Say It to My Face She Said and So She Did, Composing, 13/08/2014

Although not everything in my working life is entirely in my control, my creative life certainly is. As a career, it’s still in the early phases when being able to make a living at it is still a long shot, but just about any career is turning into a long shot these days. 

I found it very hard, when searching for images of Frank
Cottrell Boyce, to find shots of him when he isn't smiling.
I’ve also looked back at the career of Frank Cottrell Boyce, who has a PhD in English literature and a 30-year career as a television, film, and novel writer, had a long creative partnership with the director Michael Winterbottom (Butterfly Kiss, Welcome to Sarajevo, The Claim, 24 Hour Party People, Code 46, and A Cock and Bull Story, the madly meta-fictional adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, one of my favourite novels), adapted his own novel into Danny Boyle’s Millions, and this Fall will feature his debut script for Doctor Who. There are worse career role models to have. 

Earlier this month, I finished some radical revisions to You Were My Friend, the play I’m developing with Mel Aravena and Jeannette Hicks to produce at the Pearl Company Theatre in Hamilton this November. I had originally designed the script with an experimental structure, whose purpose was to attract the best possible stage actors in the greater Toronto area to audition for the roles of these two women. I wanted these characters to be so attractive to actors that they'd start physical fights in the audition hall. 

So I developed the play almost entirely through monologues. There were dialogue scenes, but these were conversations during which the characters would mask their real feelings, revealing them only to the audience in scenes that are lit only by a single spotlight in the centre of the stage. But the divisions between the dialogue and monologue sequences eventually become slippery over the course of the original script. Characters would poke their heads into the monologue, or the spotlight would slowly fade out into the fully lit apartment set and the speaker would be surprised and embarrassed to find themselves back in their reality instead of talking to the audience.

Writing these monologues had a couple of clear benefits. One, it gave me a deep sense of each character’s inner life, so I could better understand their thoughts behind their dialogue, what motivates them to reveal what they reveal, hide what they hide, and let slip what they let slip. But their original purpose was more crass, or at least more opportunistic.

I first saw Mel and Jeannette’s theatre work in a production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal that they produced for Hamilton Fringe in 2012. Remembering the quality of their work on that project made me approach them to work with me on this. However, I’m not Harold Pinter. As far as the theatre community of southern Ontario is concerned, I’m still nobody. So I thought I needed a gimmick to convince really talented actresses to play these roles, because the play will live or die by the skill of our actresses. And because actors are egomaniacs at heart, what would they like better than a bunch of giant monologues?

I ended up with six monologues apiece for the characters. Mel wisely advised me that this was simply too much; there weren’t enough scenes of the two women being together. So the monologues themselves were transformed into dialogues, conversations where, as a function of the natural intimacy that grows between two people when they live together and are each a pair of motormouths, they actually learn about each other’s lives and anxieties. 

The result was a series of long scenes that I think a lot of us will recognize as the conversations that form the basis of a lot of our most intimate friendships. A scene begins with one character explaining her casual relationship with a boring computer programmer who is so bad at sex that she suspects he might be a closeted homosexual. This is played for laughs, of course. That scene ends with another character describing the illicit sexual relationship with an older family friend, whose revelation got her tossed out of her parent’s house and into a homeless shelter. So it ends a bit more seriously.

The transition? An impish expression crosses a woman’s face as she says, “Well, there was this one guy . . .”

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