When discussing this talk with Vlad, I said I didn’t want to tell the same stories I told when I gave the Everything is a Metaphor talk. Vlad said it is OK to tell the same stories, we have new people. However I reacted against this because there was a period in my life lasting about 10 years, from when I was about 16 to when I was 26, when I refused to tell the same story twice, at least not in exactly the same way.
When I was 7 my Mum became a librarian and everyday after school I would go to the library to meet her before we went home. I learnt very quickly that reading books was a good way to pass an hour or so whilst I waited for her. However I wanted input, more ‘bandwidth’ and, as I read very fast, my Mum quickly got bored giving me a couple of new books every day, so she gave me the Arabian Nights, the 1001 Nights when Scherezade saves her life by telling stories, endless stories, without repeating herself…
And I loved this idea of there being endless seas of stories, which is not unlike the Black Sea if
you think about it. After that I always looked for the biggest book because they had the most stories, Lord of The Rings, War and Peace; endless stories, or even epics.
So I happened to pick up, when I was about 15, Plato’s Republic. This is a wonderful, deep book full of conversations about ideas – every idea under the Athenian sun. Back then their greatest philosopher, Socrates, was worried that the newest, latest technology, writing, was going to ruin people’s memory and their oral culture, people would no longer be able to remember their epic stories and civilisation was doomed, doomed to the superficiality that these new written down ideas were spreading. Then Arabian Nights, the Shah-na-meh, the Icelandic Sagas, the Canterbury Pilgrims and Mystery Plays, rambling Troubadours, Commedia del Arte, Russian novelists and Hollywood scriptwriters (or is it HBO?) developed new narrative forms. And even before Plato there were the Songlines of the Dreamtime.
One form ends but others, many others, are created.
Anyway during the time when I would not repeat a story in the 60s, just after Sgt Pepper’s when new things seemed to be invented everyday, I was asked if I would organise my House’s entry in the School Drama competition. I was just 16, this was my 11th school in 12 years and I knew it would be difficult to fit in, so I tended to say “yeah sure” to anything. There was a deeper issue for me as well, that made this request particularly welcome.
I wanted to graduate from school with both English AND Maths but I was told, at this new school, that you did either English OR Maths, but not both. CP Snow, who wrote Tales of Narnia, called this the Two Cultures problem. You can only study Arts or Sciences in England. Well my librarian Mum had got me into a literature when I was 8 but my Dad was an Army Engineer and he had got me into Maths when I was 9 so I really didn’t see any conflict. I like to use both the right side and the left side of my brain. Having already been told that I could only study Maths (I had won the Maths prize at my previous school) being put in charge of our drama entry meant that I had a little bit of an opportunity to exercise both sides of my brain.
Unfortunately the Headmaster gave me a terrible play, what we call a Ruritanian melodrama, which means it takes place in some godforsaken kingdom in the 18th century, perhaps like Romania, which had only one strong part, the lead actor. Fortunately my younger brother was a good actor and so I persuaded him into doing the part and, luckily for me, he carried this miserable play. Not very satisfying as a performance, but I learnt something about directing a play, and also about plot and script.
When the Headmaster asked me the following year if I would direct the play again I said “on one condition, if you let me write and direct the play.” I was quite nervous to ask this, because I wasn’t sure if he would agree and he was the Headmaster, but all he wanted was someone to be “in charge” and my writing the play meant that it would be me.
I had just two ideas about our new drama competition entry. Firstly the younger kids, who were the ones who acted in the drama competition, hated it, so I needed to make it fun. Secondly the theatre was in our Assembly Hall which had both a traditional proscenium arch like a classic theatre, and also a raised level that surrounded the audience. If I could incorporate this level into the play I might make it fun; now we would call this a site-specific production. My young actors could come out and terrorise the audience, and they would enjoy doing that! Also by having the action taking place in multiple places at the same time the audience wouldn’t spot that I didn’t really have a story. So I workshopped the play with my actors and keep the best of their dialogue, they had fun developing it, the performance was gloriously confusing and the Drama completion ended 1. Sheridan 2. Garnett 3. Shakespeare no less…
Stimulated by this exciting breakthrough, I realised I was a playwright and did not need to be intimidated by Shakespeare. When your culture has a great artist in can be intimidating as well as inspiring. I started working on my third play, a rambling Everyman epic called Lumberhead which reinvented theatre, well in my opinion it did! Lumberhead had a plethora of stories, of course, many characters and archetypes, multiple timeframes, parallel narratives and used a range of media. It needed a mix of film, music, stage, permeable screens, ordinary people, archetypes and celebrities. For example I needed Mick Jagger to play Robin Hood . Then I realised that as a 17 year-old school boy I had written a play that would cost, at a guess, at least one million pounds sterling to perform, (filming famous people in costume drama is always expensive) so I abandoned that play and I also abandoned drama, for a time.
However through this process of directing and writing on a project that no-one else wanted to do I discovered my own “rules” concerning how I could take responsibility for anything that I worked on in the future.
Firstly, do anything that you are involved in the way that you are told to do it, take it seriously; very, very seriously. At the same time also think, or reflect, on what is or isn’t working whilst you are doing it; accept the form and the content that you are given.
Secondly, when you come to do it again, then modify and adjust what you do in light of the strengths and weaknesses that you noticed first time. Then develop and improve it by involving collaborators; this time work collaboratively on improving the content.
Thirdly, rethink the structure of what you are working on so that you can then transform it by crafting something new, something that has meaning for you, which is the most important dimension, and in which the form reflects the content
I don’t think they teach you that in school…
In fact I later applied that process to my teaching, without realising its origins in my playwriting, and I also used that process to inform our thinking about the Open Context Model of Learning, in what we call the PAH Continuum, and that is another story that they don’t teach you in school…
So if you tackle projects in terms of understanding both dimensions of form and content then you start to become participative yourself, which is because you develop the ability to make form responsive to content and so become adaptive yourself when faced with solving problems and building solutions when working with others. Good luck and Get Lucky!