A new way to find the perfect play script

Overcoming the tyranny of choice

Sue Gordon

Some time ago, Sue Gordon made a plea for us to add a “busy teacher” button to the Lazy Bee Scripts web site.  This was essentially “never mind all that choice, just give me the script I want”.  At the time I mocked Sue by suggesting that the real message was “never mind all that choice, just give me one of Sue Gordon’s scripts”.  (Nothing wrong with that.  She writes very well. If what you want is one of Sue Gordon’s scripts, then they’ll be absolutely perfect for you.)  The difficulty with Sue’s suggestion is the amount of mind reading involved.  On the other hand, her point is a serious one.  Offering a hundred scripts is off-putting to someone who has time to look at no more than three.  At the time of writing this, we are offering 2721 on our web site.  That amount of choice can be overwhelming.  (We even have scripts about the tyranny of choice.  See the sketches Skinny Cap to Go by Richard James and, in a different style, The Coffee Shop by Ray Lawrence.) So we’ve implemented a new search engine called Find A Few.

Find A Few doesn’t work quite as well as Sue Gordon would like (it sometimes suggests other people’s scripts), but it’s as close as we’re going to get.  It can be approached in two ways: firstly there’s a Find A Few option in the Search menu.  In that case, Find A Few will start with no prior information and will ask questions until it reaches a manageable number of scripts (or none, if the customer wants something we haven’t got).  Secondly (better in my opinion – but that reflects the way I would search) every time other searches or links lead to a list of more than three possible scripts, a Find A Few button appears which will allow the customer to narrow down within their current field of search.

Take for example, our wealth of scripts involving Cinderella.  Currently, if you approach this via the Pantomime pages and the Cinderella link, you will get to a list of 43 scripts.  Just above that listing, there is a button to [Find a Few] which will then ask questions to determine what manner of Cinderella you want.  Our goal is to narrow down to no more than three scripts.

Guess Who

Are you familiar with the Guess Who board game?  The object of the game is to identify a character from a field of 24 by eliminating those who don’t share particular characteristics (hair colour, spectacles, beards, moustaches, and so on.)  The game has been around long enough to draw academic comment about how well it represents demographics.  (It doesn’t.  The original characters were created for easy grouping into overlapping sets; so, for example, it under-represents women, not least because the designers chose two forms of facial hair which are easy to represent visually, as is male-pattern baldness.)
The Find A Few search engine works in a similar way: it asks (largely) binary questions to reduce the number of scripts suggested.  It chooses the questions by selecting characteristics that will (ideally) pick (or eliminate) half the remaining scripts.

In our Full Search engine, the customer chooses the issues that are important to them.  With Find A Few, the computer chooses the questions.  It may well ask something that the customer doesn’t care about, or hasn’t thought about (“Do you want a set with practical doors or windows?”)  In doing so, it will exclude lots of plays that the customer would enjoy, but it does so to find the most efficient path to a manageable set of scripts.

All this is to offer the customer a small number of plays without trying to tell them what they want.  (“People who bought Dig In for Murder also purchased a bottle of poison, a flash-light and a spade.”)

The Font of All Knowledge

Amongst many other things, Lazy Bee Scripts publishes plays intended for performance by young children.  Young in this case can be taken as meaning relatively new to reading and writing.  As a result, I am perpetually niggled by the issue of readability.

Actually, this is a specific case of a general issue: what constitutes a readable font?  Whenever I dip into the academic literature on this subject I get two contradictory answers.  The first answer is that seriffed fonts (those with tiny lines decorating the tips of the strokes of a letter), Times Roman, for example, are more readable because the serifs help to define and distinguish the letters.  The second answer is “the plainer the better”, so sans serif fonts are easier to read because they are less fussy.  To date, Lazy Bee Scripts has gone with the former verdict, however I am unhappy about this for scripts aimed at the early years of the education system.

The reason for my discomfort stems from the start of the alphabet.  Look at the lower-case letter A in Times New Roman, then compare it to the way the letter is taught for handwriting.avsa5 The printing font – in this case Times New Roman – has a curl going back over the top of the letter.  (David Lovesy, who, when he is not writing or performing comedy sketches, works in the art and design field, tells me that this ornament is called a terminal.  He also tells me that this information is useless, unless it happens to come up in a pub quiz.)  This is not taught as part of the (early years) writing process, not least because it is unnecessary for distinguishing the letter.

