James Roose-Evans and our Head of English shared a quick luncheon before coming to join the masterclass, in what seemed to be an exclusive restaurant. The only patrons at the time they were given a brief but defining example of character. Two waitresses appeared, one suggesting that a few of the tables be re-laid for new customers. The other replied, ‘I’ve never laid a table before’, which, as James said, is very Alan Bennett.
The Head of English suggested he introduced James to start proceedings, to which James replied, ‘Like being at my own memorial service.’ A dry wit, a very interesting man, and something close to what I’d imagined of a double-barrelled name, though far less pretension – a man of his generation, I’d say.
A playwright and director for countless years, James is a legendary figure of theatre. He directed the premier performance of Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter”, and has a lifetime of truths to impart on the subject of theatre; firstly: that the negative side to being a playwright is that even by sending self-addressed envelopes for return of manuscripts won’t generate responses for the new time writer – there are few opportunities, but many applications. Like writing a novel, it is a lonely exercise, however there is a distinct buzz generated at the point when the playwright starts working with others.
A special relationship exists between the actors and an audience, James says. One actress once told him it was like riding a horse. She’d listen to the audience from the wings, gathering their temperament being galloping on. Then on stage, she’d know whether at the end of a scene she could simply ride off, or whether she needed to dig her heels in a bit longer.
Authors must allow actors to interpret the work and the characters. They must step back and allow this development. In the 1700’s the author used to read all the parts to the cast, giving them a run through of the whole play as intended. One example of such a case was with Shakespeare, when having read one of his plays, an actor threw down his script, lamenting, ‘How am I supposed to do it better than that?’ Now, an author doesn’t have this voice. An author’s presence can inhibit actors from expressing and developing.
John Gallway has stated (as many and various people have over the years): ‘Character is situation.’ James takes up his encounter at the restaurant with the two waitresses – an idea – there is an empty restaurant. A girl enters. Where does she sit? Does she try different places? Does she sit by the window, or in the middle? Then, once she’s settled, a man arrives. Where does he sit? Immediately there is tension, questions. How will they interact if at all? “Choice – dilemma – tension,” says James. Lastly, for this scene, the waitresses arrive, and of course one of them “hasn’t laid a table before”.
Inspiration, suggests James, comes from listening to dialogue. Maureen Lipman’s husband Jack Rosenthal took inspiration for creating London’s Burning back in 1986 when he had building work done on his house by two moonlighting fireman. Every tea break they had he was there quizzing them about their fire fighting lives, developing his idea from the research. “An ear for dialogue,” he says, “is most important.”
Hugh Whitemore wrote a play on a nunnery, wanting to capture the day-to-day life. He and James spent time in a nunnery as they developed ideas for the play, and having an ear for dialogue and being adept at remembering speeches, when the head nun explained the meaning of what it is to be a nun, he was able to take that verbatim and place it pivotally within the play to encapsulate the meaning in a way that neither he nor James could otherwise have done. But, theatre is as much about action as it is about dialogue. Life must be shown.
Over the years, James has seen many actors play these actions to astounding results, namely in the use of movement and silence. Eleanor Dousa, he says, had one scene in which she shows her emotion and her inability to communicate its grandness by the way she rises, walks across the other character, attempts to touch them and can’t do it, before retiring to the far end of the stage to stare out of the window. “Authors must never underestimate what an actor may discover in the silences and the pauses.”
When James saw John Hurt doing Beckett’s Crapp’s Last Tape, Hurt told him: “The thing I’ve discovered about Beckett in my rehearsals is that his work is long silences broken by words.”
The author must know everything there is to know about a character so that when the actor asks: “What am I doing?” there is always an answer. When Hugh Whitemore wrote “Breaking the Code”, about the code-breaker Turin, he learnt a lot about mathematics. Patricia Routledge also stayed at a nunnery for three days, as James and Hugh had done, to develop her character. For the Mother of Calcutta, one actress spent all her time serving in charity work to develop her role as Mother Theresa.
James says that he has gone through plays page-by-page to learn about each character. He will write down everything within the play that tells him about the character, whether it’s their own dialogue, the dialogue of others, or direction – anything that helps to boil down the understanding of the character. He gives A Streetcar Named Desire as an example, believing the 1996 version directed by Peter Hall was a mistake: In the play Blanche Dubois is hounded out of town for seducing a young boy. The key scene is when a newspaper boy calls when DuBois is alone in the house. Hall’s version had a balding newspaper man!
DuBois fears ageing. When James was developing a stage version in South Africa they worked on that scene over and over, never quite getting the mood. They trained all night, and finally the actress broke down in tears, finally she had understood DuBois’s feelings, telling James that she had imagined what the boy would look like in ten years and what she would look like in ten years – the crux of the character.
This takes James to his next point. A playwright needs to know everything about his characters not just from a background point of view but:
- Who am I?
- Where have I come from? (physically, mentally, long term, medium term, short term)
- When is it? (time, date, seasons, traditions, beliefs)
- What is the weather like?
- What can I see?
- What’s next door?
