Category Archives: Plays

Shakespeare’s Pasties

An American customer pointed out something she supposed to be a typographical error in A Fifty-Minute Titus Andronicus (one of Bill Tordoff’s abridgements of Shakespeare).  This was both hilarious and troubling.  The customer said:-

I am doing this play with my class and just noticed a pretty significant typo that affects the plot.  In Scene 11, in Titus’ final speech, where he feeds the sons to Tamora in the pie, and the word pastries reads PASTIES.

She thought that this was both an error and a significant change of plot.

Now Bill Tordoff’s intention with all his abridgements is to preserve Shakespeare’s original language but to create a version short enough to be read in a single school lesson.  Thus in his reduction he cut out a couple of preceding lines, so he changed one word.  Nothing to do with pasties; he changed “And” (continuing from the previous lines) to “I’ll” to render the text:-

I’ll make two pasties of your shameful heads,

So ‘pasties’ occurs in the original Shakespeare.  The Bard uses the singular version in two other plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well That Ends Well.  In the latter, it comes in Parolles’ response to the threat of torture:-

I will confess what I know without constraint:
if ye pinch me like a pasty, I can say no more.

The culinary form is clear: a sort of pie made with a crimped (pinched) seam.  Shakespeare was thinking of a Cornish or Devenish pasty.

The teacher was right in as much as the derivation is the same as that of pastry (even though the pronunciation has diverted to Past-i), itself derived from the mixing of flour to form a paste.  But what was she thinking of, and why was she so alarmed?  The word she was thinking of is spelled the same as the Cornish Pasties, but is pronounced Paste-ies and refers to a modest covering of the nipples as modelled in the accompanying picture of Dita Von Teese.  In this context, I’ll make two pasties of your shameful heads, does paint a significantly different picture.

The troubling thing here is that the non-culinary meaning springs more readily to the mind of a literate teacher of drama.  I suppose that modesty pasties do find more uses on the stage than the Cornish variety, but nevertheless, I think that America may be missing out on a choice form of portable food.  Recently, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson (who has an admirable appreciation of Latin but a lamentable grasp of international trade) was talking about the opportunities for exporting haggis to the United States.  Perhaps he should take up the cause of the Cornish Pasty.

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.”)

How Long is a Piece of Theatre?

How long is...So you’ve written your play, now you want to know if it’s the right length.  At one level, that doesn’t matter: the ideal length for your play is the time it takes for you to say what you want to say.  The perfect play might last three minutes or three hours.  To someone selecting a play, however, the run time matters.  Does it fill an evening’s entertainment?  Does the length justify the effort of constructing the set?  Will it fit within the time limits allowed by a competition?  From that viewpoint, some way of estimating the length will be useful.

At this point, I have good news and bad news.  The good news is that you can make an estimate.  The bad news is that it won’t be perfect.  Firstly, some aspects of timing are outside the writer’s control: stage business, scene changes and slickness of production.  Secondly, style make a lot of difference to run time; for example, compare Samuel Beckett’s lengthy pauses to the manic pace of a Ray Cooney farce.  Estimates of stage time will be approximate. So what’s the best approximation?

Page Count

The most common way of estimating is Page Count, with the usual approximation being one minute per page.  The basic flaw in this is that it assumes that everyone uses a standard page layout.  They don’t (and, in my opinion, they should not – a play should be written in whatever format works best for the writer.  See, for example ‘Was Solzhenitsyn a Synesthete?‘).
The run time of a page of a play depends on:-

  1. The size of the paper (US Letter paper, used in North America is a different size from A4, used in most of the rest of the world).
  2. Page margins.
  3. Line spacing (single spacing? double spacing? single spacing within a speech and double spacing between speeches?).
  4. The point size of the font.
  5. The packing of the type face (monospaced fonts like Courier will occupy much more space than a highly-packed proportional font like Times New Roman).
  6. Average speech length.
  7. Style (a one-minute Beckett pause should consume a full page).
  8. All the performance issues over which the writer has no control.

Average speech length can cause major variations in estimated run time.  Compare the terse David Mamet to the long-winded George Bernard Shaw.  By my estimation, the first nine speeches of Mamet’s Duck Variations consume 23 words, whereas the first nine speeches of Shaw’s Arms and the Man weigh in at 296 words.  (In 11 point Courier1, those nine speeches of Mamet’s will occupy nine lines, but Shaw’s will occupy 31.)  Typically a page of Shaw, with ten words per line, will take much longer to read than a page of Mamet with three.

Word Count

Word Count does away with the first five factors affecting page count and most of the sixth. Just take the text from the opening scene-setting direction through to the final curtain and count all the words2.   All you need to know is that 10,000 words of script will occupy around an hour of stage time and pro rata from there – so 1000 words take six minutes3.  This is the same sort of estimate as the estimate behind Page Count, but Word Count does away with most of the variability in Page Count and will therefore, typically be more accurate with the additional advantage that it needs fewer rules.

Spurious accuracy

Just because Word Count is more accurate than Page Count, it doesn’t mean it’s perfect.  In addition to the issues of style and performance, some aspects of the writing may lead to an inaccurate estimation of duration.  Consider the following stage direction:

Carl takes a revolver from his briefcase, cleans it carefully then loads five bullets.

