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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Shakespeare Delusion

It's time to talk about the 'new' show - I normally write the Shakespeare blog on a Thursday, but my big Tuesday think piece got behind schedule, so here we are!  The Shakespeare Delusion has taken some time to come into being and hasn't had the best of me.  It was supposed to have been premiered in April, but then I fell ill.  It was going to be performed in London as part of the Christmas run at Barons Court, but I've had to scale that back having finally acknowledged that I now have to manage my life.  There are only so many spoons in a day.
So, poor little Shakespeare Delusion has had a bumpy ride - but it's all for the best in this best of all possible worlds.  This one-off performance will not be the end, for the show will return in 2014 for as many performances as I can manage.  I'm even thinking of going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival again, something I haven't done since 2005, though I will need to get the financing together for that.  This means that I've got a good year or so to adjust the play, tweak, learn the words, devise actions, create newness out of whatever happens on the one-off show.  Like Ghost Storyteller which started out as The Ghosts of Lavenham twelve months ago, the year off allows for a more condensed, tighter, more focused piece of theatre.
But first I have to get everything ready for Friday 12th October, I have to give myself to the delusion.  Followers of this blog will already know that I have a beard now, grown specially for this one-off show.  There is a picture, but I wouldn't want to scare the horses.  I am disturbed to discover that people LIKE the beard, that there have been calls for me to keep it.  I think these people must be as mad as the person I am playing for the show.
So, what is the show about?  It's about a man who tries to follow the anti-Stratfordian take on Shakespeare - those people from the last hundred and fifty years who try to tell you that Shakespeare didn't write the plays.  I could rant for a while about why this is just such bullshit (in fact, reading on, I find I do), but it's much more fun to do it in performance.  The character, 'Professor' Ashborn, follows exactly the trains of thought that the ant-Stratfordians of the past have taken - he recreates the supposed cyphers, he digs for clues and lost manuscripts, he sees around him a conspiracy of academics, he goes - slowly at first, and then with increasingly speed, completely off the printed page of sanity and into the shredder of madness.  Because, broadly speaking, most of the theories against Shakespeare actually writing the plays are the purest madness.  They posit that dead people wrote the plays, that people who really couldn't have had anything to do with them wrote them, that to deny the reality of their theories is a form of discrimination and bigotry and WHY AREN'T YOU LISTENING TO ME!  Talking to an anti-Stratfordian is remarkably like talking to a religious fundamentalist, only more sad because the issue, on the surface, is not much of an issue.  At least a religious fundamentalist cares about human souls, the fundamentalist anti-Stratfordian simply wants to take a famous name down a peg or two, usually because of snobbery.
But, there are other more fundamental issues at stake in the whole anti-Stratfordian position, because the tactics they use are destructive.  It is about destroying history - the demolition of peer reviewed academic debate and replacing it with web based PR led posturing, in whose hands only the loudest wins.  It is the same issue that faces science, for which the creationist cause is the best example.  Rather than listen to facts and informed debate, the media in America screams back and forth about intelligent design, using the words of scientists against them by twisting qualified statements of scientists to say that even scientists don't really think this.  Scientists, historians, any sensible academic speaks in qualifications.  Most probably.  Although.  It might be proven otherwise.  Research suggests.  This is because in science and history there are few absolute absolutes.  However, that doesn't mean that the thrust, the shape, the web of theories and consensus doesn't push everyone in broadly the same direction, that the probability that evolution and Shakespeare might not exist is so low as to basically be zero.  But saying basically zero isn't the same as saying zero - so the enemies of reason reason - and this refusal to be absolute is thrown to the media as proof that even the scientists don't really believe what they say.  Those who know the media know how to shout louder and dumber.  And that's when people, who haven't read about either subject, start to believe in nonsense - because they keep hearing it over the background chatter.
I was at a party discussing the new show and the Shakespeare problem and someone who was perfectly well educated and intelligent said to me: "well, you can't say that for certain..." followed by "it doesn't really matter though, does it".  I'm afraid that I did bite their head off.  I was very aware that a lot of people were looking at me funny, that I was, properly, ranting.  But it is important to not give into the position that, just because we cannot be absolutely certain about anything - we all live simulated lives inside our own bodies, frankly, it's a miracle that anything we do or say can connect with anyone else - that doesn't mean that we should accept the perfectly preposterous willingly.  This principle, the principle of fighting for the validity of fact over opinion and to understand the difference between the two, is so important it hurts me inside.
Another thing said at this particular party was: "well, there isn't really any evidence for Shakespeare."  Yes, yes, there is.  There's oodles of it, we've got evidence coming out of our ears.  To close the show I thought I'd do a little fact check for the audience - stepping out of character and reading out every reference to William Shakespeare as playwright made during or just after his death by people who knew him.  Having collated this I found these, when spoken aloud, ran for HALF AN HOUR!  I have had to cut it down for the show - it would have been tedious, it is supposed to be fun - because there was so much.  The problem is it doesn't matter to the anti-Stratfordian that you have half an hours worth of material, they will say: "but it was a conspiracy, of course they would say that."
Just let's take a moment and think about the nature of every conspiracy ever.  I'm not talking about theories, actual, honest to God conspiracies.  They're always found out.  Always.  Usually within months of them happening.  The problem with any conspiracy is that they need to be secret, but they also need people and people TALK.  They always do, in the end.  And that's why the idea that everyone connected with Shakespeare were either lied to or lied about due to a conspiracy is stupid.  It's just dumb.  It wouldn't happen.  It didn't happen.  Look at the evidence.  And the point is that the anti-Stratfordians have no interest in evidence, unless it supports their cause.  The fact that there is NO EVIDENCE AT ALL to support the basic idea that Shakespeare didn't write the plays, let alone any of the various pretenders to the throne, is irrelevant to them.  It has just been hidden and one day they will find it.  Next to the Holy Grail, held up for public display by a bearded Lord Lucan.
The point for this rant, and it is a rant WITH BIG CAPITAL LETTERS AND EVERYTHING, is that the Anti-Shakespeare Delusion is a common one, one that must be fought.  It must be fought in science against creationists, it must be fought in history against Holocaust deniers and it must be fought in literature against the anti-Stratfordians - because all three are the same thing, an ideological attack on facts and reason.
 Oh - and the play is quite funny.  Just thought I'd throw that in - in case this all seemed a bit heavy.



Milk Bottle Productions Presents...
The Shakespeare Delusion
A Comic Tale Written and Performed by Robert Crighton

Professor Ashborn invites you to share in his latest discoveries and lead you through the terrible secrets behind the man people call Shakespeare.  Did he really write the plays?  Was he really bald?  Did he like cheese?  Using recently uncovered documentation Professor Ashborn can finally tell the true and completely true, truly true, utterly true, true story of the Shakespeare delusion!
Last year’s show – The Ghosts of Lavenham – sold out, so book early to avoid disappointment!

Performing on Friday 12th October at 7.30pm
The Lavenham Guildhall, The Market Square, Lavenham

