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Ian McMillan's Writing Lab interviews: Mark Ravenhill on... play writing

Updated Thursday, 18th January 2007
Mark Ravenhill explains why risking odd looks at the bus stop might make you a sharper playwright in this exclusive extra interview from Writing Lab.

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Certainly a certain type of playwright does take great pleasure in going to an office and listening to what the buzzwords are in offices this year, because that changes from year to year, management speak, the kind of words that politicians are using this year, the kind of words that school kids are using this year. Every job, every profession, every social class has its own vocabulary, and they change year on year, and I think one of the jobs of a playwright is to listen to those and keep up to date with those.

I think on the whole you instinctively listen to the different rhythms of the way that people speak. Some people do speak in a more kind of flowing, mellow kind of a way, and some people have a more kind of jerky way of expressing themselves and, but if you do find yourself getting stuck writing dialogue and everybody sounds the same, then I think one way to break free of that is actually to deliberately play around with the rhythms of the characters.

Think of some people having a slow, quite mellow way of expressing themselves, and other people being quite spiky and quite sharp. Even listen to different types of music for each character. So say this character reminds me of this piece of classical music, and this character reminds me of this piece of hip-hop music, and when I'm trying to get into the way that they speak, I'll put that piece of music on my headphones.

I think when I'm writing, the most important thing for everything, for getting the scene and the character right is really what the character wants, the thing that drives them through that scene, and that's really going to dictate the way that they speak, the language that they use.

So I want to know whether their character wants to flatter the other person that they're in the scene with, or other people that they're in the scene with, or bully them or persuade them to give them £100, or it's really about what one person is trying to do to another person and what they're trying to achieve. And it's probably useful to think of it on the whole in terms of a verb - bully, flatter, seduce - and once you know you're seducing or you're bullying, then that's going to dredge up all sorts of different types of language from you as a writer. If I'm bullying the other person, it's going to make me feel and use different words and different length of sentences and different rhythms than if I'm trying to seduce somebody.

I think on the whole a play is obviously a very short medium compared to a novel. So you've got very few words. So it is a lot about economy. So I very early on I started just writing scenes by just giving myself little exercises of saying that each character was only allowed to speak for three or four words before the next character would speak so that they couldn't go on and have great long speeches.

So they would have to say I really don't like that, oh yes you do, but I want you to, there's no way, and so that it was kept very terse, and then occasionally I'd let them off the hook so they'd have a whole magnificent eight words where they'd be allowed to speak. And that's not necessarily a golden rule, but it's quite a good discipline because obviously more people if they err, err on the side of overwriting, than they do underwriting.

And it's good to get into a scene as late as possible and get out of a scene as early as possible. You don't need to have all the come in, let yourself in, can I make you a cup of tea before actually the characters start to get into the meat of the scene. They'll reveal themselves through the dialogue. I mean, I think that when you start you feel very self consciously: how will they ever reveal to the audience who they are, how old they are, how long they've known each other, where they hid the money, and blah, blah, blah, blah and so on, but actually if you know all that stuff, they will gradually reveal it through the dialogue, and if they don't reveal it through the dialogue, it probably means that it wasn't necessary anyway. So gradually, I think, you learn to let go of that kind of fear that somehow you've got to force the characters to tell all this stuff to the audience.

I mean, I think always a question to ask about a scene is do you need any dialogue at all given that it's also a visual medium and in a different way radio is a visual medium as well, then always to sit down and write the dumb show version of the scene where you describe the action from the beginning to the end and see how much of it can be conveyed by what the characters do to each other physically, what they do with props, what happens in the space, and whether in fact you need any language at all is always a good exercise. I think at the end of the day you often realise that actually words and language are very, very important on the stage, but it's always a good exercise to take them away and see, and often you'll find that one or two props or one or two bits of moments of light or sound or something can become very, very important.

I think one of the things that I think I've really, really drawn on when as a teenager I used to go to little drama classes, we used to learn speeches. So I was always regularly learning twenty lines from Shakespeare or learning a speech from Waiting for Godot or whatever, and I think actually just instead of reading plays on the page, having to learn them and then having to stand up and act them in front of other people is really, really good exercise. And I think feeling how a dramatist's words feel on your lips and your teeth, how it feels in your stomach, what it does to your chest is really, really important. So I think if people want to write, they should pick two or three dramatists whose work they really like and learn some of it and actually walk around the house, or if you feel very bold, at the bus stop, and speak that stuff aloud and see how it feels. It's not something that you can analyse intellectually, but it's a very physical way of engaging with play writing.

I would say the best thing to do is not to even worry about the exposition. Certainly never have people picking up the phone and saying The Grange, the maid speaking, yes there's been a murder, and all that kind of stuff, put the characters in the middle of the action, and they will reveal to each other and to the audience this stuff that we need to know.

