Tag Archives: plays

What’s Hot – A Heatwave for the Stage

I have mentioned before that I don’t like lists.  Consequently, until now, I have resisted calls for a Best Sellers list on the Lazy Bee Scripts web site.  There are various reasons for this.  For a start, one size doesn’t fit all; just because something is popular, it doesn’t mean that it will suit your performers or audience.  Secondly, such a list is unfair to the scripts (and authors) that don’t feature on it, since it will tend to be self-perpetuating.  Thirdly, it’s unfair to new scripts which haven’t had time to become popular.  However, I think the principal cause of my resistance was summed up by John Betjeman in The arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel:

Approval of what is approved of is as false as a well-kept vow.

I want everyone to think for themselves and decide on their own tastes and priorities, rather than liking what everybody else likes.

Until now.

We’ve got over 2700 scripts and 60 murder mysteries on our books.  I’m convinced we’re way beyond the point where everyone has the patience to find for themselves material that will fit their needs.  Consequently, we’re introducing more signposts – easy shortcuts to suitable material.  We’ve had “What’s New” listings for a long time.  Recently, we introduced the “Find A Few” search to supplement our full search engine, and now we’ve added a “What’s Hot” list.

Best Sellers

People looking for Best Sellers also liked…

Actually, the “What’s Hot” is multiple lists, because there’s no point in enthusing about a popular two-hour drama to someone who wants a best-selling five minute comedy sketch.  Of course, this brings additional problems: should the categories be distinct, or should a best-selling one-act pantomime for schools appear in three categories? We’ve gone for distinct categories (accepting the risk of confusion because our general categories have fuzzier boundaries):-

This being a human endeavour, the results are imperfect.  For example, the most popular Youth Theatre plays tend to be for ages 8 to 12 (because there aren’t so many plays for younger children, and older children perform a mix of plays written for their age-group and plays written for adults).  Consequently, only two plays suitable for under-fives show up in the best selling youth theatre category, but (because it’s a musical) one shows up in the musicals category.  Ah well.

We hope that will make selection a faster and more rewarding experience for many of our customers.  I also hope that many others will ignore “What’s Hot” and strike a blow for independent thinking by searching and browsing in other ways!

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.

Why Ian didn’t know Jack

I’m returning to the subject of character names in plays.  What?  Me?  Obsessive?  Oh, all right then…  My particular obsession is that names tie a person to an era, so naturally I am going to start with a few words about where that observation does not apply.

There is, of course, a melodramatic tradition of allegorical names, where the characters are labelled by their virtue or vice.  Think back to the 17th Century and The Pilgrim’s Progress, with characters like Faithful and Piety.  (Mind you, such names leaked into reality at the time – think of the Barebone’s Parliament, named after one of its members, the short version of whose name was Praise-God Barebone.)  There is also a habit in some farces of giving characters ridiculous names (diving into the first one on my list, The Affairs at Meddler’s Top by Richard Coleman, we find Trellis Trelawney and Bouffant Eclair). In farce, it’s a matter of the writer having fun with the names (and possibly also avoiding any possibility of libelling real people).

No, my real concern here is for fictional names that are supposed to sound real.  I gave an outline of the issue in an earlier post.  Since then I’ve been casting around for some statistical backing for my intuition, and eventually found it via the Office for National Statistics (bless their cotton socks).  From here on, all the statistics come from England and Wales using the first given name only.

The children born in any particular year are given a huge range of names.  Take 1996: there were 296 000 girls who each had one of 4957 names.  The spread of boys names is smaller – 319 000 boys with 3713 names.Cumulative Frequency of the Lads of 1996

What you see from the graph is that there’s an enormous tail – lots of names with very few people attached to them.  That tail includes 851 names (from Albion to Ziggy) each given to only three people that year.  The tail also covers a lot of ethnic minority names (from a lot of ethnic minorities) and the names bestowed by the sort of eccentric parents who believe that their child’s life will be so much better if they spell Alec as Alick.

Looking at the other end of the graph, The most common name (Jack) accounted for over 10 000 souls – that’s 3.4% of all boys named in 1996.  The top 30 names accounted for 50% of all boys.  Extending that to 100 names, you cover 76% of all boys from that year.

