Sources for the study of contemporary theatre by Aleks Sierz
Theatre is a collective activity - as such, it is usually the site of struggle as well as collaboration. Theatre-makers of all kinds - from writers to directors, agents to actors, producers to publicists - come into conflict over whose contribution should, in the final analysis, carry the most authority, generate the most meaning. One of the reasons for studying the sources of contemporary theatre is that this is one area where you can see the process of contestation as it actually happens. By 'contemporary theatre' I do not mean the work of Bond, Barker, Brenton and Berkoff (to name only the big Bs), but new writing by young writers. (1) Clearly, as with all attempts to hold a fast-changing reality within a simple category, this definition presents problems. Some writers, and Patrick Marber is an outstanding example, make their careers in television before putting on plays, so they are neither particularly young nor exceptionally new. Even more problematic is the term 'new writing' itself: doesn't it privilege the literary component of theatre-making? At what point did Harold Pinter cease to be a 'new' writer? When will Mark Ravenhill become an old hand? So while older writers are easy to identify, and so are complete newcomers, there is a middle ground which shifts from year to year. Despite this, the use of the term 'new writing' by writers, production companies and theatres does mean that critics and academics have little choice but to follow suit, even if they carry their caveats with them. (2)
Clearly, the playtext is a fundamental source, but, since theatre is not solely a literary activity, it should be distinguished from the 'authoritative' texts of other forms of fiction. A typical disclaimer in the published text, as in the first edition of Jez Butterworth's Mojo, illustrates the problem: 'This text went to press before the opening night and may differ slightly from the text as performed.' Mojo was unusual in that although it was a first play it was revived soon after the first production and its second published edition records changes made between the two productions. But even when a text is published, as in Nick Hern's Instant Playscript series, 'direct from the author's own disc prepared a few days before opening night', there is no guarantee that what you read is what audience heard. As Mark Ravenhill explains in a note to the first edition of Shopping and Fucking:
'If you are sitting in your seat at the Royal Court Upstairs or the Liverpool Everyman or the Hawth Crawley - or anywhere else that the first production of my play Shopping and Fucking is playing - and, as the action unfolds, you are tempted to follow the words in this remarkably reasonably priced programme-playtext, may I offer some advice? Don't even try.
'And don't be too disappointed if you get this book home only to find that your favourite (or least favourite) moment is nowhere to be found in these pages. And if you are reading this text but never got a chance to see the production - well, you probably missed some really good bits.'
Sterner in tone is Patrick Marber in the second edition of Closer: 'This revised version of Closer incorporates cuts, additions and rewrites effected in London and New York from 1997 to 1999. This version replaces that previously published and is the sole authorised version of the play.' Actually, Marber's second edition differs mainly in terms of punctuation: you can see him struggling - by means of italics, underlinings, dashes and ellipses - to convey the stress and emphasis, the pace of delivery, that he as the play's first director wanted to secure. If you compare the first and second editions, you can see a rehearsal text mutate into a record of collective wisdom accumulated during the play's successive stagings in the National Theatre's small Cottesloe theatre, larger Lyttelton auditorium, West End transfer and Broadway production. Text buffs can even compare the American edition of the text to see what phrases were judged to be too slangy or too 'British' for New York.
Although it is well known that the text changes in rehearsal, the degree to which this happens varies from writer to writer. In fact, a key distinction can be made between 'garret writers' and 'theatre-makers'. In the first category belong those writers who work substantially alone and who submit texts with a high degree of polish. Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane is one such; but the strongest example is Sarah Kane. The first edition of her Crave carried an erratum slip that read: 'Correction: p15, line 8. 'I feel I' should read 'I feel'.' This is reminiscent of Harold Pinter - one of Kane's heroes - whose Moonlight contained an erratum changing a comma to a full stop. Kane's agent, Mel Kenyon, once told me a story about Kane phoning her to say she'd made extensive changes to the proofs of one of her plays; Kenyon expected the worst, but the changes were only a matter of a few commas and word changes.
