Recycling in Word, I came across this 15-year-old letter to the director of my stage-play, Pariah, which premiered in Saint Andrews in 2001. The play opens with executed criminals being interviewed Jerry Springer style and ends with the suicide of the protagonist, the son of a hangman. I’m posting it since it contains some thoughts on theatre, acting, and pacing that I firmly adhere to today. Perhaps for British theatre aficionados, it’s been a buzz, notwithstanding, for me to read it again. God I love theatre.
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A few thoughts for you. They are a little random, but of use, I hope. Take that which follows from one who has lots of British theatre experience, and not as a criticism of anything you have proposed for Pariah.
As I said, the theatre in this country holds different expectations that in the USA. Spectacle is the sought after commodity in American theatre: the immediacy of comedy takes its place over and above the script; visualisation is the key. We have to thank Andrew Lloyd Webber for our need to see TV when we are in a theatre. But theatre – to me at least – is never about the individual moments of high drama. It’s all about the low drama beforehand and after. They determine how high you’ll go.
That difference between Film and TV and Theatre is crucial. The theatre is a three dimensional, living space. Everything and everyone on stage is there to be seen, at all times. This is one of theatre’s great benefits: that a character can be built slowly, given that his every movement is scrutinised over two hours. The greatest physical comedy comes from the deftest of movements aligned with the timing of the lines
Pariah gives you the opportunity to create an entire world for the occupation of the audience’s minds. Every single thing on stage – inanimate or not – has a life; but a life that needs to be justified within the context of this fiction. The more the audience is made to reckon with the everyday, the more powerful becomes the surreality of the ultimate penalty. In a sense Pariah is about ordinary people faced with the ‘ordinary’ response of the law. The real, physical, high-dramas of their pasts – the crimes, the sentencing, the hanging – have already been played out. We now have the opportunity to see them as nobody has seen them before – as ordinary people. We often call serial killers monsters so as to distance ourselves – as humans – from the bestiality of our foes. But serial killers are human too: they drink tea, they fall in love, they queue up for buses, they can’t eat spaghetti properly. You get the idea. . .
I find that so much of the visual these days relies on the ordinary person in the extraordinary moment. Well in the case of Derek’s home life the reverse applies. Our pivots are living their lives as they know how: struggling to communicate, preferring silence to the activity required of the voice. But this is not to say that they live their lives as only they know how. This lack of mutual warmth – this positive frigidity – chills families in every village, in every town. . .ad nauseam. The relentless repetition of home life is a slow-tightening noose. Add to that the lack of any language with which to respond and you have death by suffocation.
Derek is an embodiment of dispassion. This does not mean that he lacks passion, rather that he is detached from the passion that surrounds him. The dreadful spiral of questions never answered is largely the work of Derek’s inability to leave his work at the office. His attitude towards execution is as mechanical as the bolts and rope with which he carries it out. He doesn’t suffer guilt for what he does; he just brings home all the mental cosmetics of the funereal. In other words, he is a miserable, incommunicative git, which cloak is also thrown over his wife and son. Chicken and potatoes: the culinary equivalent of Derek’s mind: dull, reticent, done with eyes closed.
Such a prop as the shirts on the ironing board will bring lots to Derek. How he can let them dangle given what he does for a day job? How he might rub the collars? And later, when he snaps the shirt taut at the journalist, should prove to be quite shuddering. But underplayed, always underplayed. The caress and not the punch. The subtlety will give real depth to the world that you are creating.
Pariah is set in the times indicated. The characters ages are worked around the year 1946, the year in which Melvin was born – correspondingly the year of the executions at Nuremberg. This is an important symbolic distinction: that Melvin should be dragged untimely from his mother’s womb at the very moment that a grand retribution is taking place against atrocity. I would be wary about enshrouding characters with 1990’s-style
Tropes. This will often lead to caricature, which will inevitably bore your audience. That is why I see no point in saying that we have a wonderful opportunity to do something entirely without precedent, and yet relying on the precedent of cliché – the leather jacket tough guy, for example – so as to nail down the point. What you have is a unique opportunity to show to an audience a side of great wickedness that is always overlooked, i.e. the side that is not wicked.
For the criminals to be believable they have to be individually balanced. They are a pretty tough lot, yet they should also be capable of reflecting frailties. That is why Ruth is shaping up so well already. We know that she was hanged because she shot to death her lover; but these are just facts. This is the ‘extraordinary’, if you like. What we need is fiction to provide the emotional concordance with the ‘real’ life (i.e. as lived before the crime) as well as life as a result of the punishment (and even, in Ruth’s case, life during the punishment). Ruth is certainly not guilty, but neither is she innocent. The Southern flirt (think Jerry Hall in The Graduate), the sense of need, the implacability of temper in a body in which the mind cannot revoke an immediate instruction: these are the ‘ordinary’ things to bear in mind when emotion sculpting. I’ll drop you a few notes on other characters as I see the opportunity.
The weight of silence hangs all over the play from the end of the Spiv Greenstreet show to the Vaudeville ending (that’s why these bookends work for me: they present the freedom to speak without constraint). There is a distinct claustrophobia (guess why!) that inhibits Derek, Melvin, Gertrude and Grimaux. For them, personal interaction is disjunctive, tangential. There is a stifling of emotion throughout these roles (which bursts when Grimaux is drunk and working the story about the Eiffel Tower etc.). What bonding there is is more of the manacle kind than of the sentimental. Derek’s dark clouds are pendulous. You need to work to produce that slow-throttling effect that comes to close down all exits (but don’t think Sartre: this is not about people searching for philosophical autonomy, but about people bound to external philosophical impositions. i.e. to live or to die).