Writing Plays – Method and Mindfulness

 

sfp edit3

My latest work, Sad Fuck Pub will feature at the Galway Fringe festival and its safe to say I’m pretty happy.

A minor feat to some, but a reasonably important one to myself. My previous play, Once More for Toby Jugg was a collaboration between my father and a rag tag band of other fantastic people. The learning curve involved in putting on a production of that length, with a cast of that size and with such little experience was, mathematically, a convex function. In terms of hillwalking it could be seen as the first ascent of the North Face and in terms of cooking it was like serving an Ortolan Bunting at a kids birthday party; the main point being it was quite difficult.

I suffered, what I can only imagine other writers might feel when they spend too long with a script. It felt more ‘writer’s fatigue’ than ‘writer’s block’. It was a nagging dislike for what I had written, manifesting itself physically in the form of minor anxiety attacks topped off with a confusing existential sense of self doubt. Why was it that the longer I spent crafting the script, the more I hated it? I mean, I never really ‘despised’ it, but I suffered from a sort of inverted Stockholm syndrome. A graph could chart my own familiarity with the script increase relative to my frustration, increasing ten fold when I finally sat down to a final re-write following its staging in the Smock Alley Theatre.

So, born out of that feeling I began writing something, anything else. Sad Fuck Pub began as a conversation (as most plays might) between three men at a pub. I was consumed with the idea of creating my own autonomous piece out from under the safety blanket of my father’s text, but I’m happy to admit I literally had no idea where to start. Rather than getting hung up on the context, or setting, or even the goal of the piece I began writing a dialogue I could hear in my head.

[Quick aside] I had once attended a performance of David Mammoth’s ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, where my father was in direction of a sixth year class. I remember him recounting the school’s request to tone down the use of bad language; to which he replied ‘It simply doesn’t work without the cursing’, and he was right. Watching a seventeen year old boy (while I was only twelve myself) call another young boy, a ‘cunt’ really stuck with me. Since then I realised that cursing is part of the shared dictum. Expletives act like little jumping off points for words, the most natural form of expression when conveying an emotion. “Close the door” won’t garner the same reaction as “close the fucking door you Cunt”. Its the verbal equivalent of padding a bra, it just fills sentences out.

So, with that same pattern of thought I began writing. No names, no title, no indication as to who was who and why they had said what they had said. It was therapeutic, and incredibly freeing to simply mash into the keys what flowed through my brain (John Keat’s ghost would have been giving me a dainty clap at the speed I typed at) and at about a thousand words in I realised that I did indeed have a plan in mind for these characters. I realised that the cursing and the quips between them, in the most colloquial Dublin I could imagine was slowly forming a plot. Even though I had not titled the characters I knew ‘who was a who’. I slowly mused about putting them in differing situations. If Edgar met Ghandi what might he say, and how would Sonny deal with learning that his favourite Ice cream parlour no longer carried his favourite flavour?

Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions came to mind, specifically the scene in which Kurt throws himself into the text, revealing himself to Kilgore Trout as his creator. To show to Kilgore that he was indeed his creator (by virtue of being the book’s author) Kurt took him across the world and across all time, only to have him break down and cry for being shown that he was merely a character in a book. Now, I didn’t have such cruel intentions for my three bar flies, but it soon became apparent how trapped the characters were. I could at a whim toss all three of them in the ocean, or set fire to the stools beneath them but instead I decided to allow them to very slowly realise that they themselves, were not real (an arguably crueler fate).

This realisation organically began to appear the farther into the text I got. It was a process of slow manipulation and by its end I couldn’t help but attach crueler and crueler intentions to my characters, all the while stuffing their mouths with words I’ve heard said and words I meant to say. Now, when writing a piece concerning love, or lust or any other clichéd human emotion you have to be cautious about how much of yourself is added into the text. Bearing one’s soul is certainly in keeping with my idea that art is truth, but the real truth is most of our lives are mundane and what seems momentous to ourselves may seem like a ‘Made in Chelsea’ advert trailer to others. To circumvent the theatrics I, like a magpie building a nest of emotions began to borrow from conversations I’ve heard, text’s I’ve read, emotions I’ve felt and shit all men have said drinking pints of their own tears. Again, this may not sound like anything new but there is a little bit more skill involved in creating character’s that are meant to represent elements of masculinity, than expected. The more static the character the more important it is that you accurately represent that type of person.

Its always difficult to be certain when a piece is finished. I usually abide by the rule that a piece is only finished when any additional writing would ruin or detract from the intention (The very lack of which made finishing the piece even more difficult again). Self analysis never gets close to a scathing (and usually correct) critique by a trusted friend, but I was close to certain the piece was finished. I was able to tie the ends together, like a folded picnic blanket of male misery.

The cyclical nature of the surreal purgatory came organically. It ended when Edgar (the most boisterous of the three) finally succumbed to a soliloquy of his own. Once the three characters had said all that they could and would ever say, by virtue of the fact that they were mere representations, it came to an end. There is a finite amount of conversations that men can have after being broken hearted and I felt I managed to cover a good few of them. The play ends explaining to you that it will never end, or at least suggests those conversations in both tone and nature never will.

