also the creative and social cultures in which she operated, which too often marginalised and dismissed her for being a young working class woman. Depressingly, much of it still feels relevant to today’s theatre scene. (Tracey Sinclair)

Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile
by Adelle Stripe

Recently turned into a play, this award-winning biography of working class playwright Andrea Dunbar (who wrote Rita, Sue and Bob Too) is far more impressionistic in nature, but touches on many similar themes to the Todd book, although Dunbar, for all her talent, seemed to lack the chippy self-assurance and resilience that kept Delaney afloat even during her toughest times. But the women had a lot in common, both personally and professionally, as working class single mothers whose talent was often dismissed as a fluke or little more than the ability to write down the conversations that surrounded them. Like Todd, Stripe is particularly good at capturing the clash between the well-meaning middle class / posh folk who run theatres and the working class writers they champion – including the sheer disbelief that these young women didn’t aspire to middle class life and all its trappings, but might actually be happier in the communities from which they sprang. (Tracey Sinclair)

Ego
by James Agate
In the Everyman Writers’ Room there is a whole shelf taken up with a set of books wrapped in paper like a Blue Peter project. They represent the biography of the theatre critic James Agate… all nine volumes of it. Appropriately named Ego. Agate irked readers of the Manchester Guardian, Saturday Review and Sunday Times from the 1920s until the end of the 40s. My favourite Agate fact is that he used to write his reviews before seeing the play, and then simply go back and edit them to see if his presumptive predictions were correct. I recently met the distant relative of Agate who had donated the books and they seemed more that a little put out that that they are not more widely read (the theatre’s Young Writers have been hiding a tin of Celebrations behind them as they are the only books no-one ever touches). The Neglected Books website (yes that’s a thing) describes Agate as ‘the critic of his generation’, ‘… a larger-than-life character: foppish, heavy-drinking and smoking, a lover of cricket and horse racing, extravagant in his spending (he would keep cabs waiting for hours while he dined and wined with friends’. Is this the moment for us to finally read all nine volumes? If only such gems as this:

July 30, Thursday – Meric Dobson, now a sub-lieutenant in the R. N. V. R., told me this. During his recent leave he visited a travelling circus near Bristol. Introducing “Miss Zelfredo, the world-famous snake-charmer,” the ringmaster said, “It is with great regret that I have to announce one of the great tragedies of the Ring. Doreen Zelfredo’s python, which had been with her for six years, died on Friday at Knowle. I am sure the audience will join with me in sympathy for Doreen, and in the wish that she may soon find a new pal. If ever a woman loved a snake Doreen did. Miss Zelfredo will not enter the ring and perform her act without her snake.” (Francesca Peschier)

Hiding the Elephant
by Jim Steinmeyer

This book is such a treat. A study of the history of the golden age of magic and the (by and large male) characters who populated it, it’s a lively cultural history that documents some of the most famous stage illusions but also digs into the appeal of magic, the wonder of it, the pact between audience and performer. Some of the names are familiar – Houdini, Thurston, Maskelyne – many less so. Steinmeyer is a magician himself and he’s great at explaining not just the mechanics of the illusions themselves – Pepper’s Ghost and Houdini’s pachyderm spectacular of the title among them – but the manner of their performance, while also capturing something more intangible: the sleight of mind required, the deep need people have to believe. (Natasha Tripney)

The World Only Spins Forward
by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois

I already loved Angels in America, but when I read this book, I became obsessed. I’m finding it difficult to get stuck into anything that feels too dense or heady at the moment, which is why I think this book could be perfect for times such as this. It is an oral history of Angels as told by the artists and audiences who experienced it. This book feels like a piece of history, filled with snippets of interviews from Meryl Streep, Nathan Lane, Mary-Louise Parker, and Jeffery Wright which are spliced together to create a thematic timeline. It is an essential queer history that explores how on earth to stage an 8 hour epic, the impact of the AIDS crisis, and audiences’ love affair with Tony Kushner’s writing. (Eve Allin)

