Why writing plays is like juggling
Sam O’Sullivan performing Jessica Bellamy’s original monologue LITTLE LOVE for The Voices Project. Directed by Laura Scrivano.
Laura Scrivano is a theatre and film director and has recently directed for The Voices Project filmed versions of the original monologues from Joanna Erskine (BOOT) and Jessica Bellamy (LITTLE LOVE), that have also been adapted for Damien Power’s forthcoming films BOOTand BAT EYES. Both Laura’s films and Damien’s will be available online later this month. In this extract for an article Laura has written for the Fresh Ink blog and to be published when her films go live, Laura provides advice to writers and filmmakers who are looking at entering the LOVE BYTES competition.
Writing is all about the words. Right?
Words form the scaffolding around which we build our stories, the foundation stone of the transaction between the audience and the author. And in a dramatic monologue, they’re essential.
But for me, as a director, story starts with character. And a character can be revealed as much by what they don’t say, as what they do. Clever lines and pithy prose don’t offer dramatic possibilities. I’m interested in the spaces between the words, the pauses, ellipses, breaks and breaths. While the words carry the meaning of the story, the spaces between reveal truth. They can make a character believable, empathetic and authentic, which are ultimately the reasons why an audience will invest in and be moved by a story.
The space between is where I started when I was asked to direct Boot and Little Love for The Voices Project. But, there were really two spaces between; those between the words and the space between theatre and cinematic storytelling that these stories would inhabit.
Filming a piece of writing originally penned for the theatre can be fraught with problems. Especially when that piece of writing is a monologue - an inherently theatrical form. Monologues exist rarely on film, and when they do it’s often to alienate or shock the audience. And the brief for Boot and Little Love was to engage the audience with the writing. Although the goal is inherently same in both film and theatre – to tell a story that will move or connect with an audience – the theatrical form is a world away from cinematic storytelling. On film, the audience’s experience is no longer live; the eye of the camera mediates and dictates their visual world, the performance rhythms, the story beats and ultimately their feeling states.
When I was asked to direct Boot and Little Love, I knew that in essence we were creating something in between theatre and film. We were expressing theatrical writing through the cameras lens. The biggest challenge would be to keep the audience watching. Both monologues have 8-10 minutes worth of text – much more dialogue than would ever be in a filmed adaptation of the same story.
In order to keep the audience engaged the performances had to work for the camera, while the visual style needed to be both simple and capture the heart of the story. We achieved this by focusing on the performances, setting up a simple but strong mis-en-scene (the compositional elements in the frame) and finding an editing style that matches the emotional temperature of the stories
Keeping an audience engaged throughout a filmed monologue can be difficult. As cinemagoers we are used to economical storytelling, moving shots, fast paced editing and an orchestral score to keep us in our seats. Unless you’re Steven Spielberg you probably don’t have a large, professional film crew in your back pocket. So, here are some tips on how to make a monologue work on film:
Enjoy creating your own filmed monologue - hopefully my films of Boot and Little Love go some way to providing insight into that space between, from which you can take an exhilarating leap into creative possibility.
Laura Scrivano is the creative director of Mess Hall, a collective of artists creating film & theatre projects (facebook.com/messhallproductions) and tweets at @laurascrivano. Recent theatre credits include Polyopera for Opera Australia, the world premiere of Sweet Bird andsoforth and the creative development of Stories from an Invisible Town for Hoipolloi, UK. Her short film Hairpin will screen at the WOW Film Festival in Sydney on 7 March. Laura’s films of Boot and Little Love will premiere online later this month.
Lucy Coleman, one of the stars of the The Voices Project 2012: The One Sure Thing, and director Tanya Goldberg talk about the show, Fresh Ink, The Voices Project and the coming film adaptations of BOOT and LITTLE LOVE (filmed as BAT EYES).
It can’t be that bad. You were ready. You said you were ready. You told me you were ready.
Death and I haven’t had too many confrontations.
I’ve been lucky, so far. When I was told the theme for the Fresh Ink National Studio was ‘Death and Passing’ I was afraid.
How was I to do justice to a theme that I felt had only brushed past me? So many other writers, so many audience members would have collided with death, what if what I wrote seemed trivial?