Garret writers tend to work alone, are fanatical about the integrity of their texts and resist change unless there's a very good reason for it. They tend to proofread their work very closely and forbid the more cavalier treatment of their work by European theatres. Phyllis Nagy, for example, was shocked when a German theatre dropped a whole scene from one of her plays. Faced with the choice of taking money for granting permission to translators to use her work as they saw fit, and denying them permission but keeping her text's integrity, she chose the latter. Not all writers are as scrupulous.
By contrast, theatre-makers tend to work collectively and depend a lot on the stimulus and mutual creativity that arises from a workshop situation. I haven't seen Mark Ravenhill's first draft of Shopping and Fucking, but I'm sure that it is very different from his final text. In Handbag, the opening was written after the actors asked him for a scene introducing the theme of gay parenthood by showing the process of artificial insemination; he did some research and wrote the scene. In another example, Nick Grosso's first and second editions of Sweetheart differ because the two last scenes have been cut - presumably he changed his mind after the play's first run at the Royal Court.
For these kinds of reasons, and also because of last-minute decisions by writers, actors and directors, what you hear when see a performance may differ from the playtext. In some cases, playtexts have not been published so you have to rely on draft copies from agents. Occasionally, differences between published text and playing script may be recorded when critics note down what they heard spoken during a performance, though their notes are also unreliable in that they result from scribbling in the dark, the exigencies of shorthand, or the rewriting skills of subeditors.
Playtexts can also be valuable sources in other ways. For example, the use of texts as programmes by theatres such as the Royal Court provides a mine of incidental information about contemporary theatre: from the Court's frequently revised mission statements to adverts of other current productions. As always, a healthy does of scepticism doesn't go amiss. In Naomi Wallace's Slaughter City, for example, there's a bibliography which at first glance suggests that she did extensive research for her play. But, since most authors do research, this book list says more about Wallace's desire to appear well read, suggesting anxiety or lack of confidence, than anything unusual about her working methods.
If the playtext is rarely sacred, readers should avoid squeezing meaning out of what may be a chance phrase or a formulation which was changed in rehearsal. Also notable is the poor proofreading of some playtexts, so building an argument on phrases that may owe more to typesetters than authors can be a risky business. Plays are not primarily works of literature. The difference between garret writers and theatre-makers illustrates the range of possibilities in the nature of textual authority: the solitary writer fights to keep their words undiluted; the collective theatre-maker picks and mixes from many sources.
A good example of theatre's fluidity is the difficulty of establishing the simple fact of a show's opening. In the days of overnight reviewing, when critics would rush out of a show and phone their reviews straight to the newspaper, it was relatively easy to say that the opening night was the night before the date of the issue in which their review appeared. Often, as with Look Back in Anger, the opening night was literally the first public performance (although a public rehearsal sometimes preceded this). Indeed, the telltale phrase, 'last night at the Adelphi' or whatever, often confirms this. Even in those days, however, the opening night might not have been the play's first public performance: not only is the custom of holding previews well established in London's commercial West End, but also the practice of touring provincial runs before opening in the metropolis makes it dangerous to talk too glibly about shows being 'seen for the first time'.
Today, the situation is even more unstable. Although the practice of out-of-town try-outs is less common, especially in subsidised theatres, the difficulty of discovering the date of an opening still persists. Take the example of Sarah Kane's Blasted, which played at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs in January and February 1995. If you look at the programme, its first performance was 12 January. But, because this studio space held only 60 or so people, the practice was to hold two press nights, in this case, on 18 and 19 January. Interestingly, part of the play's shock resulted from the fact that one of its press nights clashed with another opening (Strindberg's The Dance of Death at the Almeida on the 19th) so most critics came on the same night (the 18th). This meant that the small audience was dominated by critics. According to Kane, this was one reason for the hysterical reception of the play and its instant notoriety.