- Where am I going? (physically, mentally, long term, medium term, short term)
A playwright must know the life of a character off stage before and after each and every scene.
Shakespeare, James points out, slips in so much information at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet answering in a very deft way, in that very first scene, all those questions. Derek Jacobi, when he first played Turin in Hugh’s “Breaking the Code”, acted out the first two long scenes – dealing in large with a break in. At the end of the second scene Turin breaks into a monologue demonstrating his mathematical knowledge, his love for numbers. The audience wouldn’t necessarily understand anything that he said, and the director wanted to cut at least some of it. But Derek portrayed Turin with such conviction that the words were meaningless beside what the audience would learn about Turin’s beliefs and desires, and his inner character.
Writing a play, says James, is about the importance of one central character with strong motivation, and a situation that creates blocks and obstacles to thwart them. Arthur Miller always said that a play “explores and resolves a conflict”.
Subtext, says James, is of utmost importance also, backing of course, every other screenwriters point of view when they say, if a scene is about what it’s about the author has failed. There are an infinite number of ways to say “I love you”, which James put into practice by roaring it as if it’s his last chance to make the object of his affections understand him, and then following with a tender, quiet and thoughtful version. Both versions are passionate, and yet they come from different places, different characters with different motivations – different interpretations.
The use of banal statements can be a technique for exiting a character, for example one who can’t deal with a situation or emotion – “I’m off to make some tea.” James notes that often times that character returns with a new vigour to their emotions, a new thing they have to say – having dealt with their weakness.
There is an importance in gesture also. James gives two examples. One in The Doll House, Nora, sits clutching at the arms of her chair, her knuckles white. She calmly gets up and leaves the stage – her emotions so greatly strung that we imagine she’ll offload them off stage. The other from King Lear. One actress, playing Reagan, had developed a gesture of stroking the back of her hair, preening as a cat might, absentmindedly. Then, when she says “Pluck out his eyes” that hand darts out in the same movement before her, but quickly now, venomously – character defining.
When Stanislavsky was playing the role of Uncle Vanya he invested much of his time in studying Chekhov’s text to appreciate the full extent of his character, but when Chekhov arrived he wasn’t quite so sure and asked had they read through all of it? Of course they had, but Chekhov pointed them to one particular line: ‘ Vanya orders his cravats from France.’ At the time a Russian looking to France would be the kind of man who wants to be an artist. The fact that Vanya has this wish changed his persona for Stanislavsky.
The ballet dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, remembers James, had raw bleeding thumbs. He was a man so highly strung and tightly wound that he’d stand and scratch at his thumbs with his index fingers, like a clockwork mechanism, and the blood would run.
JM Barrie, says James, used to shake hands by handing the other person’s hand back to them. So once they clasped hands, rather than actually shaking he would piston their arm back towards their shoulder as if to say: ‘And your hand, sir.’
James places importance upon Anchors also, relating the space on stage to “Blocking”. A character using a door, a chair, a sideboard to give them life, to make them work. Instead of them all looking like “unsuccessful people at a ballroom dance”. For example, in one play a character spent an entire scene knitting. At the point when they put that knitting down to speak the audience knew it would be important. In the nunnery, one actor spent weeks rehearsing wrapping apples in newspaper so that on stage, they could speak their lines without looking down – being in the moment, being the character.
Returning to subtext, James opens the door and discusses Threshold Conflict – the psychology of leaving a room. “I’m going now and I’m not coming back”. He leaves.
Then, he comes back, goes up to a seat and says: “I’m going now.” He turns away, melancholic, patters to the door before turning back. “And,” he says, thoughtfully, somewhat hurt, “I’m not coming back” The key is not to give away the meaning of a line too early.
James suggests writing that synopsis first, no matter how brief. Write it – this map, this skeleton – and paste it to the wall. Keep coming back to it, asking whether the scene serves the purpose. Alan Ayckbourne says “start as late as you can without leaving the audience perplexed”. Learning to edit yourself as a writer or speaker is very important. “Edit, edit, edit,” says James and then recounts a friend who he’s had to tell off for her lengthy babblings – not a pleasant experience, but then everyone’s eyes glaze over whenever she speaks.
Binky Beaumont, James says, would only be present for the first preview of a play – he’d not watch rehearsals. And rather than watch the actors, he’d watch the audience picking up when they lost interest.
It was Virginia Woolf who said: “Observe perpetually, observe the onset of old age.”
Robert Frost would ask: ‘How do you say “oh”?’ Imagine the difference between toothache and someone stepping on your toe.
Rounding off his talk, James mentions the use of giving focus to prepositions and “and, but, because”, etc. To use them for a tumultuous pause – which give the audience something to hang off, wake them up, build suspense.
Some people speak a poem or speech through several times out loud without pause, trying to speak it in different ways. By the last read though, it is believed that the true character of the piece will have been discovered.
Shakespeare: ‘Silence is the perfect’st herald of joy I were little happy if I could say how much.’
F Scott Fitzgerald had this short example to try different ways of expressing the dialogue (the key being that A doesn’t know the contents of the cable):
A: There’s a cable for you.
B: opening cable. It’s my father. He’s dead.