One of the advantages of being a member of a theatre writing group is that I was invited to the Open Dress Rehearsal of their new play this week. I had never been to a dress rehearsal before and neither had the rest of the group. It seems that this was a privilege that was not bestowed on them very often. The play’s director had been to talk to the group last year about the production and the process of directing. She was very keen for the group to come along to the rehearsal and, although I had missed her talk, I was invited along too.
Everyone was very excited, and we were unsure of what to expect. It was the play’s final run through before it opened the following night. We were told that it was to ‘iron out any final glitches.’ “At this late stage?” I thought. “Blimey, they sail close to the wind in theatre-land!” There were only about thirty people there and we were ushered into the theatre with warnings of minding the cables and wires, and not sitting in the first three rows as these were reserved for the press photographer.
I have visited this theatre many times and am familiar with its layout. However, I wasn’t expecting to see a bank of tables a third of the way up the seating area. These were covered in laptops and a whole host of people were sitting behind them looking very official with headsets and walkie-talkies. There was cable after cable after cable trailing behind the tables and up the rest of the seats. There were many more production staff dotted around the theatre. It was then it struck me. Putting on a play is not just about the actors, the director, one sound guy and one lighting girl as I had naively thought. It is much, much more than this and it takes a whole lot of people a whole lot of time and effort to get it right. When we visit the theatre we just see the final product – an effortless, seamless tale. We give little or no thought to the fairy-like production staff who flit about unseen and unheard on gossamer wings, casting their spells, and creating theatre magic.
I sat myself quite close to the tables as I was intrigued to see what it was that the production staff did. After sitting there for a few minutes, I realised that this wasn’t such a good idea as they were probably going to distract me from the play itself. I also thought that I would find it hard to concentrate on the plot itself. I believed I was going to get absorbed in the words in terms of the writing process, instead of listening to the words to hear the story. This was going to be a totally different watching process for me and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
I needn’t have worried. I got absorbed into the storyline from the outset. I was drawn into the plot and lost myself in the story. The computer monitors, the lack of audience, and the press photographer taking the publicity shots didn’t disturb me one bit. The theatre is such an amazing experience. This wasn’t a grand, epic West End spectacular. It had five actors, minimal props and was in a regional theatre. But this mattered not, and I still suspended my disbelief and believed, for a couple of hours at least, that what I was seeing was real.
I did, however, listen to the dialogue. It was clever and witty and poignant and profound, and I wondered how I could ever write anything like that. It was then a second thought struck me. I’ve always written prose. Short stories and blogs allow you to build up imagery and set the scene. Prose allows you to write about your characters’ past and what they are thinking. Playwriting does not do this. It is, essentially, all about dialogue. That’s it really – dialogue and the subtle actions of the actors. You’re not given a piece of paper with the characters’ backgrounds and nuances when you enter the theatre. You learn all you need to from the dialogue alone. It was then I realised what a challenge playwriting would be, and I wonder if I’m ready for it.