With the large amount of new shows opening in London every week, some critics miss opening nights and see the show the night after, or even a few days after it opens. Similarly, newspapers often run reviews of shows several days after their critic has submitted them, which means that the date the review is printed can't tell you which night the show opened, nor which performance was witnessed by the critic. This makes comparisons difficult and throws into question the whole idea of a single authoritative 'first night'. A simple solution when giving an opening date might be to specify the first performance (whether or not it was a preview) or simply settle for a month and a year rather than the risking the often spurious precision of giving exact 'opening' dates.
Although many theatre practitioners amuse themselves and their colleagues with ritual abuse of critics, this temptation should be avoided by academics studying contemporary theatre. One example, from Wendy Lesser's book on director Stephen Daldry, should suffice to point up the dangers of too facile a dismissal of critics. Near the beginning she attacks critics: 'Theatre reviewing, which routinely requires a critic to deliver an instantaneous judgment after seeing a play only once, is an inherently self-defeating task.' Yet throughout the book, whenever she needs to know what a production looked like or how a play was interpreted in performance, what does she do? Quote the critics of course. (3)
Critics are really useful sources of information about what productions looked like, and felt like. Moreover, they give firsthand evidence of how the meaning of a play has been constructed and how audiences responded. Famous examples of critics failing to recognise an original new voice - Beckett, Pinter, Kane - are not only culturally significant but also perfectly understandable. After all, if every distinct new voice was welcomed by critics, there'd be no controversy and no way of telling who was original and who predictable. Lastly, sneering at the mistakes of critics should be confined to those who are really confident that they can tell a new Beckett from the hundreds of unknown writers who pen one idiosyncratic play and then vanish from the scene. Of course, you have to be critical of the critics. As usual, it helps to know where they are coming from (if not where they think they are going). Few critics today have a Tynan-like agenda, but most have distinct preferences.
The main central source of collected reviews is Theatre Record, a vital collection of newspaper and magazine review cuttings edited by Ian Herbert. But one problem with this fortnightly publication is that not all newspapers are represented (this is especially true of regional and local papers). Another is that some of the more thoughtful reviews in weeklies such as New Statesman and Times Literary Supplement are excluded. It is also worth noting that because Theatre Record appears soon after shows open, some critics find their reviews relegated to the back pages. So it's always worth searching the back of the issue or in subsequent issues. A final drawback is that Theatre Record does not include the headlines of the reviews: this means that if you rely on it solely for information about, say, Sarah Kane's Blasted, you'd never know that the Daily Mail headlined its review with the now legendary phrase: 'This Disgusting Feast of Filth'.
Finally, critics are useful in that their reactions establish a field of interpretation - similar to academic Stanley Fish's concept of a community of interpretation - which determines the boundaries of what can be thought and discussed by the audiences of a first production. Of course, audiences are not bound by what critics tell them, nor are such critical boundaries inflexible, but they do indicate some parameters of interpretation which future restagings may or may not question. Crucially, their testimony completes the circle of theatrical production - whatever the result of the struggle over authority in the rehearsal room, the critics, as audience members, provide evidence about how meaning was actually received.