Word Count would say that takes five seconds, but that careful cleaning might last a minute. Then consider

Whilst Fran is talking, Carl takes a revolver from his briefcase, examines and cleans it slowly and carefully then loads five bullets, leaving one chamber empty.

Word Count allows nine seconds for this (the same action4), but actually it takes no time at all, because the time is occupied by Fran’s speech.  Directions can throw the estimate out in either direction.  (Note that this also applies to Page Count.)

On the Lazy Bee Scripts web site, we give an estimated length of each play based on Word Count.  We use the same measure throughout for consistency, and we base our category boundaries and the web site searches on that estimate.  Typically, this will mean rigid boundaries where reality is more fluid.  This is at its most problematical for one-act play competitions, where (typically) the rules require plays to run for between 20 minutes and 50 minutes, with penalties for breaking the rules.  Something that we estimate at 55 minutes may come in below the 50 minute boundary in a pacey production; a bit of creative stage business may make an 18 minute short play into a one-act festival piece.
For festival performers, the moral here is not to be too rigid with the published timings; find a piece you like, then test the length based on the way you intend to perform it.  For authors writing for festivals with time constraints, aim to give a cushion around the boundaries – but bear in mind my opening remarks about the perfect length.


Footnotes
  1. The speeches that took up 31 lines in 11 point Courier used 23 lines in Times New Roman.  Courier is a waste of space.
  2. Your word-processor will usually do the counting for you.
  3. I had been using 10,000 words per hour as a rule of thumb for several years when I came across a statistic that the typical speed of spoken English is 170 words per minute.
  4. Long-winded stage directions will distort run-time estimates.

 

Does the audience mind about repeats?

I recently asked an author to revise a script before we would publish it.  The reviewer had liked the play, but felt that the same plot device had been used too many times.  In feeding this back to the author, we took the view that the audience would notice the repetition and think worse of the play for it: too much coincidence and not enough invention.

A couple of days ago, via an excellent production at the Plaza Theatre, Romsey, I reacquainted myself with Much Ado About Nothing, and discovered that Shakespeare had used a plot device five times – and it was the same one that we had complained about.  The plot of Much Ado runs like this:-

  • Willian ShakespeareClaudio fancies Leonato’s daughter, Hero, but is too shy to approach her directly.
  • Claudio’s liege lord, Don Pedro, offers to do the wooing on Claudio’s behalf.
  • This plan is overheard by a servant of Antonio, Leonato’s brother.  Antonio reports the scheme to Leonato who approves.
  • The plan is also overheard by Borachio, who reports it to his lord, the wicked Don John.  Don John is Don Pedro’s brother and wishes to make trouble in his brother’s camp.  He does this by telling Claudio that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself.  This plot is foiled and Hero is betrothed to Claudio.
  • Meanwhile, Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato decide to turn the war of words between Benedick, one of Don Pedro’s knights, and Beatrice, Leonato’s niece, into a romance.  The three discuss Beatrice’s supposed love for Benedick where they know that Benedick will overhear them.  Hero and her friend Ursula discuss Benedick’s love for Beatrice where she will overhear them.  This goes well.
  • Borachio and Don John hatch another plot through which Don Pedro and Claudio come to believe that Hero is unfaithful.  After this has been successfully executed, a group of (otherwise idiotic) night watchmen overhear Borachio boasting about the plot and arrest him.  Thus eventually the scheme is undone and Claudio is reconciled with Hero.  (Beatrice and Benedick also plight their troth for as long as they can agree not to bandy words.)

(If you want a longer summary of Much Ado About Nothing, you can find Bill Tordoff’s thirty-minute abridgement of the play here.)

Did you spot it? The whole of the story hinges on things being overheard – two deliberately (to unite Beatrice and Benedick), three accidentally.  (There is arguably a sixth instance because Claudio believes he is hearing things from Don John that were not destined for his ears.)

Does this matter?  Well, yes it does if it makes the audience think that a play is dull or contrived.  Much Ado, as the title tells us, is a light piece – a romantic comedy if ever there was.  Nevertheless, it still needs a plot.  We enjoy the verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick, the melodramatic villainy of Don John and the silliness of the Watch, so Shakespeare gets away with it.  For modern writers, audiences will be less forgiving.

Naming the Nameless

There are many characters in plays whose names are never mentioned.  Formal introductions just get in the way of plot, so unless the audience needs to know that Mr Worthing is Ernest in the town and Jack in the country, the author doesn’t waste time telling them.  On the other hand, the director needs to know who plays whom, actors need to know who they are and who says which line.  Consequently (in the vast majority of plays) each spoken line is assigned to someone.

Whilst the names of the characters may not matter from the viewpoint of the audience, they make a difference to the rehearsal process and to the readability of the script.  Consider a script with four characters:
          Tall Man,
          Short Man,
          Loud Man,
          Disorientated Man
Some authors will abbreviate these to initials (TM, SM, LM, DM).  I dislike that because it looks horrible and it prompts the reader to translate: the director has to go between two levels to get from DM through Disorientated Man to Steve who is playing the role.