Now, you may think that this feature of the lower case A is part of a seriffed font.  Not so.  Take a look at the common sans serif fonts – Arial for example – and you’ll find that the vast majority have the terminal.  (Irritatingly, many fonts, including Times New Roman, lose the terminal for their Italic versions.)

This came to a head for me whilst I was working on I’ll See You In My Dreams.  Michal Y Noah’s book for young children has been adapted into a play (to which I contributed the songs).  So I embarked (not for the first time) on a hunt for a better font for early readers.  You might think that there are a lot of fonts available with the schoolbook a – and so there are, but most of them have other problems.  There are two issues: all letters need to be distinct (low confusability), and the font needs to look professional. The vast majority fail at the first hurdle:-ivsl2 (For adult readers, the similarity between those two glyphs doesn’t matter, because we will interpret them according to context.  For young children, this is an unnecessary complication.)  The obvious contender that passes the confusability test is Comic Sans, but it doesn’t look professional.  (In defence of Comic Sans, it was never intended to look professional; it was created by Vincent Connare to look like the font used in the handwritten speech bubbles in comic books. It fulfils its purpose, but it wouldn’t look great in a newspaper, a business report or a play script.)

In the end, I settled on two fonts: Primer Print (from Typodermic Fonts), which works for body text, but (in my view) not so well as a title font, and Fibel Vienna (by Peter Wiegel), which is better for headlines, but (I think) has the wrong aspect ratio for body text.  I have provided an example here (pdf), showing what the same text looks like in Times New Roman and in Primer Print.  I’ve implemented this approach for I’ll See You In My Dreams, and if the general view is favourable, we’ll apply it to other scripts for children.

If you have experience of, or strong opinions about this issue, feel free to leave a comment below.

Is The Mouse A Creature of Great Personal Valour?

(And did Benjamin Britten talk like Terry Thomas?)

This week I listened to the episode of In Our Time (BBC Radio 4) about parasitism.  As usual, Melvyn Bragg’s guests included his go-to geneticist, Professor Steve Jones.  Jones the Genes is always good value.  Good value for his erudition, but also for his characteristic aphorisms.  This time the Jonesisms included “Words like ‘positive’ and ‘good’ don’t belong in biology” and “We owe our sex lives to our parasites.”

The programme reminded me about Toxoplasma (which I’d first come across in The Selfish Gene).   It’s one of the sort of parasite that has a lifecycle that takes it through multiple hosts, in this case, rodents and cats.  It needs both stages to complete its lifecycle.  To facilitate this, the parasite has evolved to modify the behaviour of rodents.  Normally rodents avoid cats (and avoid the smell of cats), but when infected with Toxoplasma, a mouse will become careless or even attracted to cats by their smell, thus increasing the risk of predation.  Jones stated that up to a third of the human population is also infected with Toxoplasma, even though that is of no benefit to the lifecycle of the parasite.  Apparently it has an impact on (“causes” may be too strong) mental conditions such as schizophrenia and depression.

christopher_smartThat got me thinking about Christopher Smart.  I hope that when you read the title of this post, you remembered Betteridge’s Law.  That’s the one that runs “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”  However, the 18th century poet and writer Christopher Smart would have answered “yes”.

I have encountered Smart through singing – attempting to sing – Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb which uses extracts from Smart’s poem Jubilate Agno as its libretto.  Smart was an involuntary inmate of an asylum when he wrote it, and when you read it, you can see why.  It is, at heart, a religious poem, but it wanders from its path, partly, it seems to me, playfully, and partly rambling bizarrely.
It starts with a general purpose:

Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Nations, and languages, and every Creature, in which is the breath of Life.
Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his name together.

It then goes on to name pairs of biblical men and beasts, generally by association with their biblical tales, so we get (amongst many, and with Smart’s capitalisation)

Let Abraham present a Ram, and worship the God of his Redemption.
Let Balaam appear with an Ass, and bless the Lord his people and his creatures for a reward eternal.

(Balaam, you will recall, appears in the book of Numbers having a conversation with his ass.)