As well as reviews, a useful if subsidiary source of information about plays is the newspaper and magazine interviews that writers feel obliged to give while promoting their latest work. Such interviews are not controlled by writers but by the exigencies of journalism: whatever a writer actually says passes through the filters of recording, note-taking, editing, trimming, rephrasing and subediting before being subjected to the final desperation of last-minute cutting and reworking as publication deadlines loom. As with the covers chosen by designers for playtexts, or the content of programmes, the journalistic interview belongs more to the history of publicity than to the history of literature, but can be revealing nevertheless. In the case of Sarah Kane, who committed suicide on 20 February 1999, they are one of the few sources which indicate what she thought about her work. They should, however, be used with caution. When I asked Patrick Marber to check some of the quotes attributed to him in the numerous interviews he gave when publicising Dealer's Choice and Closer, he openly admitted that he'd said the first thing that had come into his head and that he'd been deliberately trivial. Most of Martin McDonagh's brash comments comparing 'himself with the young Orson Welles' say more about his excitement at having his plays staged than about his real feelings about his talent. (4)
Although newspaper interviews are not to be trusted uncritically, neither should they be completely ignored. For example, it is impossible to appreciate the notoriety of Sarah Kane's Blasted without looking at the daily papers from the week in which the show opened. (Incidentally, it is best to consult the actual newspapers rather than just the words as stored on newspaper databases because they include production photographs while databases don't.) The notoriety of plays such as Blasted also tend to send reporters to the theatre, where they interview ordinary spectators about their ideas and reactions - despite the usual caveats about trusting journalists' reporting skills, this is an uncommonly revealing source. Newspapers also sometimes run articles about funding controversies, theatre arts policies and occasionally 'think pieces' or leaders about 'the state of British theatre today', most of which provide plenty of material for the close reading of mainstream discourse about this sector of the arts.
Interviews with writers and directors
Because theatre is often seen as an embattled cultural sector, most writers (and directors, actors and agents) are unusually co-operative when it comes to talking to journalists or researchers. Significantly, the least co-operative writers in my experience were Jez Butterworth and Martin McDonagh, who have now moved into film, where the barriers to enquiry are more strictly maintained. When it comes to looking at the conflict over how a text should be interpreted, interviews provide (despite their occasional unreliability) a vital source for understanding the experience of participants in the rehearsal room.
Much of the material in my book came from interviews with playwrights for the simple reason that they are experts on the world of the play, its characters, plot and intended meaning. In my book, I devote a chapter each to three writers - Anthony Neilson, Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill. Other writers were represented by one or two plays each. After preparing detailed questions, I talked to each writer for between one hour and three hours per play, either in person or on the telephone. Phone interviews tend to be shorter. Given that I was trying to see their work from their point of view, I chose a more empathetic stance than is usual with critics. I found that formulations such as 'How do you respond to critics who argue that . . .' yielded more fruitful results than frankly sharing any of my doubts about aspects of their work. Experience suggests that there really is no such thing as 'constructive criticism' - most writers suffer from so many doubts that anything other than enthusiasm is likely to alienate them for ever. If you really want to know what they think, tact and empathy will pay more dividends than critical carping.
Interviews are problematic territory, however. They not only depend a lot on trust and on your ability to coax information, follow up hunches and choose the right questions, but also on your skill in choosing the issues that really matter. But while even a short session with an author can be rich in results, providing a lot of material on influences, intentions, a play's meaning, characters and structure, when it comes to writing up the results, it is worth being sceptical when editing. In transcribing the interview, even the most precise writer has to be edited, with their open-ended sentences, verbal mannerisms and markers (such as 'um') all eliminated - otherwise they will sound unnecessarily foolish. Although writers take more care about being precise with academics, interviews are fluid situations in which they may make mistakes or say things which are highly inaccurate.
In order to check that your transcript conveys their genuine intention, it is essential to send it to the writer so that they can have the chance of rephrasing their replies to your questions or amending their phrasing in the light of ideas they may have had since talking to you. I use the form of a simple question followed by a paragraph or two of their response. Adding their amendments is a interesting process in that it often tells you much about the author. For example, a writer such as Philip Ridley was concerned to smarten up his responses, which now read as literary gems rather than off-the-cuff remarks; Patrick Marber was meticulous, making scores of amendments; David Eldridge was easygoing and only made one.