Friday, 21 September 2012

What Shakespeare Did On His Holidays

You couldn't get away from Shakespeare this summer.  He was everywhere.  If ever there was a case for a moratorium on Shakespeare, this Summer was it.  There was a time when Shakespeare didn't get about quite as much.  He was LITERATURE, he lived in a big book and was mostly studied privately.  Productions of his plays, though regular, we so often ripped apart and pulled down by additional material that he might as well had never have written them, just left a synopsis.
These days we're as likely to see a ripped apart, 'deconstructed' version of his plays as in times of yore, but that's because there are so many perfectly normal, uncut, uninteresting productions flying about you have to do something to justify the effort of staging him.  He is in every school, on every stage, often revived on film and, much more rarely, on television.
After some neglect of late the B.B.C. decided it was time to get back in the act by broadcasting over a dozen programmes on Shakespeare as part of their Olympic coverage.  We had two 'major' documentaries, from learned academics, and several very minor ones by whoever they could find out of the pages of Spotlight, with the expected mixed results.  And to crown this coverage was a four part series The Hollow Crown covering the history plays of Kings Richard II, Henry IV and V.
Let's start with the best of this coverage - The King and the Playwright, which I have descried about on this blog before, as it was in only three parts and hidden away on B.B.C. Four.  It was, mostly, an excellent documentary about the last and most productive years of Shakespeare's life, writing during the reign of King James.  I say mostly because the third episode found it had nowhere to run with it's central thesis and there was a sense of dead air.  Basically, the series viewed Shakespeare's writing in parallel with the career of the new King, reasonable enough when you consider that Shakespeare's company were made the King's Men and had a far closer relationship with the court than during Elizabeth's time.
There were clearly marked parallels between events and the plays Shakespeare wrote, most clearly in Macbeth where the marks of the Gunpowder Plot run deep into the fabric of the text.  But it was in the second episode that the thesis started to run out of steam.  A few slightly woolly statements about Antony and Cleopatra didn't quite ring true.  By the third episode most parallels drawn were distinctly vague, and the James Shapiro opened stated this.  It became two documentaries, one on James, one on Shakespeare, and the links between the two were getting tenuous.  But it was still an excellent stab and should have been on B.B.C. Two, if not One - anything to save us from another edition of The ONE show.
The second good 'series', and I'm sorry but whilst I can just about accept the idea that three episodes can be a series, two is not, was by Simon Schama.  It was strong and robust in the first episode and, again, a bit repetitious and vague in the second.  Actually, I had my back turned up thoroughly by the first episode when he was rude about medieval mystery plays, making a deeply unfair juxtaposition between those plays and the works of Shakespeare.
Basically Simon said this: the mystery plays were clearly lesser works to those of Shakespeare, they are rough and naive, they don't have the depth of metaphor or simile as in those later plays.  This is bald, judgement criticism; I like this (Shakespeare) because it is more 'developed' than that (medieval drama).  It is similar to attacking medieval art for 'ignoring' perspective.  Really, couldn't they see how badly they were drawing?  This is to ignore the different starting points of different works, to view dramatic endeavour as progress towards psychological naturalism, or some such mythic end point.
The Corpus Christi Plays (CCP) and the works of Shakespeare are completely different beasts and shouldn't be attacked just because they are different.  They are beasts bred for their age and their circumstances.  Let us briefly look at the differences.
Well, you'd think for a start, that they were staged in a very similar way.  Weren't both designed for outdoor performance.  No.  The outdoors of an enclosed circular wooden O are completely different from the great outdoors of the street, where the CCP were performed.  Shakespeare had control of his venue, there was a guarantee of a wall behind the performer to help bounce the voice.  At the Globe he had to be loud, but there was room for expression, for words to carry and complex ideas worked on.  The authors of the CCPs had no such guarantee.  Anyone who has tried to do street theatre or promenade performance will tell you, you're not projecting - you're SHOUTING!  BELLOWING!  So, the CCPs are very cleverly designed to help the performer.  For one, they are repetitious, so that the people at the back have a chance to catch the action, if not the first time around at least on the second or third hearing.  There is no time for extended metaphor.  Secondly, the scripts seem to be impossible to say quietly.  I'm not sure how this is done, it is an astounding technique, but there is no volume control on those words.  You can't help but be VERY LOUD!  It's an amazing, almost impossible achievement.
The form of the text was changed to match conditions - conditions Shakespeare would have found difficult to write his plays in, were he born earlier.  But there are other reasons why the authors of the CCPs do not favour extended metaphors or similes or poetic imagery.  The primary reason is the length of the plays themselves.  Shakespeare had two to three hours of stage time to develop themes, ideas and work them through the plays, making them greater than works of simple entertainment.  The authors of the CCPs could do no such thing as they were episodic.  Each twenty minute playlet had to be self contained - there was no guarantee that the audience for one would have seen any other, so no running theme akin to those in longer plays were required.  There were themes, but they were displayed by the choice of episode in relation to later ones, not obviously within the text itself.  So, though the 'complete' work is a day long, it was impossible to extend themes within them beyond what could be yelled in twenty minutes or so.  And that's without debating how much the church would allow poetic license within the plays themselves (to be fair, looking at the Second Shepherd's Play, with two versions of the Nativity, one comic involving a sheep rustler and another sacred, they could obviously be pushed quite far).
The acid test here is asking, if Shakespeare were to have been commissioned to write a play for a Corpus Christi cycle, or even several, would those works stand up to his full length work?  Probably they would be good, but they wouldn't be King Lear.  The form wasn't designed for that kind of creation.  But that isn't to say that one is better art than the other.  And whilst many of the CCPs were basic hack jobs, efficient but not exciting, some are brilliant creations that will play for as long as the English language allows.  The York Crucifixion is a pretty damn good riposte.  Not King Lear, no - but would you compare the enormity of a full scale communal event with a two/three hour professional one and say that is a fair and balanced one?  No.

This is, of course, a lengthy digression on something a historian I rather like said in passing.  It's the kind of quibble you always get with popular history, especially on television.  There's only so much time to put in the qualifiers.  I rather enjoyed Simon Schama's series Power of Art, but I kept thinking that if I knew more about the subjects I would probably be quibbling away at it rather a lot.  His Shakespeare documentaries did, rather, prove that theory correct.
Whatever could be said against Schama's work, it was always going to be a triumph in comparison with Ethan Hawk on Macbeth - a representative of a patchy series of one-off, personal views on Shakespeare plays - shown variously and sometimes randomly over B.B.C. Two and Four like the programmers just didn't give a shit about the season anymore.  All of these docu-things lived and died by the heavy hands of the series producers, patiently steering the ship of fact along whilst giving the impression the actors / directors chosen to front their particular docu-blob had anything real to contribute.  The experts were the same for each episode, obviously interviewed as a job lot and each episode was so similar in structure to the last you suspect the name of the actor involved could have come in very last minute.  Much as I enjoyed Jeremy Irons discuss Henry IV and V, I can't see him struggling away on the script.  He got to ride about on a horse, sound interesting and generally come across as a nice host - which from all accounts is a pretty genuine picture of the man himself.  With Ethan Hawk, whilst the facts came through clear and strong thanks to those not so invisible production hands, the only fact that leapt out at the viewer that the man should never play Macbeth.  It was a public audition tape, clearly demonstrating that the role is beyond him.  Some people can play Kings.  They are called Jeremy Irons.  And they ride horses.
Unfortunately the invisible hands of the producers and researchers were lost completely for whole chunks
of Derek Jacobi's effort on Richard II, where - somehow - he was permitted to digress onto the Shakespeare Authorship 'question' without any clear editorial balancing going on.  For twenty odd minutes Derek (how does he manage to make the name Derek sound unlike a man with a whippet down the pub?  Is it the funny spelling or the his slightly unusual second name?  He makes Derek sound almost regal somehow...) was allowed to spout the utmost nonsense and the only rebuttal a publicly funded documentary series put in was a brief clip of a seriously knowledgeable expert Jonathan Bate that lasted probably less than thirty seconds.  At no point did this documentary, a television programme that should inform as well as entertain, mention that Jacobi's favoured rival to Shakespeare, Edward de Vere, was dead for the last ten years of his supposed writing life.  NOT ONCE.
Only Jacobi himself allowed a gracious acknowledgement that the theory was not widely believed, only that he believed it.  That is his perogative.  The programme makers, however, should have known better.  If they can make Ethan Hawk sound like he vaguely knows what he's talking about, they could steer some facts past Jacobi in the edit.
I can't comment on The Hollow Crown fully as it has been sitting on my digital box for months now and I've only made it through Richard II so far, so I will write about that in a future Shakespearean blog.

And, just to remind you, The Shakespeare Delusion will be appearing for a one-off performance on Friday 12th October at 7.30pm at the Guildhall in Lavenham.  Tickets available at the Guildhall - booking enquiries to me at contact@milkbottleproductions.co.uk

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Profanity

This is a discourse on the weight of swear words and so uses a lot of swear words.
If you can't stand to see strong expletives written out in full, then please fuck off now.

***

Throwing insults about is part of the job of the playwright.  It isn't the whole job, it shouldn't be something that is done for the sake of it, but one shouldn't apologise for it.  Swearing, profanity (and word with a fascinating doubleness to it) and 'bad' language are tool to be used wisely.  Swearing, even in this day and age, can still cause offence.  But what of that?  If no one is offended by your work then you're work is probably dead and shouldn't be revived.