Plays aren't so much about narrative and story as film is I think because we watch so much film and TV, we want to pack as much narrative into a play as we would into an hour of television, and TV is very hungry of narrative, and plays actually don't need very much narrative. So therefore, they actually don't need very much exposition either because you're not constantly telling people information and story.

So you may just have a few little points of exposition that you want the audience to get across. You may have a few points of exposition that you want to get across to the audience, but they should probably be a very few, and actually the characters will reveal them. If you pitch them into the middle of the situation, if you give them really strong needs that they want stuff from each other, they're trying to do stuff to each other through the language, then exposition will happen naturally, and suddenly you'll say oh she's just told him what I wanted the audience to know, I didn't have to force them to do that at all, and once you just relax with that side of things, then you take a big step forward I think in your playwrighting.

Theatre plays are driven by language in a way that film and television aren't. They're driven by language in different ways depending on who the writer is, so there is no golden rule, but actually there needs to be an energy, there needs to be a muscularity about the language of a play. The characters, something has got to impel somebody on from the wings, and they've got to be impelled to tell somebody who often on stage is twenty feet away from them, and they've got to be impelled to tell them something.

So it's a world of quite strong needs. A camera can discover somebody and they can mumble something, and a little mic that's stuck behind their ear can kind of pick it up, so there isn't quite that same kind of compulsion behind characters' need to speak in film and screenwriting, but stuff has got to really send somebody out into the stage and send them and send something right up to the back of a theatre, even in a relatively small theatre. So you've got to really find out what it is that compels characters to speak and what's propelling this play forward, and why you want to write it. I think that you can sometimes slightly hide in TV and film writing as to exactly why you're writing what you're writing, but theatre will always find you out; you've got to really know why you're writing your play.

I normally can't write the scene until I've discovered what the characters want. So I identify that at the beginning. Either very, very consciously I'll write a scene and say he's coming on and wants £100 from her, or I'll have something of a sense of it, and then twenty lines into watching the scene it will click and I'll realise what it is, and then the scene will be much, much easier to write. But I can't really write unless I have quite a strong sense of what it is the characters want from each other because that's what propels the scene forward, that's what kind of creates the narrative of the scene, that's what creates the type of language that the characters use. To me it's all about those essential wants.

I think you have to hold on to why you initially wrote a play. You have to remember what it was, that initial impulse to write the play, even like a little slip of paper reminding yourself what this play is about and why you set out to write it, but it's worth being ruthless with yourself and getting the play as close as you possibly can to that initial impulse that you had. On the other hand, most plays are flawed, and the plays that have stood the test of time aren't the ones that are flawless. It's a kind of Hollywood notion of script development that you create the flawless script. Flawless scripts are often the scripts that are forgotten next year, and a play like Miss Julie is by no means a flawless play, but there is just something about it that just means generations of actors and directors and audiences come back to it. So you should I think have pride in your work as a writer. Want the scenes, want the acts to be as strong as you can possibly make them, but don't ever aim for the flawless.

If I'm stuck writing and I get to a point in a scene and I feel stuck, all I do is I just make something change in the scene. I just almost clap my hands and one of them suddenly gets angry, or suddenly one of them receives a letter or something, and I'll find out ten lines later why they suddenly got angry or why the letter suddenly arrived, but rather than just have the characters either not say anything or have them treading water, I just have this rule which I call all change. So I just kind of clap my hands and shout out all change, and something has to happen, and then I can come back to it the next day and bend that, but at least I didn't just sit there and agonise over the fact that I couldn't write at all. I could write something and it wouldn't just be a repetition of just treading water.

It really is always worth remembering that your play is not something for you to read to yourself, that it is something for a group of actors and then for an audience to enjoy, and it's always worth hearing your play read aloud. You don't need fantastic actors, you don't even need trained actors, but when you've got a draft that you're reasonably happy with, you should always get together a group of your friends, bribe them with a bottle of wine or whatever it takes, and get them to read your play aloud to you because you hear so much. If you can resist the temptation to tell them how to say every line but actually listen to what's coming from the way that they're reading it and tune into where the play is really alive and where the play sags and where the play treads water and where the play is moving forward, then you can learn more in an hour from your play being read aloud to you than you can by just sitting and staring at it for a month.

I would say don't get too hung up on all your characters sounding the same because most playwrights do have a distinctive tone. So Pinter's characters, Chekhov's characters, to a certain extent Shakespeare's characters, they're all fairly similar. Again I come back to this thing of just finding out what their want is in the scene. So if each character has got a very clear objective, a want of something that they need that's impelled them onto the scene, that will make them different from the other characters on stage.


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