But although the result of this process is reasonably authoritative source material, which conveys the writer's intentions, it is worth checking the detail. For example, Sarah Kane got the idea for the eye gouging in Blasted from an incident recounted in Among the Thugs by Bill Buford. She remembered it as involving 'an undercover policeman who was I think pretending to be a Manchester United supporter' and had his eyes sucked out when his identity was discovered. In fact, it comes from a story about Harry, a Chelsea supporter, whose friend was insulted by a policeman at a police bar party, and who attacked and savaged an off-duty policeman. Checking the source reveals that while the horrific incident did happen, Kane got the incidental details wrong. As with so much in theatre, this says much about the mysterious ways of memory. (5)
In general, it is also worth noting that while writers know their characters and plays inside out, and have much to say about how audiences respond to their work, they are much less precise about other aspects of writing. For example, almost every one that I spoke to was infuriatingly vague about their sources of inspiration and similarly uneasy about the actual process of writing. What I at first thought was an individual condition, I soon learnt to recognise as a general situation. Writers tend to see the sources of their gift with almost superstitious dread, believing that too deep an enquiry into its nature may make them too self-conscious to write in the future. Those who are solitary garret writers are more afflicted by this than the more collective theatre-makers, who at least are able to say how the play developed through workshopping process. And while some writers are happy to talk about where their characters come from - for example, Kane tells a long story about how she wrote the Ian character in Blasted and Ravenhill is clear where Phil came from in Handbag - they are less forthcoming about which themes are most important in their work. Although most writers are aware of how their main themes are interwoven, they are reluctant to stress one at the expense of others. They don't want to close off any interpretation. In such cases, directors may have a more robust attitude.
The practice of publishing books of interviews with practitioners, from writers to directors and actors, also provides a useful source of highly edited material. Some public platforms, in which writers or directors are interviewed by journalists or cultural commentators, also provide material for students of the wider implications of new writing. For example, the various sessions of the Birmingham Theatre Conference (which featured writers young and old, and ran annually from 1990 to 1999) have been edited by organiser David Edgar. (6) Equally revealing is the video recording, in the Theatre Museum, of a platform which featured Mark Ravenhill, Max Stafford-Clark and Stephen Daldry discussing new writing in October 1996.
The contestatory nature of meaning-production means that it is useful to look at subsidiary sources. Programmes, leaflets, press releases, adverts, playtext covers, all convey the publicity intentions and media skills of the play's producers, so the sticker 'Explicit' on the envelope of the press release for the 2000 tour of Ravenhill's Some Explicit Polaroids says more about attention-seeking in a media-saturated age than about the author's desire to shock. Other sources may be more useful. For example, CVs from agents give information about an author's career, but they are not always updated and should be checked. For example, Simon Block's agent sent me his client's CV, which not only listed Not a Game for Boys as his first play (correct) but also claimed that it had been made into a television series (incorrect): this project fell through, which might explain some of Block's venom against television companies in his 2000 play, A Place at the Table.
Sources derived from new electronic media, such as websites and e-mails, are still in their infancy, mainly because theatres have not exploited these as much as they could have. Nevertheless, I have used the Royal Court's website for Carl Miller's polemical 'Shocking and fussing' (http://www.royal-court.org.uk, July 1997) posted during the furore about the opening of Shopping and Fucking. On the Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com websites, reader comments about books such as Kane's plays are an occasionally revealing if often highly unreliable source of information about reader response. Some more traditional sources, such as models of sets (kept for example by the Theatre Museum in London), do not yet apply to the present generation of new writers.
Production photographs are another potentially risky area. For obvious reasons, they are arranged during rehearsal periods and are records of particular set pieces rather than of actual performances. Videos of productions - the Theatre Museum's National Video Archive numbered 97 productions in November 1999 - are much more useful, even if they always have an peculiarly inert feel. Not only are they not able to convey the spectators' emotion of seeing the show, but their cost and their comparative rarity means that there is no comprehensive archive of first productions of new writing.
The continuing influence of postmodern ideas in the academy - and the inclusion of the concept of postmodernism in research methodologies - has the tendency of encouraging students to treat all source materials as equally authoritative. After all, even if something is several steps removed from the original phenomenon, it can still be used and valued as a 'narrative' or a 'discourse'. But while it is right to question the traditional divisions between primary and secondary sources, between manuscript evidence and printed commentary, this should not be construed as meaning that, in the world of contemporary theatre research, 'anything goes'. On the contrary, in my experience, there is a strong argument in favour of a hierarchy of importance for sources.