BABY STEPS IN SWEARING.
There's nothing like a good swear.  Working up from 'lesser' swear words, up to the big guns.  (Big 'uns!  Sorry, no, we're not going to do double entendres this week.)  For works where I know there will be a mixed audience of ages I know I can sneak in a bloody or a bugger.  I love the word bugger, it's such an affectionate word.  "He's a lovely little bugger!" you could say about someone and they wouldn't be offended.  It is perfect for situations vastly beyond it's reach.  There is no better last word for humanity in the event of the end of the world.  "Oh (deep breath, pause, sigh) bugger!"  It's understatement is it's strength.
If we were to think of swearing as companies on the stock market then most companies tend to be losing their value.  Take the stock in bleeding.  Bleeding used to be a proper swearword, debated in the corridors of power in the B.B.C. as to its broadcastability.  Now, it isn't even considered a proper swear word.  It's classed in the same league as blooming heck, or other alternative epithets.  To use bleeding is a cop out. 
The stock of swear words can go up as well as down.  Terms of racial abuse, once prevalent in stand up comedy, even before the watershed, have finally become completely persona non grata.  It is a brave playwright indeed to use the word 'nigger' even in the context of writing a racist character.  The best example of this use of the word can be found in a song in the Sondheim musical Assassins.  I was rehearsing an abortive production of this at university, singing the part of Wilkes Booth, which is structured to make you sympathise with his character until he calls Abraham Lincoln a "nigger loving" so and so, at which point all sympathy dies.  It is a very clever bit of writing.  Unfortunately for me, at the moment of reaching this line, a class of students came in to take over the rehearsal space.  It was rather like being caught in a middle of the road situation comedy.
All classes swear but not all classes swear in the same way, or at least it was so when the British class system was more clearly codified.  These days there are so many fragmentary communities within classes that they have created whole new eco-systems of swearing within them.  To generalise, anyone can litter their speech with swear words, but it is the working classes who tend to stick to one word and use it to death, whereas the upper classes will tend to create dualities.
Faced with a broken door that won't open the old school working class would say this:  "This buggering bugger just won't buggering work"; the old school upper class would say this:  "This bloody-bugger just won't work, fucking-shit!" and the old school Clanger would say this: "Oh sod it, the bloody thing's stuck again."  (Yes, I'm afraid if you view the fully scripted dialogue of the Clangers you will find that they swear like dockers.  The B.B.C. had meetings about it, despite the fact the 'dialogue' was via the intermediary of the swanee whistle!  Sorry to any children of the '70's out there who have had their dreams crushed.)

But we could play upshares, downshares with swearing all day - let's move onto the most important words.  Fuck.  There, I've written it.  It's a word that has had a declining share value of late.  I still remember the frisson of saying 'fuck' on stage for the first time.  It is, or was, a word of power and should be used carefully, dare I say with artistry?  You can't mistake the word from the first F, it just begs to be spat out with venom and relish.  It is, also, a pleasingly omni-directional word, not being trapped in issues of misogyny or sexual loathing.  It is just about fucking - which both sexes do.  Sadly the word fuck has now been badly over used.  It is a problem I call:

THE FUCK EVENT HORIZON!

Fuck is an old word, used more frequently throughout history than books would ever suggest.  However, it was not used anything like as widely as it is now.  The reason is simple.  It's our fault - and by our I mean the professional playwrighting classes.
There was a time when no playwright would use such foul language (just getting a bleeding past the censors required skill and sophistry), but as plays became enthralled to naturalism the need to include actual swear words emerged.  You can't naturalistically depict life if you sensor words people actually use.  So, by slow increments naughty words were introduced, one at a time, from damn upwards and onwards.  The people doing this were serious people wanted to show, usually, working class life in all it's glory (though it has been proven scientifically that the rich can and do swear as well).  Then came television.  The same process of incremental swearing began, with the 'worst' words kept to the later slots.  And through television came acceptance.  The more it was shown, the more acceptable for it to be done.  Swearing drifted earlier and earlier into schedules, because if everyone does it anyway, why sensor it?  Soon children, who know a good thing when they see it, were openly swearing like dockers and dramatists were caught in a double bind.
People, especially young people, now swear constantly.  It is less prevalent in the country, where I live, but is still pretty strong.  When I bring actors up to Suffolk to rehearse I have to remind them how much more townies swear - the extra expletives emitted can be quite embarrassing, even for me.  So, when writing any play about today, how can we not include wall to wall swearing.  It is unrealistic.  And, of course, the more swearing you include the more it will be acceptable and the more happens.
This is the Fuck Event Horizon, a black hole of fucking that eats every fuck and makes it harder to not say fuck until all language fucking falls a-fucking-part and every other fucking word fucking is fuck, FUCK!
Another element in the downgrading of the stock of fuck is the sister word feck, which is almost acceptable as a daily turn of phrase.  It is the fuck for those who don't want to say fuck, because at no times does it sound like anyone will have a fuck.  You don't feck someone.  That sounds perverse.
My latest play, Complicated Pleasures, which I completed just a few days ago, does feature the word fuck.  It's set in the near future and it's difficult to justify not having the word in it.  Another recent play, Amleth, being set in the past, does not at all.  Oaths of any kind didn't fit the play well, so the only swear word used is an old word for shit/shite, skyt, which I rather liked the sound of and also is rather good for referencing the televisual output of the empire of Rupert Murdoch.
The other piece I'm working on at the moment, The Shakespeare Delusion, contains little to no swearing at all.  It is a case that the character who tells the story just doesn't swear.  He may swear once - but it will be the kind of through gritted teeth, 'I've-been-forced-by-the-situation-to-say-a-rude-word-but-I'm-better-than-this-really,' kind of expletive.  It will probably be a shit, but I can't be sure at this time.

But does swearing have any real power?  Well, in the case of one word, yes.  It is a word that has incredible kudos as a word that is still fairly taboo.  I have used it three times in the course of my playwrighting career, twice without incident, once - I believe - at a cost of a production (though this maybe an exaggeration).
The word is, of course:

CUNT

Whereas fuck is to many just another background sound, cunt is still a powerful word and not one that a playwright should use casually.  The word is a real slap in the face.  It is almost always derogatory.  However, there are slightly different reactions to the word, dependant on context.  Whilst it is considered completely unacceptable to use the word as an insult against a woman, it is oddly less unacceptable when applied to a man.  I have used this in the ruder version of Teaching Gods, where (at almost the final line of the play, so that it's a bit late for anyone to walk out) a character wishes that he wasn't such a cunt.  It's particularly effective, primarily because it is so unexpected (not because it's shocking, it just comes out of the (appropriately termed) blue) but also because it is exactly the kind of thought the character would have.  The character is an arsehole and he knows it.  But his self realisation is greater than that.  He would consider it worse to be called a cunt than an arsehole, because people oddly can respect an arsehole, so cunt he is.  The implications of this point are, of course, really very horrible, because even though this thought comes from an arsehole, it is a grading of obscenity that has common ground, I've heard it many a time.  There is a great deal of hatred thrown about the genitalia of women and our society still hasn't moved past this.
This fact is raised furthermore in performance when sometimes, if the audience is very middle aged and middle class, I chicken out of saying cunt and say the word twat instead.  Twat is, strangely, considered a more reasonable word, you can get away with calling most people a twat, even in fairly formal occasions.  Twat can be tossed casually over your shoulder in a way that cunt never can - and yet it is a HORRIBLE word.  A cunt has power, it is striking - a twat suggests something a bit sweaty, a bit (and here's another word that upsets a lot of women in ways that fascinate) moist.  There is something unhealthy about a twat, as opposed to the sprightly vigour of a good cunt.
(There is a similar duality to the words fart and guff.  Fart is merely a descriptive word, it's F a pretender to the throne of Fuck and the lesser for it.  But guff is a truly revolting word, it suggests the true horror of arse gas lurking in the atmosphere around you.  It is therefore a truly brilliant word as it fits the crime perfectly.  The skin crawling effect of the word strikes one physically in a way that fart fails completely to do.)
The first appearance of the word cunt in dramatic literature was not in some Twentieth Century taboo breaking shock fest.  It appears in a medieval play The Castle of Perseverance in a speech by a character called Luxuria.  Castle is a morality play and Luxuria is an allegorical figure who represents the temptations of lust on mankind (note the emphasis on man, woman as tempter and corrupter) and she reels man in with this exortation:

"Therefore, Mankind, my leue lemman, / I my cunte thou shalt creep."

