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WRITING TEXTS FOR THE STAGE (AFTERWORD TO FALLING APPLES)

This text was written for the publication of «Falling Apples» (Transit Forlag 2017). It is written for anyone that might read the book so that while it should still be of interest to professionals in the field, an attempt has been made to avoid as much professional jargon as possible. It can well be read as an independent text.

 

AFTERWORD TO FALLING APPLES

by Lene Therese Teigen, translated from Norwegian by Neil Howard

 

The thought behind Falling Apples is that it should be the starting point for a theatre production involving a great deal of movement, light, sound and music. Towards the end of the text, I come back to a few thoughts concerning possible directional choices and the dramaturgical composition of Falling Apples.

 

A short while back, I was invited to a literary evening by author Ingrid Storholmen to talk about Falling Apples and about theatre texts and theatre art in general. The questions I was asked on that occasion form the starting point and the inspiration for this text.

 

TEXT IS TEXT, PERFORMANCE IS PERFORMANCE

I am often confronted with the perception that when I write a text for the stage, then I must have an ideal performance in my head that I am trying to communicate through the text. This is not so. When I write, I am writing a text, not describing one performance. The text has its own value as an artwork and is to provide a starting point for interpretation. Different interpretations naturally lead to different theatre productions.

The next question is, irrespective of my answer to the initial assumption, is whether I find it difficult that someone else stages a text that I myself have written. I perhaps receive very many such questions as an author because I also work as a director. But this is not the case either. My texts for the stage stand on their own two feet. They are written with the idea that they should be able to result in many different performances, by all means with the involvement of different kinds of performers and in any number of different languages.

 

THE TERM ‘TEXT FOR THE STAGE’

When I use the term ‘text for the stage’, it is synonymous with both ‘a drama’ and ‘a play’. It is now about ten years since the use of the term ‘text for the stage’ became more widespread. ‘A play’ and ‘a drama’ have the tendency to sound a little old-fashioned, perhaps because people thus think the piece must be very dramatic. At present, that a piece is dramatic in the classical sense is no criterion of quality; indeed, one of the questions currently debated is what ‘dramatic’ actually means. Accordingly, the term ‘text for the stage’ is able to embrace texts with greater openness for new forms. Critical inquiry into, and experimentation with what is involved in ‘playing’ (i.e. acting) have also probably contributed to the term ‘a play’ now seeming outdated.

Using the term ‘text for the stage’ may also render it clearer that the text is regarded as being one element in a piece of theatre to which other scenic effects will be applied. Such effects may serve to bear meaning in the same way as the text delivered by the performers. Further, the term ‘text for the stage’ may also indicate that the text is not necessarily written for actors but for dancers, musicians or other performers. One encourages the understanding that what takes place on stage may be more than a traditional theatre performance with the audience in the auditorium and the actors on the stage.

Nor is the term ‘theatre art’ anything new; it embraces ballet, modern dance, music theatre, mime, performance art and so on, in other words theatre and dance in all its forms and all kinds of inter-aesthetic practices undertaken in a performative situation, where something is presented to others.

 

READING A TEXT FOR THE STAGE

I wish my texts for the stage to be interesting reading, both for people who work with theatre and other interested readers who open the book. Every reader will create a performance in her head and it will necessarily be different from the one that I see in mine. I think this is splendid because it means that I have put the reader’s associative apparatus into action and stimulated her world of images. I have a great liking for theatre art in which the observer is able to weave her own life experiences into what she sees on stage, and want something of the same nature to occur in the act of reading.

A text for the stage is a work in itself that can be encountered by a reader in a book, but at the same time contains the seed of a performance in which the text is fulfilled in another way, in a theatre space. This fulfilment is fundamental to the author but need not mean anything to the reader of the work. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, plays were a completely normal literary genre. People would wait on tenterhooks for the next play from certain authors and cast themselves upon it when it finally arrived. Oh – those were the days!