Let Daniel come forth with a Lion, and praise God with all his might through faith in Christ Jesus.

Ascribing faith in Christ Jesus to Daniel seems odd, being 600 years too early.  (There is also an oddity with Britten’s score at that point: he sets the word “lion” against a single note, whereas most of us would pronounce it with two syllables.  It can, of course, be pronounced as a single syllable, but only if one affects a voice like that of Terry Thomas.)

Later, Smart gets on to words and sounds.

For the relations of words are in pairs first.
For the relations of words are sometimes in oppositions.
For the relations of words are according to their distances from the pair.
For there be twelve cardinal virtues the gifts of the twelve sons of Jacob.
For Reuben is Great. God be gracious to Lord Falmouth.
For Simeon is Valiant. God be gracious to the Duke of Somerset.

And so on, pairing the sons of Jacob with English nobility for no apparent reason.  Then he has a paean of praise for his cat Jeoffry.  Having thought of the cat, he rambles on to mice:

For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.
For — this is a true case — Cat takes female mouse from the company of male — male mouse will not depart, but stands threatning and daring.
For this is as much as to challenge, if you will let her go, I will engage you, as prodigious a creature as you are.
For the Mouse is of an hospitable disposition.

Hang on a minute!  I doubt that Burns’ “Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beastie” is a creature of great personal valour, but Smart emphasises “this is a true case”.
I don’t doubt his observation, but that’s not normal mouse behaviour.  That’s a description of a mouse with a Toxoplasma infection.  (Which makes me speculate about the ultimate cause of Smart’s incarceration.)

That which we call a rose, by any other name…

This is a tip for authors.  Specifically it’s for playwrights, but it might be applied (with caution) to other fields of writing.

Our editors and proof readers keep finding inconsistencies in character names.  It’s not just an issue for first-time writers; we see this from experienced writers as well.  There are, of course, some identifiable causes.  During the writing process, names may change over time.  A character may have an official name, but (legitimately) be addressed by other characters using a nickname or diminutive.  A name may, in the wild, have multiple spellings; the writer may use several variations in the course of a script.  Misspellings of names are not necessarily caught by a spell checker.  The result is that speeches for the same character get assigned to multiple names.  Whilst a decent proof reader or editor will catch most of them, they may not catch them all, and, in any case, they should not have to.  It is the writer’s job to decide who they are writing about, to choose a character name, and stick to it.  (It’s the writer’s choice; a writer in two minds should not force the editor to arbitrate.)

So, what can a writer do to check a finished text for name consistency?
This tip assumes that you are using Microsoft Word.  (I’ve created the examples using Word 2007.  Other versions of Word will behave similarly.)  Other wordprocessors will do similar things, but you’ll need to find the controls for yourself.  (It also assumes that you’ve written a play!  If you work in another genre, you’ll need to decide how to apply this.)

Overview

What we’re going to do is to find every instance of every character name that should be in the play and we’re going to colour it red.  Any name that is left (in a speech assignment or direction) that isn’t in red is likely to be a mistake of some sort (either a mistake in the character name or a character missing from the character list.)

Find and Replace Basics

Open your script in Word and go to the Characters’ page – the one with the list of character names.
Open the Find and Replace window (hereafter, with Microsoft spelling, called a Dialog).  The keyboard shortcut to do this is Ctrl H.  It will probably look like this.

findandreplacedialog
Expand the dialog by clicking on the [More >>] button.  That will get you to the options we’re going to use.

Find the Lady

In our example, we’re going to find Cinderella.  So we type Cinderella into the Find box.

I’ve also checked the “Match case” box.  In some cases, this may help.  (Firstly it may help you identify character names with case errors.  Secondly, if you have a name that is also a common word or part of a common word, it avoids most instances – for example the syllable “King” may be a character name or may be part of “thinking”.)

findcinderella

The Lady in Red

Now we’re going to replace Cinderella with Cinderella – but we’re going to format the text so that it appears in red.

replacedarkred
With your cursor in the “Replace with” box, you can change the replace formatting by (obviously) clicking on the [Format] button and, from there, select “Font…”

Another dialog pops up, in which you can set the font colour.  (Although of course the dialog wants you to set the font color.)

replacefont

I happen to have chosen Dark Red.  Chose something that stands out for you – and a colour that you haven’t used for any other purpose.  (And what other purpose would you have for coloured text?)
Click [Okay] to return to the main dialog.
Click on [Replace All] and all your Cinderellas will blush dark red.

