Earlier on we brought you the first GUEST WRITER interview from David Calcutt.
Here is part 2
David Calcutt – Playwright
The thing to remember when writing a play is that no matter how much you work at the writing of it, no matter how many drafts you might go through, the finished script is not the finished piece of work. A play is only truly complete when it’s performed with an audience present. That’s when whatever life it has comes into being. The writer of a play should bear this in mind throughout the whole process of composition. And it’s not only that they’re writing for an audience. They’re writing too for the actors who have the responsibility of portraying the characters the writer has created and of enacting their story onstage. It’s an awareness of this that will help with all those practical aspects of playwriting, such as how to bring characters on and offstage, when to change from one scene to the next, how to make dialogue sound if it’s really being spoken by the characters and so on. And, very importantly, how to keep an audience entertained, gripped, enthralled throughout the entire performance. One of the best ways to bear all this in mind, of course, is to write for a particular group of actors and for a particular space so that you can constantly test if what you’re writing is working are not. I’ve been lucky enough to have done a lot of work in the past with youth and community theatre groups so I’ve been able to develop and hone my playwriting skills through writing in the very practical way. But if you don’t have that opportunity, then it helps to create that theatre space and those actors in your head and write with those in mind. And to keep stopping to read the dialogue out loud, playing all the characters yourself. Finally, it’s important to keep in my mind that the story you are telling in the play is a story for which the audience is taking place in the present. They are watching the story happen as if for real before their eyes, being involved in a moment by moment unfolding of events, and that there are forces driving these events on towards their conclusion. So, when writing the play, every single word spoken, every action and movement, must feel fresh and true and instantaneous. Nothing can be wasted.
My most recently completed work for theatre, by which I mean a piece that’s actually being performed, is a one-man play called “The Life and Times of the Tat Man”. It was originally a piece commissioned by my local museum as a way of bringing attention to some of its artefacts, and was scheduled for six performances only, in the museum itself. I came up with the idea of having a scrap merchant, a tat-man, tell stories about some of those artefacts as if they were pieces of scrap he’d collected. But during the writing process I struck through to a much deeper vein. The Tat Man himself, originally intended to be simply a storyteller, became more complex, a character in his own right who had his own story to tell too, and this became bound up with the objects he was telling stories about. This was in part practical, because I felt that, in order to hold an audience for ninety minutes, the piece needed to be more than a simple storytelling piece, it needed to have all those dramatic elements to it that I’ve just been talking about. The Tat Man needed to be a living, dramatic presence himself, so that the audience began to realise, as the play progressed, that there was some secret, inner life to the character that was slowly being revealed, and that they were witness too. But also, during the writing, there came a moment when the character himself suddenly came to life, and I began to hear his voice, and to gain access to that inner life of his. The writing then became an act of discovery, and the more I discovered the deeper became the character and the deeper the levels on which the play seemed to be working.
The challenge of writing a one man play is that you do only have that one character, and therefore the only other people they can talk to are the audience. But this is also one of its strengths. The fact that the character onstage is talking directly to them means that they can’t help but be involved. Also, for the character, the people in the audience are characters too, characters in their own story, so the audience, instead of watching passively are actively taking part in the play, they are part of the story’s dramatic unfolding. All this can make for a gripping and intense performance. As long writer, the actor and director are all working together to ensure that happens. In every performance.
From its original six performances in the museum, “The Life and Times of the Tat Man” has gone on to tour more than thirty more performances over the past eighteen months and shows no sign of stopping yet. We’re already receiving bookings that will take the show into autumn next year.
Other things that I’m working on now: I have a novel I’m trying to get published, a new play we’re looking to find money to produce and tour, and a very new piece of work that I’m not quite sure what to call yet. It has elements of prose, poetry and drama, and the closest thing to autobiography I’ve tried tackling yet. I have no idea how it will turn out. I’ll just have to wait and see.
What excites me in theatre today is what I think has always excited people – theatre that is both visceral and poetic, that is both an emotional and physical experience. Theatre that doesn’t try to hide anything behind elaborate sets or lighting or costumes, but is nothing more nor less than that simple and profound act of human beings in an open space telling their stories to fellow human beings, in a language with artifice or pretence. It’s very rare that you come across it, but is a precious jewel when you do.
Huge thanks to David for the exclusive INKSPILL interview.
Based on an interview by Nina Lewis
Visit the INKSPILL shop to buy David Calcutt’s books.