 

A MEETING IN THE MOMENT

It is the specific nature of theatre to allow a text for the stage as an artwork to be recreated time and time again in new artworks – as theatre art. And what is so special about theatre art is that it happens in the here and now: A live audience meets one or more performers in a specific moment which is thereafter lost. Thus when a theatrical work is created, the result is wholly dependent on the people working together, where they do their work and the premises which form the basis for the work.  The premises for the way in which the same text is over and over again realised on stage will always thus be different. Something new will be created each and every time.

In the same way, one can say that a literary text gets a new life in each new reader it meets. With theatre art, however, an enormous apparatus is put into action, and those working with the text and other elements in the performance will influence the artwork to meet the audience in different ways. The preconditions, as we might call them, which people bring with them are partially the product of the ideas they have concerning the reality in which the work of creation takes place. Nor can the importance of time and place be underestimated. This became particularly clear to me when Mater Nexus (Gullbakke 2004) was produced in Japan in 2008. Its meaning was all but altered and it was far more conceptually ground-breaking than it had been in Scandinavia.

One can thus say that the moment created must be relevant to the time and place within which it occurs. In principle, none of these preconditions are borne within the text, but they are bound to have crucial importance as to how each performance finally appears. In this way, the importance of the text shifts from production to production.

 

TEXT FIRST?

Many theatre arts practices do not operate with a text that is cast in stone for a particular production. A text for the stage can of course be developed as a result of interaction with other stage techniques. Although I like to have text development workshops during the creation process – and often do – it is not the same as operating in a landscape in which all the various elements are developed at the same time.

In this afterword, however, I am concerned with texts that exist prior to stage production. There are personal, practical and arts-political reasons why I generally write a text first and then, if the case may be, enter into production of that text. But that is another story.

 

THE OFFICIAL VERSION OF THE TEXT FOR THE STAGE

As text, a text for the stage is of course an expression in itself of the place and time in which it is created but that does not mean it should be adapted for specific preconditions. It is to form the basis of the various interpretations that may arise. The text I wish to present does not contain the cuts that I too may make as a director, when, for example, things really need to get moving between those specific actors to fulfil whatever chosen concept, or a movement, sound or lighting change makes a sequence or a few lines superfluous. But the sections of text that are perhaps cut for one stage version must be present in the text for the stage that is made available in book form, precisely because what is cut or reworked for one specific performance may contribute to a specific interpretation of the scene concerned or, indeed, of the entire piece.

My desire is for there to be one text, which all productions use as a springboard, because it means that I have one official version. This makes it crucial that the text is published as a book.  There is thereby only one place where it is possible to obtain the original text, and that is the one that I wish readers to have before them.

 

THE INTEGRITY OF THE TEXT FOR THE STAGE

How many constraints should I put on the text? To what level of detail should costumes or scenographic elements be described? Are there any limits to the theatrical decisions that can be made with my text and is it possible to lay down a framework for such limits when I am writing?

I wish, as I say, to write in such a way that it is possible to create one’s own performance. The text should be an entrance to an imagined audience, to a recipient in the space where text meets listener, where light, sound, colour and movement are experienced. But how does one make a text that can both live in the mind of the reader with the book in front of her and simultaneously transcend into possible performances for the reader who is thinking of creating an artwork on stage?

What I wish to do is provide signals so that any possible theatre production will be consistent. I wish to write in such a way that the meaning contained in the material cannot be misunderstood or distorted.  If the starting point of a text I have written is that women are so different from one another that it does not make any sense to talk of them as an homogenous group, then it is not good for me to find that the text has been the catalyst for a performance where women and men are presented as wholly different from one another.

So, despite my wanting a text that is open to individual interpretation, I am of the opinion that the text should set a framework for the interpretations and theatrical choices which can be made with it, irrespective of the context in which it is set up. This is to do with what the text says and the theatrical tradition in which it is written. And this is where things start to get difficult because texts do not always say one thing, and theatrical traditions are in constant development.

 

STAGE DIRECTIONS

Another question that often crops up is what I think about stage directions. Who are they for and how should they be written? What is too much or too little, and how detailed should they be? How concrete? Should they be notes for direction from a dramatist wishing to steer the form of theatre productions or a text to help inexperienced readers of drama?