Now, beyond the facts that the play is steeped in deeply sexist Christian bigotry, this line is actually very powerful and, out of the context of sex outside marriage as mortal sin, is really very pleasing.  I'd quite like a lady to invite me into her cunt like that.  Creep, though a little sinister, does at least suggest Luxuria is going to take her time over sex and knows (and gets) what she wants.  If it wasn't that this play is supposed to be against this sort of thing this would be a fantastic achievement and victory for the word cunt.
But it wasn't.  That's just wishful thinking.  The medieval playwright was obsessed with sex and with the detriment of women because it was based on misogynistic Christianity values.  If you picked up the Penguin collection of 'morality' plays and look in the glossary for clarification of medieval words and odd spellings you will find an enormous percentage of these words are alternatives for whore, bitch, slut, harlot etc.  These plays demonstrate the clear obsession of men, many of the writers celibate priests, with sex and their hatred of women.  In these modern, hopefully increasingly secular, ages great inroads have been made in demonstrating the inherent sexism of language, even if we haven't found decent ways of dealing with the problem.
The second time I used the word cunt was in a monologue play Cuckold's Fair, which dealt with affairs and in one specific scene an incidence of cuckold fetishism.  This is where, do look away now if you're eating, a couple get another man in to have sex with the woman (often with the other watching) and then inviting the cuckolded man to, literally, clean up the mess left behind.  In the context of the play this was the "EWWWW!" moment.  The narration goes thus: 

"And she parts her legs and exposes
The slick white dribble pouring out her cunt."

The fact is that here the word is almost incidental.  The ewwwness of the scene is about the act, the brazen sexuality of this character, the slick white dribble, so that the fact that I've used cunt at all might not even be noticed at all.  Which is one of the primary reasons that it's there - simply to describe, not to insult.
Of course cunt shouldn't be as negative a word as it is.  I won't repeat position demonstrated in dramatic literature most clearly in The Vagina Monologues in detail, only that it should be taken back by society, by women and by men, as a word of power and not just in a negative sense.  It is an important part of the body, it should not be denigrated as it is by men and by women themselves, deep ingrained are the tropes of Christian self loathing.  That does, however, set problems for me as wordsmith.  I have to deal with the weight and the power of words as they are as well as what I might want them to be.  I refuse to self sensor myself in the tools of expression of character.  There is a difference between the characters and their words and the messages they make and the message of a play overall.  I mustn't allow a political motivation make me use words incorrectly in the context I write in.  Some people use the word cunt in horrible ways and also very odd ways and this can be dramatically very interesting.

The third and, at time of writing, final use of the word cunt in my writing was in a play called Shoes That Angels Fear To Wear which was a magic realist comedy, if you want to be pretentious.  The word was used by a character that I had built around a few odd scraps, as part of my general working method of throwing my characters up in the air a lot - changing their personalities at a whim, changing genders and classes at a stroke of a pen (see last weeks blog - 'Sex').  The, ultimately, female character was a bit like Antonin Artaud (male French theatrical practitioner of the early 20th Century) in that she was mad, obsessed with bodily fluids, believed in a magic stick and was quite mad.  Those were my first thoughts on character when writing.  Also, that she was a congenital liar and would spend most of the play drunk.  I then added all sorts of bits of dialogue and thoughts and phrases designed to be a. disgusting and b. funny.  (It was, as I said, a comedy.) 
The production was not going well, I had basically run out of money and the show was running on the theatrical equivalent of fumes.  It was then I made my first terrible mistake - explained to everyone how I created the character.  As I glibly told these random assortments of character, which were not the totality, just the start of the creation, a black cloud descended on the room.  From that point onwards I had ruined the character for the actress playing the part, as well as raising issues with the nature of the play and we were going to be in for a bumpy ride.  (I should note there were a lot of other things going wrong with this production at the time, but this I think was a major contributor to the argument that came next.)
Rehearsals became increasingly tense.  We were not agreeing about the tone of the play - it was, I say again, a comedy.  Everyone was treating it very seriously, as if it was actually about something - as if the characters actually meant what they said, which most of them didn't.  If the play was about anything it was about not being a victim, about brazenly going about your life in your own way no matter how damaged you were or how crappy the world treated you.
And then the rehearsal came where 'the discussion' happened.  There's a scene where the two leads, very drunk, discuss sex and talk total bollocks.  Before we got halfway through the scene I was told that it was "unnecessary".  Well, the whole play was a souffle, none of it was strictly necessary.  If you started picking and chosing bits then very soon there would be no play left at all.  This I said.  We continued with the scene.  Until we reached the line that juxtaposed the word cunt with kebab.
Then, the immortal words came from a member of the cast: "I'm sorry, but I don't think a woman would say this."
This was the moment I'd been dreading.  I knew there was discontent over the line - which was "My cunt is a kebab."  This line was, in context (hell, out of context), very silly.  It was not a serious statement of fact, it was part of a lengthy discussion of genitalia, not least on the subject of saveloy sausages.  The image is pleasingly messy, silly and - in front of an audience - very funny.  But, in rehearsal, I was told that a woman would not say this.  That out of the billions of women on the planet now and the countless billions who have ever lived, that none of them would ever say this.
Beyond the fact that this was basically an assertion that the work was sexist and that I was, by implication, sexist, this was the worst thing anyone can say about a character, male or female.  A woman might not say this, but the play makes it quite clear, from first principles, from set up and situation, that THIS woman would.  Attempting to save the play from immediate collapse I said that the whole scene was basically a verbatim transcript of what a group of women on a drunk night out said when I was behind the bar, sober and with access to a pen.  A woman did say this.  I wrote it down.  Actually, this is a deeply flawed argument - it is one thing to discover dialogue, it is another to choose to use it in a work of art and accept there are implications to this choice - but it did demonstrate that A woman might say this because A woman did.  Many don't.  Many would not in most circumstances, but this character, in this situation, most resolutely WOULD and DOES.
As I have said before, if there was a point to the play (and it was a very silly thing, so point would be putting myself out on a bit of a limb) was that none of the characters were victims.  They were all living very different lives, most of them on the edges of society and were destined, by their own inability to function in society, to stay there.  There are people who will never fit the, frankly, insane ways we exist in civilised society.  Their insanity, their unwillingness to conform, their defiance to the norm was the one point of the play.  And people who live outside the rules don't self censor their words.  They use the word cunt to it's full glory.  Their cunt was a lovely kebab, which one can persuade others to have a lick and a nibble on and cover in sauce. 
I didn't say this.  I just said that the line was a real thing.  A found thing.  In my despair at ever surviving this production, to keep the play on it's feet, to save myself from, if not financial ruin, deep debt, I said the first thing I could think of to stop the play being mutilated by a cast uncomfortable with saying a rude word.  This wasn't about my failing to convince as a playwright, this was a failure as a director.  I hadn't communicated clearly enough the joy of the word cunt in this context.  All I did was present a fait accompli and an intellectually unsatisfactory one at that.  So the rehearsals limped on and, though that disaster was averted and the actress performed her role brilliantly (a really astoundingly good brilliant performance) she almost never spoke directly to me again.
The only concilation left was that I can safely say the scene this line featured in was the most successful of the play, a play that left the audience grinning from ear to ear as they filed out, a play whose point was grasped clearly by those in the audience in ways that I had failed to communicate to the cast.  This memory of success is tempered by the fact that audience for the show for the week could also be counted on two hands, something that happens when a cast, or just a part of it, loses faith in a play and when a director fails to connect with his cast.  I failed to appreciate how people can be funny about words, sex and about character.
Cunt is a powerful word.  I know.  It cost me thousands of pounds.

I have always tried to use cunt and other swear words strategically, and would advise others to do the same.  Cunt can be used as an insult, but it automatically signifies that the speaker is a complete arsehole.  Otherwise, it is best to use it with humour and not as something to be ashamed of.

