The Stand-In

At around 5pm on Monday of last week, I received an e-mail from my former tutor Eddie Small. He was to stage his play The Four Marys on the Wednesday and Friday to mark the publication of the script, but one of the actors had dropped out for family reasons.

The Four Marys by Eddie Small – note that Brian Cox is the actor, not the professor
The Four Marys by Eddie Small – note that the foreword is by Brian Cox the actor, not the professor

I immediately agreed to step in; everyone would be reading their lines from paper so there would be little to learn. The play takes a humorous look at the history of Dundee through the eyes of four real historical figures who shared the same first name. My role was that of a bored tour guide who comes in at the beginning to usher a dignitary through her duties and appears again at the end to release two tourists who have been trapped in a museum for the whole play.

Although I’m accustomed to performing poetry, acting is a different skill: you’re reading someone else’s words and directions, whereas a poetry reading can be more flexible. Additionally, poets are often allowed to read from the page, although not always, while a professional actor must memorise each line.

Both performances turned out well, and I was particularly excited about being allowed to improvise so there wasn’t an awkward silence as I reached the stage. An ad-libbed line about being on a zero-hour contract went down particularly well with the audience.

It’s definitely an experience I would repeat; in fact, I would like to take part in more improv. I believe it’s one of the best ways a writer can sharpen their skills. When you’re in a scene, you’re under pressure to recall what you already know or to make it up on the spot.

Some desk research suggests that The Four Marys – published by The Voyage Out Press – is for sale locally, but is not yet available online. Here’s where you can find out more about the play.

Advertisements

Press play.

Recently, I’ve rediscovered the art of playwrighting. National Novel Writing Month used to have an offshoot called Script Frenzy. In 2012, its last year, I wrote my first and only full-length script: a stage play for two actors. Since then, I’ve become more comfortable with dialogue in prose, and how it can be used to imply action, or indeed how an action can omit several lines of speech. I haven’t yet edited my Script Frenzy work, but I imagine I could tighten up the dialogue and cut out many of the directions.

One thing that strikes me about penning a play is that you must have a clear idea of where it’ll be performed, not just which venue, but where in the world. A radio drama, for instance, will be radically different from a screenplay, and done on a vastly different budget. Even taking a stage play from London’s West End to Broadway will require the script to be laid out in a different format. But once you know where it’ll be set, the rest falls into place.

Scrivener, for instance, offers several different templates, including all the ones mentioned in the last paragraph, and any that aren’t shown by default can probably be downloaded. You tell the program your next action by pressing Enter or Tab at the end of each line. I’ve found this software a joy to work with for novelling, and just as good for scripts.

It’s most important, however, to remember that playwrighting is not for control freaks. The moment you give it to a director, he or she will have different ideas about how your words should be presented to an audience. You might imagine your characters sitting opposite sides of a table dressed formally, but the director might see them in jeans cuddled up next to each other. The writer has limited input in this process. The only way to guarantee it goes the way you want is to become a director yourself.