This spring the marriage of pubs and writing seems to be popular – there’s clearly something in the air (alongside the hail, sleet, Arctic winds and cannibal football players).
A week ago, we had the inaugural meeting of the Pens in Pubs writing group at the King’s Arms in Easton-in-Gordano.
The wonderful Emma London has already given a detailed and tantalising précis of the activities we got up to, so this blog is stepping back with the wide-angle lens and considering two broader thoughts about the project, like some sort of weird contemplative camera.
The first thought is about pubs.
Here at The Theatre Orchard we’ve already eulogised about pubs as a place of stories and tales: of the unexpected rubbing shoulders with the comfortingly familiar. The group itself was, of course, born on the back of the fantastic production In Cider Story – designed specifically for pub venues.
Perhaps by chance, three other pubs have come to my attention this week, and they’re all something to do with writing and telling stories.
On BBC Radio 4’s Front Row last Friday (listen to the programme here from 20 minutes in) they asked a couple of theatrical bods to talk about the challenge of putting an Irish pub on stage, as they discussed two different productions currently running in London.
The first is playwright Conor McPherson’s 1997 play The Weir at the Donmar Warehouse and the second is Once (and the third is…no let’s not start that). Playwright Enda Walsh and director John Tiffany are responsible for Once, adapting the 2006 Irish musical film of the same name.
Director of The Weir Josie Rourke talked about performances of the show so far, noticing the stories the characters tell (and it is a big storytelling piece – worth a read) and the atmosphere of the pub itself ‘draws in audiences’, commenting that ‘you can literally see people moving forward.’
In Once, at the beginning of the show the audience is invited on stage to share the pub with the performers, playing instruments and getting whipped into a frenzy of music-making.
Declan Bennett, who stars in Once, notes that it’s a play ‘about community, about people finding each other and sharing their love of music’ and the production tries to reflect that, inviting spectators onto a spit-and-sawdust floor already sticky with beer.
What struck me was that both productions promised to create a wholly involving and quite physical effect on their audiences, but in very different ways.
In one we bash about on stage with performers, joining a temporary community of music and noise; in the other, we are drawn in psychologically by the sheer craft of the stories – by carefully-selected words chosen to spin a gripping tale.
In both cases though, the act of listening (and watching) is transformed into a distinctly physical experience.
The final pub environment is that of playwright David Greig and Director Wils Wilson’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, which began when both were sent packing by the National Theatre of Scotland up to an old pub in Kelso to research possible material for a new play. The production is currently touring internationally to pubs (and other spaces) inviting audiences (as the Royal Court describes it) ‘to indulge in an evening of supernatural storytelling, music and theatre inspired by the Border Ballads, Robert Burns and the poems of Robert Service’.
With Greig’s show, the performance space often is a pub – or becomes one, temporarily – and we, as the audience, are then temporarily cast as the pub’s clientele (although, most likely, if we’re in the pub anyway we already are). We have a part!
So somewhere in the midst of all three of these productions, the real and the imaginary become blended together. We’re in two places at once.
(I find this ridiculously brilliant as a concept and the possibilities make me slightly giddy).
What does all this mean? It means through the power of words alone, our little pub in Easton-in-Gordano has the potential to become a time-travelling arena (think Quantum Leap but with West Country accents) where people are taken on a live journey – a lived journey, really, where you move, think, feel and join in – without having to go anywhere.
The second (don’t worry folks, much shorter) thought is about writing for live performance.
This is a big leap for some of our writers. It’s a very big deal when somebody else (often more than one person) is going to decide on how to say and shape your words, particularly if you’re used to writing prose.
You suddenly lose control. You cannot dictate anything, it seems. Writers exploring theatre for the first time unanimously tend to feel aggrieved when the answer to ‘how can I ensure it sounds exactly how I imagined it?’ is ‘sorry, but you just can’t’.
In last Saturday’s Guardian Review section, Nick Hytner, the outgoing Artistic Director of the National Theatre was reflecting on his experience of directing Shakespeare.
His opening words should be stapled inside every aspiring theatre writers’ notebook:
‘A novel can tell you everything you want to know about what it’s trying to say, but plays are by definition incomplete. They are instructions for performance, like musical scores, and they need players to become music.’
To create a play, you have to be willing to play with somebody or something else.
The audience. Other actors. The space. The director. A whole creative team.
And they each want something to play with – the writing.
Over time you come to learn that, for those using your words, ‘to play’ does not mean ‘to destroy, corrupt and de-rail beyond recognition’ – but – it’s going to be the best test your writing can ever have.
Really, if it’s beyond recognition but your words are all still there, it probably means the words aren’t doing their job properly yet. Hytner suggests:
‘The playwright writes from the premise that the dots can’t be joined on the page, and writes with the confidence of an actor who knows that, if they are any good, his colleagues will do the rest of the job for him.’
Here at the King’s Arms, the colleagues in this first stage are all the writers sat around the table, and sat on our new e-group.
We’re asking them to play (and play nicely!) with one another’s writing, allowing us to see how to write clearer dots, so that those who encounter it can discover the joins that will ultimately surprise, delight and intrigue even the writer who dotted them down in the first place.
And that West Country Quantum Leap idea is copyrighted, by the way. From today.
Pens in Pubs is a new initiative from The Theatre Orchard as part of our project to Landscape the Arts in North Somerset. We want to find out where the writers are in North Somerset, support the development of their work and find ways to share their creativity with new audiences in the region. Pens in Pubs will culminate with a rehearsed reading of new work on Monday 20th May 7pm at The Kings Arms Easter-in-Gordano BS20 0PS