When I began studying theatre and working on productions at the beginning of the 1980s, I found that it was perfectly normal and wholly acceptable for a director to simply cut all the stage directions from a text. The director was the theatre’s undeniable number one and it was his creativity and collaborative qualities that determined what the production was to become. Making this disregard of stage directions into a rule of one’s work, however, is both disrespectful and unwise, and I soon realised that I felt it to be a not especially professional approach. At the same time, the prevalence of the attitude perhaps indicated that stage directions had to carry a little more weight.

As a director, I agree that not all stage directions should necessarily be followed down to the tiniest detail, but they can nevertheless be good to have as a starting point for textual analysis and the artistic choices that are taken as a result.  It is also to do with how they are written and who one imagines the reader to be.

I have experimented with different types of stage directions, including wanting to write stage directions that cannot easily be realised on stage, but set out rather to provoke associations and be creative touchstones. It is precisely this provision of direction that is important: To include meaningful visual and auditive indicators of action without their becoming carved in stone.  In Square (Transit Forlag 2008), I attempted a text almost devoid of stage directions but with brief poetic texts at the end of each scene. These were to serve as inspiration for the staging work and to provide openings for possible interpretation. Director Cecilia Caballero Jeske went so far as to integrate the poetic texts into the action in her production of Square in Montevideo, Uruguay in 2015.

 

PLAYFULNESS, SIMPLICITY

In texts for the stage, I am always concerned about communicating an imperative for playfulness.  There is never plain realism. The characters are fictional but the wonderful duality that arises when we know that the actor knows we know that she is not actually the person she is portraying on stage can well be pursued if at all possible – without it being developed into metatheatre. I think it splendid if the audience can be present in another reality and that the characters are the most important bearers of this dimension. After all, the space and the meeting and everything that surrounds it is, in the final analysis, theatre. The visual aspect alone tells us this is theatre, and that which may be experienced as realism in film, such as rapid clips from one situation to another – as if they are happening at the same time in another place – immediately becomes ‘theatrical’ in a theatre space.  I never write in a blackout but think of the scenes as gliding into one another, perhaps overlapping one another, with no undue fuss, irrespective of leaps in time and space. I often write speeches which gain from being addressed directly to the audience, even within a scene or a specific situation. It is easy to include the audience and it makes the situation more open and more fun. There is no fourth wall, or it is broken down in the course of what I have written, as in Mater Nexus. I also look for peculiarities and want the text to facilitate humorous situations however sad it may otherwise be.

I am not a big fan of yelling and chest-thumping but am searching for lightness, suppleness, tempo. Then what appears as very dramatic in the text may very well shift in character. It is not easy to break up dialogue into tiny units on the page as it then becomes difficult to read but, when speaking, the lines may be woven into one another in the same way that the different scenes may be woven together.

 

HELPLESS LANGUAGE

There is often something quite helpless about what we humans try to say to one another, particularly in situations that are very important in our lives. This is something that I wish to be reflected in the lines that I write. The words we choose and the way we say things often turn into some kind of cliché; I think we often want to say something different from that we manage to say with the words and sentences that the language makes available to us in practice. It is like standing with one’s wall of language and having to make it shift. What are the words we should choose for the feeling we have? On occasion, I have tried to communicate this by writing very simple sentences that can easily become clichéd – sentences such as “I love you” – precisely because it is so difficult to make it mean anything. I am very interested in this falling short, this helplessness, and I think it is useful to talk with the director or actors about it if I get the opportunity. It is not always easy to communicate this through the text itself because the speeches or lines there must necessarily be what they are. Such lines readily appear to be lacking in sub-text and may become easy to dismiss as not very productive. But not saying what one really wishes to say is not very easy to communicate unless undertaking an exchange on the basis of reflection. And far from everyone is that aware, at least among the characters that people my texts. I am also concerned that what people say to one another is often said in a less dramatic way than the situation or the words might suggest, and like exchanges to move quickly when characters talk together. Or very slowly.