I conclude this little monograph with an example of an absolutely brilliant piece of obscenity driven writing.  I'd never heard of Chris Kluwe before, but if this letter is representative of the man then he is a natural poet of the rude.  There are two versions, both hilarious, if you like that sort of thing.
Here is the rude version.  And here is the delightfully weird clean version - best read after the rude version.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Beards and The Shakespeare Delusion

Right, The Shakespeare Delusion, the next show from Milk Bottle Productions.  Sort of.  I'm only doing it once - this year anyway.  Just one little performance in my home village of Lavenham.  (Well, technically it's a town, but it's a village, just look at it, it's very picture postcard.)  Then I'm off to do ghostly things till next year, before picking up the ashes of the one off, blowing on them a bit, popping some dry grass on top and hoping for the best.
So what, for those of you coming on October 12th (and yes, this blog is SUGGing you - don't know what that is, look it up, it may help you get through this commercial world), is The Shakespeare Delusion about?
Well, primarily it's about a beard.  An increasingly long and annoying beard.
And hair.  Head hair.  Increasingly long and annoying head hair.
Yes, this is the play that makes me hairy.  And it's annoying me.
Basically, the story is about a man who slowly, practically before your eyes, looses his grip on reality.  He started off as an ordinary man and then, the more he delved into the various 'theories' about Shakespeare's life, began to lose his grip.  By the end of the play he is quite doolally, in a fairly comic way.  Which means, naturally, he must have a lot of hair.
It is a universal law that a mass of hair, back combed and unkempt, possibly dust covered, is clear evidence that the mind has snapped.  Perhaps the longer your hair grows the more of your natural born sanity is pulled out of your brain.  It's either that or hair acts as a cosmic lightning rod for those alien signals that control our brains, unless you have the good sense to wear a tin foil hat.
Like I'm doing now.
I have got quite a lot to say on the subject of the play itself, for a future blog a little closer to the show up date.  For the moment I just want to point you in the general direction of The Space.  It's an Arts Council / BBC project thing online, where a complete set of Shakespeare plays are available to watch here.  Only difficulty for purists is that none of them are in English (the exception being the hip-hop Othello, but I think I'd class that as a new language) as they were recorded at the Globe to Globe season at the... Globe Theatre.
I've watched about a third of them now, whilst recovering from a bout of illness over the summer.  I can recommend heartily As You Like It, brilliant, first ten minutes are a bit dislocating but once in the woods it's a joy; King Lear, fast and loose with the text towards the end but the storm scenes is amazing; Love's Labour's Lost, performed in sign language and truly fascinating; A Midsummer's Nights Dream, which played a little fast and loose with what is one of Shakespeare's few original plot compositions but to a purpose, was quite deliciously scatological and played to the audience very well; Othello, in the aforesaid hip-hop, which I thought I'd loath and really, really enjoyed.
Watch for a few minutes the truly amazingly awful Coriolanus.  He wears a basket on his head for almost the whole play and clutches a french stick.  Skip ahead two hours, yup, he's still wearing it.  (In fact, I heard on the grapevine that the only reason the actor took the basket off for any length of time was because the artistic director at the Globe begged the director of the production... "You know the basket... maybe it would be good if he took it off... occasionally."  "No."  "No, see that it's important, but maybe, once the audience has got the convention, you don't need to have it quite so much?"  "No."  I might be putting words into other peoples mouths, but for once the grapevine sounded oh too true to not be.  And it is funny.)  I've read impassioned defences of this production, claiming we don't get the cultural conventions associated with it and so can't judge.  Oh we do.  The arms of the twentieth century are long and within them cultural exchange is not pretty much standard.  People tour, there are DVDs - we have YouTube.  Trust me, this isn't cultural relativism, it's just very bad.  I know Coriolanus very well, it's one of my favourite plays, and the play was fully subtitled (not all of these are) and yet it was frankly baffling half the time what was going on.  Once the patterns felt into shape, it didn't make it anymore enjoyable.  In fact, I'd argue the staging was fundamentally elitist as only a smart-arse like myself, who knows the play backwards, has a hope in hell of understanding what is going on.  I watched the whole thing, as I'm a masochist that way, and I could see what they meant to be saying (Coriolanus isn't noble, he's a petulant child grasping his french stick... there was more, but that was the basic thrust), and it just wasn't done well.  The same point was rammed home with monotonous rapidity and I lost the will to live.
There are other interestingly noble failures.  Julius Caesar, appropriately enough performed by an Italian company, had some very interesting elements to it, but was lost amidst some very bizarre additions which seemed completely random.  You had scenes from the play, which I recognised and then the show would go on a tangent which made no sense at all - definitely one production that needed full subtitles rather than scene breakdowns.  Again, a sense of elitism (though a more reasonable one, people do tend to know the gist of the story from history as well as literature) abounds, as you are expected to know things without the production explaining them.  For example, the production used a chair to represent Caesar himself.  It solves many problems, not least that the part of Caesar is as interesting as a chair, and it leaves room for satire.  In practice, and theatre is all about practice, this stroke  was ineffective and 'his' death was deeply underpowered.  (The actors 'killing' 'him' were underpowered, not the chair.  The chair sustained its energy levels throughout the performance.)
These criticisms aside, I loved the use of red chalk throughout and, though mixed, the performances were fascinating.  (I'm making a bit of a study of Italian acting at the moment... well, I'm watching Inspector Montalbano on B.B.C. 4 on Saturdays, which is close enough.)  Difficult to recommend, it was hard work, but worth a skim through, if, for nothing else, to look at the arrangements of doors and the death by chalk.
Then there were the productions that we alright... of which the rest that I have watched broadly fall.  I will tweet updates of my viewings of these productions in the run up to the world premiere of The Shakespeare Delusion.
More thoughts and opinions on Shakespeare will follow next Thursday (Tuesday will see my continuing series of blogs with one word titles - last Tuesday was Sex, next Tuesday is Offence), when I will be looking at the general flurry of the bard over the B.B.C. this summer.  Some of us do not come out unscathed.



Milk Bottle Productions Presents...
The Shakespeare Delusion
A Comic Tale Written and Performed by Robert Crighton

Professor Ashborn invites you to share in his latest discoveries and lead you through the terrible secrets behind the man people call Shakespeare.  Did he really write the plays?  Was he really bald?  Did he like cheese?  Using recently uncovered documentation Professor Ashborn can finally tell the true and completely true, truly true, utterly true, true story of the Shakespeare delusion!
Last year’s show – The Ghosts of Lavenham – sold out, so book early to avoid disappointment!

Performing on Friday 12th October at 7.30pm
The Lavenham Guildhall, The Market Square, Lavenham
Tickets £8, available from the Guildhall from April. 
To reserve your tickets in advance email: contact@milkbottleproductions.co.uk
Or call: 07704 704 469