From the point of view of naming characters in a play or a novel, if you pick a name from the top 100, it rightly feels at home in the year.  Pick one from outside the top 100 and, whilst it is entirely possible (you have the remaining 3613 to choose from), any individual name is very unlikely.  For example, it would be possible to name a boy Tarquin in 1996 – indeed three families did – but the chances of finding one in the general population of that year would be less than 0.001%.

Whilst the pattern of the long tail remains fairly constant from year to year, the names in the top 100 can shift dramatically.  However, girls’ names are much more changeable than boys’ in this respect.  The following graphs show position in the top 100 (with number 1 at the top).  Take a look at John.John in the Top 100 names

John spent four decades at the very top of the popularity charts before a slow decline. (When I was a student, in a population of 48 men sharing a hall of residence, five were called John.  They were commonly known in the Welsh manner by a secondary characteristic: John the Miner, John the Post Graduate, John the Milkman, John the Engine Driver and Little John.)

Arthur in the Top 100 namesArthur has declined so far that he has fallen out of the top 100…

Ryan  in the Top 100 namesWhereas Ryan has risen.

Ian  in the Top 100 namesIan rose and then fell…

Jack in the Top 100 names… whereas Jack declined and was resurrected.
(Which is why, around the 1960s, Ian didn’t know Jack.)

As I said, it is entirely possible to find outliers.  Uncommon names are still valid names.  However, it becomes less likely to find a set of uncommon names together.  Imagine that you are writing a story about five friends.  If they were born in 2004, the most popular names were Jack, Joshua, Thomas, James and Daniel.  Together those names account for 15% of the 2004 cohort.  For simplicity, assume it’s 3% each.
The probability of finding any one of those five in a group of five is 3% times the number of tries – so 3% * 5 = 15%.

If we’ve found one of them, what’s the probability of finding another?
Well, we have four goes, so 3% * 4 = 12%

And so on through 9% for the third name, 6% for the fourth and 3% for the fifth.

The chances of finding them all together in a group of only five people is the product of the probabilities:-
15% * 12% * 9% * 6% * 3% = 0.0003%

That doesn’t sound very likely (and it’s not, in the sense that there are 3708 other names that could be in the same group) however, that is more likely than any other group of five names for that year!
Take for example the top five from 1964: David, Paul, Andrew, Mark and John.  They are all still in the top 100 for 2004, but their combined share of the name market in 2004 is down from 15% to 2.8% – an average of less than 0.6% each.
Applying the same logic as above, the probability of finding them together as an exclusive group is only 0.00000007%

Or, to put it another way, the probability of finding Jack and his group together amongst the 2004 cohort is more than 4000 times more likely than finding David and his group.

The more likely that the names belong together, the more credible your story.

Spreadsheets of the Top 100 Girls’ and Boys’ names (1904 to 2004) are available on the Lazy Bee Scripts publishing pages.

Judging a Book by its Cover

Shah Jahan by D L Roy in English Translation by Subrata DasWe’re not big on cover art.  Lazy Bee Scripts is a publisher of plays not of books.  Our intention is to provide practical editions which will be treated in the way that actors treat all scripts: they will be used in rehearsal, scribbled on, folded, stuffed into pockets, sat on and hurled across the stage.  (The last one usually by the director who insisted on books down at the last-but-one rehearsal.)  We’ll use cover art where it’s available but it’s not a major part of the play.  (In our view, the major selling point of a stage play is the script.)  The idea is to deliver a stage work, not something that looks good on a bookshelf or a coffee table.

Subrata Das took a different view for his English translation and adaptation of D L Roy’s Shah Jahan.  The play is an epic tale of the Murghal emperor (the one who created the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife) and the power struggle with his sons.  Subrata wanted a souvenir edition of the script to go on sale at the premier production in Boston, Massachusetts.  Consequently, we supplied the layout and Subrata added a cover and got the souvenir edition printed and bound.  He sent me one in the post.  I think it looks rather good.  Nevertheless, we’re still offering just our usual practical edition.