 

DEMOCRATIC DRAMATURGY

 

It may be quite possible to accuse me of being overly democratic when writing for the stage with almost equally large roles for all, and it may be true. I am at least of the opinion that everyone should be able to join in the fun! But there are also other reasons, some practical, some dramaturgical. My texts for the stage are characterised by the fact that almost all the people I write have their own lines of action and life stories. We are all the main characters in our own lives so in many ways it is actually most realistic to create texts where all the characters are major roles! This means, among other things, that what is a small or insignificant detail in one character’s life may be the big issue for another. In many ways, this makes the work of writing an extensive construction, for many threads are to find their place in a large tapestry of events. As the various stories come into existence in parallel with one another, if one then tries making cuts and focusing on one character, the entire house of cards is likely to fall flat. There is no single core story that is most important. When I write equal roles and lines of action, a greater story emerges: The great story of life passing: Longing, hope, grief and joy. The various stories reflect and comment upon each other and they all need to be there to create the whole story.

 

EQUAL ROLES IN THE REHEARSAL PROCESS

But there are also some wholly practical reasons why I like to create equal roles in my texts for the stage. Since I also work as a director and formerly worked as an actor, I have a great many thoughts about how rehearsal periods and playing periods are organised, how they develop and how they end up being. It is a challenge to achieve good working relationships when many artists are to create art together. Creating a spirit of collaboration is traditionally seen as the director’s arena: Art’s teambuilding. The stronger the artistic vision, the clearer a common goal is formulated and the easier it is to accept and understand one’s own task in the greater machinery. But then I think that it is even more fun if everyone who is to stand on stage has pretty much equal responsibility for driving the story on. I do not believe in the star actor giving a brilliant performance. A text with equality of role and task does something with the mutual respect the performers have and acquire for each other during the rehearsal period and it does something with the way in which they relate to each other as actors when they are standing on the stage. No-one is more important than anyone else. The actors must both give and take focus, remain continually generous and continually audacious. They must take their place and use the space for all it is worth when it is their turn – when it is their turn to be the thickest thread in the tapestry or, for a while, to sing the solo in a choral work. When it is someone else’s turn, they must create a good space for the person concerned, just as she had earlier done for them.

 

FALLING APPLES

This text is the most extensive ensemble piece I have written to date, with no fewer than thirteen equal roles. It is written for a young ensemble and received its première in Melbourne, Australia, in the autumn of 2016. The text is characterised by rapid displacements in time and space and alternation between larger ensemble sequences and short dialogues and monologues. There are realistic scenes and scenes with magical overtones. We meet, for example, the figure of Astraia, a woman from a Renaissance painting. She leaves her frame and obtains life, becoming a very special force between the other characters. They have to relate to her, and to her questions and comments. She is of the kind that is able to see things in a different way from ordinary people. She provides a perspective both through communicating her own story and how she reacts to what happens between the persons she meets. Some people have asked if she is a new version of Indra’s daughter from Strindberg’s A Dream Play, and that is probably not too far wrong. She is also inspired by the mountain woman from my own piece, The Archaeologists (Transit 2008), and the goddess in Stridsberg’s Medealand. As the oldest person in the space, she also becomes a kind of substitute parent, and when, alongside all the other persons in the piece, she has undergone the passage of time that is presented, she has also become physically old and is ready to die. The others are ready to live on.

The piece also contains five smaller roles in addition to the thirteen main characters. These can happily be doubled by other actors. It is also possible to engage two further actors: One man to play Daddy Drunk throughout and a woman to play the four female characters.

 

A DRAMATURGICAL DIALOGUE 

Falling Apples is more closely related to Mater Nexus than my other texts for the stage. The characters in Mater Nexus are all women. In Falling Apples, all the main characters are young adults. My purpose in this is to emphasise the lack of the parent generation in these young people’s lives. Similarly, the absence of men in Mater Nexus makes it possible to discuss both if, and in what way, men should perhaps have a place in the lives of the women.

