Watching What You Wouldn’t Normally Watch

Not far from where I live is the Dundee Repertory Theatre, known locally as simply the Rep. The programme is a mixture of classic plays, contemporary works and local interest productions that appeal largely to a Scottish audience.

There was a time when I’d go there with my theatre buddy to see just about everything in the programme, but that hasn’t been possible for some time. Recently, however, the theatre has started the Rep Studios streaming service.

The first play to be streamed, Smile, is one of those local interest productions, about the football manager Jim McLean.

The tickets sold by Rep Studios are all timed like stage shows, usually for 2pm and 7pm, and that led me to think I’d be seeing a live performance transmitted from the theatre. Instead, the show is pre-recorded. I know this because I logged in early, expecting to see a countdown clock, yet it started straight away.

I’d waited until the last few days of its run because while I’d like the service to succeed, sport is not an area of interest to me. In fact, I didn’t mention it to my theatre buddy either as I knew she would feel the same. Ultimately, I’m glad I watched it, although I didn’t find it outstanding and I probably wouldn’t seek out a re-run.

The first time I encountered a streaming theatre production was not at home, but in a cinema, maybe seven or eight years ago. This was a National Theatre production – probably Shakespeare – and it was broadcast live.

Yet I felt a distinct vibe that they didn’t much like doing it this way. For a start, they could charge twice as much for an in-person performance, and the audience would have the draw of seeing Benedict Cumberbatch or Daniel Radcliffe live on stage.

The economics of this likely tell a different story. Cinemagoers were charged perhaps half as much as the theatre audience, with the trade-off that more than twice as many people could potentially see the play without any more performances being staged. I imagine the actors received extra pay for the broadcasts, although such transactions are typically kept confidential.

I’m going to keep an eye on how Rep Streaming emerges and evolves, and I look forward to the day I can next to my theatre buddy again.

Gaining Traction

When the independent film Donnie Darko was released in 2001, it recouped less than an eighth of its $4.5 million budget at the box office.

Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. The film centres around a jet engine falling off an aircraft, and the picture was released a month-and-a-half after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Yet, when it was released on DVD, it began to develop a cult following despite flopping at the cinema and despite the format still being in the early-adopter stage. To date, the film has recouped all its costs, plus about half as much again.

It should have been the case that Donnie Darko was forgotten about. Just like those comedies that never make it past series 2, or the countless Top-10 singles heard everywhere for six weeks then never played again.

But there are other examples of where entertainment has taken a while to gain traction.

A recent example is the BBC drama series Line of Duty, with the first episodes broadcast in 2012 to a reasonable 3.8 million people, but seven years later, that figure has more than tripled. The audience of Love Island also turned an audience of barely 600,000 into nearly ten times that figure between 2015 and 2019.

Of course there isn’t a formula for this, or the examples quoted above wouldn’t be such rarities, but there is good advice. A phrase often attributed to PT Barnum is, ‘Always leave the crowd wanting more.’ It’s advice that often works.

Indeed, in a case of art imitating life, The Greatest Showman – based upon his life story – never rose higher than fourth place in the chart, but had a cinema run spanning several months.

Just don’t leave the crowd wanting too much without delivering it. Fans of the sci-fi TV show Firefly were left hanging when original run was abruptly cancelled after its debut in 2002. It took until 2005 to complete the narrative.

Still Trying and Failing to Read

Just before Christmas, I was involved in a 12-hour Yule readathon, run by a pal from one of my writing groups. The intention was to devote a day to reading, with optional mini-challenges. I did manage to read on that day, but not as extensively as I’d wanted.

Then couple of weeks ago, we re-ran the event. Rather than start any new books, I wanted to make some progress with War & Peace.

I’d left it about halfway through, and I hadn’t touched it in some time. A lot of people think it’s a hard read from the sheer size, but actually, it’s divided into four volumes with chapters no longer than any other novel. You could easily finish a couple before bedtime.

As I jumped straight back into the story and remembered what had happened, I enjoyed it as much as I did the last time I picked it up. But have I touched it again since then? I really want to say yes, but I have not.

The trouble is not finding the time per se, but alloacating it. You see, a lot of what I do in a week is time-sensitive: creating announcements for my groups, writing this blog, keeping up my exercise routine. Reading, alas, doesn’t need to be done by any particular time, so it’s often left behind.