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Sex

Yeah... thought that would draw you in.  Or rather, sexual carbon trading for parity in the theatre.  Sorry, bit duller isn't it?  Trust me, it isn't.  It's fascinating.  Read on.
I started writing this post a year ago when there was a running debate going on about the under representation of women in the theatre and the idea that there should be an imposed 50 % gender split in theatre - specifically on casting.  The issue doesn't seem to have gone away, so here goes.  (I will refer throughout this blog to the sex of people mostly using the word gender.  I appreciate that gender is a subtler word and so has a far greater range for misunderstanding, but I can't encourage the internet porn trolls too much with constant repetitions of the word sex.  I get enough people hitting this blog for the wrong reasons as it is.  Some of the searches that have led here are truly disgusting.  Which amuses me enormously.  We're such a sick species.)
It's an interesting problem, gender balance, one that I don't think modern playwrights do enough to adjust.  I'm taking as my inspiration for this post the book Freakonomics, which applies the tools of economists to social problems.  Largely the authors (being economists) discuss incentives, the incentives people have to act in certain ways.  The use of incentives and the application of raw data helps keep the discussion dispassionate, which when debating sexual politics is a sensible place to be.
So, why are more parts offered to male performers rather than female performers in British theatre?
Now, unfortunately I haven't got as much raw data at my finger tips to work with, I cannot even state as a fact that the above statement is statistically true, but from my experience of theatre going and theatre making I believe it to be true, which is as good a reason to pontificate as any other.  I'm sure someone, somewhere, has gone through all the cast lists in the last decade or so and can give me a percentage - if you have, do let me know.
So, taking this statement as true, why is this happening?  Surely in the twenty-first century we should have reached some approximation of parity?  Is it because the theatre industry is institutionally sexist, assuming that such a term as institution can be used for such a disparate group of people, or are there other factors which come into play to disproportionally shift the ratio?  There is one immediately straightforward reason for the lack of parity, the trend for revivals in theatre.  For the history of theatre is essentially sexist.
Let's start with a bit of history - English theatrical history specifically.  Most plays have a male bias.  We can forgive pre-civil war playwrights for this, as women were not allowed to perform and the stock of good boy players must have been limiting.  There was no incentive for Shakespeare or his contemporary to write more than a handful of female parts per play and only a limited incentive to write more than a couple challenging female parts per play.  His incentive to write a character like Lady Macbeth was that the company had a young boy who could handle so powerful a role.  Presumably the company had one other strong 'female' performer and a couple more okay ones.  These are the roles that modern rivals inherit from pre-female theatre, good parts but in short supply.  (It has just occurred to me that is an exception to this rule: the boy companies, who were entirely composed of boys for whom the issue of gender divide would be irrelevant.  The plays these companies performed were noted to be more risky, but I don't know whether they were any more representative.  Worth a look.)
But from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 women were allowed to perform and there is no inherent excuse for a lack of parity.  In fact, quiet the reverse.  At the Restoration there was a high incentive for playwrights and producers to write or adapt plays for a cast split 50 / 50 male / female.  In fact, there is a lot of evidence to suggest the Restoration was the only point in English history where plays on average balance out as having a 50 / 50 male / female split.  Well, for the Restoration proper, anyway, say from 1660 onwards for about a decade or two.
I was researching a series of talks on the theatre a few years ago and I went through my personal collection of plays noting down the gender splits through history.  I have a reasonably representative collection of about 3000 plays, covering each age with some consistency.  I was surprised to see that most plays from 1660 to 1670 had a ratio of about 50 / 50.  This state of affairs doesn't last for long and onwards from that date the ratios fell from 50 / 50 down to about 70 % male / 30 % female.  It was a very neat curve, bar the odd fluctuation.
(I think it is important to point out that this isn't a conclusive or authoritative survey - results from this survey can be distorted by the quality of the part on offer.  For example: should a lead and a supporting role, i.e. a maid in the background, be classed in the same way?)
The reasons for this, I suggest, are these.  At the restoration of the theatre the two men charged with setting up the patent theatres had to find actors quickly.  The old male actors from before the civil war were mostly old or dead, so casting about they picked the best they could find and the pool of choice was wider with both sexes in play.  (It might also be due to the professed delight the audiences had for a pretty ankle, so lets not assume the incentives were necessarily enlightened, it was the seventeenth century after all.)  But whatever the reason the balance was often an even split and sometimes weighed in the favour of the female players.
The producers were incentivised to find the best performers from as a largest pool as possible and used the novelty of female performers to the full before that novelty faded.  If plays from before the civil war did not fit this company structure the producers were clearly incentivised to change the play, not the company.  This might have been good for the performers, but it did also contribute to the decline of stage writing and the general demolition of the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
The shift away from parity came pretty quickly - partly, one assumes, because the men were able to work themselves into positions of power more easily, partly because as the age grew more genteel, less rude and raucous, the reputation of actresses as immoral whores (as opposed to the men as just rakes) worked against them holding greater sway.  In other words, once the incentive to find a company of performers quickly and from a limited pool had gone, producers could impose their own whims upon the company.  The novelty factor of actresses had gone and, more importantly, the perceived immorality of actresses - something that was a box office draw forty years earlier - was now damaging to sales.  One by one actresses who married or moved on were not replaced and men took their place - possibly using older plays with their 70 / 30 split as an excuse.
I think here we see an important process in play.  There is a trend - a tendency for men to muscle in and take positions of power in companies.  There is a constant pull against women exerted in a company, not least the pressures to retire once married or after becoming mothers.  I'm not going to go into detail into the reasons for this - they are many, mostly misogynist - but I think it can be taken for granted.  Parity was doomed.  For parity to be achieved there needed to be a counter-incentive for the company, as large as this trend and throughout the rest of English theatrical history there hadn't developed a good enough incentive, either within the theatre or in wider society.