It was only after I had written Mater Nexus that I realised the dramaturgical opportunity that was actually inherent in writing for one gender alone. I was thereby forced to describe other differences than the most boring, most clichéd and constructed one: The supposed difference between men and women.  I had to find the differences between the women instead. With Falling Apples, the project was to investigate what happens when there are no longer any adults to relate to. It is about what happens in life when one finds out that one’s parents can no longer be role models. How is one to manage standing on one’s own two feet when one is not even sure of the surface one is standing on? All the characters find new directions in their lives through the process which is presented.

The relationship between Falling Apples and Mater Nexus is to do with the dramaturgy. Mater Nexus begins with a prologue, a kind of dream sequence in which the persons presented have coincident identities. The piece is then further divided into three, the first section presenting each character in turn. The second section is an hour-long scene in a middle-class living room, a kind of drunken party in which the characters’ life histories are unravelled at the same time as the room is slowly deconstructed and the actors are forced forwards in the playing space. In section three, they end up individually placed at close proximity to the audience. The middle-class set has become an abstract theatre space where the characters tell their individual stories directly to the audience. The fourth wall is broken down and the actors seek the audience directly, also because, perhaps, they no longer feel the sense of togetherness they formerly thought existed between them. Falling Apples is also divided into three. In the first section, the story begins with a few scenes within which we become familiar with the characters. The central section on this occasion is built up with many short sequences in which the relationships are developed and the problems intensified. Each character pursues his or her own ends but they meet together in smaller groups of two, three or four. In the final section, their individual pathways meet and, despite many disagreements and misunderstandings, they end up being together in one shared story. What begins with togetherness and ends in deconstruction in Mater Nexus, goes in the opposite direction in Falling Apples, which was written in 2015, fifteen years later.

 

FALLING APPLES: COMPOSITION

The first section consists of eleven consecutive scenes. In the first scene, the characters are people in a city, in a world.  They come and go, meet and leave each other, walk together or alone. In the next scenes, which occur at various places, we become more familiar with them and their life stories are communicated. There are changes in time and space from scene to scene. Unlike in the second section, where the various scenes may well benefit from overlapping one another, those in the first section should probably be played one after the other as described in the text. There is also a point in being on the look-out for varying logic and rhythm between the first and second sections; otherwise there is a danger that they may become too similar.

The second section consists of thirty-five scenes which may well be directed with a sense of the simultaneous. How scenes begin and end, and the way in which the positions of the various characters are placed in relation to one another within the playing space, may be granted great freedom. Here, the shifting of focus is of the essence. Sometimes, greater focus is required; at others, it may be more diffuse. How one goes about the scene changes also creates opportunities for filling the space between the written scenes. This has to do with how and why each story is to be made apparent and how the various parallels and reflections between the different scenes can collectively form a separate story. The scenes may well be woven together; actions and text may be broken up and woven into each other so that one scene begins before another has ended. Writing in such a way easily looks chaotic but it is absolutely possible through tight direction. Rhythm is crucial to this aspect of the work.

Section three consists of thirteen scenes but here the action is concentrated in one place, the orchard, in a few early-morning hours. The change of scene is then mostly for practical reasons: to underline where new persons and new actions enter into the story. One single action runs throughout the section but there are many secondary actions. Much is to be gained here if all the characters operate in a shared fictional space, perhaps working in an acting style that tips slightly towards the melodramatic, at least where some of the characters are concerned. And the end can happily be both sentimental and sad but also full of hope. The majority of the characters have, after all, found love!

 

THE FILM ABOUT ME

In the beginning of section two and at the end of section three, there are scenes which stand apart from the other scenes in the text: These are called the ‘film about me’ intro- and outro-texts. The idea here is that each character is playing the lead role in his or her own story and they are here given the opportunity to fantasise about what some of the scenes in the film about themselves would have looked like. They all have specific individual starting points in the intro-sequences while the texts for the outro-sequences are very much alike. My thought is that this may become particularly interesting if one emphasises through the direction that the texts are voices within a larger orchestral work, voices which can be woven together in various ways. They can also function as variation to the dramaturgical/directorial technique otherwise employed in section two. In the intro-sequences, the stories are individual and personal, but in the outro-sequences that are strangely alike. The characters have melted together more in the end-sequence, perhaps because their relationships in the present make their former stories pale in comparison. All imagine an end to the film about themselves involving bad weather, storms, flooding, thunder and lightning. No-one imagines a happy ending. In contrast, perhaps, to the ending the audience gets to see?