That said, I’m going to make a concerted effort with Mort by Terry Pratchett. On Saturday, I’m again meeting up with the woman who lent it to me about a year ago, and I’d like to be able to return it fully read.

The Fight Against a Bad First Impression

Every Tuesday, our National Novel Writing Month (NaNo) group meets virtually on a Discord server. This is software that was originally designed to allow users to chat while playing computer games, but the layout and features makes its useful for writers too.

By default, servers are not open to the public, so users have to receive an invitation issued by an administrator, namely me or my assistant. These can be generated or revoked easily, and we can change how many times they can be used and their expiry dates.

As part of our NaNo affiliation, we’re required to make the official website the first port of call for members, and we have a Dundee & Angus region page to make announcements. We can, of course, can cross-post links to other places like Discord.

Unfortunately, when I last refreshed the link a week ago, I posted the wrong one. Existing members could use the server as normal, but new users wouldn’t be able to join. I found this out because a new member had twice posted on the region page saying that she had finally worked up the courage to join the group, then found the link didn’t work.

It took 25 minutes to notice this because the official website doesn’t notify organisers of any posts to our region page. I also spoke to my counterparts in other regions about this incident, and it seemed this was also a source of annoyance among them.

Because we weren’t notified, the member probably thought we were ignoring her when we simply weren’t aware of her message. That frustrates me: first impressions stick, and it wasn’t our fault. What’s more, people also talk to each other about their bad experiences – and I would do the same – making it even harder to fight back the tide.

As soon as I realised what had happened, I immediately e-mailed out a corrected link to the whole region. I was able to send the member a private message, and the other region runners said it was likely she would have been notified of that. I also asked our region members whether anyone knew her personally, so we had another way of reaching out.

Happily, she responded about 24 hours later, and I was able to apologise for the mix-up and to welcome her to the Discord server. What’s even better is that we’ve attracted two other members in the last week or so, and we remain as active as ever.

Building an Archive

Just before I settled down to write this, I spotted I’ve published exactly 400 blog entries since beginning in 2013.

On the one hand, that’s not surprising as it equates to approximately one post per week, yet it’s still a powerful demonstration of how regular and consistent writing can help to build a useful archive.

Let’s take my own work as an example. In the folders containing my poetry and short stories, I have more than 320 distinct pieces. I also like to keep revisions, so many of them house multiple copies showing the evolution of each piece: some complete and others abandoned.

If you’re a new writer, I strongly advise you to keep all your work, even if you don’t like it at the time. If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt from a decade of writing, it’s that some pieces need to be left in a drawer for a while and looked at again with fresh eyes.

Last year, I tasted this from the other side when I started taking art lessons last year. One recurring problem – especially at the beginning – was when I knew something was wrong with my drawing, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to go back and see what’s wrong.

I’ve also had a hand in creating an archive of other people’s work.

Since March of last year, my open-mike night Hotchpotch has maintained a YouTube account in lieu of live events. I was initially disappointed that we receive perhaps five submissions per month compared to the 25 or so who would perform in person. But those small contributions each month have steadily built up to a library of 73 videos at last count.

When people now ask what our event is like, we can now direct them towards that page. For that reason, I’m keen to maintain it even once we can meet up again.

Knowing My Own Limits

I’m often uncertain what to write on this blog until I actually sit down to type it out. But I’ve recently been plauged with a different problem, where I know exactly which topic I want to cover, but I can’t find an angle for it.

Some months ago, I was reminded about African American Vernacular English (AAVE). The University of Hawai’i has an excellent introduction, breaking down the usage into vocabulary, sounds and grammar. My trouble is that I’ve nothing to add beyond that as don’t know any native speakers personally, so my experience is limited to what I’ve heard in films and on TV.

If I were to pursue this topic in the future, it’s possible I could draw parallels with the Scots language.

One example from the university link above is using the word bad to mean good. It can, of course, still mean bad, but the meaning may depend on its context. Meanwhile, I grew up listening to Scots speakers talk about the morn’s morn. The first morn means tomorrow, while the second means morning. But again, it’s a matter of context, as the phrase can also be used to refer to the indefinite future, much like the Spanish mañana.