This was my initial reaction and it took all of 10 seconds before I was slapped with guilt. I have been lucky, but I have lost people. They weren’t unexpected or necessarily traumatic deaths but they were real. I decided what I needed was to retrace my dealings with death and figure out what aspects of those experiences I could build my writing upon. This is what I dredged up-
My Nan died when I was 16. We were on holidays in New Zealand. My Dad spent hours on the phone to his brothers and sisters discussing details, trying to decide whether to return home or not. It was complicated. Nan had Alzheimer’s. She had been in a nursing home for years before she died and had long forgotten who we were or who she was. By the time she died we had in many ways already said goodbye. She had ceased to be a presence in our lives years before. ‘Nan’ had become instead a hole in my life, an absence where a person should have been.
Here was something I could work with.
I never set out to recreate that story, I merely wanted to access some sort of sincere emotion. The first rule I ever learnt as a writer was – Write What You Know- like a good little girl I did.
I travel a lot and someone dying or becoming ill while I’m away is something I’m afraid of. Sitting on a grassy hill at Riversdale I started wondering how I would deal with a similar situation to the one my Dad was placed in.
During the Fresh Ink National Studio we knew the title for the show our monologues could potentially be presented in was The One Sure Thing, yet death is not predictable. It is anything but certain and neither is your reaction to it. If you were faced with the same decision as my Dad, return home to your family and a funeral, or remain where you are and deal with death in your own way, what would you do? Stay or go?
I started travelling young. On my first big trip I was the same age as the actors I was designing the monologue for. I know how the places you visit become the center of your universe, how the people you meet become instant friends and family, how everything you’re seeing and doing feels as though it will change you. At the same time you feel immature, naïve and unsure if your behavior is appropriate. How would these people, these places, these experiences influence your decision to stay or go? What would your obligations be back home? What would your obligations be to yourself? What would be the ‘right’ thing to do?
This dilemma trapped me. It became the problem I built my piece upon. My character (I call her Sophie) arose from the predicament I put her in. Before I knew anything else about her I knew she would be dealing with death from a distance. The sense of absence my Nan’s illness and death left me with manifested in the physical distance between Sophie and her family. I decided it was Sophie’s Mum that was ill because it felt like something that could destabilize her. Yet how would she react? How would her background, her personality and her relationships influence her behavior and her decision? How would the conversation play out between Sophie and her sister? What tactics would she use to avoid the elephant in the room? I think because I didn’t know the answer to the dilemma Sophie was facing I decided she wouldn’t either. She would avoid the issue entirely. She would be distracted by the environment she was in, interrupted by the people, the noise, everything she had done and was planning on doing.
I believe that following my own experiences with death I have felt not only grief but guilt. Guilt that I could have done more, been more supportive to those around me, spent more time with those that had gone. Sophie is aware of this same feeling but only subconsciously. She avoids the conversation with Belle because she knows even if she doesn’t go home there is more she should be doing. She is still resentful of the influence of her Mum’s illness on her life so Sophie is running away. She is letting her intoxicating new world sweep her along because it is better than facing the alternative. Her over enthusiasm and immaturity are masking her own guilt.
Ultimately though Sophie is scared. Alzheimer’s can run in the family. Sophie has watched her mother deteriorate, forget her life piece by piece until she was nothing more than a vegetable. She is terrified that is the future that awaits her. She is terrified of what she will lose if she returns home. She wants to (cheesy I know) experience the world first. She keeps souvenirs, photos and tickets as memory aids. She is crass about her mother’s state (“a carrot in a coma”) because joking about it, again, avoids the reality. She is certain if she keeps pushing that reality won’t catch up with her. She can’t see the cracks appearing yet.
I don’t know what happens after Sophie hangs up.
In writing La Conversación, I never found an answer for what the ‘right’ thing to do would be. I learnt not to dismiss how influential your own experiences can and should be in telling the story you want to, but I left the issue open. You can decide.
Alexandra Macalister Bills was one of the 18 writers at the 2011 Fresh Ink National Studio and was also one of the writers selected for the 2011 Fresh Ink mentorship program. Her monologue, La Conversación, is currently being performed by Charlotte Hazzard as part of The Voices Project 2012: The One Sure Thingat atyp in Sydney. The monologue is also now available alongside 20 other monologues in The Voices Project, published by Currency Press.
