The first play I ever wrote and directed was a piece called Terence, the story of a quick witted teen who struggles to play by the social rules and so is treated by suspicion by his peers. He falls in love with a girl called Toni and must muster all his charm, and cunning to find his way into her social world. Ultimately though, he decides the price he is asked to pay to conform is too steep and the play ends with him standing up the girl whose heart he has finally won.
Terence represents as good a point as any when I’m looking for the moment that marks the start of my writing career. Certainly it represents the first time my writing was presented in public. This year Terence turned 21. It was first performed on stage in 1995 by a wonderful cast at Onslow College, two of whom I’ve stayed in touch with, having had the great pleasure of later attending their weddings and meeting their lovely children. Teaching is a rare privilege, much of the time.
Last week I directed Terence again, with another bunch of 15 year olds at Hutt Valley High School. This time we did it as a drama class production, which meant we performed it over three nights with three different casts, and again they did a fabulous job. The lesson I never tire of learning in these situations is the way the particular chemistry of cast and audience, crammed together in a small theatre, produce a show that can not be reproduced. The way an audience member laughs in the first minute, the way a particular actor holds a pause, the way a touch lingers, or a movement across the stage is punctuated by a sigh, all of these things somehow set in train a chain reaction that the actor can feel and feed into, but not control. Over three nights, I saw three entirely different, and each quite splendid, shows. And despite having been the director, working with those actors over the two preparatory months, the particular nature of each performance was ultimately a surprise. And that’s why I love live theatre.
The last of the three performances re-taught me something else: the subtle interplay between comedy and narrative. Terence was always intended as a comedy, and was loaded with as many gags as I thought it could bear, and part of the actor’s responsibility is therefore to manage the comedy: building to punchlines, trusting them enough to wait for the laugh, and then trusting themselves enough to let that laughing breathe and so on. But Terence is also a love story, and a kind of social commentary. In teen theatre, comedy is often the mechanism by which we bring the audience to the story, making it accessible and indeed palatable. Although I want the kids watching Terence to laugh, the ending is ultimately a contemplative one, and I want them to reflect upon all that is contained in Terence’s ultimate decision.
On the last night, an interesting thing happened. The audience didn’t laugh early on, in the way they had on others nights. The actors were undoubtedly just as funny, and looking down from my position in the lighting box, I could see the audience were attentive and engaged, but somehow the lead actor was veering more towards a naturalistic, rather than comic performance. I doubt he knew this is what he was doing, but the emerging tone was one of quiet focus (weirdly, although I can’t identify the physical markers, the difference between bored and absorbed silence is obvious even to the stage-light blinded actor). The cast instinctively went with the mood. The performances too a person were more authentic, less adapted to the laugh track. They weren’t better performances, necessarily, the work the comedians did on the opening nights was often outstanding, just different. And the experience of the audience, as a result, was profoundly different too.
On the previous nights, the audience were entertained, whereas on the closing night, they were absorbed. The silence during the final revelation stretched longer, and after the show, they lingered longer too, wanting to talk to the actors and discuss what they had seen. It was a lovely reminder of the compromises involved in genre work. Sometimes genre writers (and Terence is definitely a genre piece) are frustrated that their work isn’t taken seriously, and on one level that’s absolutely fair. To write successful comedy, or crime, or thrillers or musicals for that matter, is every bit as demanding of one’s craft as pure drama. But on the other hand, there’s a sense in which pure drama just is more serious. The more readily we can believe in the people before us on the stage (or screen, or page of a book) the more deeply we will connect with them.
While all theatre demands a level of artifice, genre work explicitly requires the actor to sacrifice the depth of this connection. Every time the actor is asked to burst spontaneously into song, pause to let a laugh run its course, or recap for the audience’s benefits the list of suspects, we are reminded that these people before us are not us, and that we are watching is a contrivance. This hardly relegates the non-naturalistic to a lower theatrical rung. After all the poetry of Shakespeare is as clear an example of theatrical contrivance as you might hope to find, and it’s not hurt his reputation one bit.
All of this makes such an obvious point that it’s slightly embarrassing that I would need to be reminded if it at all. Luckily I work with a tremendous bunch of talented young people, who are more than happy to reteach me these things from time to time.