Aside from that short analysis, I feel that’s as far as I can go with discussion of AAVE, certainly for the time being.

Finding Poetry from Odd Sources

Poets are often characterised as agonising for hours over a single word or phrase, or even a punctuation mark. Yet sometimes, the source material arrives almost wholesale and just needs a little packaging. This is the art of found poetry.

In 2003, the journalist Hart Seely wrote a piece for the Slate website in which he took chunks of speeches by Donald Rumsfeld, who was then the US Secretary of Defense, and turned them into short verses. The phrase ‘There are known knowns,’ caught the imagination of the public for a brief time.

Sometimes the phrase is just a single line that the poet then expands into a further thought. Some years ago, Luke Wright took a quote by Boris Johnson and turned it into a piece called Once You Clear the Bodies. In this instance, a lot has been added to that one line in a satirical manner.

Away from politics, a classic source of material is the shipping forecast, issued by the Met Office. Looking at any given part of it, there are no wasted words; even a phrase like ‘gale force 8’ often has ‘force’ removed to increase its brevity. The forecast is also broadcast on BBC Radio 4, always at a moderate pace, which is easily parroted and parodied.

If you’re dabbling in found poetry, always be careful not to steal someone’s work outright. The examples above use politicians’ statements and public weather reports, so they’ll generally be safe to use.

But simply adding line breaks to work that’s already creative, such as a novel or a film script, is unlikely to be considered fair use. In short: have fun but be cautious.

Style Counsel

Every so often, I find I naturally lean towards writing in a certain style. There was a long while where I was churning out poems in triolet form, then I went through a clerihew period, and a time of short free-verse work.

At the moment, I’m drawn towards producing longer and more wistful pieces, as demonstrated in last week’s entry with a video of a recent poem called The Living Ghosts. With a running time of more than two minutes, it’s the longest poem I’ve produced for some time.

Sometimes there will be a trigger for writing in a particular manner, but often there isn’t anything specific.

I find that if you have such an impetus, the best way to deal with it is to run with it. I have a spot at an open-mike on Sunday, and I want to produce something original, so I’ll be letting that wistfulness come out before it turns into another style.

Hearing Yourself Back

Over approximately a ten-year period, I volunteered at three different radio stations. The first was a student station at the University of the West of Scotland, which overlapped with my second, a community station in Govan. These gigs were then followed by an eight-year stint on hospital radio in Dundee.

During this time, I became so accustomed to hearing recordings of my work that I can’t recall the last time it bothered me. As such, I often forget that many people don’t like listening to themselves.

The main reason I gave up the hospital radio was to focus on writing, but the ability to play back your own recordings is definitely a transferable skill. I also have a camcorder, and I used to ask someone to film my live performances so I could learn from them.

During this last year of online gigs, going on camera has become almost the only way to perform to a live audience. Here’s one that’s been submitted to Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists for an event tonight:

Submission to Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists for an event tonight.

When I look at that, I can see it’s not very well framed, and there are a few pauses towards the end as the last few lines were improvised. However, the sound is nice and loud, so it’s good enough for the purposes of the event.

A Short Piece About Short Pieces

Ten years ago next month, I joined my first writing class with the author Zoe Venditozzi.

In each lesson, she would give us a prompt, which might comprise a sentence, a few words or even a photograph. We’d then have five or ten minutes to write a paragraph or a passage inspired by it, sometimes with extra restrictions like using a particular viewpoint or writing a certain number of words. Many actors take improv classes to hone their skills, and this was the writers’ equivalent.

Since then, I’ve built up a considerable volume of short pieces, many of which have been revised over the years, but nothing that forms a larger cohesive work on a single theme.

Some time ago, I wanted to change this, and add some longer-form pieces to my archives. These turned into stage plays: one is ready to go, the other needs to be redrafted. I also have in mind a radio play that is mapped out but needs to be written.

Now, I’m ready to go back and write shorter pieces. I’m in a poetry monthly group that keeps me focussed on producing work for the next meeting, and I wrote another original poem for the purposes of performing to a virtual audience yesterday.

Along with this, I also need to return to the habit of responding to publishers’ requests for pieces. I used to aim to send an average of one a week, and that still seems like a manageable target.