Rinse and Repeat

Follow the above steps for all the characters named in your character list.
When you’ve done that, you are ready to look at the text.  What you should see, is red text at the start of every line of speech (and everywhere else a character name is mentioned).  However, what you may see is something like this…

misplacedcinders
What stands out there is a different name for the same character.  Correct it!  Check the whole script, correcting as you go.

Clean up

Finally, when you’ve checked and corrected, go back to the Find and Replace dialog.  This time in the “Find what“ box,  clear all the text but set the Find [Format] to find the font colour Dark Red (or whatever you used.)

In the “Replace with” box, clear the text and set the replace font colour to “Auto” (usually another word for Black, assuming that Black is your default font colour).

replaceauto
[Replace All], and you will have cleaned up all the ruddy text.

The Horns of a Dilemma

Detail from Judgement by Jacob de Backer (16th century)Once again, I find myself drawn to bad language.  As usual, the cause is e-mail or, rather, e-mail filtering; a recent customer newsletter was rejected by a small number of (school) e-mail systems on the grounds of profanity.  It is not my intention to write offensive newsletters (they are mainly about new publications), so the compilation strategy is to avoid swearing.  In cases where words only have vulgar meanings, this is easy.  It gets harder, as I have mentioned before, where words have multiple meanings dependent on context.  Filtering is not good at context.  I am returning to this topic because the offending word was an odd one.  I think the cause of the problem was the title of David Pemberton’s Dance with the Devil.  Why is the devil banned from my communications?  The question is whether or not “devil” constitutes profanity.

That may seem obvious.  You could argue that the devil, being in opposition to God is, by definition, profane.  However, that which is profane is not necessarily profanity.  (Profane means ‘not sacred’ whereas profanity is swearing or other language that should be avoided in polite society.)  It might also be argued that ‘devil’ is a religious concept: a personification of evil.  But if you go to the source material, you will find relatively little about the devil in the Christian bible – mainly the temptation of Christ (by Satan) as described in three of the gospels, and various instances of “casting out devils” (describing demonic possession).  This should not be such a surprise: Christianity is monotheistic, believing in one omnipotent god; any elevation of the devil beyond the occasional anthropomorphic personification of evil would be to recreate a dualistic system along the lines of Manichaeism (which held that the universe was a perpetual struggle between equal opposing forces of good and evil).  So where do we get the notion of the devil as a consistent figure – the one with the horns and goat’s feet?  Largely through a combination of later Christian mythologizing and mediaeval art.  The former is a matter of joining biblical dots (notably from the books of Ezekiel, Isaiah and Revelations) to create a more coherent whole than appears in any of the sources.  The second is a matter of laziness.  In Anna Karenina, when Tolstoy said “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” he was talking lazy rubbish.  All happy families are different, but it is much easier – more dramatic – to describe the myriad ways people make each other miserable than it is to depict happiness.  Similarly, depicting the tortures of hell and the attendant demons is far easier than a dull depiction of the tranquillity of heaven.

So what we have is the over-elaboration of a metaphor.  Does that constitute profanity?  I don’t think so.  You can’t discuss the religious concept unless you name it.  I suppose that there is an argument to be made that representations of the devil (such as the 16th century one by Jacob de Backer shown here) constitute profanity, but it’s a pretty abstruse argument.  Then we have the original source of my problem: ‘dance with the devil’ is a metaphor, not a literal depiction or instruction.  Old Harry appears in similar expressions like ‘devil in the detail’ and nobody takes those as literal or offensive.  (At least, I don’t know of anybody who does.  Would anyone care to speak, for example, for the Plymouth Brethren in this respect?  I pick on them as a group who take such things very seriously and much more prescriptively than most of society.)

So are there any instances where use of ‘devil’ constitutes profanity?  Well yes.  You can call someone a devil offensively.  You can also tell them to go to the devil.  These days those uses constitute a vanishingly small minority when compared to legitimate religious use and common metaphor.  So filtering out e-mails that contain the word devil is every bit as lazy as the mediaeval depictions of the tortures of hell.