Another option is Man 1, Man 2, and so on.  This leaves most of the attribution redundant as what distinguishes the characters is not “Man”, but the single trailing digit.  Of course, it’s possible to assign lines to the distinguishing adjective – Tall, etc., but this doesn’t always work well (for example in a script with Tall Man and Tall Woman).

My preferred solution is just to give the characters names.  Since the names don’t matter, other than for the rehearsal process, it’s down to the whimsy of the author.  In A Little Night Music, there is a Greek chorus.  They could have been named Baritone, Tenor, Soprano 1, Soprano 2 and Mezzo-Soprano, but Sondheim choose quirky names, calling them Mr. Lindquist, Mr. Erlanson, Mrs. Nordstrom, Mrs. Anderssen and Mrs. Segstrom.  Samuel Beckett went for enigmatic: in Waiting for Godot, the script assigns lines to Vladimir and Estragon, but they call each other Didi and Gogo, and at one point Vladimir is addressed as Mr Albert. Tom Stoppard picked an alphabetical system in Dogg’s Hamlet, with Abel, Baker, Charlie, Dogg, Easy and Fox.

From the CATS production of Dogg's Hamlet
From the left: Dogg, Easy, Baker and Charlie

So the names don’t matter in themselves, but they can smooth the path to production.  Mind you, names don’t always make life easy and there is always the director’s dilemma of whether or not to address the actor by the character’s name.  I recently saw a production of Jumpers for Goalposts which included actors called Danni and Daniel, neither of whom were playing the character of Danny.

The Interview Challenge

When I previously mentioned being interviewed by Rah Petherbridge after the 2014 Cambridge Theatre Challenge, I forgot one of the most embarrassing things about the interview.  It’s now up on-line to remind me…

The question that ambushed me was the one about publishing the previous winning scripts.  The only one I could remember was Brief Encounters by Mark Robberts from the 2012 challenge – and even then I couldn’t remember the title or the author’s first name (though I could have described the plot in some detail).  To add to the ignominy, between the recording and the posting on-line, Mark’s script has been withdrawn.  I hasten to add that this was without complaint on either part; Mark’s other works are published elsewhere and he felt (correctly) that it was better to have all his works in one place as it makes him appear a more complete writer.

The reason I couldn’t remember the scripts we had published from amongst the 2013 winners was that I didn’t get to see the 2013 finalists in performance – and a show always sticks in the memory better than a reading copy.  So, for completeness, herewith a list of the scripts we have published from the competition:-

 2013 Finalists

For The Greater Good by Aviva Phillip-Muller
Missing by Sue Bevan
Daily Habits Mask Pain by Mildred Inez Lewis
Niagara 1952 by Alan Barkley

2014 Finalists

That’s Amore by Arnold Kane
The Proposition by Brian Coyle
Nightwalking by Frank Canino
Baking Bread by Ashley Harris
Politically Correct by Jennifer Marie Sancho
A Darker Shade Of Closure by Richard Charles
Up In The Air by Catherine Comfort
In a League of His Own by Mark Griffin

You can read them all in full on the Lazy Bee Scripts web site (that’s where the links go) and videos of the winning performances can be found via YouTube or the website of the competition which has now been renamed The British Theatre Challenge (even though it is open to entrants from outside the United Kingdom – as witness the previous winners).

While you’re on that site, you might also consider putting your own script forward for the 2015 competition; open for entries until the end of March.

Form Fours, Right Turn

(What politicians want us to learn.)

Earlier this year, when he was still Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove wrote a piece for the Daily Mail about teaching the history of the First World War.  In it, he wrote:
The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.  Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.
Gove seemed to believe that these representations of the First World War were all left-wing propaganda that let the Germans off the hook:
The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.

I’ve just refreshed my memory of Oh! What a Lovely War, courtesy of an excellent production by Winchester Musical and Opera Society.  This confirms that it does nothing to let the German elite off the hook; they are there explicitly behaving badly in the opening sections of the show.  However, thereafter the show looks at the war from the British viewpoint (particularly those facing slaughter on an industrial scale).  As for its critique of the British commanders, this was drawn largely from the work of military historian Alan Clark.  The same Alan Clark served as a junior minister under Margaret Thatcher.  From Gove’s viewpoint, Clark is a left-wing propagandist.  From my point of view, the value of Gove’s contribution to First World War history is much the same as Blackadder’s opinion of the deterrent theory of the European balance of powers.

As a skilled politician, Gove wrote a nuanced piece which left open the door to different interpretations of history whilst giving his fellow travellers plenty of opportunity to describe their opponents as unpatriotic.  To my mind, however, he did a disservice to all concerned.  His piece said next to nothing about how the First World War is actually taught whilst implicitly branding as unpatriotic everyone, including the many who would normally occupy the same political ground as him, moved by productions such as Oh! What a Lovely War.

Winchester Musical and Opera Society Oh What A Lovely War
Winchester Musical and Opera Society’s production of Oh! What a Lovely War.  See the chap in the middle? Guess who’s being mercilessly parodied there.