I always get a programme when I go to a show. Out of general interest, I would get a programme anyway, but I admit that in part this is a defence mechanism; I’m frequently there to review the show, so I need to know who played whom.
So what should go into a programme? Well, as I say, I need to know who did what. I’m quite partial to actors’ biographies because it reminds me where I’ve seen them before. (Oh yes, when I last saw Julie she was being rogered over a table in Kiss Me Kate. That’s Lucy? She looks completely different. She put in a great performance as Andy. I remember Brian from Titanic; went down really well…) A list of scenes and songs may be welcome. Something about the writer? Something about the history of the show? Something about the company in general?
What I don’t want to read in a programme is the plot. There may be a place for that in a programme for an opera sung in a foreign language, but otherwise, giving me the plot is the job of the show, not the programme. After all, not everyone has a programme, and not everyone who has one has time to read it beforehand. But what happens when the vocal lines are so complex that the audience can’t hear individual words to a song? In that case the production has to find another way to convey the plot; from the stage, that is, not from the written word. Usually this is called acting.
This is, of course, an opinion. Some people want the comfort of knowing what they’re going to see before they see it. I’m happier with theatre as a voyage of discovery, so when I got to my seat last night, I deliberately avoided the plot page of the programme, and I didn’t know about the Get Out Of Jail Free card that allowed a neat resolution to the dilemmas of the characters. Thus I owe a debt of gratitude to the lady in the row behind me who, before curtain up, for the benefit of those around her, read the whole thing aloud.
The role of director as we know it today is a relatively recent invention in the theatre. Nevertheless it’s an important job, and a different job from that of the author. The director helps the actors to develop a coherent interpretation of the author’s work. If you are writing, you don’t need to do the director’s job (or the actor’s). You don’t need to tell the actor how to say the lines. You don’t need to direct every move.
Nevertheless, where you are giving stage directions, you do need to be clear. To that end, I try to discourage abbreviation in directions. If something happens Down-stage Left, then it’s better to say it that way than to abbreviate it to DSL (just because some companies include novices who won’t know how to interpret the abbreviations – and may even struggle with upstage and down). You’re not going to save very much of your typing time or the printer’s ink by abbreviating Upstage to US – and if you find you are typing it so much that the time saving becomes significant, then you are probably doing the director’s job and blocking all the moves in the show.
Whilst arguing against the writer doing the director’s job, Peter Ayre told me a tale told to him by a festival adjudicator about a company who had been using a script from “French’s Acting Editions”.
A digression here: based on their long history, Samuel French have taken a different approach to stage directions. Peter John Cooper tells me that their Acting Editions used to be based on the “Prompt’s Copy” for the original production. This included any changes made to the author’s text by the director, plus the blocking of every move. For a long-running production, the Prompt’s Copy was the definitive text, used to resolve any disputes and used by the Deputy Stage Manager to rehearse any actor joining the cast to take over a role. Turning this into a published text assumes that the original production was definitive, that any new production will have the same set design and that there is no role for interpretation by the new director. In my view, this is a dangerous set of assumptions. At worst it leads to the sort of ossification for which (before the copyright ran out) Gilbert and Sullivan productions used to be famous. There’s a 1948 Flanders and Swan parody “In the D’Oyly Carte” where Donald Swan’s lyric suggests that every move was the same as it had been for the last fifty years:-
One that with tender passion fired
(Turn, pace, hand over heart),
Woe to the day that we were hired
By D’Oyly Carte!
(A brief exchange with my contact, Steve, suggests that these days Samuel French rely on the author’s directions rather than the prompt copy in their Acting Editions.)
Anyway, back to Peter Ayre’s story: the adjudicator was puzzled as to why the production opened with an actress crouched beneath a table. Upon querying this he was told that “the book says mother is sitting below the table”.
I told my aunt that she was indulging in post hoc rationalisation. She demanded an apology (and a dictionary.) But I do it too. We all do it; it’s a natural function of the human brain. We make up stories to fill in the gaps in a known set of facts. Don’t believe me? Look up from wherever you are reading this and take a very quick sweeping look at your surroundings, then come back to this. Now recall everything that you saw. Your visual cortex cannot take in every detail of every single thing caught be that sweeping glance. That’s too much information for your brain to process in a short time. Instead, it picks up salient features – shapes, colours, movements or things you expect to be there. Then, when you try to recall it, your brain fills in all the gaps, not by recalling the exact information, but by making up and interpolating. That’s how many optical illusions function: your visual cortex takes in major features then interpolates assuming continuity.
We don’t know everything – we can’t know everything, there’s too much of it – but we are very bad at admitting it. So we make things up. We fill in the gaps. This is not always helpful. Scientists have to train themselves to look for evidence, rather than making things up. On the other hand, we don’t allow politicians not to know everything, so they make things up all the time. In September 2013 there was a trial of culling badgers in a couple of English counties to reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis. The trial wasn’t to measure the spread of bovine TB, the trial was to see whether a number of badgers could be shot consummate with reducing the spread of bovine TB. According to the objectives of the trial, not enough badgers were shot in the trial period. When he was asked about this, Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, responsible for the cull, indulged in post hoc rationalisation. He didn’t know why too few badgers had been shot, and his response was to make something up. What he said was “The badgers moved the goalposts.”
Now I don’t think that we are right to expect politicians to know everything. We don’t, so why should they? However, justifying policy by made-up explanations is dangerous. In that situation, the brain’s facility for filling the gaps is not useful.
Where this function of the human brain is incredibly useful is in the theatre. It lies behind the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Give the audience a hint of a location, and they will imagine the rest. Many years ago, my local community theatre group put on a production of Willie Russell’s Our Day Out. In the play, a stern, dislikeable teacher talks an errant schoolgirl down from a cliff. After the show, an audience member buttonholed the director to say how realistic the cliff had been. The cliff had actually been a small table with a piece of cardboard stuck on the front of it, plus a sound effect of seagulls. The two actors played the scene beautifully – there was real tension – and the rest was created in the audience’s imagination.
In theatre, we rely on the brain to fill in the details that the production can’t deliver. In theatre it’s art; in politics it’s courting disaster.