Apostroplexy

McMillan & Goss
The Bard of Barnsley & Luke Carver-Goss

I’ve recently (and accidentally) been exposed to some differing views on apostrophes.
I went to see a performance by Ian McMillan (poet and host of The Verb), appearing with the excellent musician Luke Carver-Goss.  They did a piece called Apostrophe Amnesty Day.  McMillan’s point was that, for the most part, punctuation is artificial and doesn’t matter much.  (Nobody articulates punctuation marks, therefore they are a feature of the way we choose to transcribe the language.)  McMillan argues that those of us who criticise greengrocers for their failing’s (sic) in advertising their cabbage’s (sic) are just wasting our time (and sneering for the sake of our own aggrandisement, rather than for the benefit of greengrocers’ customers).
A piece in German from Nicholas Richards reminded me that the German language doesn’t use apostrophes for possessives.  I then got into a social discussion with an retired teacher who expected apostrophes to become the norm for plurals as well as possessives.  He laid the blame on the influence of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy for being the start of a fashion in education that encouraged expression over precision, rewarding creativity and not pouncing on every mistake.  (I’m not sure that this is a fair representation of Hoggart’s legacy).

So if apostrophes can be used everywhere, don’t they become meaningless?  If German can do without them (for possessives), can’t we?

Many features of punctuation came from printing conventions.  Take the use of the capital letter I for the personal pronoun; that only arose as an attempt by printers to give the word due weight.  Compare it with the its Western European piers: je, ich, ik, io, yo and jeg do not take capitals.  Then look at the word shan’t.  It’s an abbreviation of shall not.  If the absent vowel deserves an apostrophe, why isn’t there one for the double ell?

The conventions are artificial, so for the most part, I’m with McMillan in believing that content (meaning) takes precedence over punctuation.  However, they are also a matter of established custom and practice, and I’m a publisher.  I’m prepared to shrug at unconventional usage when writing is there to lead to another subject (cabbages, for example).  On the other hand, when writing is the deliverable, clarity matters; sloppy punctuation distracts the reader and gets in the way of  the meaning.  That’s why I see occasional rants about apostrophe abuse from the likes of Damian and Dawn.  Don’t expect any leniency from proof readers.

What happens when you write sketch comedy

Lovesy3I am being tracked by robots.  This is mildly disconcerting.  The way it works is like this: I put out a tweet announcing another new comedy sketch by David Lovesy – this one, for example.  The tweet is picked-up and retweeted by two or three Twitter Bots – software automatons that scour social media for postings relevant to a particular subject and retweet them.  This seems fair enough.  The things that we publish in this field would seem to be directly relevant to Comedy Bot.  The presence of SitCom Bot amongst the retweeters suggests that these things are not particularly fine-tuned, and indeed they seem to be triggered purely by the words “Sketch” or “Comedy” appearing in a tweet.  To illustrate the consequences of this, consider Writing Bot which seems to retweet messages containing the word “write” or “writing”.  I found, for example, that it had retweeted someone’s complaint that “I will need to write a big cheque”.  This is a direct application of relativism, the standpoint that, when taking a broad perspective, all writing is of equal value.

These bots are primitive.  Someone putting the resource into it might be able to programme a learning algorithm to examine someone’s online presence and deduce the relevance of their output as a whole to a particular subject and therefore choose whether to retweet them on the basis of context, rather than just simple trigger words.  That’s possible with today’s technology (though not necessarily with technology easily available to Twitter users).

I find this disconcerting when I think about the mechanics of Twitter.  Twitter posts are public utterances, but they are received only by followers of the writer or by people (or robots) who go looking for them.  So a robot retweeting content only matters to people who follow the robot.  So who follows a robot?  I can think of two easy answers to that question: journalists and obsessives.  These are people who would be looking for content relevant to a specific area of interest and might legitimately want to cast the net as widely as possible.  What these people will receive is a few nuggets relevant to their research amidst a raging torrent of noise.  Robots are, of course, also followed by other robots.  This happens when a twitter account is automatically set to follow accounts that have retweeted its postings.  The result is that, over time, Twitter will become a robotic mutual appreciation society with minimal human involvement.