For the next few hundred years parity remains non-existent - and the longer the unbalance went on for the harder it became to break the cycle.  Every year a new batch of plays are written for a company, for the company structure, the cast ratio being 70 / 30 - but how can you write a play for the company with a different ratio without putting a number of the company on ice?  It becomes a self fulfilling prophesy.  The company performs plays with a ratio of 70 / 30, so the company must be 70 / 30, so all new plays have to be 70 / 30.  And on it goes.
We're still discussing quantity rather than quality.  Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the decent parts in many plays sometimes numbered four, three, two, sometimes only one.  The leaders of the company, the actor managers, made sure they got the best parts.  Like movie stars today the box office draw got the big bucks and the best lines.  (There's a lot of overlap between theatre and film - for example: nineteenth century melodrama didn't get killed off by naturalistic theatre, it just moved onto the silver screen where it exists to this day.)  If the actor-manager was a woman, or was a couple, then there was always a guarantee of at least one or two good quality parts.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the demolition of the old actor-manager play production tradition.  Increasingly the writer/director held sway over what the stage saw performed.  Increasingly, rather than rewriting the play to fit the cast, the cast was chosen carefully to fit the play.  At last a chance to break the old structure seems to appear.  Except it didn't, quite.
From the twentieth century onwards the casting of plays becomes increasingly fragmented, so plays written for a cast of women could exist.  However, there wasn't a clear incentive to create a demand for this to happen.  Again the fixed company principle does another back flip.  In 1660 a company of equal diversion creates a demand for plays with parity, from the 1700's onwards the fixed company becomes a trap and in the twentieth century the lack of a fixed company removes any kind of incentive to reach parity.  And we need incentives because the trend against it is still routed in the same problem as in early centuries - revivals are unbalanced and revivals are the safe draws that theatres always fall back on when times are hard.
It is depressing, if unsurprising, that in the twenty-first century some level of balance hasn't occurred.  Of course, producers of revivals will always want to cast according to the sex in the play, and most old plays are stacked against women.  There will always be a dis-incentive, an artistic one, to not destabilise the perfectly good play because of gender politics and it isn't an unreasonable wish.  There are producers who will cast gender blind productions, or play with a complete company of female actors.  These are all, to follow the 1066 and All That approach to history, good things.  There are other producers who will go the other way and cast only men.  This is increasingly considered a bad thing.  But this is a non-debate and a red herring.  It isn't an issue about how one company casts it's play - the issue of casting practises will rage forever as it is basically one of personal taste which you cannot legislate against - it's about how that casting balances within the whole theatrical micro-climate of Britain. 
However you cast old plays, new plays should always make an attempt to keep the rest of the numbers balanced.  This isn't always possible - for reasons I will outline - but the attempt should be made.  But for that to happen you need incentives.
But enough of all this general stuff, let's talk about me.  Or rather, let's talk about this issue through my work.  My own plays have always had a reasonable balance between male and female, half and half or stacked in the favour of women.  Oddly, even the reasonable exceptions of my one-man shows tend to end up with a lot of additional women in them.  The reasons for this are simple - THERE ARE MORE ACTRESSES THAN ACTORS!  I've always thought that this was such an absurdly simple concept and I'm amazed people haven't caught up yet.  If you advertise for an actress then you tend to get a queue round the building clammering for action, but for an actor the best you get is a doctors waiting room on a wet Thursday, half empty and slightly sickly.  You immediately get more choice with women and therefore tend to get the best choice of actors, rather than make do and mend.
Type, what type!
This is why my storytelling shows tend to be mostly populated with women.  At a get together for the cast of The Natural History of Trolls I was accused (in the nicest possible way) of having a type - in that I had cast a lot of beautiful twenty-some-thing dark haired women.  My reply was simple - they're who turned up and were good.  We didn't get many men audition and not all of them made it.  (In fact, I think we only cast one man out of about twelve who auditioned - we cast the rest of the men from people we already knew.)  What upset me more about the accusation was that we didn't get a good age split - the twenty-some-thing element was more annoying to me than the gender imbalance - or that they were cast for being brunette.  Which is absurd.  I prefer red heads.
But storytelling is a neutral format, a third person narrator can look or sound like anything, so what about plays where it is reasonable to expect the casting to match the script?  (Is that assumption even reasonable?  The Restoration producers saw no problem at all in changing the text to fit the cast?  Do we overplay the importance of text over production?  Speaking as a writer - yes - but I'm biased.)
When writing a play I immediately hit the problem of quality parts rather than the quantity of them.  One of the challenges a writer faces when writing a play is finding characters that move the plot along (supposing that the work is primarily narrative driven, rather than dream driven, which is a whole different blog for a future date).  In a play set in the present it is a relatively straightforward task to place women in positions where they move the action forward, though I would argue only relatively as I don't think the modern world is actually anyway as open to women as we'd like to think.  Setting aside the present day and it's relative freedoms, a play set in the past is a nightmare.  The characters who move the plot along tend to be, by the nature of history, male.  (History is actually entomological nonsense and if I was the word I would sue, but it is otherwise a wise an clever judgement on the practical reality of male driven historical narratives.)  Whilst there are women in the story of history, it isn't always possible to make them primary movers in the action without choosing an unusual point in history or changing it.  You end up writing the part that all actresses dread receiving - The Wife - who is interesting but often passive.  (Obviously this is a massive generalisation, but it is one we see every day in television drama, even when set in the present!)  One of the thrusts of feminist theatre has been choosing specific groups or individuals in history who have challenged the norm - which is fine if you are writing a specifically political work.  But I am not advocating the production of political theatre, simply that the playwright should be aware of the effect his or her work has on the world around them - i.e. that their work creates jobs and adjusts the balance of work in the marketplace.  Supposing your work gets staged, of course.
It is unfair to ask the playwright to follow a certain political view when writing a play.  You have to follow where the story leads you and sometimes it doesn't lead you towards parity, even if you have a good incentive for it to do so.  I had this problem with my, as yet, unstaged two part epic play Amleth.  As it's based on existing myths and legends the cast list was, up to a point, set before I sat down to write.  I could add additional female characters, but I couldn't always make them do anything structurally useful - and so whilst it was possible to up the female cast size a bit, I struggled to improve the quality of part.  There are four good parts for women as opposed to eight for the men.  (Actually, it's far more complicated that that, the play is in two parts, so I'm doubling characters over two plays and there is a lot of overlap and room for a change of ratio dependent on the director.)  More importantly, any minor character added for the sake of it will be the first to go if the producer can't afford a cast of thousands - which most can't.  So, whilst I did add the odd extra female character, they almost all double with others, which creates precisely no extra job opportunities and doesn't help the starving actress very much. 
The general point is that there are paths of least resistance which playwrights (male and female, I do love the gender non-specificness of the word playwright) will tend to follow because that's the easiest way to tell the story.  And because telling the story is our primary concern, unless there is a good incentive to do otherwise most of the time writers won't go out of their way to change a perfectly good story to reach parity - to damage a work of art for the sake of a political ideal.  Amleth is partly unbalanced because I wasn't determined enough from the start to deal with it.  I might be able to gender reassign one character, but to make it any more equal now would mean gutting a play that I'm very pleased with, something I really couldn't face doing.  I really couldn't.
Individual playwrights will always baulk at changing their work to suit an ideal.  There is nothing worse than being preached upon when creating.  I remember an incident at a discussion forum thing where one playwright insisted that all playwrights should write about such and such a cause, that other playwrights were cowards for not writing about it.  Of course, this is nonsense.  The only duty a playwright has is to the work they feel they want to create, it is not for anyone to dictate which battles we fight for.  I tend to write morality plays, though ones which don't set conventional boundaries of morality, and I have a great love and interest in civil liberties, gender politics and attacking organised religion (which is just the most fun because it is soooo easy).  I don't think that everyone should write about civil liberties, it isn't something that floats everyone's boat.  We must fight our own battles, not the battles we feel we should fight. 
But - and this is a big but, wide as a TV screen - an awareness of the implications of our work is very important.  The content of our work is not divorced from the production of it.  Decisions we make about the cast have an impact, a direct impact, on the world around us.  Our casting decisions makes the labour market what it is.  By writing a play about fluffy bunnies which is only aimed at pleasing children, whilst insipid, can actually be a more positive political act if the cast is gender balanced than a political play cast entirely by men.  We have some power, as the authors of our works, to strive to make the world a more balanced one.  But our power is limited.  We are but individuals fighting in a complex struggle.
Taking the moral issue away from the individual the problem isn't writers, the problem isn't society, the problem is (ironically perhaps) that we don't really have theatre companies any more and that theatre producers are not setting boundaries from the top down.  The old school idea of a theatre company, a company of actors who work together over a period of time to put on plays, is unviable unless you're heavily subsidised like the R.S.C.  These days most 'theatre companies' (even, to some degree, the R.S.C.) are not companies, they are theatre producers.  The director and support staff are all permanent members of the organisation and then they hire in actors as and when they need them.  Therefore the writing they commission can take any shape the author wants, unless there is an incentive otherwise.
But if you had a theatre company, split equally, and showed this group of actors to a writer and said: "Write a play for this lot.  They all need a part.  Make them good ones", then you would get a gender and age split to match that cast.  The story would naturally follow the shape of the company.  There would be a clear incentive to write parity.  It wouldn't guarantee quality of parts, but what can you do?  This is how Shakespeare wrote his plays and most people think that went rather well.  Of course, this is just pie-in-the-sky thinking, because even the R.S.C. doesn't hold onto their casts long enough for a play to be written in time for the company to still be there when it's finished. 
More realistically, theatre producers who commission work should set limits for the balance of the work produced.  This shouldn't be dogmatic.  There should be room for manoeuvre - a male heavy play can be offset by a female heavy play.  I wouldn't want to have said to David Storey when he was writing The Changing Room, "could you pop a few more women in" as it would have completely destroyed the play.  However, I would have said: "Okay, we'll do it, but in rep. with The House of Bernada Alba."  (Incidentally, am I the only person who longs for a back catalogue musical version of Bernada Alba.  I'd call it The House of Bananarama.  No?  I'll get my coat.)  Parity over time should be (and in some cases is) the goal of all arts organisations and the play or plays in production can move in any way they choose to reach it, so long as at the end of the year a reasonable balance is found.  This could be enforced more strongly by companies and from funders, though not dogmatically.
Whilst a move for parity should be made via pressure from above, from institutions and from the funders of those institutions, I personally cannot affect that change.  I can only encourage playwrights to do this from within - to develop the moral imperative which I have been wrestling with when writing my latest play Complicated Pleasures.  I failed to make Amleth balance, but I could with Complicated Pleasures.  And Complicated Pleasures is set in the near future and is partly about sex and relationships, so making it balance shouldn't be too hard - the plot, such as it exists, is driven by people, not history or action, and there are a lot of babies, for which women are pretty essential.  And, unlike Amleth, which didn't receive this ideological battering at such an early stage, Complicated Pleasures is still at the stage where I can do all sorts of horrible things to my characters.  I can change who they are with a flick of the pen or a click on Find/Replace.  I can swap genders round, remove their motivations from a scene and give them new ones, I can even make them enormously fat, just for the hell of it.  Dance for me fat people, DANCE!
The moment you change around the sex of a character you find the perceptions of their actions change enormously.  (In fact, one of the most interesting gender shifts you can make to a play is achieved with the alteration of a single letter.  If I added a to the end of my name, making it Roberta, I'm sure the whole play would be perceived in a completely different light.  An experiment I would, one day, love to put to the test.)  In the early stages of writing gender reversal is fascinating, liberating, because it means you can change how a character is reacted to, without necessarily changing a thing about the character themselves.  And when developing the essentials of a character gender isn't always important, though it does depend on the piece, and it does show you the assumptions people make about gender very clearly.
Characters should be, first and foremost, people.  X is a person.  To say X is A WOMAN or A MAN, immediately places expectations upon them which I find fascinating.  People are weird.  In real life people react strangely, they do and say weird things and they don't know why.  Often it has nothing to do with what gender they are or what they are perceived to be.  There is a trap there.  People do not and should not react according to the theories of psychologists because that is running the cart before the horse.  We go to analysts to decipher why the hell we did something, not to ask directions for our next fuck up.  Actors and directors can be the psychiatrists to the actions of my characters if they so wish, but leave me out.  So the action of a character doesn't need to be defined by gender - it may become so, simply by assigning the name, or because there is an issue in the play that can be expanded upon through gender.  That isn't to say my characters are genderless (not by the time I've finished) or act via a process of random chance, though chance is an important part of how I layer my material.  They should act with some strange logic of the individual.  It's divining that logic, the intuitive leap when you finally get the character and go - yes, that's so them! - that drives this playwright forward, because it's then that the character says something unexpected, does something great and you, the author, who should be God in your own Brave New World, have NO IDEA WHY THEY DID IT!  Trust me, that feeling is better than sex.  Well, better than mediocre sex.  Not mind blowing sex, let's not lose our heads here.