The play will run for three days during a lunch-time slot between the 21st and the 23rd of July. I would rather the production was at night, in a pub, to catch those watching unawares. I would rather the audience in a maudlin sigh stare down into their pint listening to reflections of their own lives; not to depress anyone but instead to stir them. That great feeling that comes with seeing a piece of art where one thinks “Jesus that is life, my life, in its truest form. It may not look exactly like it, but there it is, my life on stage, deeply understood by someone I’ve never met”.

 

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Writing a new play and venerating the dead.

once more yeh


It’s been a while since I’ve sat down to write anything. It’s been even longer since I’ve sat down to write with any purpose. Not that this is one of those times; but it will be soon. Soon, I will be rewriting and hopefully staging a version of my Dad’s play ‘Once More For Toby Jugg’. He passed away two years ago and asked me to finish it. So that’s what I plan to do.

 

My Dad wrote many plays over his lifetime, some with small success, others with none. Now, you could ask, (as if out of the blue) ‘What is the measure of a piece of Art; is it at the say-so of a publishing agency? Is it the acclaim? Is it Van Geoghian interplay of suffering in life and the subsequent success in death that makes this measure? At very least, a reasonable reply from a publisher would have sufficed but very few, if none of those measures were applied to his plays. His short stories and poems featured in a few publications. He won a few awards as a young man as far as I know, but the big one, the full-length piece of work that should define him; that never came to fruition.

 

One of his earlier plays was titled ‘The Honour of Sorcha Daly’; it dealt with the theme of forgiveness. “Forgiveness is the Cruelest act of all” he would say. This was the theme, the message, the mantra he would recite; tapping away at the keys late at night as I was coming home from school. It must have been around the time of my leaving cert as I remember him searching for one of my History text-books under a dead-sea of yellow note pages. “Forgiveness is the cruelest act of all Eoghan”. “ OK, cool Dad”. It was an interesting juxtaposition and probably a catchier title than what he ran with. The last words of a woman killed in a brutal fashion sparks a religious movement when she asks God to forgive those who had slayed her. “Forgive them father for they know not what they do”.

 

That was a tangible and reasonably interesting plot to run with. I always quoted the Sinead O Connor Parody, ‘Niamh Connelly’,  from Father Ted, when he mentioned it; “ I love the use of crude religious imagery”. At very least I could have envisioned the blurb in red serif font standing boldly beneath the poster title; debating with the promoter whether or not to include some blood dripping from the wing tip of the ‘F’ in Forgiveness. It had an accessible, if not inverted allegorical quality to it.

 

‘Once More For Toby Jugg’ will not have as catchy a blurb, mainly because I’ve yet to fully comprehend what the play is about. Some detective work has been needed, piecing together the fractured strands of the play, very much a mosaic of his own life and thoughts; It’s a strange thing to reach that far into your parent’s psyche, to rummage around inside their past and their ‘then present’ state of mind. For all that uncomfortable searching, I still appreciate the opportunity that I have to see in writing the truths of the world, as my Dad would have understood them.

 

Personally, in my own humble way I very much believe that Art is truth. The truer something is, the greater a piece of Art becomes. And consistent with that line of thinking I believe his play to be a great piece of Art. Like hieroglyphics in tombs I’m reading my dad’s words; I’m deciphering what he must have meant, what it could mean.

 

One of the main reasons ‘Once More For Toby Jugg’ was never published (I believe) was because of the phases it went through. It was a play, then a screenplay; it was a commentary on fundamentalism with a strange splashing of the occult. It was morphed and altered so often that its many versions began to take off in different routs, and the venom of its purpose became diluted. The stand-out consistency in it was the elements of himself, within it; it was, at very least, consistently true.

 

Some of the versions I remember were mired in his own bizzare fascinations. Researching genuine Satanic bookshops in the leaky backstreets of London to purchase a book of spells to quote[1]. His search for authenticity was quite relentless. I remember he wouldn’t allow me to read the book of Grimoires that he had bought for fear of (his words), “evoking something beyond our control”. I sort of enjoyed messing with his own ironic faith in the power of those books. I partially read a passage once, having taken it without him knowing and he nearly fell off his chair as I read the biblical babble as convincingly as I could. I’m still unsure whether or not he feared what finishing the ‘spell’ might have actually manifested, or if he was more afraid that nothing would have come of it. Living half-way between knowing what they could do must have allowed him to believe that they were true. Words, mere written words, can take serious control over you if you allow them to, and I guess, at the heart of it, that is one of the things the play is trying to say.

 

This may be the most convoluted, and ultimately unsuccessful piece of promotion you have ever read, but I guess you could call this a warning. I plan to finish the play and have it staged. This is what will happen. It will because I have to; I just hope you might follow me as I do. At very least monitoring my struggle might give some fodder to the anthropologist of the future, studying our weird veneration of the dead.

 

 

[1] From the more reasonable comfort of his desk, I must mention