 

FALLING APPLES

As will be noticed in the text, a number of falls and near-falls have been written into Falling Apples. This can become a coherent project in terms of both choreography and event: A conscious story about near-falls, falls and, perhaps, getting back on one’s feet. The apples are falling, but how far from the stem will they fall and will anyone help them up? If there is no excessive drama in the presentation of the text, the falls might well be real falls!

 

DIRECTING ONE’S OWN TEXT

Allow me to close with a few reflections about another question I have been asked a few times over the years: Why can’t you be satisfied just being an author?

As a matter of fact, I had already made theatre performances and short films when I made my début as a writer of fiction in 1993 and have swapped back and forth between being a director and writer ever since. Meeting others and making something together is artistically satisfying, not least because it is difficult to manage. Those involved are pushed close to one another and everyone is obliged to open up and be themselves, expose their weaknesses and dare to look stupid. Working together, we must dare to have fun, something which involves, among other things, looking for common denominators in terms of humour and communication. Something internal. We create our own internal world, our own work climate. This is a precondition of the work being as good as possible.

Writing and directing is like being in the world in two completely different ways. When I am going to direct my own text, and this is decided before the writing process has begun, I have a discussion partner, a dramaturg, who follows both the creation of the text and its realisation. This person asks questions and listens as I imagine my way forward through the material and the choices that need to be made; we discuss possibilities and blind alleys. Resistance is important, and necessary.

In the situations where I am to direct my own text, I also think that a certain amount of time should pass between the text development phase and starting the direction process. One could say, perhaps, that the text must rest and ripen. I think this does something for me as a director and I can embark on the text wearing new glasses.

As a director, I can also harvest a number of practical advantages from working with a text that I have written myself. That I write roughly equal roles, for example, means that the work of rehearsing often becomes an exciting process in which everyone is equally involved. This is always challenging because the work needs to be organised and no-one can feel more important than anyone else.  This does something with my role as director and how I guide the work. Maintaining a hold on the collective work, which is largely to do with guiding performers who have to place equal trust in everyone, giving and taking focus equally, is something I hope to achieve in the rehearsal process. It is also something that I would like others working with my stage texts to experience.

 

SPECIALLY WRITTEN ROLES

I wish a text to be coloured as little as possible by the specific aspects of a production lying just around the corner. This is, perhaps, with one exception: And that is the pleasure of being able to write for specific actors. An actor’s interests, personality, temperament and experiences can contribute to the shaping of the role, but not so clearly that they are recognisable. This does not mean that the text is made less relevant or serviceable for others, but one can say it affects its genesis. Sometimes I also see how an actor’s feeling of ownership of a role can provide the performance with something wholly unique.

On the other hand, I sometimes allow several actors to try out the different roles during the text development phase, precisely to investigate other temperaments or untraditional casting. By distorting set ideas and the starting points of roles and relations, it is possible to uncover both prejudices and easy solutions.

 

THE DOUBLE CHARACTER OF TEXTS FOR THE STAGE

It is my practical experience of theatre that makes my texts for the stage what they are. Knowledge of the work of the actor, the theatre’s practical preconditions and conventions, as well as my own thoughts about possible challenges to theatre, are all integrated in the writing process.

So, even though it is not the most common of literary genres, and even though it can take considerable time to get a text for the stage into production, I still feel a tremendous drive to write for the stage. And, but for that, I would only have written prose. Exactly in the same way as an actor is both herself and something or someone else, the text for the stage exists both as itself, as a text, and something else – as theatre. It is this double nature of the text for the stage that so attracts me.

 

 

Falling Apples – translated by Neil Howard, 1st production directed by Peta Hanrahan at La Mama Melbourne/Verve Productions, Australia, 2016.

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