Back to writing Complicated Pleasures.  When I started attacking it this week for, hopefully, the last time, I found that it was a little bit heavy on the male side.  It's not a huge cast and it was only a little unbalanced, so I left my brain to have a mull over the issue.  It was still a very drafty draft, whole gales were rushing through the holes I'd left in scenes, and a lot of things can happen in a week.  So, in the back of my mind was the thought, get it to balance.  Well, I failed to make it balanced, as there are now more female parts than male, after I cut down three male characters and remade them into one.*  I cannot promise these are balanced in terms of quality, some are bigger than others, but I'm part of the way to paying for the excess of Amleth.  (Though as Amleth hasn't been staged, this is a bit irrelevant.  Maybe I should never stage it, to save the world from another unbalanced play.  Nah.)
But, while we're here, why stop at sex.  There is more.  I mentioned earlier about age variation in casting Trolls - so I felt it was important to have a good age range in Complicated Pleasures.  So there is a child (though it is to be played by a puppet, so he doesn't count) through a selection of twenty-somethings, up to the mid-fifties and possibly (depending on the director) beyond.  So, a good mix there.
But what about race?  Well, all of my plays are designed for colour blind casting (even Amleth should be thought of as a Shakespearean epic and cast regardless to actual British/Danish history) in that no one really mentions ethnic origin.  The characters are (broad brush) culturally British, which means the actor can possess any recumbent DNA available from the world, so long as they understand references to Bagpuss.  I don't explicitly address race and culture as an issue, so there are no issues in my plays that might bump against completely open casting.  I may some day write about race and culture, but at the moment it hasn't fired my imagination.  For the moment I will be satisfied with keeping the work open at all possible performers.  This isn't just morally right, but also selfishly advantageous, because my primary incentive as a writer is to ensure the widest possible scope for casting and talent in the staging of my work so that it is staged in as effective a form as possible, which means attempting to not exclude any talent from the process.
Do any of these decisions make the play better or worse?  No.  It just helps to make it fairer for people in the market place.
As a writer I know that the final shape of any play I write will be radically different from the first seeds.  If you write for a specific performance space then the shape of the play will be effected.  No point writing a farce for a space without room for at least seven doors.  It is the same, to some degree, with creating your imaginary cast.  Once you know who they are, the play will fill the form naturally.  It should be a challenge to the author of the nascent play to hunt for characters that fill out all walks of life, sex, age and origin.  If, when you start the seeds of a play, you think about parity, it will fire the imagination and lead you to create something that everyone can be involved in.  And if you fail in one play you can always go further the other way for the next.  I failed with Amleth to reach parity, but Complicated Pleasures is slightly weighted in the favour of the actress - it's the gender equivalent of carbon trading and I commend it to the house.

COMING SOON TO THIS BLOG:  Obscenity and the Fuck Event Horizon.

*Since publishing this blog I did a read through of the play and discovered that I'd missed a character off the cast list, so in fact the ratio of parts in Complicated Pleasures is 6 to 4 in favour of women.

****

A friend of mine, the delightful and talented Cheska Moon (who has so nearly been in my shows, but for the intersession of life) is part of this new enterprise below.  I haven't had a chance to see it yet, living so far away, but the reviews are very good and Ms Moon doesn't touch shit.  Give it a try, for me.




Paradigm Theatre Company presents

The Inappropriateness of Love

By Sarah E. Pitard

Directed by Cat Robey

Unrestricted View
Hen and Chickens Theatre
109 St. Pauls Road
N1 2NA
London

4th-29th September 2012

“Look... I, um... I had a good time with you...In fact, I had such a good time...that I'm inviting you to be my plus one to the wedding. What do you say?  Come with me?”

The Show

The Inappropriateness of Love is a dark comedy about six interconnected people, trying to figure out who they are and where their place is in the game of love.

Scooter, a 30-year-old computer programmer, has recently received an invitation to a friend’s wedding.  He really needs to find a date! Like a good son he occasionally calls on his mum for help, who is busy taking care of her husband with Alzheimer's. There is also Zoey, Scooter's best friend, an archaeologist on her way to Turkey to find some peace and quiet. Next there is Jessica, a therapist who is attempting to put her life together after a messy divorce with Darren. Darren is an older man, who doesn't know who he is, or what or whom he wants. He is dating Stephanie, Scooter's colleague, a na├»ve young woman looking for the perfect man.

The Inappropriateness of Love is Paradigm’s first full-length production, written by Paradigm's Artistic Director, Sarah Pitard:

“...Pitard's own piece of new writing, '3 X's The Charm'... was a brilliant start to the evening and gave a great first taste of what Paradigm Theatre had to offer.” (*****Remote Goat, ‘3 X's the Charm’, 2012)

2013 Off West End Award Nominated Director Cat Robey is a founding member of Paradigm, who previously co-founded LittleBerry Productions in 2011, a company committed to providing a platform for emerging talent and working with new writing. For Paradigm, Cat most recently directed 3 X's the Charm and a scene from A Woman of No Importance...or Somewhat Little Importance Anyhow for Paradigm’s Evening of Words and Wine Benefit Show. Freelance, Cat most recently directed Award Nominated production Ondine at The White Bear Theatre, London. Press for Cat’s previous work includes:

“A play is only as good as its director, and Cat Robey must take a large amount of credit for this magical piece of theatre.” (Frost Magazine, ‘Ondine’, 2012)
 “…Incredibly charming and engaging as a play, imaginative, surprising and, at times, profound; qualities which Cat Robey’s confident direction brings out.” (****Exeunt Magazine, ‘Ondine’, 2012)
            "Cat Robey’s direction encouraged high stakes, and a gradual build towards a thoroughly gripping climax." (Frost Magazine, ‘As Fate Would Have It…’ 2011)
            This taut drama… captures your attention from the outset. The chemistry between the actors is electric and the performances are remarkable.” (*****BroadwayBaby, ‘Feathers’, 2010)

The cast includes Jonathon West, Cheska Moon, Phoebe Batteson-Brown, Mark Arnold, Lee Lytle, and Gilly Daniels. Press for the cast includes:

            “Phoebe Batteson-Brown drew my eyes whenever she was on stage and although her parts were small, they gave indications of a much larger potential.” (Frost Magazine, ‘Ondine’, 2012)

            “Cheska Moon and Jonathan West were excellent in portraying the subtle changes between scenes and both brought vast amounts of charisma and comic timing to the roles.” (*****Remote Goat, ‘3X's the Charm’, 2012)

“...In a cast full of testosterone, Cheska Moon gives an excellent manipulative and sexy performance as goth queen Tamora” (The Londonist, ‘Titus Andronicus’, 2010)

“...Mark Arnold, an actor with more than his share of sex appeal...gradually sheds layers of protective bravado and, in the process, slowly reveals the man's deep need and his potential for emotional stability.” (The Record-L.A., 'Burn This' 1990)

Gilly Daniels as the nurse is an unstoppable force and accounts for at least three of
the strongest scenes in the production.” (The Times Colonist, 'Romeo and Juliet')


The Company

Created in January 2012, Paradigm Theatre Company is the only fringe repertory company in London. What that means is that besides producing four shows per season, we pull from the same body of actors, directors, and writers (our Artistic Associates) in order to produce each piece. We also have yearly season auditions where we bring in cast members from outside of Paradigm to provide a platform for emerging talent. The ethos behind this is that no member of the company will go more than a year without any artistic work, something that has become quite common for artists in the current economy.

The company produces four shows a year: three new writing pieces (one of which is an adaptation) and one classical play.

Paradigm recently produced a benefit show, staring Sylvia Syms, Annabel Leventon, and Dudley Sutton, to raise funds for the forthcoming season:

            “A brilliant evening of entertainment with acting, directing and writing that displayed absolute class. The honourable ethos of offering a creative platform is simply not ambitious enough. This isn't just a platform, it is a new and exciting theatre company that offers an opportunity for audiences to be thoroughly entertained.” (*****Remote Goat, A Night of Words and Wine Benefit Show, 2012)

The Season

The theme of Paradigm’s first season is “The Many Faces of Love”.  The theme explores all different types of love--whether it's love and attraction or love in its purest, most unconditional form. Each play will bring to the audience a glimpse of what it means to live for love, be deceived by love, be disgusted by love, and love with so mighty a heart that even death can't destroy it.

The Inappropriateness of Love is the first show of the forthcoming season.


The Theatre

The Hen & Chickens Theatre is a beautiful intimate venue with 54 individual raked seats in a black box end on space. It is upstairs in the cosy Victorian pub the Hen & Chickens Theatre Bar on Highbury corner.

This wonderful venue has been established for over 30 years and has an excellent reputation for new writing and comedy. Unrestricted View, the resident Production Company have been producing shows and programming visiting companies for the last thirteen years. Unrestricted View is run by actors for actors to provide a supportive artistic environment to explore and create.


All Paradigm Theatre Company headshots, CV's, and biographies are available on request.

More information and full company details, please visit: www.paradigmtheatrecompany.co.uk 

To purchase tickets online for The Inappropriateness of Love, please visit:



Thank you!