Because theatre is essentially a live performance, rather than a literary exercise, the most important sources tend to be the records of actual performances. These include the paraphernalia of image-making and the evidence of the writer's intentions as expressed in one-to-one interviews. But because theatre is an ephemeral art form - each performance is different; each vanishes for ever unless recorded - memories of the live event need to be treated with due care and attention. Those that remember and talk about the performances all carry their own baggage of ideas and opinions - none of them are pure recorders of information. Listening to their memories requires a degree of knowledge about their agendas - whether political or moral or aesthetic - and a sceptical attitude.
Finally, while writers, journalists and critics appear to have a monopoly on contacts and information about today's theatre, it should be remembered that academics do have an important role. While each writer finds it difficult to make a dispassionate assessment of their work, for obvious reasons, the passionate detachment of an academic observer can sometimes be useful to them. For example, at a public platform in 1999, I remember Mark Ravenhill observing that writing plays was a confusing, often unplanned business. For this reason, writers have to wait for academics to publish books which organise their plays into a structure or a story, weighing up the good and the bad, and suggesting a canon for future consideration by those wishing to revive plays. 'Writers,' joked Ravenhill, 'become their students' PhD theses.' In this way, academics make their own contribution to the struggle for meaning in contemporary theatre.
1. In-Yer-Face Theatre, my book about new writing in Britain during the past decade, features writers such as Simon Block, Jez Butterworth, David Eldridge, Nick Grosso, Sarah Kane, Martin McDonagh, Patrick Marber, Phyllis Nagy, Anthony Neilson, Joe Penhall, Rebecca Prichard, Mark Ravenhill, Philip Ridley, Che Walker, Naomi Wallace and Richard Zajdlic. Plays discussed range from new contemporary classics such as Kane's Blasted and Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking to less celebrated works, such as Wallace's The War Boys and Walker's Been So Long.
2. See Ben Payne, 'In the beginning was the word' in Deeney, J. (ed.), 1998. Writing Live: an investigation of the relationship between writing and live art, London: New Playwrights Trust, pp 9-50.
3. See Lesser, W. 1997. A Director Calls: Stephen Daldry and the theatre, London: Faber, p 63. Cf. Wardle, I. 1992. Theatre Criticism, London: Routledge, pp 3-15, 126-134.
4. See, for e.g., Coveney, M. 'He compares himself with the young Orson Welles. Oh dear. . .', Observer, 1 December 1996.
5. Buford, B. 1998. Among the Thugs, London: Arrow Books, p 241.
6. Published as Edgar, D. (ed.) 1999. State of Play: Playwrights on Playwriting, London: Faber.
Butterworth, J. 1995. Mojo, 1st edn, London: Nick Hern
Butterworth, J. 1996. Mojo, 2nd edn, London: Nick Hern
Grosso, N. 1996. Sweetheart, 1st edn, London: Faber
Grosso, N. 1998. Sweetheart, 2nd edn, London: Faber
Kane, S. 1996. Blasted & Phaedra's Love, London: Methuen
Kane, S. 1998. Crave, London: Methuen
McDonagh, M. 1996. The Beauty Queen of Leenane, London: Methuen
Marber, P. 1997. Closer, 1st edn, London: Methuen
Marber, P. 1999. Closer, 2nd edn, London: Methuen
Marber, P. 1999. Closer, New York: Grove
Pinter, H. 1993. Moonlight, London: Faber
Ravenhill, M. 1996. Shopping and Fucking, 1st edn, London: Methuen
Ravenhill, M. 1998. Handbag, London: Methuen
Wallace, N. 1996. Slaughter City, London: Faber
© An earlier verison of this article appeared as 'Sources for the Study of Contemporary Theatre' in Studies in Theatre and Performance, vol 20, no 3, December 2000, pp 196-204
Plus: new writing bibliography
And a word of warning...