GEORGIA SYMONS on TWISTED
I don’t know how to write a piece of theatre. It surprises me that anyone does. At workshops and in casual conversations, other writers will say “I start with a theme.” Or, “I start with a character. From there I build a world, and then I consider plot.” I have none of these tactics; no map to lay down when pen first goes to paper, or finger to keyboard. When I start writing, it’s either because I have a deadline, or because various events in my life - things I’ve seen and heard and sensed and thought - conspire to form the kernel of an idea which (at the time) seems worth expanding upon. This kernel could be anything from a line of dialogue to a particular tone or emotional note I’d like to work towards. In the case of this monologue, Twisted, I thought when I started writing that I was just pushing towards a deadline and had plucked an arbitrary idea from the recesses of my mind. Looking back, though, what I wrote was the culmination of so much that I was thinking about and experiencing at the time.
This piece was written as part of atyp’s Fresh Ink National Writers’ Studio. All participants in the studio had to bring with them two items that related to the central theme of death. My first item was a photograph of the floor of the garage at my house. When the cement was laid for the floor of the garage, our pet dog walked through it whilst it was still wet, leaving indelible paw prints. On the day we had Jesse put down last year, I found my 18-year-old brother crouched on the floor of the shed, his fingers caressing the paw prints. Until that moment I’d never even known they were there. My second item was the programme from the funeral of an old man who was very dear to me. It had been a particularly touching service, and the programme was scattered with the poetry of D.H. Lawrence - notably The Ship of Death.
A few weeks before the studio, I had also stumbled upon a news article relating to death which fascinated me, but which I had decided was too specific to bring as reference material. In Manchester in 2003, a 14-year-old boy used a series of fabricated, online identities in order to convince another boy to kill him. The inventiveness of the boy in question, and the lengths he went to in arranging his own murder, struck me as fascinating. The boy survived the stabbing, but he and his attacker/victim both served sentences in a juvenile detention facility.
When I started writing Twisted, I had none of those things in mind. All I knew was that I wanted to write a male character in a black comedy. One night early on in the studio I sat down for some casual brainstorming. Tiring quickly of pondering all of the morbid implications of death, I turned to brainstorming about youth. It would be a young person, after all, at the centre of my story. Qualities that I decided I found interesting in youths were their hidden depths, their potential, their inability to connect actions and consequences, their hormones, and their sense of fun and adventure. Tying all of these things back to the theme of death, I decided a fun piece to write might be a boy making up a really horrific story about a death in order to get some action. And so Twisted was born. It was only after the studio that I looked back and noticed the influence of everything I mentioned earlier on my work. Michael’s devotion to his pet dog; the poem about the boat made of bones; the borderline psychotic commitment and inventiveness of this teenage boy. All of those key items and thoughts I thought I’d forgotten about popped up in the finished piece.
The most important thing about Michael for me is his combination of showmanship, inventiveness, and calculating intellect. It isn’t enough for Michael to just tell this girl that his mother has passed away. He has to put on a show - make up this intricate, nuanced story, and perform it with enough pizzazz to sell it to Kayley. There’s a higher level of risk, but the sense of achievement and the bragging rights are increased exponentially if he can pull it off. What he never counted on was actually falling for Kayley. As he says, it was only ever meant to be a one night stand; presumably he’d go to school the next day, brag about having fooled her with his story, and never really interact with her in any meaningful way again. But Michael finds in Kayley something of a kindred spirit. She’s as cool and calm in the situation as is he, and as creative (with her little poem). Probably they have a pretty excellent night together, and then she cooks him breakfast. She’s the perfect girl, as far as Michael’s concerned. And this is where his calculating nature takes over. Ultimately Kayley is now more valuable to him than is his mother, and so his mother has to go - it’s that simple. Michael considers himself far too sensible to feel something as illogical as family loyalty; you love the best whoever you love the best, regardless of genetics.
The question remains, though - does Michael actually go on to kill his mother? I think this is a question for you, the performer, to answer. As a writer, I can say with no greater accuracy what my character will do tomorrow than can I predict what my best friend will do tomorrow, or even what I will do. Even when we lay plans, they can go awry or be changed. We will never know whether Michael ever gets around to killing his mother.
But I leave it up to you to decide what he plans to do next.