Books about playwriting that I promise aren’t patronising
By various authors

Back in December in the halcyon days of face-to-face university teaching, I was wondering which reading materials to set for my playwriting course and came across two great books published in the last two years. Being a Playwright: A Career Guide For Writers by Chris Foxon and George Turvey of Papatango offers invaluable practical advice. It covers such topics as taking dramaturgical feedback on your work and what the process of redrafting might look like, ways of sharing your work and who to invite, and working with collaborators in the production process. Crucially, the generous advice of Papatango and their writers demystify an industry that can sometimes seem impossible to enter from outside. For those wanting greater guidance on the creative process, Stephen Jeffreys’ comprehensive Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write gives a flavour of his famous workshops for Royal Court Young Writers’ Group. He starts with the refreshing proviso ‘that nothing that I can say or teach you will turn you into a playwright: you must have something that you want to say’ but he aims to give the reader ‘techniques, tools and tricks that can help you to translate your experiences or ideas into a play’. The main tool that Jeffreys recommends is structure; finding the right structure for the story you want to tell is presented as a fun, creative puzzle. He encourages readers to conceive of writing a play as working with the two mediums of time and space and shows how different combinations of locations and timescales can change a play utterly. The book helps you cultivate an awareness as a writer and reader of plays of their internal workings, like taking up the bonnet of a car and explaining what each part does but never patronisingly. So, if you’re currently writing a pandemic play, you can at least give it an interesting structure. (Hannah Greenstreet)

The Forest and the Field
by Chris Goode

As a watcher and doer of theatre, Chris Goode’s shows have been incredibly formative experiences for me, but the work of his which I hold dearest is this book. Expanding on lots of the thinking on his now-defunct blog, Thompson’s Bank of Communicable Desire, The Forest and the Field is Goode’s thinking-through of the what this thing that we do called ‘theatre’ is, why we do it, and how it might move us towards change. It’s so passionately and agilely argued, and I love Chris’s tendency to unfurl over a fulsome page what might have been communicated, less deliciously and gymnastically, in a sentence. It’s expansive and hospitable, taking in not just theatre but poetry, visual art, photography – but always in search of the qualities we might choose to call ‘theatrical’. Most of all, its rigorous politics are what make it really moving – I cried at the last chapter because I saw in it articulated what has always drawn me, even without my knowing, to performance. When I doubt why I choose to devote so much of my time to theatre (and don’t we all?), I return to The Forest and the Field for a reminder. (Ben Kulvichit)

Certain Fragments
by Tim Etchells

I read this book when I was 16 (far too young), because I was told to by my GSCE drama teacher. It did kind of change my life. My copy still has the post-it notes sticking out that I feverishly stuck on my favourite pages. I keep it beside me whenever I write anything for or about theatre. It is weird and intellectual and foregrounded so much of my thinking about the relationship between text and performance and play. It’s a cross between a cultural criticism of theatrical practise, and a story about people on a stage, in a room. It is an instruction and an invitation and a provocation. (Eve Allin)

Biographies of female actors who had incredible lives
by various authors

Reading and me aren’t getting on at the moment; my brain’s one big spinning zoetrope of worries and completing a whole book feels like a distant dream. But somehow, dipping into biographies feels possible and comforting – like making a fascinating but undemanding new friend. Rebecca Jenkins’ endlessly readable biography of 19th century actor Fanny Kemble throws you into a world where a stage career meant starting your career at three years old, walking 20 miles each day from tour date to tour date, playing Juliet while nine months pregnant, and somehow finding time to sew all your own costumes. Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman excavates Ellen Ternan, Dickens’ secret mistress whose career as an actor allowed her to stage an audacious eleventh hour reinvention after he breathed his last. And Julie Holledge’s Innocent Flowers follows the suffragettes who used theatre to escape their narrow social roles. What shines through all of them is the sense that theatre lets people break rules and create new ways of living; a welcome glimmer of utopia amongst a comforting clatter of biographical details. (Alice Saville)

Further Reading
Amber Massie Blomfield’s 10 Theatres to See Before You Die, for letting your imagination ride to arts spaces across the UK while your body’s trapped indoors. Meg Vaughan’s Theatre Blogging, for discovering decades’ worth of online theatre criticism (Lucy Prebble isn’t missing theatre reviews, but who knows, you might be). Chekhov’s Letters, for witty, melancholy insights into his life (while struggling with another pernicious lung complaint). The Swish of the Curtain, the ultimate theatre comfort read, about a bunch of post-war children who make their own theatre where they stage terrible-sounding plays and have wonderful-sounding adventures.

Purchasing note: Please if at all possible avoid Amazon, whose workers are striking over lack of virus protection.  Many of the above are available on kobo, through individual publishers, or on abe books.

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Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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